Published  13/03/2002

Richard Demarco's Edinburgh

Richard Demarco’s Edinburgh

Edinburgh belongs to a special kind of city deserving of the UNESCO designation as a world heritage site. These are cities of the imagination; cities which exist on the edge, where our memories and daydreams, our histories and mythologies are interwoven. To prove this fact, I ask you to exercise your own imaginations and to tell me what you see in your mind’s eye in terms of cityscapes, buildings and famous citizens when I list the names of the following cities: Rome, Venice, Florence, Paris, Athens, Cracow, Vitebsk, Copenhagen, Prague, Barcelona, St. Petersburg, Dublin and London.

Your answers could include the Sistine Chapel, The Coliseum, Piazza San Marco, The Rialto Bridge, Ponte Vecchio, The Gates of Ghiberti, The Louvre, Notre Dame de Paris, The Parthenon, The Jagollonian University, the Studio of Chagall, the Little Mermaid, Cathedral Sacra Famiglia, Charles Bridge, The Winter Palace, Westminster Abbey, The Globe Theatre, Tate Modern, Trinity College Dublin, and Sandy Cove Martello Tower.

Associated with these is the physical presence of citizens both real and fictional who will forever have their names identified by the cities they inhabited, such as Julius Caesar, Romulus and Remus, Shylock, Vivaldi, Canaletto, Ruskin, Dante and Beatrice, Michelangelo, Robspierre, Marie Antoinette, Abelard and Heloise, Athena, Melina Mercuri, Chagall, Malevich, Hans Christian Anderson, Kafka, Gaudi, Pushkin, Catherine The Great, Beckett, Yeats, Joyce, Parnell and Mollie Malone.

The very stones of these cities form the stuff of legend edging them from the world of history to that of mythology. Edinburgh belongs to this league of legendary cities by virtue of its location, built as it is like Rome on seven hills and with an Acropolis like Athens and a magic mountain, the Seat of Arthur, the once and future king linked forever with his beloved Guinevere, and not one castle but 27, almost outnumbering its golf courses. The city is associated with novelists and poets of the calibre of Stevenson, Scott and Burns and the reigns of Stuart kings and queens, particularly the saintly Margaret and the beknighted Marie Stuart, with its own cathedral and abbey and two royal palaces and with a 12 mile shoreline linking Portobello Beach with the Cramond shoreline and three rivers – The Figgat Burn known to the young Harry Lauder and the Water of Leith where according to the poet McGonagle ‘the lassies go to brush their teeth’ and the River Almond, haven to the Roman legionaries who set themselves the task of building the Antonine Wall.

Edinburgh has more than its fair share of memorable works of architecture of great variety. They act as focal points in any pedestrian’s journey from the New Town to the Old Town and from the city centre to the suburbs where exist village complexes of great charm in Duddingston, Swanston and Balerno. These focal points include the surreal rocket-like form of the Scott Monument and many fine spires and towers and domes signalling the presence of numerous churches, pulpits and altars and places of sacred burial. Edinburgh has its fair share of bridges leading to myriad terraces, crescents, avenues interspersed by alleyways, lanes, wynds and closes as well as mews. Edinburgh was to R.L. Stevenson, his beloved ‘precipitous city’ with many of its main streets built on steep slopes leading from the volcanic ridge of the Old Town down towards the shoreline around the Port of Leith. It has more than its fair share of gardens, parks and golf courses. I have lost count of its buildings shaped like Greek and Roman temples and the panoramic views which it affords from its hillscapes. For those prepared to climb its hills, there is of course the inescapable fact that, from their summits, you can see, with the naked eye, the Lammermuir Hills which inspired Donezetti and Walter Scott, and the Moorfoots leading to Carlisle and the English borderland, and the wide seascapes of the Lothians; both west and east linked to those of the Kingdom of Fife, forever associated with Macbeth and the three witches, and the Ochil Hills defining Kinrosshire, Clackmannanshire and Stirlingshire, and on a good day, Ben Lomond, and hills which beckon you towards the Hebrides and the road to the Isles.

At a time of crisis for the Scottish Tourist Board for the countryside plagued with foot and mouth, when visitors to Scotland seem reluctant to explore its glorious landscape, arguably the most beautiful and dramatic in northern Europe, when the Edinburgh Festival is attracting more and more festival-goers from all over the world, the future of Edinburgh must surely be not just as a Festival City, and therefore a place of destination for cultural pilgrims, but a gateway into an enchanted landscape which can offer more in terms of shoreline and mountainscape than most larger countries in Europe. For the past three decades, I have concentrated my art and education programmes upon the idea that Edinburgh is, as Scotland’s capital, a point of departure rather than a point of arrival for countless thousands of artists, writers, poets, actors, musicians offering them the one thing that few cities can do, a magical landscape within sight of Edinburgh city’s boundaries. And so I have presented the Demarco Edinburgh Festival Programmes in Dundee, Kircaldy, Alloa, and as far north as Aberdeenshire and as far west as Argyll, and indeed in Glasgow, a city less than an hours rail journey from Edinburgh.

I am inspired by the sight of the coastlines of the Firth of Forth and I envisage an ideal site for an ideal gallery on the east Lothian coastline between North Berwick and the Bass Rock, affording panoramic views of the Firth of Forth and the North Sea where I can imagine the innumerable voyages made by seafarers linking Edinburgh and the Lothians and all of Scotland with the Baltic, Scandinavia and indeed all of Europe and the seaways of the world.

If you walk down the Royal Mile from the Gates of Edinburgh Castle, you are invited to walk in the footsteps of all those who have followed the Kings and Queens of Scotland in procession down the Royal Mile to the hallowed precincts of Holyrood Abbey, defining a Royal Domain around the slopes of Arthur’s Seat. In this enchanted landscape, it is easy to imagine that Edinburgh is Camelot and the surrounding Lothian landscape is Lyonesse. King Arthur exhorted his knights to leave Camelot and go on their adventures beyond the city walls in search of the Holy Grail. I have always judged artists by their capacity to accept the challenge offered by King Arthur to his knights, suggesting that their true worth can only be tested by journeys far beyond the safety of city boundaries. These journeys are in the landscapes, which lie beyond any city’s gateways, where there is an inestimable truth to be found amongst the dangers of untrodden pathways and uncharted seas. Edinburgh is indivisible from the Lothians; it has meaning only in relation to the Lothians, and views of the city from the Lothian hilltops should bring to mind anyone’s dreams of Camelot. It is the ideal place to set off on journeys in the spirit of the Arthurian legends.

It is also the city which gave the world the Scottish Enlightenment, David Hume and Adam Smith and Robert Adam and James Craig, and which inspired Conan Doyle as a medical student at the Royal College of Surgeons to base the character of Sherlock Holmes upon his mentor, Professor Joseph Bell. It is the city of Bruce Marshall’s Father Malachy’s Miracle. It is the city which was the point of departure for Robert Louis Stevenson’s hero, David Balfour, to begin the adventures which took him from the Moor of Rannoch to the Bass Rock in the pages of Kidnapped and Catriona. It is the city which inspired Walter Scott’s Heart of Midlothian and Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting and Ian Rankin to create the world of Inspector Rebus and it is the city in which J.K. Rowling created the world of Harry Potter.

It is truly a city where magic is in the air; a city where the imagination can take flight; a city which proudly bears the title ‘the world capital of culture’ for three weeks every year over the past six decades. As I write, I think of all the cranes that dominate the Edinburgh skyline, building the new Scottish Parliament inspired from the poetic imagination of Eric Miralles. These cranes are to be seen in Leith Walk and in and around the new Ocean Terminal of Leith and as far west as the Edinburgh Park. Sadly, the new buildings associated with these cranes are often lacking in the magical ingredients which would identify them as quintessentially Edinburgh, despite the fact there is a clear language, of architecture expressed through the unmistakable shape and form of Lamb’s House in Leith, James Hamilton’s Royal High School, Robert Lorimer’s Church of St. Peter’s, Falcon Avenue, Patrick Geddes’s Ramsay Gardens, and in the turreted rooflines of Holyrood Palace and George Heriot’s School, and thankfully, in terms of recent architecture expressed in the shape of Malcolm Fraser’s Dance Base and Scottish Poetry Library, and Richard Murphy’s New Town and Royal Mile houses, and Harmeny House School at Balerno. Richard Mier’s concept of the Edinburgh Park built around a large-scale water feature remains a test and a challenge for contemporary architects who, sooner or later, must be given the opportunity to build a 21st century cityscape comparable to that of the bold planning which enabled James Craig to visualise the New Town.

As the 21st century begins, one thing is certain – Edinburgh does not need a Disneyland, a city of make-believe. Edinburgh, when seen as capital of a magical land, is the real thing; Camelot under the light of common day. The magical ingredients which make it so should be considered by every architect and by their patrons, because Edinburgh has managed to survive the worst excesses of post-war city planning, to remain a city of the imagination and the northern European equivalent of its sister city Florence, where the medieval and Renaissance rules were set to give the world an image of cityscape aspiring to the condition of a total artwork. It is a city in which the work of the architect is indistinguishable from that of the poet, philosopher and sculptor.

(This text was first read as a lecture to the Cockburn Association in Edinburgh, October 2001.)

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