One historian's perspective on the 'Athens of the North'
Edinburgh: A History of the City - Michael Fry
Member Name: Renza_e
Edinburgh: A History of the City - Michael Fry
Date: 07/03/11, updated on 13/04/11 (67 review reads)
Advantages: Entertaining read, interesting broad account of Edinburgh's history
Disadvantages: Possible historical inaccuracies, romanticization, omissions/neglect of particular topics
I have very fond memories of Edinburgh as a little girl. My dad used to take me on an hour-long car journey to the National Museum of Scotland in Chamber street. I adored that museum - its taxidermy animals and its huge entrance hall that seemed gigantic when I was so small. When I got older an old boyfriend of mine went to go study in Edinburgh and I fell in love with the city all over again and decided to study there myself.
Loving the city for such a long time I have naturally developed a great interest in its history but only seemed to have a minimal knowledge of its rich past. I learnt a little from the landmarks which I visited and learnt a bit about the city from an urban history course I did in my second year of university. However, after I finished university there still remained a desire to learn more about the city. I was therefore delighted when I came across Michael Fry's 'Edinburgh: A History of the City' at Waterstones.
*~FROM SHIFTING GLACIERS TO DEVOLUTION~*
Within this publication Fry has taken on quite a mammoth of a task and that is to provide an all-compassing account of the place and its development over the past few thousand years. It seems fair that 'Spectator' magazine should liken it to Peter Ackroyd's 'London' which is another urban history albeit one that is even more challenging.
Fry's book on Edinburgh covers a great wealth of subject matters over a lengthy time span -from the time when its distinctive volcanic crags were being manipulated and shifted by glacial activity right up until the modern period, to the Edinburgh I recognize today. Here we have a historian writing about times when there was no written documentation and I'm glad that he has covered the prehistoric period in his work. The topography, its hills and crags and access to the sea, and its early human settlement played a significant role in its eventual establishment as a royal burgh. Edinburgh has many natural quirks and advantages and these quirks and advantages date back to the Ice Age itself.
The book progresses through a number of time periods, from the Bronze and Iron Age, through to Roman times, the medieval era and beyond. I like that Fry is a writer who is not afraid to talk about one time period and then go back a century or two should the topic of discussion require it. I enjoy how the book is laid out in this manner. He could have quite easily have taken a completely linear, chronological approach. However, rather than restrict himself to such confines he is not afraid to jump between time periods and he does so in a comfortable and unconfusing fashion.
Fry has produced a piece of work which gives the reader a varied and thorough account of Edinburgh's history, although there seems to be a particular focus upon the 18th century age of Enlightenment, often treated as a golden age in Edinburgh as medicine, education and other disciplines progressed in leaps and bounds. Nevertheless, it appears that he tries to touch upon many aspects of Edinburgh's history and in a balanced fashion.
Fry certainly covers a lot of ground. There is a discussion of the city's political, economic, religious and, to a lesser extent, its social history. He writes about the transformation of the settlement from part of Northumbria to its establishment as a royal burgh of Scotland. He takes us through many significant periods in Scottish history and the role Edinburgh played in them, from the Scottish Wars of Independence to the National Covenant to the Jacobite Wars right up until the present day banking crisis. He goes into great depth about the academic and literary merit of the city, something which I particularly enjoyed as I am a great fan of literature. All throughout the book he takes examples of published works, old and modern, to illustrate his discussion of the city - from Robert Burns to Walter Scott to Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith in the final chapter.
He also discusses the architecture of the city but it is not focused upon too much as many other urban histories have. When he mentions the city's architecture it is in relation to another historical debate and often it is to interject with an amusing quip condemning some of the modern monstrosities that have arisen in the city (the 'ugly cinematic complex' next to Calton Hill and the 60s tragedies that are the St James shopping centre and Appleton Tower). As a resident of Edinburgh who is very familiar with the buildings in the centre of town I was completely on his side.
*~A POWERHOUSE OF SCOTTISH AFFAIRS~*
One of the best things about the book is that Edinburgh is discussed in the context of Scottish history and not just as a city on its own. This is something that should be unavoidable considering that Edinburgh has been the capital of Scotland since 1437. However, you would be surprised at how some historians of the city can focus too much upon aspects solely related to the city and forget that Edinburgh is a city that has shaped and was shaped by issues of a national scale. Nevertheless, Fry provides the reader with a book that acknowledges Edinburgh as the remarkable seat of Scottish power that it once was.
*~LACKING IN ACADEMIC SUBSTANCE?~*
However, this book is not perfect. It is very well written but some of the things which he has written seems to have been written purely for the sake of entertainment. It is for this reason that it often seems like a piece of popular history and at times, is lacking in academic substance. At the start of the book he is talking about the prehistoric development of the landscape and he states: 'Once upon a time the lemming must have thrown itself from the cliffs, for its bones have been found on Corstorphine Hill.' Not only is this statement somewhat irrevelant but it is written in ignorance of the fact that the belief that lemmings throw themselves off of cliffs is a complete myth. As intriguing as this little statement is it seems unnecessary and untrue. I may sound completely pedantic in highlighting this frivolous little sentence but it seems that Fry may be in the habit of mentioning pretty little stories throughout the text purely for gaining the interest of the reader. Another example relates to the discussion of the Scottish Wars of Independence and Robert the Bruce. When I was a child we were told of how Robert the Bruce, facing battle against the English and ready to give up, was sitting in a cave and saw a spider trying to spin a web, failing and trying again. Seeing the spider do what he did was said to have inspired Bruce to get back up on his feet and face his enemy. This lovely wee story appears to have been one of those stories used to make teach a 10 year old that persistence is the key. However, this pretty little story is, as I learnt later in life, nothing but a pretty little story - there is little evidence to suggest it is true. I am therefore quite surprised that Fry, the type of historian who has enjoyed debunking certain historical beliefs as myth, should imply that the Robert the Bruce spider story actually occurred. I am therefore tempted to say that Fry is a writer who will use particular stories and sentences to entertain and draw people in but whether he is consistently historical is another matter.
I did not study Scottish history at university so I cannot accurately say where the text is weak in terms of historical evidence. However having studied general history my instinct is that Fry has an unfortunate habit of romanticising Edinburgh's past. This is perhaps the worst thing that a historian could do and a habit which I would not expect to see in any modern historian's work.
I do wonder if Fry's habit of making erroneous, romanticized statements may have something to do with the sheer challenge of writing a book of this scale. 'Spectator' suggested that 'where he strays is in attempting too broad a historical account not just of Edinburgh, but of Scotland. It might have been better if he had concentrated on sex' (A full-blown Edinburgh account of this steamy subject I now eagerly await!). Is it possible that, within this work, he bites off more than he can chew?
I would have liked it more if he had not been prone to romanticization and I would have liked it more if he had been able to cover social history more thoroughly. Social history was my focus as a history student at Edinburgh University so I do believe that it is an important area of historical study. It's all very well studying all the big movers and shakers at the forefront of politics, religion and academia but what about the ordinary citizen of Edinburgh?
I am not suggesting that he neglects social history entirely as we have an interesting account of matters like crime, morality and sex amongst other things. He even touches upon the issue of drugs, something which many of you may relate to the book and film 'Trainspotting' which was set in the Leith area of Edinburgh.
I also understand that you have to be selective when you write such ambitious publications. However, it would have been nice if he'd focused more on health, social care and housing. His neglect of the topic of housing surprised me considering it is such a significant part of Edinburgh's history - the over-population of Edinburgh's Old Town and its vaults were a major problem in Edinburgh in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
In addition to all of this, I was astounded that the book says very little about the re-introduction of the Scottish parliament within Edinburgh, one of the most remarkable closing passages of Scotland's 20th century. Surely a discussion of civic pride and nationalism deserves as much coverage as the city's financial sector, a topic I feel he exhausted in the last chapter no matter how relevant it was to the climate of recession which the book was published during.
*~A STIMULATING PUBLICATION~*
Nevertheless, Michael Fry's book on Edinburgh definitely beats a lot of history books in terms of its style and wit. I believe that many accomplished academics could write a knowledgeable, well-argued history book but may not have the skill and talent to write it well. Too often as a student I trudged through books that bored me to tears as the author failed to write in an engaging fashion. Fry on the other hand, is wonderfully amusing and opinionated yet knowledgeable. The reader, for example, is offered an intriguing account of John Knox, his role in the Scottish Reformation and his relationship with Mary Queen of Scots, in which he proclaims that Knox was 'oversexed.'
He is an interesting writer who is prone to romanticization here and there but he does manage to paint a realistic picture of the city and its past development. Whilst he is keen to discuss the city's rich literary and academic prestige he is not afraid to discuss its inadequacies such as the city's habit of squeezing the unpleasant in with the beautiful. Hundreds of years ago, our grand castle was not far from a dirty, disgusting Royal Mile which had people walking through human excrement and general filth. Today, it is the painful site of seeing modern eyesores next to beautiful old buildings that upsets individuals like Fry and myself (In fact, it was the construction of the strikingly modern part of the National Museum of Scotland which caused the Duke of Edinburgh to renounce his patronage to the establishment). However, it is in the final chapter that Fry seems to embrace imperfections such as this. He cites Edinburgh as 'an argument against all attempts at human perfection' and as a result of this acting as a 'mirror of Scotland, certainly; perhaps of our world.'
I rather enjoyed reading this book on Edinburgh. It may occasionally fall foul to the faults of popular history and lack academic substance but it has a stimulating, entertaining narrative with a satisfyingly broad coverage of the city's history. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who wished to learn more about Edinburgh whether you are a local of the city, someone who has visited the city or have never set foot in the city. For anyone interested in learning more about the 'Athens of the North' Michael Fry's all-encompassing book seems like a good place to start.
*~Thanks for reading :-) - Also published on Ciao under 'Renza' in Feb 2011~*
Summary: Despite the possible historical inaccuracies this is a good place to start reading about Edinburgh