AS A CHAMPION of Scottish literacy, intellectual rigour, profound thinking and weighty criticism, Francis Jeffrey stands as a non pareil. His editorship of the Edin-burgh Review in the early nineteenth century, made it a model of what a literary journal should be, at a time of political and cultural ferment. It was, as Michael Fry suggests in his history of the capital, Edinburgh, the ancestor of modern serious journalism – “clever, probing, irreverent” – yet holding the line against the revolutionary fervour that was sweeping Europe. And it knew its market, the upwardly mobile bourgeoisie of the time, for whom it explained the uncertain world in which they lived, and the nation and city they inhabited. For all that the Enlightenment had almost run its course, the Edinburgh Review suggested that the capital was still the only place to be, and that the life of the nation revolved around it.
Yet Jeffrey seemed to despise the very fact of his Scottishness. He had a horror of the Scottish language, which he and his fellow lawyers nevertheless all used; he was an unashamed admirer of England, widely regarded in Whig circles as the home of liberty; when the Reform Bill was passed, he rejoiced, as his biographer, Henry Cockburn, put it, at the ending of “the horrid system of being ruled by a native jobbing Scot”. Cock-burn wrote that “the nearer we can propose to make ourselves to England the better”.
It has become something of a modern cliché to regard the Enlightenment as the movement that helped redefine the Scottish nation in the aftermath of the Union. Fry himself has written about its impact on the different approach taken by Scots to the building of the Empire, the instinctive sympathy of the colonisers with the nations they had to deal with, and the way in which they used their greater contact with the outside world to fix their own position in it. “Despite England’s greater wealth and the obvious dominance of London, Scotland avoided debasement to a colonial, or arguably even a provincial level…” he wrote in his book The Scottish Empire. “This culture not only survived the Union but also found itself a capacity for spectacular renewal”.
How strange, then, to find the voices of that renewal so uncomfortable with the notion of Scottishness. David Hume, in his History of England, treats his country “with ill-disguised contempt”, according to Fry. “Seeing how Hume supported the Union with England of 1707, it may be all the more peculiar that he chose not a British but a narrower Anglocentric approach. Odder still is the way he treats his country with ill-disguised contempt in some of the passages he does devote to it”. His only reference to Scottish forebears is to the Germanic or Saxon influences that shaped the country’s history. The language, “which is purely Saxon”, is, says Hume, a stronger proof of character than “the fabulous annals which are obtruded by Scottish historians”. He has nothing to say about Britons, Picts or Gaels, and makes no mention of the Wars of Independence. “It is not probable that a nation, so rude and unpolished, would be pos-
sessed of any history, which deserves much to be regretted” is his bleak conclusion.
Another Scot uncomfortable with his own country, is James Boswell, who was prone, says Fry, to “groveling Anglophilia”. His famous opening remark to Dr Johnson was: “I do indeed come from Scotland, but I cannot help it”. One of his great regrets, when he died at the age of 56, was that he had not been able to spend more time in London than in Edinburgh. “How could Boswell have been blind to [his own city] and instead have despised Edinburgh as a dull, provincial backwater?” asks Fry.
Having posed this delightful contradiction, Fry never quite explains it, save that, in Jeffrey’s case, it seems clear that he was a deeply ambitious man, and viewed his route to promotion in the legal world as one that conformed as closely as possible to the prevailing mood of a post-Union political establishment. Today we would find those attitudes not only unacceptable in a Scottish context, but incomprehensible. We have become so used to the almost ritual worship of the Scottish identity that anything which challenges it comes close to heresy. The making of Edinburgh, however, has meant, at critical points in its development, the rejection of forces which might have held it back, not least during the Jacobite period of the mid-eighteenth century, when, for a few months, the city dallied with the charm of a Stuart pretender, before reverting to Hanoverian reality. It is an attitude which still prevails today. I remember a meeting back in 1995 with a group of historians, gathered to discuss whether Edinburgh should mark the 250th anniversary of the landing of Bonnie Prince Charlie by erecting a statue to him in a city which is otherwise bare of any Jacobite memorials. The suggestion was rudely voted down. “Why should we commemorate a man who was just one of history’s chancers?” demanded one.
For Hume perhaps, and Jeffrey, this brusque response would have been entirely understandable. They wanted their city and nation to be part of the modern world, and it was, therefore, important to reject the romantic impulses that might drag it back to the conflicts of the past. As we make our way through the confused, anarchic, fraught history of Edinburgh, what we learn is that its development has often owed more to rulers whose interests lay elsewhere than to those who regarded it as the centre of the universe. Fry’s early hero, King David I, who can be regarded as the creator of the royal burgh, and who founded the abbey of Holyrood, was Earl of Huntingdon, and grew up in close contact with the English court. Yet his contribution to Scottish life is inestimable. He imported monastic orders from abroad, endowed abbeys, and created a feudal aristocracy as well as a trading nation which owed more to Europe than they did to the traditions of the Scottish nation. David’s reason for choosing to make Edinburgh the nation’s capital had less to do with its geographical position (not great), its access to a port (not close), or its religious importance (far less than those of St Andrews or Dunkeld), than with a purely political decision. This city with a great fortress on a hill was a place which spoke of power. For David and his successors, to endow Edinburgh with mercantile success, to build a great abbey there, and to grant it royal privileges, was a statement of intent as much as a pragmatic gesture. As Fry notes: “It was the first of many triumphs over nature that made Edinburgh”.
From those decisions flowed much else – the rise of the merchant class, the establishment of the church, the development of Edinburgh as a legal centre, and the entrepreneurial energy that has long characterised the city. It is something of a tradition to decry Edinburgh as a complacent, self-centred city, in contrast to Glasgow, with its trading history and its instinct for growth. But as we travel through the past, what emerges time and again is that, at points where the city might well have reverted to the status of provincial somnolence, it has instead grasped the opportunity for change and driven it forwards. Nowhere was that more true than in the dark days after the Union, when Edinburgh, deprived of its parliament, with many of its more notable citizens departing for the south, seemed a place shorn of hope. “From the Union up to the middle of the century, the existence of the city seems to have been a perfect blank”, wrote Robert Chambers in his Traditions of Edinburgh. “An air of gloom and depression pervaded the city. In short this may be called the dark age of Edinburgh”.
What happened then is intriguing. Instead of reverting to inertia, a kind of intellectual energy seized the city, in its clubs and cafes, in its literature and publications, in bookshops and stores, and even in the pulpit. Fry opens his book with an account of the geologist James Hutton clambering over the Salisbury Crags as he dug down to the layers of rock which first shed light on the history of evolution. That image, of searching through the dark stones of the past to find enlightenment is as good a symbol as any of how the city has time and again produced individuals who have challenged the status quo and found it wanting. They were aided by a surprising ally. In other countries the church would have automatically opposed and attempted to stifle any progress in thinking which threatened the sanctity of its dogmas. But in Scotland the Kirk, while often viewing the ideas of atheists like Hume, with distaste, did not oppose them outright. A seminal moment came in 1755, when a minister from Cockpen in Midlothian published a pamphlet attacking Hume and Lord Kames for heresy and invited the General Assembly to condemn them. The invitation was not taken up. As Fry writes: “They [the Kirk] did not like Hume’s atheism or Kames’s history with God left out. But they did recognize that fanatical attacks on Scots thinkers would hold the whole country back”. As Hume remarked: “My damnation is postponed for a twelvemonth”. In the event it was held off for longer than that.
Something of this challenge to received wisdom finds expression in Fry’s own history of the city. He courts controversy, and teases assumptions. Historians will be irritated with his selective approach, his journalistic eye for a good story at the expense of sustained narrative, his diversion into popular mythology rather than maintaining a rigorous regard for demonstrable fact. And it would be easy to mock. He sets the tale of Tristan and Isolde in the Caledonian Forest, commenting blithely: “The fact this is [based on] a single source does not discredit it.” He decides that Jenny Geddes did indeed hurl her seat at the bishop in St Giles as a protest against the new liturgy of 1637, adding, “Modern historians have decided Jenny never existed. In that case, it was necessary to invent her” – a neat way of having your story and printing it.
Yet he has, as ever, done important research, and come up with some fascinating discoveries. Most of them are concerned with the people of Edinburgh, their social habits, their drinking, their whoring, their love of argument, their fierce resistance to kings, princes or councillors of whom they disapproved. He has a long passage on feudalism – and his counter-intuitive conclusion that its abolition by a modern parliament has been a retrograde step is bound to be challenged. But he argues his case well. His point is that feudalism, by giving real power to feu-holders, allowed them to resist the imposition of orders from officials and helped preserve much of the character of the city when it might easily have been extinguished. Nowhere is that more clearly demonstrated than in the magnificent views available from Princes Street, across to the medieval backdrop of the Old Town. In 1772, the council wanted to build along the southern length of Edinburgh’s principal thoroughfare. The feuars on the northern side, organized by David Hume, applied for an interdict against the town council’s decision on the grounds that the original feu charter granted them an outlook to Edin-burgh Castle. The council argued, as councils so often do, that progress demanded such conditions must be overthrown. Yet, in the end, the council lost.
“So, where Scottish cities and towns have preserved a historic character, this is often due to feudalism…” writes Fry. “Alas, one of the first things the Scottish parliament did on being restored after 1999 was to abolish feudalism, under a delusion that this medieval relic oppressed the lieges. Now Edinburgh and the rest of Scotland depend for amenity on the decrees of public planning authorities – which cannot fill anyone with confidence, given some of the appalling mistakes made in the past, not least in the capital”.
One hears in this voice another from the past: that of Lord Cockburn, famous protester against the planning decisions that have so often threatened, yet never destroyed, the city’s character. We need these voices today, to hold off the changes which still pose that threat, and which still need to be challenged.
Edinburgh – A History of the City
Macmillan, £25.00 pp456, ISBN 0230703860