Feb 272015

Miguel A. Nacenta – http://nacenta.com

We conventionally describe our world as 4-dimensional. The three dimensions of space (left-right, forward-backward, up-down, or any hybrids of these) and time. Although this simple Euclidean way to think about the world is useful and practical, it does not quite correspond with how we, as humans perceive the world.

The human perception of the world is still largely spatial, but different in many ways. In terms of evolution, it was important for us to remember where we found food last time, or what was a safe spot for us to sleep. Nevertheless, our representations of the world are not accurate, and rather than being based on an intrinsically existing space, they are based on the creation of links and connections between places, landmarks, events, milestones… In other words, our internal experience of the world is not objective and static, but rather a network of subjective relationships of what matters to us, somewhat loosely connected to a sense of space and distance.

Although it might seem that these less accurate way of seeing and representing the world is inferior, and we perhaps should direct our efforts to make people be able to perceive the world as accurately as possible, in my opinion it is better to think about how to take advantage of the flexibility, ambiguity, and connectedness of our natural perceptions of space. In my own research I take advantage of this ambiguity by making non-linear deformations of space useful and easy to do (see http://transmogrifiers.org and the image below), and by trying to understand better how people perceive space in flat and non-flat digital representations (http://bit.ly/nacenta_research).


The Palimpsest project is an important contribution to this endeavour to break and mix the repositories of knowledge that have traditionally kept space on one side and people’s experience of the city (in this case, literature) on the other. Palimpsest will help us relate the space of the city to the more human and more complex collective experience of literature in the city and, importantly, to perceive it across time. It has a tremendous potential to open up new areas of inquiry that come from both the sciences and the arts.

Jan 212015

Elspeth Jajdelska, University of Strathclyde

salisbury crags 2

Salisbury Crags is a ridge of rock on one side of Edinburgh’s mountain, Arthur’s Seat. In the late eighteenth century, Edinburgh scientist James Hutton, known later as the ‘Father of Geology’, used the Crags to develop his theory of the earth as an ancient system of heat and rock in constant (if slow) change. This was a radical departure from the idea of the earth as created in seven days some few thousand years ago. Hutton’s account had its own poetry – ‘we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’ – but his description of the Crags themselves is detached and factual: ‘These masses of whinstone are from three or four to an hundred feet thick, running parallel in planes inclined to the horizon’ (Theory of the Earth, vol.1, 1795).

Charles Darwin recorded one visit to the Crags in both human and geological time. In a letter to his cousin, he mentioned that ‘a solitary walk on Salisbury crags’ had called up ‘old thoughts of former times’ as a medical student in the city. But in his field notes he describes the crags in the language of geology.

Hutton’s discoveries had surprisingly little impact on literary descriptions. The late eighteenth century had already seen a shift in feelings about mountains. In the 1690s, the Leeds diarist Ralph Thoresby had described mountains as hazards, ‘dangerous, terrible and tedious’, hellish enemies of man, which could be tamed by God alone, breaking them with ‘earthquakes and tempests’ (Diary of Ralph Thoresby).

Walter Scott, however, followed the taste of the romantics, for whom mountains were sublime and even gothic. In The Heart of Midlothianhe writes that, ‘The valley behind Salisbury Crags…has for a background the north-western shoulder of the mountain called Arthur’s Seat, on whose descent still remain the ruins of what was once a chapel, or hermitage, dedicated to St. Anthony the Eremite. A better site for such a building could hardly have been selected; for the chapel, situated among the rude and pathless cliffs, lies in a desert’.

Hutton’s findings were easily incorporated into this romantic view of the Crags. William Hazlitt wrote of them as the work of Nature the artist, operating at a scale beyond human capacity: ‘No imagination can toss and tumble about huge heaps of earth as the ocean in its fury can. A volcano is more potent to rend rocks asunder than the most splashing pencil’ (from The Elgin Marbles).

Jul 182014

Elizabeth Elliot, University of Aberdeen 

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In 1912, the Synod Hall in Edinburgh’s Old Town became the stage for a remarkable revival of the medieval tradition of civic drama. Around 650 participants collaborated on a performance of the Masque of Learning in celebration of the foundation of University Hall as a community bringing students, lecturers, and artisans into a productive association of ‘town and gown’. Its success saw a revival in revised and expanded form as the twinned Masque of Ancient Learning and Masque of Medieval and Modern Learning, performed in Edinburgh and London. Like University Hall, the Masques were devised by Patrick Geddes, reflecting his conviction that ‘there is no subject of study into which dramatisation, historical and other, cannot brighteningly be introduced’. These elaborate ‘silent or almost wordless’ performances, whose content is outlined in Geddes’ Dramatisations of History (1923), present a series of ‘characteristic scenes illustrative of the progress of culture, and of the history of education’. Marking what Geddes provocatively terms ‘an attempt to shadow forth the long Mystery-Play of the Ascent of Man’, the Masques conclude with the present and future, as the University and the City unite in the Procession of the Torch of Learning. Again, Geddes conceives this scene in terms derived from early drama:

a veritable Mystery Play, presented by the University for the enlightenment of the citizen. But thereafter appears its complement, correspondingly a veritable Morality Play, presented by the City for the edification of the scholar. For whatever his superiority over the citizen in actual attainment, whatever his pride of past tradition, does he not need to be reminded, now as of old, that well-nigh each great step in the progress of culture arises with the growth of the City?

Geddes’ question reflects his conception of the city as ‘the organ of human evolution’, playing a creative role as the embodiment of a community’s history, ‘selecting and blending memories of the past with experiences of the present and hopes for the future’. The public drama of Geddes’ Masques is a logical extension of his claim that ‘a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time’. As the collective performance of a community, Geddes’ Masques are in sympathy with the tradition of civic drama associated with the feast of Corpus Christi. The medieval play cycles of towns such as York and Coventry gave expression to the identity of a community at the specific moment of their performance; the Edinburgh productions of Geddes’ Masques articulate and produce the particular community at University Hall. As self-conscious engagements with history, the Masques extend and reinforce Geddes’ work of urban regeneration in the Old Town: they are dramatic counterparts to the camera obscura housed in his Outlook Tower, which Geddes valued as a means to nurture the reflection on the past essential to human evolution. Like the Palimpsest project itself, Geddes’ work sought to provide multiple perspectives on the city, celebrating and contributing to the imaginative and physical strata of Edinburgh.

Records of the Masques are held amongst the Patrick Geddes papers at the University of Strathclyde.

Jun 192014

Paul Barnaby, Walter Scott Digital Archive

“This, then, is Edinburgh?” said the youth, as the fellow-travellers arrived at one of the heights to the southward, which commanded a view of the great northern capital—”This is that Edinburgh of which we have heard so much!”

0030011: ‘The Heart of Midlothian’, pencil drawing by James Skene (1829) (Corson MSS)

‘The Heart of Midlothian’, pencil drawing by James Skene (1829) (Corson MSS)

Roland Graeme, page to Mary Queen of Scots in The Abbot (1820), is one of many Scott heroes dazzled by a first glimpse of Scotland’s capital. Awed by the ‘extreme height of the houses’, ‘the variety of Gothic gables and battlements, and balconies’, and the population swarming ‘like bees on the wide and stately street’, he descends the Royal Mile to Holyroodhouse where he is received by the Regent Murray. Graeme follows in the footsteps of Edward Waverley, who is presented to Charles Edward Stewart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) at the same site, no longer ‘an irregular pile of monastic buildings’ but a ‘modern palace’. Waverley’s own first vision of Edinburgh is the Castle wreathed in gun smoke, as the garrison fires upon the invading Highlanders. He later traverses the ‘mean and dirty suburbs’ of the Canongate (a refuge for debters in Chronicles of the Canongate (1827)) to watch the Jacobite Army gather in Holyrood Park before the Battle of Prestonpans.

The fullest portrayal of Edinburgh in Scott’s fiction is, of course, The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818), with its vivid pictures of the Old Tolbooth, Parliament House, the Grassmarket, St Leonard’s, and St Anthony’s Chapel. The capital, however, figures prominently throughout the Waverley Novels. In The Antiquary (1816), Edinburgh is again in a ‘military frenzy’, the threat of French invasion driving its citizens ‘mad—irretrievably frantic—far beyond dipping in the sea, shaving the crown, or drinking hellebore’. Guy Mannering (1815) commemorates the legendary Clerihugh’s Tavern in Writers’ Court, where the advocate Paul Pleydell entertains his clients,  as ‘a sort of Pandemonium, where men and women, half undressed, were busied in baking, broiling, roasting oysters, and preparing devils on the gridiron’.

Redgauntlet (1824), in particular, revisits the scenes of Scott’s childhood. Darsie Latimer and Alan Fairford evoke schoolboy battles in High School Wynd, scaling Cowgate Port to pelt passers-by with snowballs, and describe ‘being carried home, in compassion, by some high-kilted fishwife’ after wading out of their depth at Leith Sands. It also portrays the city’s professional classes deserting the overcrowded High Street. On medical advice, Fairford’s father relocates to the newly built Brown Square, with its elegant ‘self-contained’ houses, although ‘leaving his old apartments in the Luckenbooths was to him like divorcing the soul from the body’. Edinburgh features even in the London-set The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), as the expat Scot Richie Moniplies remains stubbornly unimpressed by the English capital:

“The Thames!” exclaimed Richie, in a tone of ineffable contempt—”God bless your honour’s judgment, we have at Edinburgh the Water-of-Leith and the Nor-loch!”

‘The March of the Highlanders’, engraved by Thomas Higham after J. M. W. Turner (1836) (Corson P.3613)

‘The March of the Highlanders’, engraved by Thomas Higham after J. M. W. Turner (1836) (Corson P.3613)

Edinburgh University Library’s Corson Collection of Sir Walter Scott materials, comprising nearly 7,000 books and 10,000 artworks, contains many engravings of Edinburgh scenes, illustrating or inspired by Scott’s novels. Many document vanished streets and buildings, including the Old Tolbooth and Guard House (sketched by Scott’s friend James Skene of Rubislaw) and Brown Square itself (demolished to build George IV Bridge and Chambers Street). Others are gloriously anachronistic, like J.M.W. Turner’s ‘The March of the Highlanders’ which shows the Jacobite army crossing the North Bridge from Calton Hill. Neither the bridge nor any of the New Town buildings portrayed existed in 1745. (Scott accurately portrays the army filing through Holyrood Park to Duddingston Village.)

Illustrations to The Heart of Mid-Lothian reflect the strangely dilated geography of that novel, where Holyrood Park and the ‘secluded cottage’ at St Leonard’s are so far from Mrs Saddletree’s shop in the High Street, that Jeanie and Effie spend months without seeing each other.

'St Anthony's Chapel, Salisbury Crags', engraved by Robert Staines after Henry Melville (1836) (Corson P.2938)'

‘St Anthony’s Chapel, Salisbury Crags’, engraved by Robert Staines after Henry Melville (1836) (Corson P.2938)’

Digital copies of these engravings can be accessed on the Edinburgh University Library website, the Walter Scott Digital Archive. Some can also be seen in ‘Waverley 200’, an exhibition marking the bicentenary of Scott’s first novel in the Centre of Research Collections, Edinburgh University Library. The exhibition also features many rare items from the Corson Collection, including presentation copies of the first edition of Waverley, French and Italian translations, a chapbook abridgement, and a popular theatrical adaptation. The exhibition is open to the public, Monday to Friday 9 am to 5 pm, until 2 July 2014. Do come along and see the collection for yourselves!