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Perhaps it takes balls to attempt a history of Edinburgh in less than four hundred pages, but it also requires a certain context. Michael Fry’s Edinburgh: A History of the City (2009) in this respect reminds one of recent hardbacks by Peter Ackroyd and Simon Schama, which are more slick presentations than profound moral histories, reducing sprawling periods of human chaos into breezy, glossy, and determinedly unchallenging narratives. The boldest line in Fry’s Edinburgh is “Queen Mary was a strumpet and a murtherer,” which David Hume reportedly bellowed into the ear of the sleeping Queen-of-Scots apologist, Walter Goodall. Fry approvingly cites William Robertson’s conclusion – more of an achievement than an opinion – that Mary was the neither the demon of Whig history nor the victim presented by the Tories, but, in fact, messily human. Fry’s Edinburgh would perhaps benefit from a bit of the welly shown by Hume, rather than tendering a mere itinerary of the city’s historical events – one which cannot help resembling Fry’s description of Robertson’s own history: a “studied exercise in impartiality, appealing beyond raucous partisans to the people Robertson really wanted to reach, the thousands of general readers who might buy his book and make his fortune…”

Today, however, the thousands of general readers have Wikipedia, and one would do well to peruse Edinburgh with this at one’s elbow, to read up in more depth on all of the historical figures whom Fry briefly mentions. Some of the book’s more questionable assertions – that Hume was an atheist, or that Wilson and Lockhart alone wrote the Noctes Ambrosianae – are the results of oversimplification. And when it comes to the general reader, Fry’s Edinburgh actually pales in comparison to the finest popular account of the city’s history: Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories: Edinburgh (2005), which is ostensibly addressed to children. Deary promises “History with the nasty bits left in,” and he duly delivers the spectacular three-day execution of the Earl of Atholl in 1437; the murder of the teenaged Earl of Douglas in Edinburgh Castle, which was announced by the arrival of a bull’s head at the dinner table; and the brutal English bombardment of Edinburgh castle between 1571 and 1573. Deary also regales us with the tale of the Sawney Bean and some equally untrue myths concerning Greyfriars churchyard.

Fry, on the other hand, is rather aloof from these details, perhaps admirably so at times, but Edinburgh verily drips with gloom and its history is nothing short of a Hammer Horror season. Fry is here in peril of forsaking something true about the Edinburgh character, and of throwing out a real clawing brat with all the black bathwater of myth and murther. Perhaps Fry is attempting to redress the balance of horrors by citing the story of James V’s incognito adventures around Edinburgh, which illustrates the “popular tradition of familiarity and ease between monarch and people.” Fry elsewhere recounts the fate of the National Covenant with an insistence upon “a paradox absent from received views of the era… savage cruelty was accompanied by a cultural flowering.” Fry claims that Sir George Mackenzie is “best remembered as an institutional writer,” although Horrible Histories makes no mention of Bluidy Mackenzie’s legal discourses, instead dwelling upon his living and posthumous reigns of terror: he apparently founded the first ever concentration camp, and today his poltergeist is said to have attacked over five hundred people.

Mackenzie’s career is nicely symbolic of the city’s striking transmutation from gruesome to Enlightened. As Lord Advocate of Scotland, he was responsible for the deaths of over 18,000 covenanters, but he moved on, as Tony Blair would say, to help reform the Scots legal system and effectively found the National Library of Scotland. Fry, however, wishes to downplay such a breach between old and new. His medieval Kings busy themselves with civic improvements and furthering the infrastructure. King David I was “an energetic and resourceful monarch” who possessed an “instinct for making things grow…” If the modern reader could ever have clapped eyes on David, they may have concluded that he was little more than a chimpanzee, but this is presumably not in the proper spirit of things. When it comes to Robert the Bruce, Fry pants that such was his status “as liberator and hero that the burgesses would hardly have objected if he had strengthened royal control over them. Yet, on the contrary, he offered them more freedom: what a great man!” Fry neglects to mention that this undeodorised ape had been earlier excommunicated for murdering a political rival in a church.

If the ancient regime went so swimmingly, then one wonders why there was any need for the Enlightenment. Fry departs from old-world splendours, however, with admirable accounts of John Knox and James VI. Although Fry ticks off Hume for looking “back on, not to say down on, medieval Edinburgh,” his own history is anchored in the Scottish Enlightenment, and each chapter opens with a spotlight on an Enlightened leader. Fry’s Edinburgh is at its best when chronicling the city’s advances in education and literature, such as after 1745:

It was as if the city then made a resolution to put the past behind it and enter on a fresh phrase of its history, not now in the guise of anything so banal as a national capital. Instead it set out to reinvent itself as a republic of letters, a universal realm of progress free from the constraints of mere borders.

Fry explains the uniqueness of Edinburgh by identifying the city as something of a bourgeois utopia.  The Enlightenment coincided with a remarkable act of class segregation: the middle classes built their own shining and exclusive ghetto, the New Town. Yet Fry also demonstrates that Edinburgh’s ostensibly bourgeois civilisation has been historically complemented by a singular degree of class confusion and social mobility. Fry whispers about “classical Marxist” history as if it was a parent sleeping in the next room, and he notes that whilst Edinburgh’s working classes did not acquire “the sort of militancy that would later characterise (let us not say ruin) Glasgow,” they instead “reinvented their middling position in a modern city.” Whilst Edinburgh’s trades council championed access to education and knowledge, one would only think this unusual if assuming that the working classes are innately philistine. Fry observes that Edinburgh’s principal industries were brewing and publishing, but it is unclear whether the difference between these and, say, making girders was merely one of perception – after all, both involve exploitation – although Fry  observes that Edinburgh was largely insulated from the “Victorian cycles of boom and bust,” which may account for its unhappy want of “militancy.” Edinburgh’s proletariat was, however, mercilessly exploited in the industrial slaughter of WW1.

Edinburgh is often painfully provincial and petit-bourgeois – all suburban furs and nae proletarian knickers – although the city’s failings have been always redeemed by its foremostly-literary culture. Edinburgh’s impressive tradition of general access to education of all tiers (a tradition now firmly in decline) derived not only from cultural conventions such as the lad-of-parts, but from its historical exposure to a twofold Puritan emphasis upon self-reliance and civic service. Edinburgh’s uniqueness persisted in its architecture, which was “barely touched” by the Blitz. The town planning of the 1960s:

Often spelled the ruin of cities emerging unrecognizable to any previous generation and unpalatable to the present one. The civil destruction might have been forgiven if it had produced utopia, as intended. But the antonym, dystopia, was invented for what did result. Edinburgh alone escaped this fate – though only just.

It seems faintly inappropriate that a Tory such as Fry should be writing a history of Edinburgh, given the loathing of this party throughout Scotland. Yet Fry’s Unionism invests his book with a sort of tunefulness. Composed of two very dissimilar cities and a handful of redneck towns, Scotland is in no meaningful sense a nation, not least because, as Fry amply demonstrates, the Lowlands have historically collaborated with the English to suppress the Highlands, advance the Empire, and further Britannia. Yet amid the shambles of the Scottish destiny, Edinburgh stands out as a cosmopolitan city-state in itself – unique, ideal, and unified – and in its happiest days, a republic of letters.

[Further reading here and here. Ed.]