Review of Edinburgh
7 Sept 2020
Review of Edinburgh
In 1637, a service took place at St Giles’ Cathedral, in the heart of Edinburgh. At this time, the Church was Catholic, even as the howling winds of the Reformation swept across Britain. James Hannay, the Dean of Edinburgh, was in the middle of his liturgy when he was interrupted by a large wooden stool being thrown at his head. The thrower was Jenny Geddes, a Puritan. Riots followed, and within a year, the Bishops were expelled from Scotland, and the Presbyterian Church formally established. As for the stool itself, it remains on display in the Cathedral to this day, a fitting tribute to a people with a rich history and fierce independence of character.
Not that I knew any of this when I left North London 350 years later. With the Edinburgh fringe cancelled, and a deadly pandemic on the loose, it seemed a crazy time to be heading anywhere, let alone to Scotland. Would a fringe-less Edinburgh be akin to a Casino-free Las Vegas, or an Ireland without Guinness on draught, I wondered? A week later, those fears had been firmly and truly put to rest by one of the best holidays I’ve been fortunate enough to have.
In some ways, Edinburgh is a city of contrasts. The enormous buildings befit a city the size of London, if not bigger. Yet, it’s possible to walk from one side of Edinburgh to the other in less than half an hour. A combination of some dazzling architecture, and a city which shouldn’t be able to fit it all in, give Scotland’s capital a remarkable feel. It’s no wonder that Hugh MacDiarmid, the great Scottish poet, said: “Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland, small?”
The city’s beauty often rears its head in an unexpected fashion. The Scottish Parliament Building, the most modern on the Royal Mile, is weird and wacky, the play-thing of an architect doodling in the back of a class notebook. Amusingly, it lies opposite the Royal Palace at Holyrood, which may cause some tension if the Scots do eventually vote for independence. Quotes from Scottish literary figures through the ages run along the entire sidewall of the building, ranging from the amusing (“What a lovely moon- and it’s in my constituency too!”) to the poetic (“If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.”). Edinburgh’s veneration for its writers runs deeper than a mere flight of fancy. In a city shaped and built-in large part by the English, where explicit displays of Scottish nationalism were kept to a deliberate minimum, writing became the only and obvious medium of national self-expression. The writing on the walls of Parliament, therefore, represents not only a nation’s creative genius but also the assertion of a proud, independent identity. With support for Scottish independence at nearly 55% in the polls, we may soon see just how proud this identity is.
Most people go on holiday to get away from the stress and fractiousness of everyday life. Politics gets put on hold, in the name of relaxation. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that Edinburgh represents a real litmus test for the success of the Labour movement. The city leans to the left politically, its population is primarily made up of young adults, and it voted by 61% to 39% to remain part of the United Kingdom in 2014. In short, it is socialist, but not nationalist. Or to put it another way, an area in which Labour should be the dominant force. Yet of Edinburgh’s 5 Parliamentary Constituencies, Labour holds just one (Edinburgh South). Three are SNP seats, and one is Liberal Democrat. Disillusionment with Westminster, coupled with a sense that Labour in Scotland had become arrogant and complacent, saw voters re-draw the political map in 2015, and there’s no sign for now that the past is anything but a foreign country. Whether Labour can win without Scottish seats is a question for political analysts to ponder. Still, for now, Keir Starmer’s worry should be that Labour can’t even win in Edinburgh.
Edinburgh is never placed on the glittering pedestal which hosts the great European cities of our time. Scotland barely enters into a conversation so oft-dominated by the classical pantheons of Athens and Rome, and the bustling metropolises of Paris and London. Yet Edinburgh’s Carlton Hill houses its own mini-acropolis, with spectacular views of the city untainted by the scorching humidity of either Athens or Rome. Arthur’s Seat, a stunning rock face with views at its summit across the Royal Mile and into the hills beyond, is a sight of natural beauty which far surpasses anything I’ve seen across the Channel. From the imposing Greyfriars Kirkyard to the magisterial Scott monument, the city’s architecture would not seem out of place in Barcelona or Brussels. You can even see the sea, a 10-minute drive from the city centre if you get bored of looking at Medieval Castles and cobbled shopping streets.
Above all, Edinburgh shows off humanity at its best. The locals were friendly and charming without exception. Black Lives Matter artworks and poems have appeared across the city, to hammer home the message to all who enter that minorities are welcome and racism is not.
Covid-19 has taken a heavy toll on Edinburgh. Museums remain shut, and the cancellation of the Fringe will hurt both the economy and the cultural life of the city. The sites which remain open are not at full capacity, and the masks you have to wear to visit them are constricting, particularly if like me you wear glasses which tend to steam up with regularity. Yet for the seven days, I was there, those concerns largely took a back seat, as I was won over by the buildings, the shops, the restaurants and the people of this magnificent city. Having spent a week in its capital, I’d urge everyone to go and visit Scotland- and to bring a raincoat!