The literary city of Edinburgh has its own, distinctive and well known, psychological profile. The relations between its various districts reveal it, as does the array of prospects with which the inhabitant or visitor is so often greeted. Stuart Kelly, in his book Scott-Land, has put it well:
The poet Hugh MacDiarmid referred to Edinburgh as a ‘mad god’s dream’. It exemplified antisyzygy, his preferred creative term, meaning a ‘zigzag of contradictions’… The Edinburgh I walk through each day is part Piranesi, part Peter Greenaway. I can’t tire of its soaring bridges that never cross water, its Tetris blocks of Gothic tenements framed in classical Palladian arches, its tug-of-war between secret vennels and stately locked doors.
Edinburgh’s centre is riven, bifurcated: on one hand, the vertiginous, overlapping, haphazard, medieval Old Town, and on the other, the geometric, unfolded, planned, neoclassical New Town.
This profile gives the city something like its own mental world, its own personality – a complicated one, naturally enough, perhaps even one in need of analysis or treatment, but a clear character. It’s almost like you can know the place as you know a person.
But at the same time the city has been imagined and rewritten by so many writers who have loomed almost as large in their readers’ minds as their books – Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark, Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, to name only some of the most prominent. These strong authorial personalities have drawn our attention, too, and coloured our sense of the city they animate in their writing. Part of the point of Palimpsest is to allow us to explore and compare the cityscapes of individual writers, as well as the way in which literary works cultivate the personality of the city as a whole.
So how good would it be if you could somehow come face to face with one of the most influential of these formative authors, whose depictions of the city established a precedent and example against which all their successors are measured? Well, a fantastic collaboration between Palimpsest, the UNESCO World City of Literature Trust and Artemis Scotland allowed us to try this experiment out before an enthusiastic audience at the Reading the City event, part of last month’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.
After reading some evocative extracts from works set in Edinburgh, James Robertson, one of the finest chroniclers of contemporary Scotland, had the chance to put a series of searching questions to Sir Walter Scott – who had unexpectedly returned from the beyond to mark the bicentenary of the publication of Waverley in 1814. Their exchange took in topics including the Edinburgh of Scott’s life and times, the nature of his celebrity, and (with a little poetic or historical licence) his views on the monument erected in his honour and the current debate around Scotland’s constitutional future. It was great to witness this interaction across two centuries of literary history, made all the more intriguing by the knowledge that James Robertson undertook a PhD on Scott some years ago!
Sir Walter enjoyed his time in Edinburgh so much that he’ll be returning to meet more of the city’s inhabitants and visitors at the Playfair Library in the University’s Old College during Edinburgh’s Doors Open Days on 27 and 28 September. And this time he’ll be accompanied by another of Scotland’s fine complement of nineteenth century authors, so make sure you don’t miss the chance to come face to face with a couple of the authors of this most literary of cities.
Sir Walter also took time out of his busy festival schedule to give Summerhall TV an exclusive interview on his take on modern Scotland and the upcoming Scottish Referendum:
- Add our next event to your schedule by heading to Doors Open Day website, then look for the Playfair library events and you’ll see our “Meet the Dead Author” sessions listed.
- Find out more about the Reading the City event, which was part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2014.
- Read Artemis Scotland Ltd’s blog post on Sir Walter’s appearance at the Book Festival.
- Read more about Waverley and other Scott works on the University of Edinburgh Walter Scott Digital Archive site.