THERE was a time, if we are to believe William Smellie, co-founder and, in large part, author, of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, when one could stand at the Cross of Edinburgh and, within the space of a few minutes, “take fifty men of genius and learning by the hand.”
The original Cross, alas, is no longer extant. A handsome, octagonal building, it stood in the midst of the High Street. According to Robert Chambers, it was once the capital’s great centre of gossip. Nearby were coffee-shops and booksellers’. Moreover, it was the place where state proclamations were made and “noted state criminals” were executed.
Here, for example, wrote Chambers, was where the mysterious midnight proclamation was read, “summoning the Flodden lords to the domains of Pluto… Here did King James VI, bring together his barbarous nobles, and make them shake hands over a feast partaken of before the eyes of the people. Here did the Covenanting lords read their protests against Charles’s feeble proclamations. Here fell Montrose, Huntly, the Argylls, Warriston, and many others of note, victims of political dissension. Here were fountains set a-flowing with the blood-red wine, to celebrate the passing of kings along the causeway. And here, as a last noble fact, were Prince Charles and his father proclaimed by their devoted Highlanders, amidst screams of pipe and blare of trumpet.”
The replacement Cross stands behind St Giles’, and opposite the City Chambers. Whether many men of genius pass it by now is debateable. Lawyers certainly are perforce always in the vicinity, as are members of the Kirk and movers and shakers in the municipality. Some of them may be men of genius. There may even walk among them an Adam Smith or a David Hume or a James Hutton and an Adam Ferguson. All we can say is that if they do they have yet to declare themselves.
This was the Cross to which Smellie, who was born in 1740 and died in 1795, was referring. His age was the fabled one of the Scottish Enlightenment, that remarkable flowering of intellectual inquiry which James Buchan, one of the contributors to this issue of the SRB, brought vividly to life in Capital of the Mind. Like the Second Coming, the next Enlightenment has often been foretold. A case, for example, could be made for what might be called the Age of MacDiarmid, which would encompass as well as the Langholm thistle-grasper, the likes of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Edwin Muir, George Elder Davie, the Glasgow Boys, Sorley Maclean, David Daiches, Norman MacCaig and a few others. Eagle-eyed readers will note that among them, as among Smellie’s contemporaries, there are no women.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century Scotland again appears on the cusp of another potential enlightenment with many Scots contributing to the global debate. These days, though, the gender balance, if not entirely equal, is much better appointed. Where these men and women might meet, however, either virtually or actually is a moot point. There are, of course, forums, some formal, others less so. Recently, we attended a lecture at the Royal Society of Edin-burgh, which tends towards the former, where Professor C. Duncan Rice, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, took as his topic ‘The Science of Improvement: Why Scotland Needs Its Public Intellectuals’. Needless to say, we agree with Prof Rice and note with pleasure and pride that several of those public intellectuals to whom he referred are contributors to the SRB.
This issue marks the twelfth issue of this magazine, which also marks our third birthday. Slowly, sometimes painfully, we are growing. In the process, and with the generous contribution of sponsors such as the Scottish Arts Council, we believe we have shown that intelligence may be communicated to tens of thousands of readers. Moreover, a readership survey showed that most readers like what we do and ask only that we do it more often and over more pages. That, too, is our desire. But the truth is that we, like most magazines of a literary bent, operate on frayed shoestrings. Though subscriptions are growing steadily most readers read the SRB for nothing.
In an ideal world we would prefer to be free of public subsidy. For that to be achieved, however, we need, ironically, the help of the public. To be blunt, if you have just won the lottery or feel inclined when drawing up your will to leave your millions to the SRB instead of the Society for the Repatriation of Wolves in Sutherland we would be most grateful. In the meantime, you can assist our cause by purchasing an SRB calendar, which will adorn the backs of most doors. You can find the details on page 19.