Book Review: Secret Edinburgh, An Unusual Guide.


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Edinburgh’s Doors Open Day, an event which is no doubt so wonkily titled to avoid the acronym ODD, will see public buildings which are normally closed to the public being opened and showcased across the city. This year’s Doors Open Day falls this weekend. Unfortunately, Tychy is still living with the incurred costs of August and the Fringe and so, with two ten-hour shifts scored on the calendar, Doors Open Day is not an option for me. Yet if you are ready, willing and able, then a sparkling little book, which was published earlier in the year, will allow you to revisit an otherwise familiar city à la carte.

Hannah Robinson’s Secret Edinburgh: An Unusual Guide is like a guidebook to Edinburgh for people who already live here and know the city very well. In fact, this is a book for those who think, wrongly, that they know the city too well. There is a cry of “back to work” in its premise. The sights are not spent; the innocent face of Edinburgh, which has been nodding at you amiably every day, has still, disconcertingly, numerous secrets behind it. One hundred and thirteen to be precise. Robinson curates a collection of murals, sculptures, gardens, and ruins which are individually too minor to be placed in front of paying tourists. But someone who is soaked in a knowledge of Edinburgh might want to pop these remaining bubbles, purely to be filled to the top.

The book might be divided into six long walks, though the “Old Town” and “New Town” sections each offer a comfortable afternoon’s walking, whilst the “East” and “West” sections are probably best driven. Of course, if the sightseer owned a car, then they would pootle off on daytrips to Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. If you are wading about in the fields behind an industrial estate, searching for the Huly Hill Cairn, then you are surely limited to foot. Many of the entries in Secret Edinburgh are ten-minute stops which would ideally punctuate a long city walk, beads on a necklace which the fingers pause over before moving to the next. Although it is hard to imagine a family day out to see the Granton Harbour huts, these curios might come back to you through the blur of a remembered afternoon.

I am an incorrigible walker of Edinburgh’s streets, and so I had at first complacently assumed that Secret Edinburgh would be flicking through my own memories. I was soon growing increasingly envious of Robinson’s knowledge and indignant at all of the things that I have hitherto swept carelessly past. When I was finally tempted to tot up the number of sights which I had gotten to ahead of this book, the humiliation was devastating. Eighteen! All of this time, Edinburgh’s streets have kept almost a hundred secrets from me!

In truth, it is good to reminded of quite how much beauty and strangeness Edinburgh always has on the map. Perhaps, as a city walker, I have become too set in my ways. It is now only two or three times a year, usually in spring, that I devote a whole day to walking around the city. After reading Robinson’s book, my normal circuits – the Water of Leith, the southern suburbs, the Corstorphine and Blackford Hills – appear suddenly shrunken and unadventurous.

The research for Secret Edinburgh was obviously phenomenal. I should point out, however, that the book is best when covering things which are immediately in front of it, and weaker on general knowledge. Smugglerius was not flayed alive, as Secret Edinburgh claims (they no longer did this in 1776); neither could Muriel Spark be described a member of Edinburgh’s Jewish community (she shared her Gentile mother’s Presbyterian upbringing and she was a famous Roman Catholic convert). But the book’s engine is its investigatory instinct, the skill with which Robinson can tease amazing stories of the stones of Muschet’s Cairn or the Kirkhill Pillar, like the fisherman who had liberated the Djinn from a copper jar. It is equally to Robinson’s credit that her book puts such a premium on, if not feasibly secret, then at least rarely told tales. It appears that the highly secretive Speculative Society is not alluded to, for example, on the prim grounds that it has already been in the papers a lot lately.

I finish Secret Edinburgh with something of a grudge against it. This guidebook has inspired me to explore Edinburgh anew, but I want to simultaneously bat away the helping hands. A wilderness has been mapped, and the map has been usefully organised, and extensively annotated, and so the urban explorer is left feeling almost as disempowered as a regular tourist. The freedom and serendipity of exploring a city… well, this has left me in the past only detecting eighteen of Edinburgh’s hundred plus riches. The inadequacies of my meandering progress are thus readily quantifiable.

Or are they? This book implicitly promotes itself as the final excavation of the city’s secrets, but an hour’s stroll around my own neighbourhood at once uncovers more treasures in the mud. Have you ever encountered that startling rooftop sculpture of a heron in the lanes behind Morningside Road? What about the hidden apothecary’s tomb on Chamberlain Road? There is a lovers’ loan next to the Grange Cemetery which will take you to that strange witchy cottage in Dick Place which has toys and charms strewn across its front wall. So Secret Edinburgh might not yet close the book on this city.

Secret Edinburgh is also detained by agendas of its own. So many of the entries are accessible exclusively on Doors Open Day that the book is at times in danger of resembling “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” in coming off the shelf only as an annual occasion. On the other hand, a healthy proportion of the sights which feature in Secret Edinburgh, such as the Edinburgh Book Sculptures or the Balancing Stones, have been acquired by the city long after the first Doors Open Day in 1990. This book could be thinned down to a good guide to Edinburgh’s contemporary sculptures and street art.

The map is being eternally redrawn, the city-walker can never cease, and it is a constant effort to remain streetwise. I have evidently many more miles to go. I walk the streets of Edinburgh swathed in a messenger bag, and whatever else this contains, there is always a street-map of the city and a pop-out umbrella. Secret Edinburgh will likewise become a permanent addition.