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    Chapter 6

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    Chapter 6
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    NEW TOWN - TOWN AND COUNTRY.

    IT is as much a matter of course to decry the New
    Town as to exalt the Old; and the most celebrated
    authorities have picked out this quarter as the very
    emblem of what is condemnable in architecture. Much may
    be said, much indeed has been said, upon the text; but to
    the unsophisticated, who call anything pleasing if it
    only pleases them, the New Town of Edinburgh seems, in
    itself, not only gay and airy, but highly picturesque.
    An old skipper, invincibly ignorant of all theories of
    the sublime and beautiful, once propounded as his most
    radiant notion for Paradise: 'The new town of Edinburgh,
    with the wind a matter of a point free.' He has now gone
    to that sphere where all good tars are promised pleasant
    weather in the song, and perhaps his thoughts fly
    somewhat higher. But there are bright and temperate days
    - with soft air coming from the inland hills, military
    music sounding bravely from the hollow of the gardens,
    the flags all waving on the palaces of Princes Street -
    when I have seen the town through a sort of glory, and
    shaken hands in sentiment with the old sailor. And
    indeed, for a man who has been much tumbled round
    Orcadian skerries, what scene could be more agreeable to
    witness? On such a day, the valley wears a surprising
    air of festival. It seems (I do not know how else to put
    my meaning) as if it were a trifle too good to be true.
    It is what Paris ought to be. It has the scenic quality
    that would best set off a life of unthinking, open-air
    diversion. It was meant by nature for the realisation of
    the society of comic operas. And you can imagine, if the
    climate were but towardly, how all the world and his wife
    would flock into these gardens in the cool of the
    evening, to hear cheerful music, to sip pleasant drinks,
    to see the moon rise from behind Arthur's Seat and shine
    upon the spires and monuments and the green tree-tops in
    the valley. Alas! and the next morning the rain is
    splashing on the windows, and the passengers flee along
    Princes Street before the galloping squalls.

    It cannot be denied that the original design was
    faulty and short-sighted, and did not fully profit by the
    capabilities of the situation. The architect was
    essentially a town bird, and he laid out the modern city
    with a view to street scenery, and to street scenery
    alone. The country did not enter into his plan; he had
    never lifted his eyes to the hills. If he had so chosen,
    every street upon the northern slope might have been a
    noble terrace and commanded an extensive and beautiful
    view. But the space has been too closely built; many of
    the houses front the wrong way, intent, like the Man with
    the Muck-Rake, on what is not worth observation, and
    standing discourteously back-foremost in the ranks; and,
    in a word, it is too often only from attic-windows, or
    here and there at a crossing, that you can get a look
    beyond the city upon its diversified surroundings. But
    perhaps it is all the more surprising, to come suddenly
    on a corner, and see a perspective of a mile or more of
    falling street, and beyond that woods and villas, and a
    blue arm of sea, and the hills upon the farther side.

    Fergusson, our Edinburgh poet, Burns's model, once
    saw a butterfly at the Town Cross; and the sight inspired
    him with a worthless little ode. This painted country
    man, the dandy of the rose garden, looked far abroad in
    such a humming neighbourhood; and you can fancy what
    moral considerations a youthful poet would supply. But
    the incident, in a fanciful sort of way, is
    characteristic of the place. Into no other city does the
    sight of the country enter so far; if you do not meet a
    butterfly, you shall certainly catch a glimpse of far-
    away trees upon your walk; and the place is full of
    theatre tricks in the way of scenery. You peep under an
    arch, you descend stairs that look as if they would land
    you in a cellar, you turn to the back-window of a grimy
    tenement in a lane:- and behold! you are face-to-face
    with distant and bright prospects. You turn a corner,
    and there is the sun going down into the Highland hills.
    You look down an alley, and see ships tacking for the
    Baltic.

    For the country people to see Edinburgh on her hill-
    tops, is one thing; it is another for the citizen, from
    the thick of his affairs, to overlook the country. It
    should be a genial and ameliorating influence in life; it
    should prompt good thoughts and remind him of Nature's
    unconcern: that he can watch from day to day, as he trots
    officeward, how the Spring green brightens in the wood or
    the field grows black under a moving ploughshare. I have
    been tempted, in this connexion, to deplore the slender
    faculties of the human race, with its penny-whistle of a
    voice, its dull cars, and its narrow range of sight. If
    you could see as people are to see in heaven, if you had
    eyes such as you can fancy for a superior race, if you
    could take clear note of the objects of vision, not only
    a few yards, but a few miles from where you stand:- think
    how agreeably your sight would be entertained, how
    pleasantly your thoughts would be diversified, as you
    walked the Edinburgh streets! For you might pause, in
    some business perplexity, in the midst of the city
    traffic, and perhaps catch the eye of a shepherd as he
    sat down to breathe upon a heathery shoulder of the
    Pentlands; or perhaps some urchin, clambering in a
    country elm, would put aside the leaves and show you his
    flushed and rustic visage; or a fisher racing seawards,
    with the tiller under his elbow, and the sail sounding in
    the wind, would fling you a salutation from between
    Anst'er and the May.

    To be old is not the same thing as to be
    picturesque; nor because the Old Town bears a strange
    physiognomy, does it at all follow that the New Town
    shall look commonplace. Indeed, apart from antique
    houses, it is curious how much description would apply
    commonly to either. The same sudden accidents of ground,
    a similar dominating site above the plain, and the same
    superposition of one rank of society over another, are to
    be observed in both. Thus, the broad and comely approach
    to Princes Street from the east, lined with hotels and
    public offices, makes a leap over the gorge of the Low
    Calton; if you cast a glance over the parapet, you look
    direct into that sunless and disreputable confluent of
    Leith Street; and the same tall houses open upon both
    thoroughfares. This is only the New Town passing
    overhead above its own cellars; walking, so to speak,
    over its own children, as is the way of cities and the
    human race. But at the Dean Bridge, you may behold a
    spectacle of a more novel order. The river runs at the
    bottom of a deep valley, among rocks and between gardens;
    the crest of either bank is occupied by some of the most
    commodious streets and crescents in the modern city; and
    a handsome bridge unites the two summits. Over this,
    every afternoon, private carriages go spinning by, and
    ladies with card-cases pass to and fro about the duties
    of society. And yet down below, you may still see, with
    its mills and foaming weir, the little rural village of
    Dean. Modern improvement has gone overhead on its high-
    level viaduct; and the extended city has cleanly
    overleapt, and left unaltered, what was once the summer
    retreat of its comfortable citizens. Every town embraces
    hamlets in its growth; Edinburgh herself has embraced a
    good few; but it is strange to see one still surviving -
    and to see it some hundreds of feet below your path. Is
    it Torre del Greco that is built above buried
    Herculaneum? Herculaneum was dead at least; but the sun
    still shines upon the roofs of Dean; the smoke still
    rises thriftily from its chimneys; the dusty miller comes
    to his door, looks at the gurgling water, hearkens to the
    turning wheel and the birds about the shed, and perhaps
    whistles an air of his own to enrich the symphony - for
    all the world as if Edinburgh were still the old
    Edinburgh on the Castle Hill, and Dean were still the
    quietest of hamlets buried a mile or so in the green
    country.

    It is not so long ago since magisterial David Hume
    lent the authority of his example to the exodus from the
    Old Town, and took up his new abode in a street which is
    still (so oddly may a jest become perpetuated) known as
    Saint David Street. Nor is the town so large but a
    holiday schoolboy may harry a bird's nest within half a
    mile of his own door. There are places that still smell
    of the plough in memory's nostrils. Here, one had heard
    a blackbird on a hawthorn; there, another was taken on
    summer evenings to eat strawberries and cream; and you
    have seen a waving wheatfield on the site of your present
    residence. The memories of an Edinburgh boy are but
    partly memories of the town. I look back with delight on
    many an escalade of garden walls; many a ramble among
    lilacs full of piping birds; many an exploration in
    obscure quarters that were neither town nor country; and
    I think that both for my companions and myself, there was
    a special interest, a point of romance, and a sentiment
    as of foreign travel, when we hit in our excursions on
    the butt-end of some former hamlet, and found a few
    rustic cottages embedded among streets and squares. The
    tunnel to the Scotland Street Station, the sight of the
    trains shooting out of its dark maw with the two guards
    upon the brake, the thought of its length and the many
    ponderous edifices and open thoroughfares above, were
    certainly things of paramount impressiveness to a young
    mind. It was a subterranean passage, although of a
    larger bore than we were accustomed to in Ainsworth's
    novels; and these two words, 'subterreanean passage,'
    were in themselves an irresistible attraction, and seemed
    to bring us nearer in spirit to the heroes we loved and
    the black rascals we secretly aspired to imitate. To
    scale the Castle Rock from West Princes Street Gardens,
    and lay a triumphal hand against the rampart itself, was
    to taste a high order of romantic pleasure. And there
    are other sights and exploits which crowd back upon my
    mind under a very strong illumination of remembered
    pleasure. But the effect of not one of them all will
    compare with the discoverer's joy, and the sense of old
    Time and his slow changes on the face of this earth, with
    which I explored such corners as Cannonmills or Water
    Lane, or the nugget of cottages at Broughton Market.
    They were more rural than the open country, and gave a
    greater impression of antiquity than the oldest LAND upon
    the High Street. They too, like Fergusson's butterfly,
    had a quaint air of having wandered far from their own
    place; they looked abashed and homely, with their gables
    and their creeping plants, their outside stairs and
    running mill-streams; there were corners that smelt like
    the end of the country garden where I spent my Aprils;
    and the people stood to gossip at their doors, as they
    might have done in Colinton or Cramond.

    In a great measure we may, and shall, eradicate this
    haunting flavour of the country. The last elm is dead in
    Elm Row; and the villas and the workmen's quarters spread
    apace on all the borders of the city. We can cut down
    the trees; we can bury the grass under dead paving-
    stones; we can drive brisk streets through all our sleepy
    quarters; and we may forget the stories and the
    playgrounds of our boyhood. But we have some possessions
    that not even the infuriate zeal of builders can utterly
    abolish and destroy. Nothing can abolish the hills,
    unless it be a cataclysm of nature which shall subvert
    Edinburgh Castle itself and lay all her florid structures
    in the dust. And as long as we have the hills and the
    Firth, we have a famous heritage to leave our children.
    Our windows, at no expense to us, are most artfully
    stained to represent a landscape. And when the Spring
    comes round, and the hawthorns begin to flower, and the
    meadows to smell of young grass, even in the thickest of
    our streets, the country hilltops find out a young man's
    eyes, and set his heart beating for travel and pure air.
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