“In growing from a huddle of huts round a fortress on a volcanic rock into an international and cosmopolitan city, Edinburgh has had to change.”
Not only is Edinburgh one of my favourite cities but it’s one I thought I knew really well – that is, until I picked up the book my sister gave me last Christmas.
Lost Edinburgh looks at the history of the city through its roads, gates and buildings, those that have not survived until the present day. The author, Hamish Coghill, takes us on a journey through the centuries, inviting us to explore the streets and lanes, the bridges, churches, jails and tenements as they once were but are no longer. Supplementing his narration with drawings, photographs and quotations by former city notables, he explains how fire, invasion, social conditions and customs demanded that the old be replaced with the new. Sometimes that demand came in the interest of a thing called progress, when the political will overpowered need and even common sense. One wonders just how much of old Edinburgh (and of other cities of the realm) might have remained to be admired had not redevelopment become the fashion.
Over the centuries of its existence, from the small settlement perched on a ridge below a mighty castle to the modern metropolis that hosts a world-renowned festival, Edinburgh has seen many changes. The mediaeval city lay in a countryside of hills, rivers and lochs. The hills are unchanged; few of the lochs remain. Even the courses of the rivers are not quite what they once were.
Much of what the modern tourist sees and admires in Edinburgh is, in an historical sense, new. Many of the buildings of the Old Town, from the Lawnmarket and High Street to the Cowgate, although they bear the mark of time, are replacements for others wilfully destroyed or fallen into rank disrepair. Even the New Town, conceived in the mid 18th century has witnessed change over the years.
The land that became Princes Street Gardens once lay under the infamous North Loch, depository for much of Edinburgh’s unwanted rubbish. The Meadows lay under another, the South Loch. Princes Street itself was not designed as the main artery of the 1766 New Town. That honour belonged to George Street with its spacious Charlotte and St Andrew Squares at either end. St Andrew’s House, headquarters of the Scottish Government occupies the site of a former jail.
More recently, change has resulted from evolving social pleasures and leisure pursuits. In the mid 20th century, Edinburgh boasted more than twenty cinemas. Most have gone, either demolished or converted for other purposes. The same fate overtook the once popular public dance halls. Of the twenty-three breweries in 1939 Edinburgh, there is now only one.
For the writer or researcher, Lost Edinburgh is a mine of information. None of that is of earth-shattering importance, though of interest and value to the social historian. The book is often too a source of much serendipity. I learned, for example, that one of the properties destroyed when the South Bridge was constructed in 1785 was “one of the grandest houses … in the town …“, and was indeed the town house of the Lockhart family of Carnwath, my somewhat distant and maybe spurious “cousins”.
Lost Edinburgh is a book to be either read through or dipped into between readings of other books. Hamish Coghill knows his city and has recreated its atmosphere. I could wander with him along the streets I know, trying to imagine them as they were. And I could follow him down the narrow wynds where once crept the bodysnatchers Burke and Hare. He does not always present his subject matter chronologically but the chapters are short and the paragraph content clearly identified. Though a paperback, the book is printed on quality paper with an old Edinburgh map as endpapers. It would benefit from a more comprehensive index, especially with regard to the sources of its drawings and photographs, (and perhaps a modern map too!). These shortcomings apart, it deserves its place on the non-fiction shelf.