Edinburgh's New town – when silence is not golden

Edinburgh's New town – when silence is not golden

by Hugh Andrew
article from Wednesday 22, March, 2017

TWO HUNDRED and fifty years ago in 1767 something extraordinary began in Scotland. The foundation stone of James Craig’s New Town of Edinburgh was laid. From that simple act flowed a city that is both a statement of Enlightenment, a statement of the vaulting ambition in a burgeoning Scotland, and an architectural wonder. Two hundred and fifty years. By any standard a major anniversary. And yet there is silence.

Silence from the Parliament whose Capital this is and in whose heart it rests.

Silence from the local council who are meant to be its guardians, and silence too from its people.

Indeed I know of only three commemorative actions being undertaken – one a book by my publishing house, Birlinn, an exhibition by the Scottish artist, Hugh Buchanan and a lecture by John Lowery (see below).

I am sure there will be others but these are in the nature of private remembrance.

What of the public sector?

For the Council one can understand a certain embarrassment. After all, to commemorate the glories of a city whose architecture is merely regarded as a development opportunity, to be flogged off or smashed down as money dictates, might perhaps be regarded as a smidgen hypocritical. Or perhaps I do too much credit to the councillors’ sensitivity. Some time ago I did mention to a senior Councillor the anniversary and asked what they were doing. Her response was simply ‘How much would it cost?’ I replied that it could and should be a great revenue earner. The city has within its boundaries writers, artists, and many others who love it and would have given of their time and creativity to celebrate it. Needless to say nothing happened.

The battle to save the Royal High School for St Mary’s Music School still goes on – how extraordinary is that the mutilation of one of the masterpieces of European architecture should even be under consideration against a plan which would see it used for the benefit of its citizens. But then this is the Council that has driven through the sale of land given to the City Library for an utterly inappropriate hotel scheme in the Cowgate; whose community council in the Royal Mile dissolved itself in despair at being ignored over the scandal of Caltongate; that has turned a blind eye to the destruction of two listed buildings in St Andrews Square to be replaced with a modernist abomination; and which leapt with joy on the erection of a monstrous golden phallus in the new St James redevelopment to tower over the New Town.

‘Council’ seems rather too grand a word for what seems merely the licensing body for speculators and developers. Perhaps it is simple philistinism and ignorance that feeds their silence.

But our government? Surely they might have a few words to say? After all, it sits in the centre of the capital. In the country that gave the world the Enlightenment what a chance to celebrate the internationalism and world reach of Scottish achievement.

The silence of the administration over the Caltongate development as it passed from one overseas property developer to another might perhaps be forgiven. Technically it was a council matter. But extraordinarily enough the only comment the Scottish Government seems to have made is the silent but all too telling one of gifting the new St James scheme £350 million of taxpayers money from the TIFF scheme, a scheme ostensibly set up to develop projects of public sector benefit.

Quite why a foreign-owned speculative and entirely commercial development in the heart of the richest city on Scotland should have qualified under this scheme is entirely veiled to me. But it says much that £350 million which could have been reinvested in the people and communities of the capital, in regeneration, in myriad community projects which would have enhanced the lives of all who live here, is simply handed over to anonymous multinationals to use for their own profit. I trust the speculators had the decency to conceal their laughter until they had left the room.

Commemoration is important as a marker for values. Silence indicates their absence. The Scottish Government has ignored every writers’ anniversary bar Burns, every historical anniversary bar Bannockburn. And now is set fair to ignore the anniversary of the founding of that which defines Scotland’s capital and greatest city. What does that say about the party that calls itself ‘Scottish’ and ‘National’?

We are coming up to Council elections. Will any party take a stand for this city they want to represent? I promise them they will get my vote and those of many others – angry and disenfranchised and ashamed at what is happening to the city they love.

Hugh Andrew is managing director of the publishers Birlinn, including Polygon.

John Lowery will be giving a talk on Classical Edinburgh 3rd April 3, Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church, 13 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 2PA

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