I was leaving my doctor after a fortunately rare visit when I saw that a plaque had appeared on an outside wall of his surgery since I had last been there. It commemorated the visit which Hans Christian Andersen had made to Edinburgh in 1847. I hadnâ€™t known that Andersen had ever visited Scotland.
The plaque had been erected by Edinburgh City Council to mark the bi-centenary of his birth in 2005. The medical centre had been built on the site of the long-demolished lodge of â€œLixmount House.â€ The lodge had guarded the entrance to â€œLixmount,â€ also demolished, where Andersen had stayed in the Edinburgh suburb of Trinity.
Andersenâ€™s fairy stories, â€œThe Ugly Ducklingâ€, â€œThe Princess and the Peaâ€ and many others are considered part of the DNA of our culture. Most people only know them at second or third hand, but the originals are a revelation, concise and witty.
Andersenâ€™s first book had appeared under the name of â€œVillam Christian Walterâ€, a combination of the first name of Shakspeare, his own, and that of Sir Walter Scott, whom he greatly admired. The book included a story obviously derived from â€œThe Heart of Midlothianâ€ and was called â€œYouthful Attemptsâ€. It was eventually pulped as unsellable. The few copies that remain are keenly sought after by Danish book collectors.
Andersen was an inveterate traveller, in an age when few were. Travel then was expensive and difficult. He constantly worried about the cost of his visits, and tried to get a grant from the Danish royal family, or a book out of them.
His trip to Scotland followed on from one to England, where he had met Charles Dickens. He was keen to see the settings of his great hero Sir Walter Scottâ€™s novels and poems, but was reluctant to travel north because of his limited English.
A solution presented itself. Joseph Hambro was an eminent Danish banker who lived and worked in London. His son Carl Joachim, later Lord Hambro, was renting a house in Edinburgh so his wife could enjoy sea-bathing. Some accounts say she was being treated for infertility by Dr.James Young Simpson, the discoverer of anaesthesia.
Andersen would be provided with somewhere to stay, and a guide in Joseph Hambro, who was fluent in English and Danish. He had already intervened in negotiations over English translation rights for Andersen, for he was appalled at the small sum being offered.
The trip to Scotland was only possible because the railway had arrived. The Newcastle-to-Berwick section of the route was only a month old.
Andersen and Hambro set off from London on 10th August. Hambroâ€™s son met them with his carriage in Edinburgh to take them to Lixmount House, which Andersen called â€œMount Trinity.â€ He said â€œ â€¦that we are dear and welcome, there we soon feel at home.â€
Joyce M.Wallace in â€œTraditions of Trinity and Leithâ€ tells us that Sir James Young Simpson maintained a â€œcountry retreatâ€ round the corner from â€œLixmountâ€. Simpson was to be Andersenâ€™s guide to the Old Town.
Andersen thought that Edinburgh was â€œas picturesque as Constantinople and Stockholm.â€
Closer inspection of the Old Town showed the deterioration that had taken place since the New Town had been built. Andersen observed,â€…poverty and misery seemed to peep out of the open holes which are used for windows; rags and tatters were put out to dry.â€
The New Town Andersen thought was â€œmodern but tedious.â€ He was especially dismissive of the regular grid pattern of its streets. â€œThe city possesses no other Scottish characteristic than that it has, like Scottish plaid, its regular quadrangles.â€
Andersen went to Heriotâ€™s Hospital with Joseph Hambro, and invoked Sir Walter Scottâ€™s â€œThe Fortunes of Nigelâ€ to explain to readers of his autobiography â€œThe Story of My Lifeâ€ who George Heriot had been. Andersen signed the visitorsâ€™ book, along with several people who were accompanying him. The porter read their entries, then asked Joseph Hambro, who looked the part, being sixty-six with white hair, if he was the Danish poet. Hambro pointed to Andersen â€œNo, there is the poet!â€
â€œSo young!â€ the porter exclaimed. â€œI have read him, and the boys have read him also!â€ Andersen was overcome at being known. â€œI was obliged to step aside to hide my tears; God knows the thoughts of my heart.â€
Less successful was an after-dinner ether sniffing event held by James Young Simpson at his New Town address. Andersen thought that anaesthesia was a boon for operations, but wasnâ€™t suitable for entertainment. â€œIt was not nice to see the ladiesâ€¦they laughed with open, dead eyes.â€
But for the plaque, I wouldnâ€™t have known of his visit.
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