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Chapter 6

NEW TOWN - TOWN AND COUNTRY.


IT is as much a matter of course to decry the New
Town as to exalt the Old; and the most celebrated
authorities have picked out this quarter as the very
emblem of what is condemnable in architecture. Much may
be said, much indeed has been said, upon the text; but to
the unsophisticated, who call anything pleasing if it
only pleases them, the New Town of Edinburgh seems, in
itself, not only gay and airy, but highly picturesque.
An old skipper, invincibly ignorant of all theories of
the sublime and beautiful, once propounded as his most
radiant notion for Paradise: 'The new town of Edinburgh,
with the wind a matter of a point free.' He has now gone
to that sphere where all good tars are promised pleasant
weather in the song, and perhaps his thoughts fly
somewhat higher. But there are bright and temperate days
- with soft air coming from the inland hills, military
music sounding bravely from the hollow of the gardens,
the flags all waving on the palaces of Princes Street -
when I have seen the town through a sort of glory, and
shaken hands in sentiment with the old sailor. And
indeed, for a man who has been much tumbled round
Orcadian skerries, what scene could be more agreeable to
witness? On such a day, the valley wears a surprising
air of festival. It seems (I do not know how else to put
my meaning) as if it were a trifle too good to be true.
It is what Paris ought to be. It has the scenic quality
that would best set off a life of unthinking, open-air
diversion. It was meant by nature for the realisation of
the society of comic operas. And you can imagine, if the
climate were but towardly, how all the world and his wife
would flock into these gardens in the cool of the
evening, to hear cheerful music, to sip pleasant drinks,
to see the moon rise from behind Arthur's Seat and shine
upon the spires and monuments and the green tree-tops in
the valley. Alas! and the next morning the rain is
splashing on the windows, and the passengers flee along
Princes Street before the galloping squalls.

It cannot be denied that the original design was
faulty and short-sighted, and did not fully profit by the
capabilities of the situation. The architect was
essentially a town bird, and he laid out the modern city
with a view to street scenery, and to street scenery
alone. The country did not enter into his plan; he had
never lifted his eyes to the hills. If he had so chosen,
every street upon the northern slope might have been a
noble terrace and commanded an extensive and beautiful
view. But the space has been too closely built; many of
the houses front the wrong way, intent, like the Man with
the Muck-Rake, on what is not worth observation, and
standing discourteously back-foremost in the ranks; and,
in a word, it is too often only from attic-windows, or
here and there at a crossing, that you can get a look
beyond the city upon its diversified surroundings. But
perhaps it is all the more surprising, to come suddenly
on a corner, and see a perspective of a mile or more of
falling street, and beyond that woods and villas, and a
blue arm of sea, and the hills upon the farther side.

Fergusson, our Edinburgh poet, Burns's model, once
saw a butterfly at the Town Cross; and the sight inspired
him with a worthless little ode. This painted country
man, the dandy of the rose garden, looked far abroad in
such a humming neighbourhood; and you can fancy what
moral considerations a youthful poet would supply. But
the incident, in a fanciful sort of way, is
characteristic of the place. Into no other city does the
sight of the country enter so far; if you do not meet a
butterfly, you shall certainly catch a glimpse of far-
away trees upon your walk; and the place is full of
theatre tricks in the way of scenery. You peep under an
arch, you descend stairs that look as if they would land
you in a cellar, you turn to the back-window of a grimy
tenement in a lane:- and behold! you are face-to-face
with distant and bright prospects. You turn a corner,
and there is the sun going down into the Highland hills.
You look down an alley, and see ships tacking for the
Baltic.

For the country people to see Edinburgh on her hill-
tops, is one thing; it is another for the citizen, from
the thick of his affairs, to overlook the country. It
should be a genial and ameliorating influence in life; it
should prompt good thoughts and remind him of Nature's
unconcern: that he can watch from day to day, as he trots
officeward, how the Spring green brightens in the wood or
the field grows black under a moving ploughshare. I have
been tempted, in this connexion, to deplore the slender
faculties of the human race, with its penny-whistle of a
voice, its dull cars, and its narrow range of sight. If
you could see as people are to see in heaven, if you had
eyes such as you can fancy for a superior race, if you
could take clear note of the objects of vision, not only
a few yards, but a few miles from where you stand:- think
how agreeably your sight would be entertained, how
pleasantly your thoughts would be diversified, as you
walked the Edinburgh streets! For you might pause, in
some business perplexity, in the midst of the city
traffic, and perhaps catch the eye of a shepherd as he
sat down to breathe upon a heathery shoulder of the
Pentlands; or perhaps some urchin, clambering in a
country elm, would put aside the leaves and show you his
flushed and rustic visage; or a fisher racing seawards,
with the tiller under his elbow, and the sail sounding in
the wind, would fling you a salutation from between
Anst'er and the May.

To be old is not the same thing as to be
picturesque; nor because the Old Town bears a strange
physiognomy, does it at all follow that the New Town
shall look commonplace. Indeed, apart from antique
houses, it is curious how much description would apply
commonly to either. The same sudden accidents of ground,
a similar dominating site above the plain, and the same
superposition of one rank of society over another, are to
be observed in both. Thus, the broad and comely approach
to Princes Street from the east, lined with hotels and
public offices, makes a leap over the gorge of the Low
Calton; if you cast a glance over the parapet, you look
direct into that sunless and disreputable confluent of
Leith Street; and the same tall houses open upon both
thoroughfares. This is only the New Town passing
overhead above its own cellars; walking, so to speak,
over its own children, as is the way of cities and the
human race. But at the Dean Bridge, you may behold a
spectacle of a more novel order. The river runs at the
bottom of a deep valley, among rocks and between gardens;
the crest of either bank is occupied by some of the most
commodious streets and crescents in the modern city; and
a handsome bridge unites the two summits. Over this,
every afternoon, private carriages go spinning by, and
ladies with card-cases pass to and fro about the duties
of society. And yet down below, you may still see, with
its mills and foaming weir, the little rural village of
Dean. Modern improvement has gone overhead on its high-
level viaduct; and the extended city has cleanly
overleapt, and left unaltered, what was once the summer
retreat of its comfortable citizens. Every town embraces
hamlets in its growth; Edinburgh herself has embraced a
good few; but it is strange to see one still surviving -
and to see it some hundreds of feet below your path. Is
it Torre del Greco that is built above buried
Herculaneum? Herculaneum was dead at least; but the sun
still shines upon the roofs of Dean; the smoke still
rises thriftily from its chimneys; the dusty miller comes
to his door, looks at the gurgling water, hearkens to the
turning wheel and the birds about the shed, and perhaps
whistles an air of his own to enrich the symphony - for
all the world as if Edinburgh were still the old
Edinburgh on the Castle Hill, and Dean were still the
quietest of hamlets buried a mile or so in the green
country.

It is not so long ago since magisterial David Hume
lent the authority of his example to the exodus from the
Old Town, and took up his new abode in a street which is
still (so oddly may a jest become perpetuated) known as
Saint David Street. Nor is the town so large but a
holiday schoolboy may harry a bird's nest within half a
mile of his own door. There are places that still smell
of the plough in memory's nostrils. Here, one had heard
a blackbird on a hawthorn; there, another was taken on
summer evenings to eat strawberries and cream; and you
have seen a waving wheatfield on the site of your present
residence. The memories of an Edinburgh boy are but
partly memories of the town. I look back with delight on
many an escalade of garden walls; many a ramble among
lilacs full of piping birds; many an exploration in
obscure quarters that were neither town nor country; and
I think that both for my companions and myself, there was
a special interest, a point of romance, and a sentiment
as of foreign travel, when we hit in our excursions on
the butt-end of some former hamlet, and found a few
rustic cottages embedded among streets and squares. The
tunnel to the Scotland Street Station, the sight of the
trains shooting out of its dark maw with the two guards
upon the brake, the thought of its length and the many
ponderous edifices and open thoroughfares above, were
certainly things of paramount impressiveness to a young
mind. It was a subterranean passage, although of a
larger bore than we were accustomed to in Ainsworth's
novels; and these two words, 'subterreanean passage,'
were in themselves an irresistible attraction, and seemed
to bring us nearer in spirit to the heroes we loved and
the black rascals we secretly aspired to imitate. To
scale the Castle Rock from West Princes Street Gardens,
and lay a triumphal hand against the rampart itself, was
to taste a high order of romantic pleasure. And there
are other sights and exploits which crowd back upon my
mind under a very strong illumination of remembered
pleasure. But the effect of not one of them all will
compare with the discoverer's joy, and the sense of old
Time and his slow changes on the face of this earth, with
which I explored such corners as Cannonmills or Water
Lane, or the nugget of cottages at Broughton Market.
They were more rural than the open country, and gave a
greater impression of antiquity than the oldest LAND upon
the High Street. They too, like Fergusson's butterfly,
had a quaint air of having wandered far from their own
place; they looked abashed and homely, with their gables
and their creeping plants, their outside stairs and
running mill-streams; there were corners that smelt like
the end of the country garden where I spent my Aprils;
and the people stood to gossip at their doors, as they
might have done in Colinton or Cramond.

In a great measure we may, and shall, eradicate this
haunting flavour of the country. The last elm is dead in
Elm Row; and the villas and the workmen's quarters spread
apace on all the borders of the city. We can cut down
the trees; we can bury the grass under dead paving-
stones; we can drive brisk streets through all our sleepy
quarters; and we may forget the stories and the
playgrounds of our boyhood. But we have some possessions
that not even the infuriate zeal of builders can utterly
abolish and destroy. Nothing can abolish the hills,
unless it be a cataclysm of nature which shall subvert
Edinburgh Castle itself and lay all her florid structures
in the dust. And as long as we have the hills and the
Firth, we have a famous heritage to leave our children.
Our windows, at no expense to us, are most artfully
stained to represent a landscape. And when the Spring
comes round, and the hawthorns begin to flower, and the
meadows to smell of young grass, even in the thickest of
our streets, the country hilltops find out a young man's
eyes, and set his heart beating for travel and pure air.

Robert Louis Stevenson

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