Auld Reekie: An Anthology collected by Ralph Lownie
The American writer Washington Irving, on a visit to Walter Scott in 1817, wrote to his brother:
'It seemed as if the rock and castle assumed a new aspect every time I looked at them; and Arthur's Seat was perfect witchcraft. I don't wonder that anyone residing in Edinburgh should write poetically.'
For centuries Edinburgh, with her myriad faces, has fascinated writers. Several hundred novels have been set in the city - it is now the fictional crime capital of the world - and three of Britain's best-selling authors Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin and J.K. Rowling live within close proximity of each other in an Edinburgh suburb. Very few other cities have so many literary associations which is why it is so appropriate that Edinburgh should recently have become the first UNESCO City of Literature.
It is the city not just of Robert Fergusson, Walter Scott and R.L. Stevenson, all of whom wrote extensively about it, but of countless writers often not associated with Scotland's capital. Kenneth Grahame and Arthur Conan Doyle were born here but sought fame and fortune in the South while Compton Mackenzie and Thomas De Quincey spent their last years here, even though they had no prior connection with the city. Percy Bysshe Shelley came to be married and William Hazlitt to be divorced. Rebecca West was educated in George Square, Ian Fleming's character James Bond was reputedly sent to Fettes after an indiscretion with a ladies maid at Eton while Oliver Goldsmith studied medicine at the University. 'St Trinians', immortalised in Ronald Searle's cartoons, was based on an Edinburgh school of the same name while The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was inspired by Muriel Spark's time at James Gillespie's School for Girls. Joyce Cary spent several years at the Edinburgh College of Art while John Buchan learnt the publishing trade at Thomas Nelson.
Uniquely, many of Edinburgh's writers have also been its historians ranging from R.L. Stevenson with Picturesque Notes to more recently George Scott Moncrieff, Moray McLaren, Sacheverell Sitwell, Eric Linklater, David Daiches, Trevor Royle and Allan Massie. The city has been well-served, too, by historians from Robert Chambers to, in more recent times, A.J. Youngson, Charles McKean, Malcolm Cant, Charles Smith and Joyce Wallace. The classic texts on Edinburgh life are constantly reprinted. One thinks of Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk by Walter Scott's son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart, Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus' Memoirs of a Highland Lady and Henry Cockburn's Memorials of His Time which all cover the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century. Or those two excellent memoirs of growing up in South Edinburgh in the inter-war period - Muriel Spark's Curriculum Vitae and David Daiches' Two Worlds. The result is that there is a bountiful and well-written mine of material at call for any anthologist.
Though I spent the first thirty years of my life in Edinburgh, I have not lived in the city for the last fifty years. As I have grown older, and in exile in England, my memories of the city have become stronger and my interest in it commensurately greater. Over the last few years I have devoured books on Scott's 'Mine Old Romantic Town' - novels, histories, books of poetry - and yet no book has entirely satisfied my desire for something into which I could dip with serendipity and be reminded nostalgically of Edinburgh's history, topography, characters and daily life.
There have been surprisingly few anthologies about Edinburgh. Rosaline Masson's In Praise of Edinburgh (1912) and Alfred Hyatt's The Charm of Edinburgh (1913) are good but now rather dated. Eileen Dunlop and Antony Kamm's A Book of Old Edinburgh (1983), Owen Dudley Edward and Graham Richardson's Edinburgh: A Literary Anthology (1983), Paul Harris' Scotland (1985) and David Daiches' Edinburgh: A Traveller's Companion (1986) are full of interesting snippets but tend to be arranged chronologically, be quite historical and have fewer and longer extracts than the book I desired and which I have now attempted to provide with Auld Reekie.
The joy of putting together this anthology has been discovering Edinburgh anew and finding numerous less well-known accounts of the city which cast fresh light on both the writer and the subject. The names of G.K. Chesterton, John Betjeman, JB Priestley, Charlotte Bronte and William Wordsworth, for example, are not generally associated with the city.
Many writers deserve to be better known. One thinks of the fine descriptions of the city in the poet and essayist Alexander Smith's A Summer in Skye based on a six week trip he made in 1864, James Bone's The Perambulator in Edinburgh, Alasdair Alpin MacGregor's Auld Reekie and The Turbulent Years, Flora Grierson's Haunting Edinburgh, Sir John Macdonald's Life Jottings of an Old Edinburgh Citizen, JB Sutherland's Random Recollections and Impressions, J Wilson McLaren's Edinburgh Memories and Some Worthies, the Victorian detective James McLevy's memoirs The Sliding Scale of Life and Naomi Mitchison's Small Talk. The travel memoirs, for example, of Sir William Bereton and Joseph Taylor are as revealing as anything to be found in Edward Topham and Daniel Defoe.
James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian, Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the novels of Ian Rankin and Paul Johnston's futuristic satires, such as Water of Death, acutely capture different ages and aspects of Edinburgh but I encourage you to try, if you can find a second-hand copy as they are generally out of print, other novels about Edinburgh such as Arthur Conan Doyle's autobiographical The Firm of Girdlestone, Eric Linklater's Magnus Merriman, Moray McLaren's The Pursuit, Robert Kemp's The Maestro, Elspeth Davie's Coming to Light, Joan Lingard's The Prevailing Wind and James Allan Ford's A Statue for a Public Place for their marvellous evocations of our city.
Some books have never even been in print. D.A. Small was an Edinburgh businessman who has left a wonderfully vivid account of daily life, such as funerals, markets and rail travel, between 1860 and 1927 in his Through Memories Window, a typescript of which I found in the Edinburgh Room of the Central Library. It is a book crying out to be published.
Another joy has been discovering the poets who write so well about Edinburgh – Robert Fergusson, Ruthven Todd, Norman McCaig, Donald Campbell, Duncan Glen, Robert Garioch and the city's present Makar, Stewart Conn.
Every anthologist of Edinburgh inevitably draws on some of the set pieces of Edinburgh's history and her characters and landmarks – the Porteous Riots, Burke and Hare, Deacon Brodie, The Castle, Arthur's Seat. What I have tried to do is to find a new account of a familiar subject, such as Conan Doyle's short story about the murder of Rizzio, and to look at not just the strange physicality of Edinburgh but the ordinary people who have made the city such as the fishwives and hawkers, the stallholders and lamplighters.
Anthologies often ignore the more mundane aspects of a city's life. It is easy to find material on great events, less easy to uncover the telling passage about how life was normally lived. The accounts of a visit to the sweet shop, the laundry or Poole's Myriorama, the game of 'peevers', travel by 'Growler' or tram will, I hope, inform or bring a wry smile of recognition.
This is a book as much about Colinton, Cramond and Costorphine as Calton Hill and the Castle. It showcases Edinburgh with all its beauty and sense of history but, as Norman McCaig has written in his poem 'Double Life', "My Water of Leith runs through a double city...". The book doesn't flinch from the less savoury side of Edinburgh's history with a section on Edinburgh in adversity and on crime.
What I have enjoyed is ferreting out completely new material, though it has meant literally weeks in various libraries going through several hundreds of books looking for the right extract. There are pieces in the anthology from local papers, privately-published memoirs, crime surveys, nineteenth century travel guides, law reports and even the Municipal Proclamation issued for Flodden. I hope the result is an anthology which captures all of Edinburgh's myriad faces.
Books featured in this article
- Add to BasketAuld Reekie: An Edinburgh Anthology - Hardback
In this widely-praised anthology Ralph Lownie draws on a wide range of sources, including speeches, memoirs, letters, poems, novels and journals, to capture the physicality and spirit of Scotlands capital.
- Add to BasketCurriculum Vitae: A Volume Of Autobiography - - Paperback
Muriel Sparks's celebrated autobiography has been unavailable since her death in 2006. This new edition adds a preface by the poet and biographer Elaine Feinstein.
- Add to BasketMemoirs Of A Highland Lady - - Paperback
With the recent discovery of the original manuscript it has now been possible to publish the complete text from Elizabeth Grant's memoirs, spanning from her earliest years in Edinburgh and London to her marriage to an Irish landowner.
- Add to BasketThe Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie - - Paperback
Miss Brodie is a teacher who exerts a powerful influence over the group of 'special girls' at the Marcia Blaine Academy. Each is famous for something & are initiated into a world of adult games & extra-curricular activities they will never forget.
- Add to BasketThe Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner - - Paperback
Set in early 18th century Scotland, this novel recounts the corruption of a boy of strict Calvinist upbringing by a mysterious stranger under whose influence he commits a series of murders. Could this stranger be a figment of the imagination, or the devil himself?