The Philosopher’s Toe: A Search for a New Edinburgh Enlightenment

Scotland is a bloody dark place in midwinter. So much so that our ancestors used to line up stuff with rocks so that the sun at solstice shone through a tiny gap. To be fair, there was a lot less on the telly in those days. Although they were probably rerunning Morecambe and Wise even then on the basis of it being ‘comic genius.’

Aaaaanyway. I’d read somewhere about the winter sunrise lining up with Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile, with fantastic results for photographers who got up early enough: I think it was in November. So, having taken Monday, 2nd January off, and it being a day of clear skies in between the successive rainstorms that the US’s bomb cyclone had sent across the Atlantic (who’s coming up with these dramatic weather phrases by the way? Last year it was thunder snow; now bomb cyclone; what next? Machine gun hail? Dynamite drizzle? Idiot Wind? Oh sorry, that last one’s a Dylan song title) I decided to get up early to see if I could get some shots.

Being a firm believer in breakfast as a concept, catching the sunrise means getting up at 7.15, in the pitch dark. There being few buses on the road, I choose to walk, leaving at the back of 8.00. Sunrise is slated as 8.43, meaning I’ll need to get a wiggle on to reach the High Street in time.

We live in Blackford, at the foot of a volcano which had its sides scraped by a glacier: in fact, the next volcano along if you go southwards from the Castle Rock (see previous 7 Hills blogs, passim). This means my walk starts with a climb, over the long-culverted Pow Burn and the still-there South Suburban Line (currently goods trains only).

The first lot of housing I pass through is the Grange, containing some of the primest real estate in Scotland. Robert Louis Stevenson was a bit sniffy about it, describing it as the ‘Villa Quarter.’ Personally I have no problem with the original Victorian villas. even if I’d have to rob several banks to afford one: it’s the awful extensions people have subsequently stuck on them, destroying the symmetry, that gets up my nose.

across the Meadows towards the Quartermile

Just over ten minutes’ hard walking takes you to the crest of the hill, where the Grange gives way to Marchmont, the area now populated by academics and students whose mummies and daddies either rob banks or own them. Originally for the lower middle class bookkeepers and clerks needed to run the city in the late Victorian/early Edwardian period, it’s now a thoroughly gentrified square mile or so of tenement living. It’s a very pleasant place for a cup of coffee or the Amnesty bookshop. I think Stevenson had left town by the time it was being built, so he didn’t have time to be sniffy about it.

I’m chasing the sunrise. A few weeks ago, walking home from Newington, I saw the sunset rapidly descending on the hill, and hurried to get some shots in the crimson light of it. I thought of calling my next album ‘chasing the sunset,’ but it sounded a bit depressing, like I was hurtling towards the darkness. Now, I think about a line in a song that talks about chasing both ends of the day. It come to nothing. John Prine probably thought of it already.

Marchmont is separated from the Old Town by the Meadows, one of Edinburgh’s major central parks which, despite the name, is tamed and manicured to the extent that cricket is amongst the many sports and recreations carried out there (barbecuing being another main one in the summer). I pause there to take my first photo: Arthur’s Seat, the sleeping giant, to the east, clad only in the faintest glow. It looks like the dawn is waiting for me – is that the ultimate narcissism, I wonder, thinking the sun’s progress round the planet can be delayed for one’s own narrow ends?

Which gets me thinking about prayer, as I walk on. Isn’t it a bit self-centred to think S/He is only listening to your personal requests, when, assuming all major religions are offering different brands of the same product, there could be 8 billion supplications in the system? I mean, it’s surprising really that by now Heaven’s not installed an automated reply: ‘Your prayer is very important to us. Please stay on the line and a Celestial Account Manager will be with you shortly. If you are praying for world peace, please note that our engineers are in your area and are trying to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.’

It’s not like all my early morning thoughts add up to much once they’ve left my head.

At the other end of the Meadows, another slope up towards the Forrest Road area, the now parkland having historically been a loch and then, once partially drained, meadows. It’s a moot point where the South Side begins and ends, but for me it’s probably here, at the foundations of the old city walls. From there, it’s a short step along George IV Bridge – one of the great pieces of engineering spanning the valleys on either side of the Castle Rock and its Royal-Mile long tail – to the Mile itself.

I cross close to the historical site of the market cross of Edinburgh, where an Englishman who lived there for a couple of years said he could stand and ‘in a few minutes take 50 men of genius and learning by the hand.’ That was during the first Edinburgh Enlightenment, of course, in the late 1700s, when a remarkable amount of top quality thinking – and drinking – was done, by Scots of both genders as well as people from abroad, attracted by the intellectual ferment that was going on in amongst the port barrels.

Will that ever happen again? No doubt various Edinburgh types would argue that we currently lead the world in this, that and the other, but I don’t think anyone really believes that specific, cross-disciplinary, moment of magic can happen again. But still, we’ll always have David Hume.

I’ll post some other time on the ongoing debate about Hume and his ‘links’ to slavery, as well as the infamous Tower formerly named after him, but for now I take a moment to rub his statue’s toe for wisdom. You can get luck at the other end of George IV Bridge by rubbing Greyfriars Bobby’s nose. However, for wisdom, Humey is your man.

But, having got here, where’s the dawn? In the distance, between the buildings, looking east, there is a brightening of the sky. However, the sun itself is nowhere to be seen. Am I too late – or too early? Slowly walking down the High Street, I see some shots worth taking, but no great yellow ball in the sky. Maybe I should have been here in November, or presumably February will give the same opportunity.

The place is quiet: the only sounds Ryanair cabin-sized suitcase wheels rattling on the cobblestones as people head back to Waverley Station or the airport bus after the Hogmanay celebrations. It feels very much like moving out day, with most businesses still closed. In fact, it feels like Edinburgh on a Sunday in times past, before this place acquired bustle and self-confidence and a cosmopolitan year-round population. Even Sundays in the early Eighties, when I first moved here as a student, seemed that way. At least viewed through a hangover.

Giving up on seeing the sun rise at the foot of the Mile, I head up South Bridge, then take a left at Drummond Street, where there are more echoes of Stevenson, who wrote about it long after he’d left Scotland behind for the South Seas. His favourite watering hole, Rutherford’s, is long gone: there’s a window inscription claiming both him and Arthur Conan Doyle as regulars, although the plaque nearby is all about RLS. He actually said he wanted a plaque there, ‘for all students to read, poor devils, when their hearts are down.’ It took the Council just over 100 years to put it up.

These words touch me. I was one of these poor devils, after all, wondering as a student (almost exactly 100 years on) whether I would ever find a woman to put up with me, just as he had. Stevenson was a reluctant law student and didn’t last long at the Bar; just about long enough to get his portrait painted in full robes. Years later, consulting with an advocate on a tough case for my employers, I looked up in the consulting rooms and saw Louis looking down on me, and knew it was going to turn out all right (the kindly brief, on hearing of my RLS fanboydom, arranged all subsequent consultations in the same room).

Chewing on all of this, I take a photo of the imposing bulk of the Roxburgh Hall, scene of many of my exams, and then, as if someone had whispered my name, turn back to see the dome of Old College lit up in a morning glow. Wherever the sun is, it’s hit the oldest part of the Uni – where the law faculty has been since Stevenson’s day, and where I studied – and chosen to enlighten it for me. More narcissism, of course.

I move on, down to the Pleasance, hoping to catch glimpses of Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags in the side streets. The sun is now clearly up somewhere, but hidden by all the tall buildings. No luck – and then, rounding the curve that leads to the Commonwealth Pool, my ultimate destination this morning, I see it. The Scottish Widows building is aflame.

Actually, that would probably be doing the current owners a favour – the iconic structure is A-listed, which means nothing at all can happen to it unless Historic Scotland say it can. That often means nothing happens to buildings for a long time, although I do see there’s now a planning application in to keep some of the exterior and then build 7-storey blocks of flats behind it.

It’s a long time since students of my generation disported themselves in the fishpond that formed a key part of the place’s appeal – it was on the route back to Pollock Halls of Residence after an evening’s drinking.

At last, the sun – although, despite it being only 9 o’clock, it appears scudding round to the south, staying low, racing to get its day’s shift over. On the way back from the gym, I go past the flat in West Newington Place I stayed in for two years as a student: my first encounter with the South Side. For decades after I used to dream of the land to the south of Newington as it was when still a village slowly being assimilated into the city: fields of corn lay beyond it, in my dreams at least. Now I live where those fields were.

In the gym, the focus is more on physical improvement than wisdom acquisition: a mixed bunch in every sense, grunting and heaving at free weights or trying to set fire to calories on various machines. No sign of David Hume, or indeed RLS.

No plaque on the wall of the West Newington Place flat, I note.




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