Thursday, 21 February 2008

Dirty Old Town

The Scotsman, 17 April 2002

It's an image which defines the decay of Edinburgh's Old Town. On the wall above Craig's Close a plaque reads: "Site of the Cape Club, spiritual home of Robert Ferguson, distinguished Edinburgh poet, died 16 October 1774." Behind, up a short flight of steps, a huge metal gate, topped with barbed wire, blocks the former route between Cockburn Street and the Royal Mile. It might be the entrance to a prison if not for a panel daubed with an anarchist symbol, and beneath, an empty bottle of wine lying next to a reeking mattress.

So much for the poet's "spiritual home" in the Edinburgh of the Enlightenment. This is the reality around today's Royal Mile. This great street, the tail of the Castle rock, could be the equal of Rome's Via Veneto, with a bustling backstreet life to call its own.

But it's not like that. The closes, wynds and alleyways, the veins which give the Old Town its character, are all choked up.

Some - like Libberton's Wynd, Rae's, Morocco and Seaton Closes - have already disappeared. Others - like Bishop's - deny access; still more are sadly neglected, empty of human life, defiled by graffiti and worse. But, with an ironic nod at history, almost all, in the early morning air, have an authentic smell of the past, the stench of urine and vomit, as if ghosts had shouted "gardyloo" moments before your visit, and - like the Edinburghers of old - emptied their chamberpots onto the streets below.

To find out more about the closes, wynds and courts of Edinburgh's Old Town, I asked professor of architecture Charles McKean and self-styled "architect manque" Ricky Demarco to walk with me down the Royal Mile, to describe how its closes had developed, analyse their current state of disrepair and suggest ways in which they might now be improved.

Of course, there are still strengths to the Royal Mile's nooks and crannies as they are. Hundreds of flats and thousands of people fill its tenements - from those brazen 1960s intrusions around Chessels Court to the "saved" and swankier closes towards the top of the Lawnmarket. There is life in the old dog yet: can any other British city boast an historic centre so densely populated?

There is plenty of work going on around the place, too. The law courts are teeming, the Assembly Hall, the Scottish Parliament for now, has brought new life to bars and restaurants, to add to custom from the council chambers. In the festival season the High Street fills with tourists, there is even an Edinburgh World Heritage Trust (albeit based in the New Town), tasked to nurture the buildings.

Most of all, the thing the visitors love, the shape and scale of the medieval city, the long curve of the Canongate - so designed to keep the wind out - is still imprinted on the ground.

As Demarco says: "There aren't really great buildings here, but, despite some unbelievable bummers, it still comes together in a cohesive whole."

Yet so much of the whole is in decay. McKean and Demarco broadly agree on the need for action to save the wynds and closes of the Old Town.

Some of the most fundamental changes were inflicted long ago. "Part of the character of the Royal Mile, which people talk about, is this rubbley stone. But originally, none of that would be visible, the buildings would all have been harled, with lime, and the whole town would have been vividly coloured, to enhance the natural light," McKean explains. The colour, which added to the buildings' sense of height, was systematically removed in a 100-year period from around 1780.

Some closes were lost with the construction of the Bridges; then with the Victorians came further changes. Just as Princes Street's New Town facades were lost, so the older buildings of St Mary's Street and the Canongate were covered over, and the closes began to disappear. When these developments were compounded by post-Second World War planning, and the nearby vandalism of the new university quarter, some feared for the very future of the Royal Mile.

Since then, an Old Town Plan in the 1980s and the confirmation of World Heritage status in 1995 have supposedly buttressed the closes against further decline, though few have escaped the depredations of neglect in latter decades.

Three famous closes highlight the varying condition of the closes and courts. On the Lawnmarket, a small fortune has been spent on saving James Court, a courtyard which housed David Hume and James Boswell, and more recently was the first home to the Traverse Theatre. Here, and in the adjacent Lady Stair's Close, is a huge residential development now, but, for a place steeped in history its atmosphere is surprisingly sterile.

The shortcomings start on the outside, in the entrances from the Lawnmarket, none of which have been revived in a manner which might invite the curious traveller inside. Then, within the courtyard, the wide open spaces are empty. Worse, in "renovating" the area, modern architects and planners have imposed brutal changes on venerable buildings. Repairs have been crudely carried out, ancient doorways and windows have been cut in half, sacrificed to the pernickety modern desire for level pavements.

Further down the Mile, in Advocates Close, a famous haunt of Robert Louis Stevenson, the problems are of a different order. At its entrance on the Mile, visitors are met by a lintel from 1590, which reads "Blessit be God of all his gifts". At the lower, northern end they leave to graffiti: "I had a good fuck here last week."

Between these two are extremes of beauty and decay. First the good news. Inside an art gallery, the one obviously public building in the close, coloured walls from the 15th century survive. And in the open air, on higher ground, a garden has been lovingly maintained at the entrance to a solicitor's office.

But elsewhere the bulk of land in Advocates Close is derelict and overgrown, rubble and rubbish strewn all around. It is a vast neglected, unpleasant space. A few steps further down the Mile, Anchor Close looks less like a bomb site, but signs of human life are even rarer. "The entrance doesn't take you anywhere," complains McKean. "If you were in one of the great continental cities, there would be businesses at the entrance here, and others at the far end of the close. What we've lost is our permeability, where you could go into a close and turn right or left into a shop or a restaurant."

All down the High Street and the Canongate, the pattern is repeated. Roxburgh Close and Warriston's lead on to a bleak modern courtyard; Lyons Close goes nowhere; Carrubers is daubed with graffiti, dead. In North Gray's Close, the building's ancient timbers have been exposed at the entrance, but go up the alley and a rubbish tip greets the eye.

Modernity is condescending. Acheson House on Bakehouse Close is being left to rot; next door, the Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland uses a medieval close as a parking lot. Adam Smith's lodgings, in Panmure Close, lie derelict and are visible across the grottiest piece of tarmac in Scotland. James Kennedy, grandson of Robert III and bishop of Dunkeld, lived at Monteith's Close. Now the way into the close blocked is by a Biffa bin.

It's not all bad news. On Castlehill, Jollies Court is undergoing renovation thanks to James Thomson, whose restaurant in the opposite close, The Witchery, incorporates the gateway to the Earl of Huntly's lodging. Riddles Court on the Lawnmarket has survived almost everything modern developers have thrown at it and its secret, enclosed space has Demarco and McKean in raptures.

Further down the Mile, Trunks Close, with its mix of old and new, its light and space, provokes the same intense and excited praise.

There are other wonderful little details along the way: an archway, to let the coachman into Old Fishmarket Close, is finished with a flourish; on the entrance wall, perhaps 200 years old, are dim colours, the remainder of a sign for a dressmakers shop. There are fine doorways - at the Camera Obscura, almost the full mile away, at Gloucester Gate. Look for pilgrims' seashells cast into the walls of the Tolbooth; and high above on the Canongate Kirk, the antlers of a hart and the golden cross, the Holy Rood discovered by King David (you can read this magical story on the menu cards in the Holyrood Tavern).

The ideal, surely, is that the remainder of the closes of the Royal Mile should reflect similar glories and be filled with life and wonder, an asset for the citizens as much as for the millions of tourists who pour every year into Edinburgh.

On our journey, McKean and Demarco suggest complementary means of achieving that dream. Demarco believes the Old Town will be saved only by a huge international effort, similar to the conference and support system which has formed around Venice. McKean agrees. "People will leap about and say: 'It's occupied, it's working, what more do you want?' But the argument is that it's not as good as it should be, within a European state."

Both believe that encouraging busi-ness - including some of Scotland's big institutions - into the closes is important. And neither is afraid of new building, if the architecture is good. Both shower praise on Malcolm Fraser's Scottish Poetry Library and the housing designed by Richard Murphy at Crichton's Close, which with its words ("A nation is forged in the heart of poetry") and its woodwork, builds on the works of past masters.

And perhaps the best hope for the Old Town's closes lies in the huge construction site at Holyrood, devoted to the most expensive building ever constructed on this street. If the architecture of the Scottish parliament reflects the proud ideals of nationhood, we can but hope it inspires similar grandeur in a new approach to the Royal Mile.

No comments: