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The cultural hordes arriving by train next week at Edinburgh Waverley will alight in a hollow before they surface in heaven. Nestled in a shallow rift between the city’s Old and New Towns, the station asks for a short ascent before it gives up an august vista. To the south, eccentric stone buildings revel in what light Scotland can spare, breaking only for the castle, the capital’s hefty overlord. It peers down at the gorge, where a strip of gardens in golf-club green rise up to meet Princes Street, the “absolutely operatic” boulevard that Henry James loved more than any in Europe.
Only these days there is a bloody big unfinished tramline cutting through it. Visitors to the world’s largest arts festival, which starts in earnest next weekend, may wish to avoid speaking to residents about the tram. Fifty per cent over budget and half its originally proposed length, the project has the traditionally imperturbable locals baffled and irate. Initially scheduled for completion in 2011, today it is possible that Edinburgh Zoo’s glacially amorous pandas will have a cub before a passenger buys a tram ticket.
For some, the botched project is a sign of deeper civic angst. Many of the city’s most important institutions have had a tough few years. The council, responsible for the tram, was accused of running a corrupt building repair scheme. The near-collapse of Royal Bank of Scotland dashed Edinburgh’s image as a place steeped in prudence and probity. A hotel sits in the grand old Scotsman newspaper building, a reminder of the decline in the broadsheet’s circulation. Heart of Midlothian Football Club is in administration, ruined by the hubris of Vladimir Romanov, its Lithuanian former owner and one-time saviour. Even the festival is under attack from those who believe it has lost its ramshackle egalitarian character and become, in the words of comedian Stewart Lee, “a Chipping Norton of the arts”.
Earlier this year, Edinburgh professor Richard Williams questioned whether the city was in any shape to represent an independent Scotland if there was a “Yes” vote in next year’s referendum. “Before Scotland can be a country, its capital needs to get its house in order,” he wrote in an article for Foreign Policy, citing examples of shoddy construction and arguing that Edinburgh suffers from “a weird urban malaise”. Others agree. “Edinburgh is not fit for purpose. It is dysfunctional. It has manifestly not earned the right to assume that it will be Scotland’s capital in perpetuity,” Harry Reid, columnist at The Herald, said last year.
Edinburgh was home to the Scottish Enlightenment and it can still spot a logical fallacy when it sees one. The idea that the city is struggling can be used to support either side of the argument about independence. For those who want to keep the union, it is a warning. For nationalists, it is why they need autonomy. Irvine Welsh, the Edinburgh-born novelist, puts it this way: “The implied argument that Scots are unfit to rule themselves from Edinburgh because the union and London rule has failed them is too ludicrous to be offensive, it’s just arrant nonsense.”
What’s more, the idea that Edinburgh is in idiosyncratic crisis is itself somewhat specious. It fails to take into account the reasons for the changes that have happened over the past two decades. Edinburgh has always been “a city in the world of reality”, as its great writer Robert Louis Stevenson put it. And recently this reality has been the combination of devolution and globalisation. Together with its long history, they help explain what visitors will find – and whether the city will be the capital of an independent Scotland.
Before the tram there was the “railway line”. In fact, there was more than one line but, growing up in Edinburgh, the specifics were unimportant: the paved tracks that form a broken, furtive perimeter around the city centre had long since served their original purpose. As a kid, it seemed strange that anyone would have bothered connecting its stations. But they did. London, Midland and Scottish Railway, one of the biggest rail companies in interwar Britain, owned the line that ran through the north and west of the city. It would stop in an area called Craigleith, where glittering sandstone (used to build the New Town and Nelson’s Column) was loaded from the nearby quarry.
By the time my parents moved to Craigleith in the late 1980s the quarry was on its way to becoming a Sainsbury’s supermarket. But the railway line would be the means by which I would explore Edinburgh. The loves we share with a city are often secret loves, writes Albert Camus in “Summer in Algiers”. And this was mine.
What I remember finding is a city that was resplendent, proud, kind, safe, staid and divided. Its grandeur was hard to escape. The sheer number of riverless bridges struck me dumb, as if they were only built as observation points. I was also acutely aware of another Edinburgh. Away from the centre, the railway line circles Muirhouse, Pilton, Granton and Leith, poorer areas that feature in Welsh’s 1993 novel Trainspotting and where many of my school friends lived. They weren’t exactly the Detroit of 8 Mile but they were a world away from the prettiness of the New Town. Critics of Edinburgh’s “regeneration” should remember the alternatives.
On occasional Saturdays I would walk in the other direction towards Tynecastle, Hearts’ ground. This meant skirting Murrayfield, the national rugby stadium. I thought of rugby as a posh and unnecessary sport so the preposterous size of Murrayfield added to my impression that Edinburgh was genteel. In recent times, my football club has been run by Romanov, who packed the team with eastern Europeans, some good, some terrible. But back then, it was a more provincially Scottish affair. Many of our players – some good, some terrible – were born in the city.
This homogeneity extended further. At school the one pupil I can remember who was not born in Britain was a Pole called Angelika, whose relative exoticism warranted her single-name status, like Madonna or Kylie.
The railway line also took me into the heart of the New Town, all symmetry and stone – the celebrated example of rational architecture. My friends and I would stroll cobbled roads and wonder who lived in the houses. Our answers reflected our understanding about who then constituted the city’s elite – doctors, lawyers, civil servants and professors. We felt the establishment was impenetrable, conservative and bemoaned its lack of radicalism. It was perhaps always thus: in 1881, The New York Times reported the city was full of “eminently steady and respectable” people. “There are no colossal fortunes and few really wealthy men,” continues the piece, which features in Robert Crawford’s excellent On Glasgow and Edinburgh (2013).
That was my Edinburgh, for 11 months of the year. Every August, however, the world arrived and it was fantastic. It was as if all the properness of the rest of the year was thrown out and anarchy embraced. The city doubled in size. The rising, melodious voices of the locals would be joined in chorus by unusual accents. Everyone suddenly seemed better-looking and hedonistic. All life was here. The September comedown was awful. It made me defiantly proud of my city but also desperate to see the world.
As it turned out, more and more of the world kept coming the other way.
The Edinburgh I grew up in had not been a capital in the political sense since 1707, the year of the Act of Union. The city I irregularly return to now is more confident, rich and cosmopolitan. It is paradoxically more Scottish, due to devolution, and more global, largely due to the growth of finance and immigration. I am nostalgic for the introverted city of my childhood but I don’t mourn the changes.
These are often subtle. When friends decry the idiocy of politics, they talk less of Westminster and more of Holyrood. The modernist building, another over-budget project, is generally accepted as an improvement on the scabby trough of the Royal Mile. Crawford writes that, with its opening in 2004: “Edinburgh started awake, proud of its past, and suddenly realised it was part of a country ready to look to the future.”
This future looks set to be ever more prosperous. “It is not devolution but finance that has brought fundamental change to Edinburgh,” says Alistair Darling, former chancellor, Edinburgh MP and leader of the pro-union referendum campaign. For all the headlines about RBS and HBOS, the crisis was a blip in the generational ascent of Edinburgh’s financial sector. The number of workers in the industry has doubled from about 20,000 in the late 1980s to nearly 40,000 today, more than 10 per cent of the city’s workforce. Four of the top 10 employers are in financial services. The old establishment of professions is still here, gazing up at the high ceilings of their New Town flats. But financiers from global giants such as BlackRock and State Street have joined them. There is a growing tech sector and Edinburgh university is one of the most attractive places for spin-offs and foreign professors. The city’s income per head is second only to London in the UK – and your money goes much further.
The boom has also attracted thousands from across the world. Net migration contributed to virtually all its population growth before the financial crisis – and has recently rescaled those highs. Leith Walk is sometimes referred to as “Little Poland” but the new EU states only account for a third of immigrants. The city now feels international all year round. “Edinburgh is a much more confident place than it was 20 or 30 years ago,” says historian Tom Devine. Its rise is part of a century-long shift in Scotland’s economic axis from the industrial west to the east, where the oil and money lie. “Edinburgh hasn’t yet reached the point where it plays the same role in Scotland as London does in England, sucking opportunities from the periphery, but there are similarities,” he adds. “And it no longer shuts down after August.”
This is unkind on 20th-century Edinburgh, as anyone who has slurped at the Bow Bar, howled at Whistlebinkies or danced at the Liquid Room could tell you. All the same, I now reckon Edinburgh is a better place for the perennial epicure. In Leith, Welsh’s part of town, grimly depicted in his fiction, there has been a transformation. “The Shore area is a lot better now it houses Michelin star restaurants instead of drug dealers/addicts and on-street prostitution,” he says. Welsh is critical of its newer private housing developments but says “overall Leith has changed for the better”.
As for the tram that was supposed to go from the airport to the centre and then on to Leith: the latter leg has been cancelled. There’s no excuse for incompetence but, 25 years ago, I’m not sure anyone would have even thought about adding the connection.
The Victorian poet Alexander Smith once looked at Edinburgh and wrote: “Thou hangest, like a Cyclops’ dream / High in the shifting weather-gleam.” In the early 20th century, Hugh MacDiarmid caustically observed of his predecessor’s effusive tribute, “Edinburgh is a mad God’s dream.” Those who mock the side-effects of Edinburgh’s ambition, such as the tram project, probably share his sentiment.
However, in spying the (often literally) ugly aspects of the new Edinburgh they miss another story. They forget that it is a city of ideas as well as buildings. Today, almost a year before the independence vote, one such idea is of Edinburgh as home to what Devine calls “aspirational nationalism” – a welding of the political confidence brought by devolution and the cultural confidence of a city on the up.
Muriel Spark, perhaps Edinburgh’s greatest writer, once talked of being “Scottish by formation”, by which she meant that it was an identity of the mind not of blood. The idea of an inclusive nationalism, which sounds oxymoronic to those with any knowledge of 20th-century history, is today part of Alex Salmond’s pitch to the country. Devine thinks it could play well in a changing Edinburgh.
It is a sentiment present in the National Collective, a group of artists campaigning for independence. The Scotsman has called it “the most significant cultural voice to emerge in the referendum debate so far”. Michael Gray, one of its members, tells me that the “most creative act is the act of creating a new nation”. He says that the collective is trying to find a new, positive, Scottish form of expression. Its website is replete with bolshy videos, literature and artwork, and the group is planning a series of events throughout the Edinburgh festival.
Supporters of the union are inclined to be sceptical. “There is no majority in favour of independence in Edinburgh,” Darling says. The opinion polls suggest he is right. But what I find different about the independence debate today is that, like Edinburgh, it is more ambitious and less defensive. It still has its moments of parochial kitsch but it is telling that the Darling-led “better together” campaign increasingly stresses a cultural message: that the union is the route through which a confident, open Scotland can express its mixed identities.
No longer living in Edinburgh, or Scotland, I won’t get to vote on independence. I almost understand why. The city is someone else’s capital. But in three weeks, when I step out of the station and look at how the city has changed, it will still be mine too.
John McDermott is an FT commentator. Festival coverage starts in next week’s Life & Arts