Author: Alex Wood

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Monday, February 15th, 2010 at 1:48 pm
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Book Reviews

Edinburgh, A History of the City

Michael Fry, whose previous publication, The Scottish Empire, illustrated Scotland’s role in the British Empire, and who was a committed Unionist, has now moved to a more local stage, having joined the SNP and written Edinburgh, A History of the City (Macmillan, RRP £25).  His new work starts with the physical features which shaped the city but also with Clark and Hutton, the geologists who explained them.  From ancient volcanic activity, Fry races through the pre-historic people, the Romans, the Saxons and the Celts.

Fergusson, Scott, Boswell, Dundas and a host of lesser figures provide the human perspective on the city Fry loves.  He muses affectionately on David Hume, the intellectual sceptic who enjoyed the fine things of life, but also notes him as the impecunious philosopher, forced, for ready cash, to write a History of England, barely mentioning Scotland.

He explores Edinburgh’s heavy drinking and suppressed licentiousness, pointing out that Fergusson, the poet, was a victim of Edinburgh’s great killer, syphilis.  He analyses those who sought to determine Edinburgh’s ethics, particularly the Calvinist churches, and describes James VI, suggesting that he “grew up not just queer but peculiar: an example of how Presbyterianism, for all the virtues it instils, can warp personalities”.

Fry identifies with more moderate religious position than Edinburgh’s harsh Calvinism, but exhibits a hushed admiration for the steadfast courage of Argyll, Guthrie and other Presbyterian martyrs.  He reluctantly admired the heroism of the Protestant martyrs but was appalled at the Protestant mob which, on the accession of William and Mary, ransacked Holyrood Abbey and desecrated the Stewart tombs.

Edinburgh a History of the CityEdinburgh’s architecture through the ages thrills Fry.  Even in the dark days of the Covenants and civil war Edinburgh built Queensberry House, Panmure House, Prestonfield and other masterpieces which blended the classical and vernacular.  The far-sighted city fathers then exempted from 17 years’ taxation any householder who replaced a timber-built house with one of stone.

Eighteenth century Edinburgh was a heady mix of the licentious and the puritanical.  Gentlemen’s clubs, for serious drinking and serious thinking, were the vehicle of the Enlightement.  It was an age of rude intelligence and confidence.  Judges, such as Henry Home could assert that, “I ken vera weel that I am the coarsest most black-avised bitch in a the Court of Session.”  In that epoch the moderates, Robertson, Blair and Home, admired by Fry, took control of the Church of Scotland.  Their accommodation to the “secular, inclusive and elegant” spirit of the age sits comfortably with Fry’s dislike of enthusiasm and rigid principles.  Fry looks back to mid-18th century Edinburgh with a heady nostalgia.  He skips more rapidly over the 1790s and early 1800s when ‘the mob’ rioted regularly over the price of meal and in sympathy with revolutionary France.

Service Economy
The nineteenth century should have rocked Edinburgh but Fry observes astutely that unlike almost every other British city, Edinburgh avoided the ravages of the industrial revolution.  Between the start of the nineteenth century and 1911, Edinburgh’s population  rose fourfold to over 400,000 but it was a service economy.  Printing, publishing, banking, education and the law, all creating wealth and work, but with manufacturing essentially absent. The character of modern Edinburgh, a city of the intellect and of the liberal professions but without a rude and confident working class, was the product.

The Whigs, “unashamed admirers of England, in their eyes the home of liberty,” guardians of a staid mediocrity, controlled Victorian Edinburgh.  Fry berates the deadly domination of municipal politics by the Whigs’ political descendants, the  Progressives and the Labour Party trade union hacks.  He saw some hope in the replacement of the Progressives by Conservatives and the replacement of Labour hacks by young graduates.

In a recent Scotsman article, Fry expanded on this, offering Malcolm Rifkind as the archetypal new municipal Conservative and Robin Cook as his Labour equivalent.  In both cases however, the dalliance in Council politics was a passing phase en route to Westminster.  Robin Cook, principled and intelligent politician though he was, had no hesitation in ditching Edinburgh for Livingston when boundary amendments and political survival required it.  In the end, Fry’s hope is that the strength of Edinburgh as a city will resists the planners and the bureaucrats who seek to vandalise and destroy its finest parts.

Fry’s humorous and deft criticisms of the staid side of Edinburgh are remarkably prescient.  He selects James Hogg’s  Confessions of Justified Sinner, even above Scott’s work, as the great literary tale of the city and leaves the twentieth century literary honours with Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.  Fry’s history of the city as well as his choice of literary representatives for it, have a zest that might not be shared by all its citizens but this is an exciting account of a city ever-changing.

Click here to see reviews and discounted prices on Amazon for Edinburgh: A History of the City

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