After I. Calvino I would suggest that Edinburgh is not one city, but many - composed of different cities both visible and invisible.
The most recent invisible city in Edinburgh to be discovered and unearthed, now known as Mary King’s Close, reopened to the public in 2003 after being found amid the bowels of buildings in Edinburgh’s Old Town. This so-called close connects a series of different earthworks, passageways and labyrinthine walkways beneath the old city, which many believed housed the pestilential bones of victims of the plague, walled up here to prevent the spread of the disease. Other commentators have suggested that this underground city simply betrays the lower stories of extremely high tenement buildings, that had fallen in and been built over in the course of time.
All cities grow and change, they are like fungal organisms whose pores outreach, spread and infect surrounding areas. The centrifugal growth of Edinburgh is perhaps more noticeable than it is in other cities, like London for instance, which expanded in a linear direction along the spine of the Thames riverbank. In his memoirs of London (among which his account of the Great Freeze looms large in my mind), one of the capital’s great unofficial historians, Daniel Defoe remembers how London did not grow, but linked up Westminster to other residential settlements along the riverbank.
The medieval heart of Edinburgh is raised up on a great earthy protuberance which overlooks every other part of the city, where the castle, its bulwark and symbol basks like a giant black spider on the granite slopes of The Mound. Like the rings of a tree trunk, the expansion of the town is marked by serried layers of architectural styles, which at its outskirts blend into our present. These period pieces – from the medieval churches and the great feats of engineering pioneered in the enlightenment period – to Georgian town houses are scored on the visible map of the city like rimy crusts of sea salt on a beach which mark where the tide has withdrawn.
The great basilisk of the medieval old town stretches out two great arms – North Bridge and South Bridge – across the gulf where the train tracks run towards and away from Waverly station. The bridges connect the old city to the commercial area of Princes Street and the sequestered streets of Stockbridge. This earthy vault, once filled with the waters of the North Loch, was drained by Lord Provost, George Drummond’s engineers in 1762, as part of a programme to expand Edinburgh. The formation of North Bridge was an ill-fated architectural enterprise which suffered several setbacks and the original structure (which lasted only a few years) had to be re-built in the early 1800s after a part of the bridge gave way, killing several pedestrians.
Edinburgh’s second largest bridge, George IV bridge, or South Bridge more simply put – was another great Victorian creation – an aspirational structure designed to connect the Old Town to the newly built, affluent ‘New Town’. Appearing when on it to be more like a street than a bridge, the deep gorge plunging down its left side will come as a surprise to those looking down by chance. This opening to the sky reveals the historical Cowgate which passes beneath, prosaically named so as it was formerly used as a passing-way for herding cattle and oxen towards the Grass Market. Now it is a highway for Edinburgh’s transient back-packer traffic and stag-night tourism who flock towards the nightlife venues thriving in the shadows of the bridge.
The Cowgate is another underground city. In fact, I only appreciated how intestinal its hidden infrastructure was, when I worked within it during the Edinburgh Fringe festival. The venue I worked for was a tall subterranean cavern set about a spiraling staircase. Like many wynds and closes in the old town, it connected the various levels of the city and for those who knew about it provided a useful shortcut between the Grass Market and the top of George IV bridge. I heard that once upon a time it was used as the archive and book repository for the National Library of Scotland, though the catacombs of its damp, dungeon-like, vertiginous sprawl had eventually been deemed unsuitable for the housing of books.
The strange history of this venue led me to fancifully imagined Edinburgh as one enormous brace of stone bookshelves, and in the empty hours I spent waiting outside theatre auditoriums I imagined the dank leaves of old library tomes multiplying in the musty air around me like endless ticket-stubs and performance flyers.
But the invisible city which most interested and engaged my attention while I lived in Edinburgh was the system of paths around Dean Village, connecting the lowest levels of the new town to the river of Leith and its walkways. Nearby my home in Haymarket, this walkway preserved some of my fondest memories of the city. On many cold, frosty mornings and evenings I would walk or cycle along these quiet conduits, observing the frosted ice patterning of leaves in winter or enjoying the autumnal slip and squeeze of rotten leaves sliding beneath my boots. In Christmas, the gurgling river, the wholesome fresh odours of snow and old clay brickwork, the crunchy grinding of gravel or the occasional sighting of a robin would lift my senses to a state of near exaltation and make my cheeks glow with pleasure.
The lowest of all the levels in that palimpsest-like city, Leith walk was a magical channel for me. Walking past weirs and locks, between the arches of bridges, and ghostly milling and textile villages, the path laced it way around the city and ended up by the majestic sea estuary – the Firth of Forth. The guardian of this charmed lower region was the demon queen, demiurge Cleopatra. Her double was imprisoned in a gilded spherical podium just after the imposing arches of Dean Bridge. Crumbling and blanketed in ivy, this temple contained her statue and barely visible, the marauding asp. For me this wizard queen set a hex upon this place and its mysterious apparatus of objects – from the defunct mill-grinding wheel of the sleepy industrial Dean village to the deserted cemetery which hunkered down the slopes of the Leith bankside from the old Dean gallery – like an unbreakable seal.
Edinburgh is a city in which you can discover surprising and unlooked for monuments at every turn. They startle all at once because of their strangeness and isolation – they stoke the imagination like a fire. In this way I thought that the astronomical observatory on Carlton Hill with its high crucifix-shaped mast, looked like a pirate mutineers stronghold. Nearby, an unfinished project, a vast Hellenistic proscenium with daunting ionic columns asserts itself – a stage, a ruin, a theatre, a grandiose oddity that you can see from almost everywhere in the city. Many miles from this architectural melting-pot, equally strange, it is possible to find an alleyway of deserted “Cowboy and Indian” styled houses. I will never forget that calm summer evening when Harry led Agnes and I there, down the hill from Marchmont to Morningside after his shift at the Dominion Cinema had finished. It looked like a spaghetti western film set, yet it was innocuously hidden down a quiet residential mews. Its abandonment was as curious a fact as its existence, and we speculated wildly about how it came to be there. Drunk and happy we discussed the endless possibilities such a place presented for playful, DIY film remakes and started casting parts for our very own How the West was Won.
This is how you stumble across the curious monuments of Edinburgh, which light up my mind now like Woolf’s ‘luminous envelopes’: the secret bee-keepers garden on the way up to the castle, the zeppelin plaque in the Grassmarket, the path that winds up Arthur’s seat bordered by bramble thickets, the old bread factory near to Dalkeith road, the saline air of Leith. The reliquary of a thousand invisible cities, partially hidden – partially exposed.