Book review: On Glasgow and Edinburgh by Robert Crawford

Hot sunny weather at Kelvingrove Museum. Picture: Robert Perry
Hot sunny weather at Kelvingrove Museum. Picture: Robert Perry
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THERE are four possible kinds of reader for this book, all of which will be charmed by its erudition and empathy: there are those who know neither city (for whom it should be an indispensable modern-day and literature-inflected version of a Baedeker; those who know one or the other to a greater or lesser extent; and those, like Crawford himself, who are more than acquainted with both.

On Glasgow and Edinburgh

By Robert Crawford

Belknap Harvard, 346pp, £20

As he writes as the end of the introduction, which establishes the history of the Glasgow-Edinburgh rivalry “I hope this book gives a necessarily partial but nonetheless rich sense of each entity, occasionally winking across at the other. To love these two places feels like bigamy. It is.”

That rivalry is a real as it is proverbial, and would not have attained the status of proverb were it not grounded in some exaggerated versions of reality.

To Glaswegians, Edinburgh is prim, puritanical (and therefore also hypocritical), and only has “half a street” as its main shopping thoroughfare. To Edinburgh residents, Glasgow’s gallus bonhomie conceals ulterior violence, so poor that all its riches are nouveaux and the late night train is dubbed “the Vomit Comet”.

Yet counterexamples to the stereotype are easily found. Edwin Muir, writing in his 1935 Scottish Journey said “During a fortnight’s stay in Edinburgh I did not get through a single evening without seeing at one example of outrageous or helpless drunkenness, and I had spent two years in London without coming across more than four or five”. Walter Scott – more an Edinburgh man than a Glasgow one, and more of a Borderer than either – leaves a wonderful portrait of Glasgow in Rob Roy, where “the massive and ancient bridge which stretches across the Clyde was not but dimly visible, and resembled that which Mirza, in his unequalled vision, has described as traversing the valley of Bagdad”, and Baillie Nicol Jarvie proclaims, “but for me, wha am a plain man, and ken something o’ the different values of land, I wadna gie the finest sight we hae seen in the Hielands, for the first keek o’ the Gorbals o’ Glasgow” – described in a footnote as a suburb, not a slum.

Crawford provides an acute diagnosis for the rivalry, to which the Act of Union is the crux. Edinburgh was a capital city, with the courtly, legal and ecclesiastical power structures that implies – and also cultural clout. James VI had attempted to legislate for Scottish poetic practice with his “Rewlis and Cautelis of Scottis Poetry”, forming his “Castalian Band” of courtly poets.

Although records are scant, it seems unlikely that the theatrical culture which survived the Reformation (John Knox saw a play by John Davidson about the Siege of Edinburgh in St Andrews in 1571) completely bypassed Edinburgh; and it may be that Philotus was staged there as well as printed. But the removal of the court to London fundamentally altered the capital’s pre-eminence. Neither the Kirk – often internally riven – nor the Law – increasingly specialised – could provide that standing after the parliamentary union of 1707, despite their individual status being guaranteed.

Moreover, Scotland’s separate legal and church systems meant those who achieved the highest offices in them had only a semi-detached relationship to their English counterparts. Glasgow, on the other hand, started to thrive after the Union. The opening of transatlantic and internally British markets meant that commerce created a new class of Glaswegian entrepreneurs, who certainly could compete and compare with their southern rivals.

The rise of the so-called Tobacco Lords, then the rapid industrialisation of Glasgow, meant that it, not Edinburgh, was the Second City of Empire. As large scale industry declined, and with Edinburgh’s cultural standing reignited by the International Festival, culture became the key fault-line of the rivalry: Edinburgh was Unesco’s first City of Literature, Glasgow became a City of Music; Edinburgh’s festivals have their counterparts in Celtic Connections, the Comedy Festival, Aye Write and an increasingly sophisticated and vibrant art scene; neither city can be wholly proud of their often stentorian marketing, whether it’s “Incredinburgh” or “Glasgow’s Miles Better”.

As someone who knows Edinburgh far better than Glasgow, I enjoyed Crawford’s Glaswegian chapters far more. He has a nuanced sense of the uneasy links between capitalist and colonial exploitation and acts of munificent public philanthropy. As well as the obvious candidates – the Burrell Collection, the Kibble Palace, the Citizen’s Theatre, Kelvingrove, the Cathedral – he has a fine eye for the subtle differences, such as the cosmopolitanism (and consequent feminisation) of the mercantile districts, linking Sauchiehall Street dress shops to the tea-rooms and Rennie Mackintosh designs; likewise, his interest in Glasgow radicalism provides some of the most intriguing parts of the book. His discussion of George Square and its public statuary would have made him an ideal consultant on the square’s redevelopment if the project had gone ahead.

The Edinburgh sections stay close to the “draughty parallelograms”, as Stevenson called them, of the New Town and the “mad God’s dream”, as MacDiarmid called it, of the Old Town. The national schizophrenia between the Jekyll of Charlotte Square and the Hyde of Canongate has perhaps allowed Edinburgh, and its chroniclers, to avoid the vast swathes of Edinburgh that don’t fit in with that picture, from the asylums of Morningside to the Edwardian tourism of Portobello. (It means by far my favourite city landmark goes unmentioned: the truly bizarre Craigentinny Marbles, looking over suburban bungalows like a fissure in the space-time continuum, and acting as a grave for the beardless, high-voiced, bibliophile bachelor and MP William Miller, buried beneath it in a lead coffin).

That said, Crawford does provide curious insights into parts of the city familiar to those who think they know it well. He is especially good on the Observatory, and its history before the intervention of the polymathic Patrick Geddes.

This is an unfailingly intelligent and sympathetic book. The publishers should consider a paperback sooner rather than later and see to it that airports and railway stations stock it rather than the touristic tat that seems to infest such places. It does, inadvertently, raise a different question. While London has been repeatedly trudged over by “psychogeographic” writers such as Peter Ackroyd, Will Self, Iphgenia Baal and the inimitable Iain Sinclair, neither of Scotland’s major cities has created a similar vein of literature. It is a most puzzling absence.