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Chapter 2

OLD TOWN - THE LANDS.


THE Old Town, it is pretended, is the chief
characteristic, and, from a picturesque point of view,
the liver-wing of Edinburgh. It is one of the most
common forms of depreciation to throw cold water on the
whole by adroit over-commendation of a part, since
everything worth judging, whether it be a man, a work of
art, or only a fine city, must be judged upon its merits
as a whole. The Old Town depends for much of its effect
on the new quarters that lie around it, on the
sufficiency of its situation, and on the hills that back
it up. If you were to set it somewhere else by itself,
it would look remarkably like Stirling in a bolder and
loftier edition. The point is to see this embellished
Stirling planted in the midst of a large, active, and
fantastic modern city; for there the two re-act in a
picturesque sense, and the one is the making of the
other.

The Old Town occupies a sloping ridge or tail of
diluvial matter, protected, in some subsidence of the
waters, by the Castle cliffs which fortify it to the
west. On the one side of it and the other the new towns
of the south and of the north occupy their lower,
broader, and more gentle hill-tops. Thus, the quarter of
the Castle over-tops the whole city and keeps an open
view to sea and land. It dominates for miles on every
side; and people on the decks of ships, or ploughing in
quiet country places over in Fife, can see the banner on
the Castle battlements, and the smoke of the Old Town
blowing abroad over the subjacent country. A city that
is set upon a hill. It was, I suppose, from this distant
aspect that she got her nickname of AULD REEKIE. Perhaps
it was given her by people who had never crossed her
doors: day after day, from their various rustic Pisgahs,
they had seen the pile of building on the hill-top, and
the long plume of smoke over the plain; so it appeared to
them; so it had appeared to their fathers tilling the
same field; and as that was all they knew of the place,
it could be all expressed in these two words.

Indeed, even on a nearer view, the Old Town is
properly smoked; and though it is well washed with rain
all the year round, it has a grim and sooty aspect among
its younger suburbs. It grew, under the law that
regulates the growth of walled cities in precarious
situations, not in extent, but in height and density.
Public buildings were forced, wherever there was room for
them, into the midst of thoroughfares; thorough - fares
were diminished into lanes; houses sprang up story after
story, neighbour mounting upon neighbour's shoulder, as
in some Black Hole of Calcutta, until the population
slept fourteen or fifteen deep in a vertical direction.
The tallest of these LANDS, as they are locally termed,
have long since been burnt out; but to this day it is not
uncommon to see eight or ten windows at a flight; and the
cliff of building which hangs imminent over Waverley
Bridge would still put many natural precipices to shame.
The cellars are already high above the gazer's head,
planted on the steep hill-side; as for the garret, all
the furniture may be in the pawn-shop, but it commands a
famous prospect to the Highland hills. The poor man may
roost up there in the centre of Edinburgh, and yet have a
peep of the green country from his window; he shall see
the quarters of the well-to-do fathoms underneath, with
their broad squares and gardens; he shall have nothing
overhead but a few spires, the stone top-gallants of the
city; and perhaps the wind may reach him with a rustic
pureness, and bring a smack of the sea or of flowering
lilacs in the spring.

It is almost the correct literary sentiment to
deplore the revolutionary improvements of Mr. Chambers
and his following. It is easy to be a conservator of the
discomforts of others; indeed, it is only our good
qualities we find it irksome to conserve. Assuredly, in
driving streets through the black labyrinth, a few
curious old corners have been swept away, and some
associations turned out of house and home. But what
slices of sunlight, what breaths of clean air, have been
let in! And what a picturesque world remains untouched!
You go under dark arches, and down dark stairs and
alleys. The way is so narrow that you can lay a hand on
either wall; so steep that, in greasy winter weather, the
pavement is almost as treacherous as ice. Washing
dangles above washing from the windows; the houses bulge
outwards upon flimsy brackets; you see a bit of sculpture
in a dark corner; at the top of all, a gable and a few
crowsteps are printed on the sky. Here, you come into a
court where the children are at play and the grown people
sit upon their doorsteps, and perhaps a church spire
shows itself above the roofs. Here, in the narrowest of
the entry, you find a great old mansion still erect, with
some insignia of its former state - some scutcheon, some
holy or courageous motto, on the lintel. The local
antiquary points out where famous and well-born people
had their lodging; and as you look up, out pops the head
of a slatternly woman from the countess's window. The
Bedouins camp within Pharaoh's palace walls, and the old
war-ship is given over to the rats. We are already a far
way from the days when powdered heads were plentiful in
these alleys, with jolly, port-wine faces underneath.
Even in the chief thoroughfares Irish washings flutter at
the windows, and the pavements are encumbered with
loiterers.

These loiterers are a true character of the scene.
Some shrewd Scotch workmen may have paused on their way
to a job, debating Church affairs and politics with their
tools upon their arm. But the most part are of a
different order - skulking jail-birds; unkempt, bare-foot
children; big-mouthed, robust women, in a sort of uniform
of striped flannel petticoat and short tartan shawl;
among these, a few surpervising constables and a dismal
sprinkling of mutineers and broken men from higher ranks
in society, with some mark of better days upon them, like
a brand. In a place no larger than Edinburgh, and where
the traffic is mostly centred in five or six chief
streets, the same face comes often under the notice of an
idle stroller. In fact, from this point of view,
Edinburgh is not so much a small city as the largest of
small towns. It is scarce possible to avoid observing
your neighbours; and I never yet heard of any one who
tried. It has been my fortune, in this anonymous
accidental way, to watch more than one of these downward
travellers for some stages on the road to ruin. One man
must have been upwards of sixty before I first observed
him, and he made then a decent, personable figure in
broad-cloth of the best. For three years he kept falling
- grease coming and buttons going from the square-skirted
coat, the face puffing and pimpling, the shoulders
growing bowed, the hair falling scant and grey upon his
head; and the last that ever I saw of him, he was
standing at the mouth of an entry with several men in
moleskin, three parts drunk, and his old black raiment
daubed with mud. I fancy that I still can hear him
laugh. There was something heart-breaking in this
gradual declension at so advanced an age; you would have
thought a man of sixty out of the reach of these
calamities; you would have thought that he was niched by
that time into a safe place in life, whence he could pass
quietly and honourably into the grave.

One of the earliest marks of these DEGRINGOLADES is,
that the victim begins to disappear from the New Town
thoroughfares, and takes to the High Street, like a
wounded animal to the woods. And such an one is the type
of the quarter. It also has fallen socially. A
scutcheon over the door somewhat jars in sentiment where
there is a washing at every window. The old man, when I
saw him last, wore the coat in which he had played the
gentleman three years before; and that was just what gave
him so pre-eminent an air of wretchedness.

It is true that the over-population was at least as
dense in the epoch of lords and ladies, and that now-a-
days some customs which made Edinburgh notorious of yore
have been fortunately pretermitted. But an aggregation
of comfort is not distasteful like an aggregation of the
reverse. Nobody cares how many lords and ladies, and
divines and lawyers, may have been crowded into these
houses in the past - perhaps the more the merrier. The
glasses clink around the china punch-bowl, some one
touches the virginals, there are peacocks' feathers on
the chimney, and the tapers burn clear and pale in the
red firelight. That is not an ugly picture in itself,
nor will it become ugly upon repetition. All the better
if the like were going on in every second room; the LAND
would only look the more inviting. Times are changed.
In one house, perhaps, two-score families herd together;
and, perhaps, not one of them is wholly out of the reach
of want. The great hotel is given over to discomfort
from the foundation to the chimney-tops; everywhere a
pinching, narrow habit, scanty meals, and an air of
sluttishness and dirt. In the first room there is a
birth, in another a death, in a third a sordid drinking-
bout, and the detective and the Bible-reader cross upon
the stairs. High words are audible from dwelling to
dwelling, and children have a strange experience from the
first; only a robust soul, you would think, could grow up
in such conditions without hurt. And even if God tempers
His dispensations to the young, and all the ill does not
arise that our apprehensions may forecast, the sight of
such a way of living is disquieting to people who are
more happily circumstanced. Social inequality is nowhere
more ostentatious than at Edinburgh. I have mentioned
already how, to the stroller along Princes Street, the
High Street callously exhibits its back garrets. It is
true, there is a garden between. And although nothing
could be more glaring by way of contrast, sometimes the
opposition is more immediate; sometimes the thing lies in
a nutshell, and there is not so much as a blade of grass
between the rich and poor. To look over the South Bridge
and see the Cowgate below full of crying hawkers, is to
view one rank of society from another in the twinkling of
an eye.

One night I went along the Cowgate after every one
was a-bed but the policeman, and stopped by hazard before
a tall LAND. The moon touched upon its chimneys, and
shone blankly on the upper windows; there was no light
anywhere in the great bulk of building; but as I stood
there it seemed to me that I could hear quite a body of
quiet sounds from the interior; doubtless there were many
clocks ticking, and people snoring on their backs. And
thus, as I fancied, the dense life within made itself
faintly audible in my ears, family after family
contributing its quota to the general hum, and the whole
pile beating in tune to its timepieces, like a great
disordered heart. Perhaps it was little more than a
fancy altogether, but it was strangely impressive at the
time, and gave me an imaginative measure of the
disproportion between the quantity of living flesh and
the trifling walls that separated and contained it.

There was nothing fanciful, at least, but every
circumstance of terror and reality, in the fall of the
LAND in the High Street. The building had grown rotten
to the core; the entry underneath had suddenly closed up
so that the scavenger's barrow could not pass; cracks and
reverberations sounded through the house at night; the
inhabitants of the huge old human bee-hive discussed
their peril when they encountered on the stair; some had
even left their dwellings in a panic of fear, and
returned to them again in a fit of economy or self-
respect; when, in the black hours of a Sunday morning,
the whole structure ran together with a hideous uproar
and tumbled story upon story to the ground. The physical
shock was felt far and near; and the moral shock
travelled with the morning milkmaid into all the suburbs.
The church-bells never sounded more dismally over
Edinburgh than that grey forenoon. Death had made a
brave harvest, and, like Samson, by pulling down one
roof, destroyed many a home. None who saw it can have
forgotten the aspect of the gable; here it was plastered,
there papered, according to the rooms; here the kettle
still stood on the hob, high overhead; and there a cheap
picture of the Queen was pasted over the chimney. So, by
this disaster, you had a glimpse into the life of thirty
families, all suddenly cut off from the revolving years.
The LAND had fallen; and with the LAND how much! Far in
the country, people saw a gap in the city ranks, and the
sun looked through between the chimneys in an unwonted
place. And all over the world, in London, in Canada, in
New Zealand, fancy what a multitude of people could
exclaim with truth: 'The house that I was born in fell
last night!'

Robert Louis Stevenson

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