Monday, December 07, 2009

Edinburgh: The Literary Tour

I've never been to a more ostentatiously literary city than Edinburgh. First of all, you arrive in Waverley Station, which is named after Sir Walter Scott's Waverley novels. If you are an obsessive fan of Dorothy Dunnett, you can also take satisfaction in knowing that Waverley Station was built in the valley that used to be Nor Loch. That's the lake the infamous Francis Crawford swam through to arrive in Edinburgh in secret in the opening of Dunnett's Lymond Chronicles. So you are sort of following Lymond's path. You would be able to swim it, even, if the lake hadn't been drained and filled in during the 1820s.

When you emerge from the railway station, it doesn't take long to notice this enormous monument to Walter Scott. They are really fond of him.

To be honest, it's not the most beautiful thing I've ever seen, but it's taller than the Albert Memorial in London, which I find impressive given Victoria's mania about glorifying that guy. Anyway, I can't think of any other city that has built something so epic in honor of a writer. You would think there would be something like this for Dickens in London, but there is only one statue of Dickens, and it's in Philadelphia. I guess London used up its statue budget on Nelson and that big glass pickle. Edinburgh knows what's important.

For example, here is a statue erected to Robert Fergusson.

Who? you ask. Yeah, I don't know. The inscription at the bottom of the statue says, "Robert Fergusson Scots poet. Born in Edinburgh 1750. Died in Bedlam 1774." Travel Buddy and I looked at the charming statue, saw his place of death, did the math, and instantly felt glum. Apparently Fergusson was part of the Edinburgh literary scene around 1770, and had quite the influence on later poets like Robert Burns, but he fell down some stairs, was sent to a madhouse, and died at the age of 24. I have a hilarious picture of Travel Buddy leaning against his statue making a clowny sad face, because what else can you really do? Anyway, no normal city would give him a statue, and that is why Edinburgh is definitely the place to be if you plan to show early promise and then fall down some stairs. Ach, puir wee Robert.

Not too far away down the Royal Mile is the new Scottish Parliament building, completed in 2004, three years behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars more expensive than expected. The good news is, it's kind of a ridiculously cool-looking building.

And more importantly, it has the words of Scottish writers and artists and thinkers literally carved into the side of it. When we were building our government buildings in America, we stuck to wholly civic quotations from the Constitution and Ben Franklin and Daniel Webster and the Bible. (Definitely what you want to be reminded of all the time when you are all-powerful is "God has favored our undertakings," because hubris always ends well.) The Scots picked these:

"There is hope in honest error; / None in the icy perfections of the mere stylist." Charles Rennie Mackintosh, architect

"The rose of all the world is not for me. I want for my part only the little white rose of Scotland that smells sharp and sweet and breaks the heart." Hugh Macdiarmid, poet

That's right, we wanted to convince ourselves that all our actions were validated by God, and the Scots wanted to remind themselves of error and heartbreak. (I honestly think that is a dichotomy born of the extremely different landscapes of our two nations, but that would be another post.) There are many more interesting quotes that I did not take pictures of, which you can read here. One I wish I'd seen when I was there is this: "What a lovely, lovely moon. / And it's in the constituency too." From Alan Jackon's "The Young Politician Looks at the Moon."

And the parliament building is the not only place they carve words into the city. At the Writers' Museum in Lady Stair's Close they've paved part of the courtyard with snatches of verse and prose from more of Scotland's famous writers. Here is my own Dorothy Dunnett:

Maybe not what I would have picked, but that's all right.

And from my visit in 2004, this quote, which as it turns out is by our old friend Robert Fergusson, whom I thought I'd never heard of.

When I went over the summer, they had a lovely exhibit on Robert Louis Stevenson. In 2004 they had a lovely exhibit on Dorothy Dunnett. Few people are really going to care, but for those of you who do, here is the beautiful map that some crazy obsessed fan made. (Umm, now that I know total strangers may read this - wait, have I been on the internet all this time? why didn't you tell me? - I feel I should clarify that I say that in total sympathy and with admiration.) DON'T READ THE MAP TOO CAREFULLY because I think it might give things away.

Do pay attention to those chess pieces, though, because they are the Lewis chessmen, and I will show you the real ones later this week. It's much more interesting than it sounds, I promise.

J. K. Rowling is probably the most well-known writer at the moment to have written in Edinburgh. If I am to believe the rumors (and the plaque outside the door), she wrote much of the first Harry Potter book at the Elephant House coffee shop, where of course she probably can't ever go again without risking being mobbed. Poor dear, she'll just have to scribble safely in her castle from now on.

Incidentally, they make a lovely cappucino and they have these shortbread-caramel-chocolate cookie things that I could easily overdose on. They also have some fairly unusual furniture.

That is a chair. The best part of the cafe is the back room, which, now that I think about it, has a vaguely imperialist air... but let's not focus on that.

It struck me as a place that would be quite nice to write in, which would explain why Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall-Smith have also spent time there, although I would not recognize either of them if I tripped over an elephant and landed on them. But I'm sure they're lovely people. The back room has the added advantage of giving a view of Edinburgh Castle (to be covered in a later post).

I don't want to complain or anything, but the hose tower of the local town hall doesn't really compare to this, and I'm pretty sure that's the reason I haven't finished my novel yet. On the other hand, it might be difficult to write anything at all in the shadow of that monstrous temple to Walter Scott.

So there you have it: literary Edinburgh. About 4% of it, anyway. I was only there two days. And I could have talked about Dorothy Dunnett a whole lot more.


Maeve said...

The discrepancy between Scottish and American civic inscriptions is not all that surprising if you consider the etymologies of the respective ruling parties: senate (literally, a bunch of old men, so, validated by their seniority) and parliament (the act of talking). I think there's also something to be said for the relationship of each governing body to Great Britain -- indeed, the melancholic tone that you note in certain of the Scottish inscriptions might be understood as a subtle and subversive reference to independence never achieved.

I look forward to hearing more about Dorothy Dunnett!

Simon said...

Dear Maeve, OMG I MISS YOU. Fond regards, Simon.

simhedges said...

Nice travelogue. If you ever go back and want more lit stuff, Allan Foster does great literary tours of Edinburgh

You wouldn't believe the hassle of getting the words agreed for DD's stone at Lady Stairs Close. It was not allowed to be more than 15 words long, had to be in DD's own words (thus ruling out "no land uninhabitable, no sea unnavigable") and had to be approved by the Saltire society. We asked the membership of the Dorothy Dunnett Readers' Association (DDRA) for suggestions and picked the one the Saltire Society deemed acceptable.

Maeve said...

Ha ha, I miss you, too! But at least I get to read your blog.