Monthly articles (in French and English) on the theme "Querying orthodox economics"

No. 44 - August 2009

Memories of Edinburgh


A summer stroll

This August, let us forget for a moment our economic woes and take a stroll in the beautiful city of pre-Goodwin Edinburgh, where I spent many years at school and university and working in a stockbroking firm. In those days, Scotland did not yet have its own Parliament, but it still had its own stock exchange, the former Scottish Stock Exchange with a small trading floor in Glasgow.   

Edinburgh manifests in various ways the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France. The royal palace of Holyrood was rebuilt in the seventeenth century in good Louis XIV style. The famous New Town was built from 1767 onwards for the nobility and upper classes of the Age of Enlightenment, who no longer tolerated the gloom, congestion and squalor of the mediaeval Old Town, clinging to the skirts of the grandiose Castle, high in its rock. The New Town is vividly reminiscent of the gracious streets of eighteenth-century Bordeaux. The more recent Victorian buildings and park of Bruntsfield give this open, elegant quarter some resemblance to the Parisian Champ de Mars.

A city of Enlightenment

I well remember the Old Town, close to the University. It was then a repellent quarter, its buildings and its people decrepit, grimy and wretched. It was hard to imagine, despite the armorial bearings on certain walls, that this warren of filthy slums had once been home to the cream of Scottish society. The grandest families - the dukes  of Gordon and of Queensberry, the earls of Moray and of Eglinton, had their town houses or apartments here. Despite the fact that, in those days, pigs foraged freely in the streets - another similarity with old Paris. Miss Jane Maxwell, later Duchess of Gordon, is reported to have occasionally ridden through the High Street on the back of a sow. 

Many literary personalities lived in the Old Town; among others, the philosopher David Hume, the economist Adam Smith, Dr Johnson's biographer James Boswell. It was said of Adam Smith that, though he wrote with such clarity on the theory of commercial exchange, he was obliged to get a friend to buy his horse-corn for him.1 

Many much stranger tales are told of the Edinburgh personalities of that era. Susanna, dowager Countess of Eglinton, even when well over eighty, was renowned for her exceptional beauty; she explained that she never used make-up, but washed her face periodically with sow's milk. That was the least of her eccentricities. This refined and elegant lady appreciated ordinary rats as pets. She had a panel in the oak wainscot of her dining-room, which she tapped upon and opened at meal-times, when ten or twelve jolly rats came tripping forth and joined her at table. At a word of command...from her ladyship, they retired again obediently to their native obscurity.

A hard-drinking city

Trade flourished enormously between Leith (the port of Edinburgh) and Bordeaux, whose products were consumed with no moderation whatever. The Edinburgh publisher Robert Chambers, writing in 1824, during a relatively sober period, confessed himself  astonished: However difficult to be accounted for, there seems no room to doubt that deep drinking was compatible in many instances with good business talents, and even application...a famous counsel named Hay, who became a judge...was equally remarkable as a bacchanal and as a lawyer,3 and it was not so rare for such a 'bacchanal' to empty up to six bottles of claret in the course of an evening and night; which did not necessarily prevent him from presiding in Court the following morning, in the dignified capacity of a judge, and displaying all the gravity suitable to the character.

Even in the mid-twentieth century, this Scottish tradition had not entirely disappeared. When I studied economics at Edinburgh, in a lecture-room which was a disused Presbyterian church, still equipped with its organ, my professor was Alan Peacock; his predecessor was Alexander Gray, author of an excellent history of economic doctrine, also known as a poet and translator into Lowland Scots of Heine and other German poets. Peacock told a story about Gray, who had the habit, while lecturing, of frequently sipping water poured from a good-sized carafe. One day, the students filled his carafe with gin; in the course of his lecture, lasting rather less than an hour, Gray emptied the carafe with, it is said, no visible effects whatever.

Edinburgh as I remember it was certainly not short of bars. The long, narrow, dingy Rose Street (behind and parallel to Princes Street) was reckoned to have some thirty watering-holes; men boasted of pub-crawls with a drink in every one of them. Parallel to Rose Street is Thistle Street, with the rough Oxford Bar, which still exists in a more salubrious form. In those days it was kept by Willie Ross, an Aberdonian notorious for his rudeness to customers. One Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) I went there accompanied by two elegant ladies, who desired, in the Scottish spirit of the occasion, to visit this inelegant den. On seeing me enter with my fair friends, Willie barked: Take those women out of here! This did not mean that we had to leave the premises, simply that I had to take the ladies into a small, shabby room adjoining the bar, reserved for female customers and their escorts.

Divided bars

In those days, before the laws against sex discrimination, Ladies' Rooms were common in Scottish pubs. Women were not welcome in the main bar; they had to take refuge in a separate room, which might with luck be cosy and agreeable, but which generally had no bar; the barman came in to take orders. There was also, sometimes, a jug bar, a small compartment like a confessional, entered directly from the street, so that a woman could pop in to have her jug filled without entering the pub.

A pub like this was the small, charming King's Arms at Newhaven, a fishing port beside the big trading port of Leith. There, if one was lucky, one might encounter the famous musician Arthur Oldham, then choirmaster at the Catholic cathedral, later director of the Choeur de l'Orchestre de Paris. The cathedral choir under Oldham was excellent and renowned; unfortunately the organ was small and of poor quality. Happily, today the Cathedral has a far more adequate now organ, of English manufacture but somewhat French in style. 

The port of Leith

Leith was an independent town before 1920; it had its own system of tramways, electric with overhead wires, while Edinburgh stayed with its archaic cable-cars, hauled by steam-driven underground cables as in San Francisco, until the merger of the two municipalities. Leith also had a big railway terminus, far too grand for its purpose, which I remember as a 'ghost station' like the Gare d'Orsay before its conversion into the splendid museum we know today. Used in the film Trainspotters, Leith Central was a relic of the days (returning at last?) when every self-respecting town felt the need of an impressive railway station. 

In the 1950s, much of the area between Edinburgh and Leith retained a curious atmosphere of no-man's-land; a little-developed region with scattered rural houses, traversed by a curious meandering railway (the Caledonian New Leith Line), little used since its opening in 1903.

The former Leith town hall possessed a small theatre where one could even go to the opera. For opera in Edinburgh was not the sole province of the professional opera companies which arrived for the summer Festival or for occasional short seasons. There were two amateur societies which, with some professional help, put on operas every year. Little-known, but often very capable singers performed with them; Leith Town Hall was one of their favourite venues. These operas were often well worth seeing. The amateur societies could not afford pricey and perverse producers, so we were spared stages cluttered with wash-basins, radiators and suchlike absurdities.4

A formidable parson

To ccnclude, a quick visit to the beautiful St Paul's and St George's Church at York Place, at the east end of the New Town. This is a magnificent neo-gothic building, dating from 1818; Sir Walter Scott was one of its first benefactors. In the mid-seventies I sang in the small choir of this church; the rector was then Tom Veitch, a fine preacher who often spoke on the radio.

One Sunday, he was very angry over some graffitists who had scrawled on the outer walls of the church the words: Anarchy is freedom. Veitch was a man of imposing stature and stentorian voice. Anarchy is not freedom he thundered. For if we lived in a state of anarchy, there would be nothing to stop me from waylaying any of you people and robbing you of whatever you had on you of value. Because I'm bigger than any of you!   

That's Edinburgh, still a city of forceful personalities.

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1        Robert Chambers, Traditions of Edinburgh  [original edition 1824] (W & R Chambers, Edinburgh, 1949), page 319        

2        Ibid., page 198

3        Ibid., page 139

 4    The producer Krzysztof Warlikowski used, in his recent productions of Mozart's Iphigenia in Tauris, and of Parsifal, several modern washbasins. Graham Vick, former producer at Glyndebourne, made prominent use of cast-iron radiators, nineteen-thirties style, in Così  fan tutteDon Giovanni and The MArriage of Figaro.