Edinburgh Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson

THE ancient and famous metropolis of the North sits
overlooking a windy estuary from the slope and summit of
three hills. No situation could be more commanding for
the head city of a kingdom; none better chosen for noble
prospects. From her tall precipice and terraced gardens
she looks far and wide on the sea and broad champaigns.
To the east you may catch at sunset the spark of the May
lighthouse, where the Firth expands into the German
Ocean; and away to the west, over all the carse of
Stirling, you can see the first snows upon Ben Ledi.

But Edinburgh pays cruelly for her high seat in one
of the vilest climates under heaven. She is liable to be
beaten upon by all the winds that blow, to be drenched
with rain, to be buried in cold sea fogs out of the east,
and powdered with the snow as it comes flying southward
from the Highland hills. The weather is raw and
boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and
a downright meteorological purgatory in the spring. The
delicate die early, and I, as a survivor, among bleak
winds and plumping rain, have been sometimes tempted to
envy them their fate. For all who love shelter and the
blessings of the sun, who hate dark weather and perpetual
tilting against squalls, there could scarcely be found a
more unhomely and harassing place of residence. Many
such aspire angrily after that Somewhere-else of the
imagination, where all troubles are supposed to end.
They lean over the great bridge which joins the New Town
with the Old - that windiest spot, or high altar, in this
northern temple of the winds - and watch the trains
smoking out from under them and vanishing into the tunnel
on a voyage to brighter skies. Happy the passengers who
shake off the dust of Edinburgh, and have heard for the
last time the cry of the east wind among her chimney-
tops! And yet the place establishes an interest in
people's hearts; go where they will, they find no city of
the same distinction; go where they will, they take a
pride in their old home.

Venice, it has been said, differs from another
cities in the sentiment which she inspires. The rest may
have admirers; she only, a famous fair one, counts lovers
in her train. And, indeed, even by her kindest friends,
Edinburgh is not considered in a similar sense. These
like her for many reasons, not any one of which is
satisfactory in itself. They like her whimsically, if
you will, and somewhat as a virtuoso dotes upon his
cabinet. Her attraction is romantic in the narrowest
meaning of the term. Beautiful as she is, she is not so
much beautiful as interesting. She is pre-eminently
Gothic, and all the more so since she has set herself off
with some Greek airs, and erected classic temples on her
crags. In a word, and above all, she is a curiosity.
The Palace of Holyrood has been left aside in the growth
of Edinburgh, and stands grey and silent in a workman's
quarter and among breweries and gas works. It is a house
of many memories. Great people of yore, kings and
queens, buffoons and grave ambassadors, played their
stately farce for centuries in Holyrood. Wars have been
plotted, dancing has lasted deep into the night, - murder
has been done in its chambers. There Prince Charlie held
his phantom levees, and in a very gallant manner
represented a fallen dynasty for some hours. Now, all
these things of clay are mingled with the dust, the
king's crown itself is shown for sixpence to the vulgar;
but the stone palace has outlived these charges. For
fifty weeks together, it is no more than a show for
tourists and a museum of old furniture; but on the fifty-
first, behold the palace reawakened and mimicking its
past. The Lord Commissioner, a kind of stage sovereign,
sits among stage courtiers; a coach and six and
clattering escort come and go before the gate; at night,
the windows are lighted up, and its near neighbours, the
workmen, may dance in their own houses to the palace
music. And in this the palace is typical. There is a
spark among the embers; from time to time the old volcano
smokes. Edinburgh has but partly abdicated, and still
wears, in parody, her metropolitan trappings. Half a
capital and half a country town, the whole city leads a
double existence; it has long trances of the one and
flashes of the other; like the king of the Black Isles,
it is half alive and half a monumental marble. There are
armed men and cannon in the citadel overhead; you may see
the troops marshalled on the high parade; and at night
after the early winter even-fall, and in the morning
before the laggard winter dawn, the wind carries abroad
over Edinburgh the sound of drums and bugles. Grave
judges sit bewigged in what was once the scene of
imperial deliberations. Close by in the High Street
perhaps the trumpets may sound about the stroke of noon;
and you see a troop of citizens in tawdry masquerade;
tabard above, heather-mixture trowser below, and the men
themselves trudging in the mud among unsympathetic by-
standers. The grooms of a well-appointed circus tread
the streets with a better presence. And yet these are
the Heralds and Pursuivants of Scotland, who are about to
proclaim a new law of the United Kingdom before two-score
boys, and thieves, and hackney-coachmen. Meanwhile every
hour the bell of the University rings out over the hum of
the streets, and every hour a double tide of students,
coming and going, fills the deep archways. And lastly,
one night in the springtime - or say one morning rather,
at the peep of day - late folk may hear voices of many
men singing a psalm in unison from a church on one side
of the old High Street; and a little after, or perhaps a
little before, the sound of many men singing a psalm in
unison from another church on the opposite side of the
way. There will be something in the words above the dew
of Hermon, and how goodly it is to see brethren dwelling
together in unity. And the late folk will tell
themselves that all this singing denotes the conclusion
of two yearly ecclesiastical parliaments - the
parliaments of Churches which are brothers in many
admirable virtues, but not specially like brothers in
this particular of a tolerant and peaceful life.

Again, meditative people will find a charm in a
certain consonancy between the aspect of the city and its
odd and stirring history. Few places, if any, offer a
more barbaric display of contrasts to the eye. In the
very midst stands one of the most satisfactory crags in
nature - a Bass Rock upon dry land, rooted in a garden
shaken by passing trains, carrying a crown of battlements
and turrets, and describing its war-like shadow over the
liveliest and brightest thoroughfare of the new town.
From their smoky beehives, ten stories high, the unwashed
look down upon the open squares and gardens of the
wealthy; and gay people sunning themselves along Princes
Street, with its mile of commercial palaces all beflagged
upon some great occasion, see, across a gardened valley
set with statues, where the washings of the Old Town
flutter in the breeze at its high windows. And then,
upon all sides, what a clashing of architecture! In this
one valley, where the life of the town goes most busily
forward, there may be seen, shown one above and behind
another by the accidents of the ground, buildings in
almost every style upon the globe. Egyptian and Greek
temples, Venetian palaces and Gothic spires, are huddled
one over another in a most admired disorder; while, above
all, the brute mass of the Castle and the summit of
Arthur's Seat look down upon these imitations with a
becoming dignity, as the works of Nature may look down
the monuments of Art. But Nature is a more
indiscriminate patroness than we imagine, and in no way
frightened of a strong effect. The birds roost as
willingly among the Corinthian capitals as in the
crannies of the crag; the same atmosphere and daylight
clothe the eternal rock and yesterday's imitation
portico; and as the soft northern sunshine throws out
everything into a glorified distinctness - or easterly
mists, coming up with the blue evening, fuse all these
incongruous features into one, and the lamps begin to
glitter along the street, and faint lights to burn in the
high windows across the valley - the feeling grows upon
you that this also is a piece of nature in the most
intimate sense; that this profusion of eccentricities,
this dream in masonry and living rock, is not a drop-
scene in a theatre, but a city in the world of every-day
reality, connected by railway and telegraph-wire with all
the capitals of Europe, and inhabited by citizens of the
familiar type, who keep ledgers, and attend church, and
have sold their immortal portion to a daily paper. By
all the canons of romance, the place demands to be half
deserted and leaning towards decay; birds we might admit
in profusion, the play of the sun and winds, and a few
gipsies encamped in the chief thoroughfare; but these
citizens with their cabs and tramways, their trains and
posters, are altogether out of key. Chartered tourists,
they make free with historic localities, and rear their
young among the most picturesque sites with a grand human
indifference. To see them thronging by, in their neat
clothes and conscious moral rectitude, and with a little
air of possession that verges on the absurd, is not the
least striking feature of the place. *

* These sentences have, I hear, given offence in my
native town, and a proportionable pleasure to our rivals
of Glasgow. I confess the news caused me both pain and
merriment. May I remark, as a balm for wounded fellow-
townsmen, that there is nothing deadly in my accusations?
Small blame to them if they keep ledgers: 'tis an
excellent business habit. Churchgoing is not, that ever
I heard, a subject of reproach; decency of linen is a
mark of prosperous affairs, and conscious moral rectitude
one of the tokens of good living. It is not their fault
it the city calls for something more specious by way of
inhabitants. A man in a frock-coat looks out of place
upon an Alp or Pyramid, although he has the virtues of a
Peabody and the talents of a Bentham. And let them
console themselves - they do as well as anybody else; the
population of (let us say) Chicago would cut quite as
rueful a figure on the same romantic stage. To the
Glasgow people I would say only one word, but that is of

And the story of the town is as eccentric as its
appearance. For centuries it was a capital thatched with
heather, and more than once, in the evil days of English
invasion, it has gone up in flame to heaven, a beacon to
ships at sea. It was the jousting-ground of jealous
nobles, not only on Greenside, or by the King's Stables,
where set tournaments were fought to the sound of
trumpets and under the authority of the royal presence,
but in every alley where there was room to cross swords,
and in the main street, where popular tumult under the
Blue Blanket alternated with the brawls of outlandish
clansmen and retainers. Down in the palace John Knox
reproved his queen in the accents of modern democracy.
In the town, in one of those little shops plastered like
so many swallows' nests among the buttresses of the old
Cathedral, that familiar autocrat, James VI., would
gladly share a bottle of wine with George Heriot the
goldsmith. Up on the Pentland Hills, that so quietly
look down on the Castle with the city lying in waves
around it, those mad and dismal fanatics, the Sweet
Singers, haggard from long exposure on the moors, sat day
and night with 'tearful psalmns' to see Edinburgh
consumed with fire from heaven, like another Sodom or
Gomorrah. There, in the Grass-market, stiff-necked,
covenanting heroes, offered up the often unnecessary, but
not less honourable, sacrifice of their lives, and bade
eloquent farewell to sun, moon, and stars, and earthly
friendships, or died silent to the roll of drums. Down
by yon outlet rode Grahame of Claverhouse and his thirty
dragoons, with the town beating to arms behind their
horses' tails - a sorry handful thus riding for their
lives, but with a man at the head who was to return in a
different temper, make a dash that staggered Scotland to
the heart, and die happily in the thick of fight. There
Aikenhead was hanged for a piece of boyish incredulity;
there, a few years afterwards, David Hume ruined
Philosophy and Faith, an undisturbed and well-reputed
citizen; and thither, in yet a few years more, Burns came
from the plough-tail, as to an academy of gilt unbelief
and artificial letters. There, when the great exodus was
made across the valley, and the New Town began to spread
abroad its draughty parallelograms, and rear its long
frontage on the opposing hill, there was such a flitting,
such a change of domicile and dweller, as was never
excelled in the history of cities: the cobbler succeeded
the earl; the beggar ensconced himself by the judge's
chimney; what had been a palace was used as a pauper
refuge; and great mansions were so parcelled out among
the least and lowest in society, that the hearthstone of
the old proprietor was thought large enough to be
partitioned off into a bedroom by the new.
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