Oct 142014

Every year Edinburgh holds an Open Doors weekend giving public access to some of the city’s most interesting buildings. With lots of venues presenting talks, tours and exhibitions, it’s a great opportunity to visit some exceptional spaces and learn about the history and culture of the city. This year Palimpsest took part, bringing our wonderful Walter Scott back to life again and this time providing him with a charming companion in the form of Mrs Margaret Oliphant, one of Edinburgh’s most prolific and, in her day, most popular authors.*

Scott and Oliphant in the Playfair Library

Scott and Oliphant in the Playfair Library

Sitting in the enormously grand Playfair Library, listening to Mrs Oliphant recount the details of her eventful life and share her opinions on everything from on Scott’s work to the place of women in society, it was immedately clear how people and personalities can change the way we experience a space. The normally cavernous room was animated as the actors talked and strolled around: watching them promenade together and greet visitors, you got a sudden sense of what the library must have been like when it was in use, a grand social space in which countless people would not only consult books and study but also people-watch, make acquaintances and converse with friends.  No longer museum-like, the library seemed to come to life again, restored to its original character.

Perhaps this is why visitors to Edinburgh seem to have been struck by the people of the city as much as by the its architecture and geography. Sifting through nineteenth-century travel narratives and memoirs as part of the data curation for the project, we’ve come across lots of accounts that stress the distinctive character of the Edinburghers. When the American traveller Henry Brevoort arrived in March 1813,** for example, he quickly penned a letter to his friend Washington Irving relating the sights of the Scottish capital with its “promenades crowded with rival belles” and “old Thebans with hats quaintly cocked and renowned soap-boilers with greasy aprons.” Although home to these colourful metropolitans, the city that he described was also a place of culture, with the university’s influence on civic life apparent in its “shops and libraries stored with the treasures of the learned” and its “walks along streams consecrated to the muses by the melody of verse.” Indeed, for Brevoort, Edinburgh’s grandest figure was William Playfair, after whom the Playfair library is named: “Prof: Playfair is decidedly the luminary of Edinburgh;” Brevoort writes, “he is universally beloved & looked up to, & is not less distinguished for the simplicity of his manners than by his genius & profound knowledge.”


The city was not only inhabited by the learned and the fashionable, however. Writing in the late Nineteenth Century, the soon-to-be novelist Margaretta Byrde found herself intrigued and touched by the city’s waifs and strays. In her 1898 article ‘Small People of the Pavement’*** she describes the antics of the Edinburgh’s street children who, when they are not engaged in the rather alarming “species of tobogganing which they much affect on the steeper streets”, are to be found taking on odd jobs to earn a penny for Sunday School. There is, she writes, “a wonderful reticence—it would perhaps sound ridiculous to term it delicacy in a mere street boy—about some of the Scotch lads” who strike her as more polite, more honourable and more intelligent than boys of other countries. They are also surprisingly learned: mistaken for a Salvation Army singer in the Cowgate, she finds herself surrounded by children demanding a song

humbly explaining that I was merely a tourist and unable to oblige the company, I further lowered myself in its esteem by asking if they knew who Sir Walter Scott was. I don’t know the Scottish equivalent for ‘rather’, but, had American boys been asked of they had ever heard of George Washington, their facial expression would have contained much the same blend of pity and contempt.

Byrde writes, she says, to give “honourable memory” to the easily forgotten children of the street: her small people, just like Brevoort’s Professor Playfair, are remarkable for their honesty and simplicity, their intelligence and their respect for learning and culture. The Playfair Library stands in memorial to the famous professor and exceptional figures like Scott and Oliphant are remembered by many, but as Byrde’s article reminds us (and as the thousands of accounts, memoirs and descriptions of Edinburgh that we have for our project also make readily apparent) it takes multitudes to create the particular atmosphere of a city.  The patterns created over time by these multiple voices and personalities is precisely what we’re trying to reveal with Palimpsest, but perhaps there’s scope to take our historic reanimations further: tobogganing down Castle Hill anyone?

 – Lisa Otty

* Scott and Oliphant were reanimated by Artemis Scotland.

**Letter from Henry Brevoort to Washington Irving March 1st 1813. Letters of Henry Brevoort to Washington Irving. P. 70 – 72.

*** Margaretta Byrde ‘Small People of the Pavement’ The Living Age (Boston) April-June 1898 pp. 532-35.

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