Summer has leaped suddenly on Edinburgh like a tiger. The air is still and hot above the houses; but every now and then a breath of east wind startles you through the warm sunshine - like a sudden sarcasm felt through a strain of flattery - and passes on detested of every organism. But, with this exception, the atmosphere is so close, so laden with a body of heat, that a thunderstorm would be almost welcomed as a relief. Edinburgh, on her crags, held high towards the sun - too distant the sea to send cool breezes to street and square - is at this moment an uncomfortable dwelling-place. Beautiful as ever, of course - for nothing can be finer than the ridge of the Old Town etched on hot summer azure - but close, breathless, suffocating. Great volumes of white smoke surge out of the railway station; great choking puffs of dust issue from the houses and shops that are being gutted in Princes Street.
The Castle rock is gray; the trees are of a dingy olive; languid "swells," arm-in-arm, promenade uneasily the heated pavement; water-carts everywhere dispense their treasures; and the only human being really to be envied in the city is the small boy who, with trousers tucked up, and unheeding of maternal vengeance, marches coolly in the fringe of the ambulating shower-bath. Oh for one hour of heavy rain! Thereafter would the heavens wear a clear and tender, instead of a dim and sultry hue. Then would the Castle rock brighten in colour, and the trees and grassy slopes doff their dingy olives for the emeralds of April. Then would the streets be cooled, and the dust be allayed. Then would the belts of city verdure, refreshed, pour forth gratitude in balmy smells; and Fife - low-lying across the Forth - break from its hot neutral tint into the greens, purples, and yellows that of right belong to it. But rain won't come; and for weeks, perhaps, there will be nothing but hot sun above, and hot street beneath; and for the respiration of poor human lungs an atmosphere of heated dust, tempered with east wind.
Moreover, one is tired and jaded. The whole man, body and soul, like sweet bells jangled, out of tune, and harsh, is fagged with work, eaten up of impatience, and haunted with visions of vacation. One "babbles o' green fields," like a very Falstaff; and the poor tired ears hum with sea-music like a couple of sea-shells. At last it comes, the 1st of August, and then - like an arrow from a Tartar's bow, like a bird from its cage, like a lover to his mistress - one is off; and before the wild scarlets of sunset die on the northern sea, one is in the silence of the hills, those eternal sun-dials that tell the hours to the shepherd, and in one's nostrils is the smell of peat-reek, and in one's throat the flavour of usquebaugh. Then come long floating summer days, so silent the wilderness, that one can hear one's heart beat; then come long silent nights, the waves heard upon the shore, although that is a mile away, in which one snatches the "fearful joy" of a ghost story, told by shepherd or fisher, who believes in it as in his own existence. Then one beholds sunset, not through the smoked glass of towns, but gloriously through the clearness of enkindled air. Then one makes acquaintance with sunrise, which to the dweller in a city, who conforms to the usual proprieties, is about the rarest of this world's sights.
Mr De Quincey maintains, in one of his essays, that dinner - dinner about seven in the evening, for which one dresses, which creeps on with multitudinous courses and entrées, which, so far from being a gross satisfaction of appetite, is a feast noble, graceful, adorned with the presence and smile of beauty, and which, from the very stateliness of its progress, gives opportunities for conversation and the encounter of polished minds - saves over-wrought London from insanity. This is no mere humorous exaggeration, but a very truth; and what dinner is to the day the Highlands are to the year. Away in the north, amid its green or stony silences, jaded hand and brain find repose - repose, the depth and intensity of which the idler can never know. In that blessed idleness you become in a strange way acquainted with yourself; for in the world you are too constantly occupied to spend much time in your own company. You live abroad all day, as it were, and only come home to sleep.
Away in the north you have nothing else to do, and cannot quite help yourself; and conscience, who has kept open a watchful eye, although her lips have been sealed these many months, gets disagreeably communicative, and tells her mind pretty freely about certain little shabby selfishnesses and unmanly violences of temper, which you had quietly consigned - like a document which you were for ever done with - to the waste-basket of forgetfulness. And the quiet, the silence, the rest, is not only good for the soul, it is good for the body too. You flourish like a flower in the open air; the hurried pulse beats a wholesome measure; evil dreams roll off your slumbers; indigestion dies. During your two months' vacation, you amass a fund of superfluous health, and can draw on it during the ten months that succeed. And in going to the north, and wandering about the north, it is best to take everything quietly and in moderation. It is better to read one good book leisurely, lingering over the finer passages, returning frequently on an exquisite sentence, closing the volume, now and then, to run down in your own mind a new thought started by its perusal, than to rush in a swift perfunctory manner through half a library.
It is better to sit down to dinner in a moderate frame of mind, to please the palate as well as satisfy the appetite, to educe the sweet juices of meats by sufficient mastication, to make your glass of port "a linked sweetness long drawn out," than to bolt everything like a leathern-faced Yankee for whom the cars are waiting, and who fears that before he has had his money's worth, he will be summoned by the railway bell.. And shall one, who wishes to extract from the world as much enjoyment as his nature will allow him, treat the Highlands less respectfully than he will his dinner? So at least will not I. My bourne is the island of which Douglas dreamed on the morning of Otterburn; but even to it I will not unnecessarily hurry, but will look on many places on my way. You have to go to London; but unless your business is urgent, you are a fool to go thither like a parcel in the night train and miss York and Peterborough. It is very fine to arrive at majority, and the management of your fortune which has been all the while accumulating for years; but you do not wish to do so at a sudden leap - to miss the April eyes and April heart of seventeen!
The Highlands can be enjoyed in the utmost simplicity; and the best preparations are - money to a moderate extent in one's pocket, a knapsack containing a spare shirt and a toothbrush, and a courage that does not fear to breast the steep of the hill, and to encounter the pelting of a Highland shower. No man knows a country till he has walked through it; he then tastes the sweets and the bitters of it. He beholds its grand and important points, and all the subtler and concealed beauties that lie out of the beaten track. Then, O reader, in the most glorious of the months, the very crown and summit of the fruitful year, hanging in equal poise between summer and autumn, leave London or Edinburgh, or whatever city your lot may happen to be cast in, and accompany me on my wanderings. Our course will lead us by ancient battle-fields, by castles standing in hearing of the surge; by the bases of mighty mountains, along the wanderings of hollow glens; and if the weather holds, we may see the keen ridges of Blaavin and the Cuchullin hills; listen to a legend old as Ossian, while sitting on the broken stair of the castle of Duntulm, beaten for centuries by the salt flake and the wind; and in the pauses of ghostly talk in the long autumn nights, when the rain is on the hills, we may hear - more wonderful than any legend, carrying you away to misty regions and half-forgotten times - the music which haunted the Berserkers of old, the thunder of the northern sea!
A perfect library of books has been written about Edinburgh. Defoe, in his own matter-of-fact, garrulous way, has described the city. Its towering streets, and the follies of its society, are reflected in the inimitable pages of "Humphrey Clinker." Certain aspects of city life, city amusements, city dissipations, are mirrored in the clear, although somewhat shallow, stream of Fergusson's humour. The old life of the place, the traffic in the streets, the old-fashioned shops, the citizens with cocked hats and powdered hair, with hospitable paunches and double chins, with no end of wrinkles, and hints of latent humour in their worldly - wise faces, with gold-headed sticks, and shapely limbs encased in close-fitting small-clothes, are found in "Kay's Portraits." Passing Scott's other services to the city - the magnificent description in "Marmion," the "high jinks" in "Guy Mannering," the broils of the nobles and wild chieftains who attended the Court of the Jameses in "The Abbot" - he has, in "The Heart of Mid-Lothian," made immortal many of the city localities; and the central character of Jeanie Deans is so unassumingly and sweetly Scotch, that she seems as much a portion of the place as Holyrood, the Castle, or the Crags.
In Lockhart's "Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk," we have sketches of society nearer our own time, when the Edinburgh Review flourished, when the city was really the Modern Athens, and a seat of criticism giving laws to the empire. In these pages, we are introduced to Jeffrey, to John Wilson, the Ettrick Shepherd, and Dr Chalmers. Then came Blackwood's Magazine, the "Chaldee Manuscript," the "Noctes," and "Margaret Lindsay." Then the "Traditions of Edinburgh," by Mr Robert Chambers; thereafter the well-known Edinburgh Journal. Since then we have had Lord Cockburn's chatty "Memorials of his Time." Almost the other day we had Dean Ramsay's Lectures, filled with pleasant antiquarianism, and information relative to the men and women who flourished half a century ago. And the list may be closed with "Edinburgh Dissected," written after the fashion of Lockhart's "Letters," - a book containing pleasant reading enough, although it wants the brilliancy, the acuteness, the eloquence, and possesses all the ill-nature, of its famous prototype.
Scott has done more for Edinburgh than all her great men put together. Burns has hardly left a trace of himself in the northern capital. During his residence there his spirit was soured, and he was taught to drink whisky-punch - obligations which he repaid by addressing "Edina, Scotia's darling seat," in a copy of his tamest verses. Scott discovered that the city was beautiful - he sang its praises over the world - and he has put more coin into the pockets of its inhabitants than if he had established a branch of manufacture of which they had the monopoly. Scott's novels were to Edinburgh what the tobacco trade was to Glasgow about the close of the last century. Although several labourers were before him in the field of the Border Ballads, he made fashionable those wonderful stories of humour and pathos. As soon as "The Lay of the Last Minstrel" appeared, everybody was raving about Melrose and moonlight. He wrote "The Lady of the Lake," and next year a thousand tourists descended on the Trosachs, watched the sun setting on Loch Katrine, and began to take lessons on the bagpipe. He improved the Highlands as much as General Wade did when he struck through them his military roads. Where his muse was one year, a mail-coach and a hotel were the next. His poems are grated down into guidebooks.
Never was an author so popular as Scott, and never was popularity worn so lightly and gracefully. In his own heart he did not value it highly; and he cared more for his plantations at Abbotsford than for his poems and novels. He would rather have been praised by Tom Purdie than by any critic. He was a great, simple, sincere, warm-hearted man. He never turned aside from his fellows in gloomy scorn; his lip never curled with a fine disdain. He never ground his teeth save when in the agonies of toothache. He liked society, his friends, his dogs, his domestics, his trees, his historical nick-nacks. At Abbotsford, he would write a chapter of a novel before his guests were out of bed, spend the day with them, and then, at dinner, with his store of shrewd Scottish anecdote, brighten the table more than did the champagne. When in Edinburgh, any one might see him in the streets or in the Parliament House. He was loved by everybody. No one so popular among the souters of Selkirk as the Shirra. George IV, on his visit to the northern kingdom, declared that Scott was the man he most wished to see. He was the deepest, simplest, man of his time. The mass of his greatness takes away from our sense of its height. He sinks like Ben Cruachan, shoulder after shoulder, slowly, till its base is twenty miles in girth. Scotland is Scott-land. He is the light in which it is seen. He has proclaimed over all the world Scottish story, Scottish humour, Scottish feeling, Scottish virtue; and he has put money into the pockets of Scottish hotel-keepers, Scottish tailors, Scottish boatmen, and the drivers of the Highland mails.
Every true Scotsman believes Edinburgh to be the most picturesque city in the world; and truly, standing on the Calton Hill at early morning, when the smoke of fires newly-kindled hangs in azure swathes and veils about the Old Town - which from that point resembles a huge lizard, the Castle its head, church-spires spikes upon its scaly back, creeping up from its lair beneath the Crags to look out on the morning world - one is quite inclined to pardon the enthusiasm of the North Briton. The finest view from the interior is obtained from the corner of St Andrew Street, looking west. Straight before you the Mound crosses the valley, bearing the white Academy buildings; beyond, the Castle lifts, from grassy slopes and billows of summer foliage, its weather-stained towers and fortifications, the Half-Moon battery giving the folds of its standard to the wind. Living in Edinburgh there abides, above all things, a sense of its beauty. Hill, crag, castle, rock, blue stretch of sea, the picturesque ridge of the Old Town, the squares and terraces of the New - these things seen once are not to be forgotten.
The quick life of to-day sounding around the relics of antiquity, and overshadowed by the august traditions of a kingdom, makes residence in Edinburgh more impressive than residence in any other British city. I have just come in - surely it never looked so fair before? What a poem is that Princes Street! The puppets of the busy, many-coloured hour move about on its pavement, while across the ravine Time has piled up the Old Town, ridge on ridge, gray as a rocky coast washed and worn by the foam of centuries; peaked and jagged by gable and roof; windowed from basement to cope; the whole surmounted by St Giles's airy crown. The New is there looking at the Old. Two Times are brought face to face, and are yet separated by a thousand years. Wonderful on winter nights, when the gully is filled with darkness, and out of it rises, against the sombre blue and the frosty stars, that mass and bulwark of gloom, pierced and quivering with innumerable lights. There is nothing in Europe to match that, I think. Could you but roll a river down the valley it would be sublime. Finer still, to place one's-self near the Burns Monument and look toward the Castle. It is more astonishing than an Eastern dream. A city rises up before you painted by fire on night. High in air a bridge of lights leaps the chasm; a few emerald lamps, like glow-worms, are moving silently about in the railway station below; a solitary crimson one is at rest.
That ridged and chimneyed bulk of blackness, with splendour bursting out at every pore, is the wonderful Old Town, where Scottish history mainly transacted itself; while, opposite, the modern Princes Street is blazing throughout its length. During the day the Castle looks down upon the city as if out of another world; stern with all its peacefulness, its garniture of trees, its slopes of grass. The rock is dingy enough in colour, but after a shower, its lichens laugh out greenly in the returning sun, while the rainbow is brightening on the lowering sky beyond. How deep the shadow which the Castle throws at noon over the gardens at its feet where the children play! How grand when giant bulk and towery crown blacken against sunset! Fair, too, the New Town sloping to the sea. From George Street which crowns the ridge, the eye is led down sweeping streets of stately architecture to the villas and woods that fill the lower ground, and fringe the shore; to the bright azure belt of the Forth with its smoking steamer or its creeping sail; beyond, to the shores of Fife, soft blue, and flecked with fleeting shadows in the keen clear light of spring, dark purple in the summer heat, tarnished gold in the autumn haze; and farther away still, just distinguishable on the paler sky, the crest of some distant peak, carrying the imagination into the illimitable world. Residence in Edinburgh is an education in itself. Its beauty refines one like being in love. It is perennial, like a play of Shakespeare's. Nothing can stale its infinite variety.
From a historical and picturesque point of view, the Old Town is the most interesting part of Edinburgh; and the great street running from Holyrood to the Castle - in various portions of its length called the Lawnmarket, the High Street, and the Canongate - is the most interesting part of the Old Town. In that street the houses preserve their ancient appearance; they climb up heavenward, story upon story, with outside stairs and wooden panellings, all strangely peaked and gabled. With the exception of the inhabitants, who exist amidst squalor, and filth, and evil smells undeniably modern, everything in this long street breathes of the antique world. If you penetrate the narrow wynds that run at right angles from it, you see traces of ancient gardens. Occasionally the original names are retained, and they touch the visitor pathetically, like the scent of long-withered flowers. Old armorial bearings may yet be traced above the doorways. Two centuries ago fair eyes looked down from yonder window, now in possession of a drunken Irishwoman. If we but knew it, every crazy tenement has its tragic story; every crumbling wall could its tale unfold.
The Canongate is Scottish history fossilised. What ghosts of kings and queens walk there! What strifes of steel-clad nobles! What wretches borne along, in the sight of peopled windows, to the grim embrace of the "maiden !" What hurrying of burgesses to man the city walls at the approach of the Southron! What lamentations over disastrous battle days! James rode up this street on his way to Flodden. Montrose was dragged up hither on a hurdle, and smote, with disdainful glance, his foes gathered together on the balcony. Jenny Geddes flung her stool at the priest in the church yonder. John Knox came up here to his house after his interview with Mary at Holyrood - grim and stern, and unmelted by the tears of a queen. In later days the Pretender rode down the Canongate, his eyes dazzled by the glitter of his father's crown, while bagpipes skirled around, and Jacobite ladies, with white knots in their bosoms, looked down from lofty windows, admiring the beauty of the "Young Ascanius," and his long yellow hair. Down here of an evening rode Dr Johnson and Boswell, and turned in to the White Horse. David Hume had his dwelling in this street, and trod its pavements, much meditating the wars of the Roses and the Parliament, and the fates of English sovereigns. One day a burly ploughman from black eyes, came down here and turned into yonder churchyard to stand, with cloudy lids and forehead reverently bared, beside the grave of poor Ayrshire, with swarthy features and wonderful Fergusson. Down the street, too, often limped a little boy, Walter Scott by name, destined in after years to write its "Chronicles."
The Canongate once seen is never to be forgotten. The visitor starts a ghost at every step. Nobles, grave senators, jovial lawyers, had once their abodes here. In the old, low-roofed rooms, half-way to the stars, philosophers talked, wits coruscated, and gallant young fellows, sowing wild oats in the middle of last century, wore rapiers and lace ruffles, and drank claret jovially out of silver stoups. In every room a minuet has been walked, while chairmen and linkmen clustered on the pavement beneath. But the Canongate has fallen from its high estate. Quite another race of people are its present inhabitants. The vices to be seen are not genteel. Whisky has supplanted claret. Nobility has fled, and squalor taken possession. Wild, half-naked children swarm around every door-step. Ruffians lounge about the mouths of the wynds. Female faces, worthy of the "Inferno," look down from broken windows. Riots are frequent; and drunken mothers reel past scolding white atomies of children that nestle wailing in their bosoms - little wretches to whom Death were the greatest benefactor.
The Canongate is avoided by respectable people, and yet it has many visitors. The tourist is anxious to make acquaintance with it. Gentlemen of obtuse olfactory nerve, and of an antiquarian turn of mind, go down its closes and climb its spiral stairs. Deep down these wynds the artist pitches his stool, and spends the day sketching some picturesque gable or doorway. The fever-van comes frequently here to convey some poor sufferer to the hospital. Hither comes the detective in plain clothes on the scent of a burglar. And when evening falls, and the lamps are lit, there is a sudden hubbub and crowd of people, and presently from its midst emerge a couple of policemen and a barrow with a poor, half-clad, tipsy woman from the sister island crouching upon it, her hair hanging loose about her face, her hands quivering with impotent rage, and her tongue wild with curses. Attended by small boys, who bait her with taunts and nicknames, and who appreciate the comic element which so strangely underlies the horrible sight, she is conveyed to the police cell, and will be brought before the magistrate to-morrow - for the twentieth time perhaps - as a "drunk and disorderly," and dealt with accordingly. This is the kind of life the Canongate presents to-day - a contrast with the time when the tall buildings enclosed the high birth and beauty of a kingdom, and when the street beneath rang to the horse-hoofs of a king.
The New Town is divided from the Old by a gorge or valley, now occupied by a railway station; and the means of communication are the Mound, Waverley Bridge, and the North Bridge. With the exception of the Canongate, the more filthy and tumble-down portions of the city are well kept out of sight. You stand on the South Bridge, and looking down, instead of a stream, you see the Cowgate, the dirtiest, narrowest, most densely peopled of Edinburgh streets. Admired once by a French ambassador at the court of one of the Jameses, and yet with certain traces of departed splendour, the Cowgate has fallen into the sere and yellow leaf of furniture brokers, second-hand jewellers, and vendors of deleterious alcohol. These second-hand jewellers' shops, the trinkets seen by bleared gaslight, are the most melancholy sights I know. Watches hang there that once ticked comfortably in the fobs of prosperous men, rings that were once placed by happy bridegrooms on the fingers of happy brides, jewels in which lives the sacredness of death-beds. What tragedies, what disruptions of households, what fell pressure of poverty brought them here! Looking in through the foul windows, the trinkets remind one of shipwrecked gold embedded in the ooze of ocean - gold that speaks of unknown, yet certain, storm and disaster, of the yielding of planks, of the cry of drowning men. Who has the heart to buy them, I wonder?
The Cowgate is the Irish portion of the city. Edinburgh leaps over it with bridges; its inhabitants are morally and geographically the lower orders. They keep to their own quarters, and seldom come up to the light of day. Many an Edinburgh man has never set his foot in the street; the condition of the inhabitants is as little known to respectable Edinburgh as are the habits of moles, earth-worms, and the mining population. The people of the Cowgate seldom visit the upper streets. You may walk about the New Town for a twelvemonth before one of these Cowgate pariahs comes between the wind and your gentility. Should you wish to see that strange people "at home," you must visit them. The Cowgate will not come to you: you must go to the Cowgate. The Cowgate holds high drunken carnival every Saturday night; and to walk along it then, from the West Port, through the noble open space of the Grassmarket - where the Covenanters and Captain Porteous suffered - on to Holyrood, is one of the world's sights, and one that does not particularly raise your estimate of human nature. For nights after your dreams will pass from brawl to brawl, shoals of hideous faces will oppress you, sodden countenances of brutal men, women with loud voices and frantic gesticulations, children who have never known innocence. It is amazing of what ugliness the human face is capable. The devil marks his children as a shepherd marks his sheep - that he may know them and claim them again. Many a face flits past here bearing the sign-manual of the fiend.
But Edinburgh keeps all these evil things out of sight, and smiles, with Castle, tower, church-spire, and pyramid rising into sunlight out of garden spaces and belts of foliage. The Cowgate has no power to mar her beauty. There may be a canker at the heart of the peach - there is neither pit nor stain on its dusty velvet. Throned on crags, Edinburgh takes every eye; and, not content with supremacy in beauty, she claims an intellectual supremacy also. She is a patrician amongst British cities, "A penniless lass wi' a lang pedigree." She has wit if she lacks wealth: she counts great men against millionaires. The success of the actor is insecure until thereunto Edinburgh has set her seal. The poet trembles before the Edinburgh critics. The singer respects the delicacy of the Edinburgh ear. Coarse London may roar with applause: fastidious Edinburgh sniffs disdain, and sneers reputations away. London is the stomach of the empire - Edinburgh the quick, subtle, far-darting brain.
Some pretension of this kind the visitor hears on all sides of him. It is quite wonderful how Edinburgh purrs over her own literary achievements. Swift, in the dark years that preceded his death, looking one day over some of the productions of his prime, exclaimed, "Good heaven! what a genius I once was!" Edinburgh, looking some fifty years back on herself, is perpetually expressing astonishment and delight. Mouldening Highland families, when they are unable to retain a sufficient following of servants, fill up the gaps with ghosts. Edinburgh maintains her dignity after a similar fashion, and for a similar reason. Lord-Advocate Moncreiff, one of the members for the city, hardly ever addresses his fellow-citizens without recalling the names of Jeffrey, Cockburn, Rutherfurd, and the other stars that of yore made the welkin bright. On every side we hear of the brilliant society of forty years ago. Edinburgh considers herself supreme in talent - just as it is taken for granted to-day that the present English navy is the most powerful in the world, because Nelson won Trafalgar.
The Whigs consider the Edinburgh Review the most wonderful effort of human genius. The Tories would agree with them, if they were not bound to consider Blackwood's Magazine a still greater effort. It may be said that Burns, Scott, and Carlyle are the only men really great in literature - taking great in a European sense - who, during the last eighty years, have been connected with Edinburgh. I do not include Wilson in the list; for although he was as splendid as any of these for the moment, he was evanescent as a Northern light. In the whole man there was something spectacular. A review is superficially very like a battle. In both there is the rattle of musketry, the boom of great guns, the deploying of endless brigades, charges of brazen squadrons that shake the ground - only the battle changes kingdoms, while the review is gone with its own smoke-wreaths. Scott lived in or near Edinburgh during the whole course of his life. Burns lived there but a few months. Carlyle went to London early, where he has written his important works, and made his reputation. Let the city boast of Scott - no one will say she does wrong in that - but it is not so easy to discover the amazing brilliancy of her other literary lights. Their reputations, after all, are to a great extent local.
What blazes a sun at Edinburgh, would, if transported to London, not unfrequently become a farthing candle. Lord Jeffrey - when shall we cease to hear his praises? With perfect truthfulness one may admit that his lordship was no common man. His "vision" was sharp and clear enough within its range. He was unable to relish certain literary forms, as some men are unable to relish certain dishes - an inaptitude that might arise from fastidiousness of palate, or from weakness of digestion. His style was perspicuous; he had an icy sparkle of epigram and antithesis, some wit, and no enthusiasm. He wrote many clever papers, made many clever speeches, said many clever things. But the man who could so egregiously blunder as to "Wilhelm Meister," who hooted Wordsworth through his entire career, who had the insolence to pen the sentence that opens the notice of the "Excursion" in the Edinburgh Review, and who, when writing tardily, but really well, on Keats, could pass over the "Hyperion" with a slighting remark, might be possessed of distinguished parts, but no claim can be made for him to the character of a great critic. Hazlitt, wilful, passionate, splendidly- gifted, in whose very eccentricities and fierce vagaries there was a generosity which belongs only to fine natures, has sunk away into an almost unknown London grave, and his works into unmerited oblivion; while Lord Jeffrey yet makes radiant with his memory the city of his birth.
In point of natural gifts and endowment - in point, too, of literary issue and result - the Englishman far surpassed the Scot. Why have their destinies been so different? One considerable reason is that Hazlitt lived in London - Jeffrey in Edinburgh. Hazlitt was partially lost in an impatient crowd and rush of talent. Jeffrey stood, patent to every eye, in an open space in which there were few competitors. London does not brag about Hazlitt - Edinburgh brags about Jeffrey. The Londoner, when he visits Edinburgh, is astonished to find that it possesses a Valhalla filled with gods - chiefly legal ones - of whose names and deeds he was previously in ignorance. The ground breaks into unexpected flowerage beneath his feet. He may conceive to-day to be a little cloudy - may even suspect east wind to be abroad, but the discomfort is balanced by the reports he hears on every side of the beauty, warmth, and splendour of yesterday. He puts out his hands and warms them, if he can, at that fire of the past. "Ah! that society of forty years ago! Never on this earth did the like exist. Those astonishing men, Homer, Jeffrey, Cockburn, Rutherfurd! What wit was theirs - what eloquence, what genius! What a city this Edinburgh once was!"
Edinburgh is not only in point of beauty the first of British cities - but, considering its population, the general tone of its society is more intellectual than that of any other. In no other city will you find so general an appreciation of books, art, music, and objects of antiquarian interest. It is peculiarly free from the taint of the ledger and the counting-house. It is a Weimar without a Goethe - Boston without its nasal twang. But it wants variety; it is mainly a city of the professions. London, for instance, contains every class of people; it is the seat of legislature as well as of wealth; it embraces Seven Dials as well as Beigravia. In that vast community class melts imperceptibly into class, from the Sovereign on the throne to the wretch in the condemned cell. In that finely-graduated scale, the professions take their own place. In Edinburgh matters are quite different.
It retains the gauds which royalty cast off when it went South, and takes a melancholy pleasure in regarding these - as a lady the love-tokens of a lover who has deserted her to marry into a family of higher rank. A crown and sceptre lie up in the Castle, but no brow wears the diadem, no hand lifts the golden rod. There is a palace at the foot of the Canongate, but it is a hotel for her Majesty, en route for Balmoral - a place where the Commissioner to the Church of Scotland holds his phantom Court. With these exceptions, the old halls echo only the footfalls of the tourist and sight-seer. When royalty went to London, nobility followed; and in Edinburgh the field is left now, and has been so left for a long time back, to Law, Physic, and Divinity. The professions predominate: than these there is nothing higher. At Edinburgh a Lord of Session is a Prince of the Blood, a Professor a Cabinet Minister, an Advocate an heir to a peerage. The University and the Courts of Justice are to Edinburgh what the Court and the Houses of Lords and Commons are to London. That the Scottish nobility should spend their seasons in London is not to be regretted for the sake of Edinburgh shopkeepers only - their absence affects interests infinitely higher. In the event of a superabundance of princes, and a difficulty as to what should be done with them, it has been frequently suggested that one should be stationed in Dublin, another in Edinburgh, to hold Court in these cities Gold is everywhere preferred to paper; and in the Irish capital royalty in the person of Prince Patrick would be more satisfactory than its shadow in the person of a Lord-Lieutenant. A Prince of the Blood in Dublin would be gratefully received by the warm-hearted Irish people. His permanent presence amongst them would cancel the remembrance of centuries of misgovernment; it would strike away for ever the badge and collar of conquest.
In Edinburgh we have had princes of late years, and seen the uses of them. A prince at Holyrood would effect for the country what Scottish Rights' Associations and University reformers have so long desired. The nobility would again gather - for a portion of the year at least - to their ancient capital; and their sons, as of old, would be found in the University class-rooms. Under the new influence, life would be gayer, airier, brighter. The social tyranny of the professions would to some extent be broken up, the atmosphere would become less legal, and a new standard would be introduced whereby to measure men and their pretensions. For the Prince himself, good results might be expected. He would at the least have some specific public duties to perform; and he would, through intercourse, become attached to the people, as the people in their turn would become attached to him. Edinburgh needs some little gaiety and courtly pomp to break the coldness of gray stony streets; to brighten a somewhat sombre atmosphere; to mollify the east wind that blows half the year, and the "professional sectarianism" that blows the whole year round. You always suspect the east wind, somehow, in the city. You go to dinner: the east wind is blowing chillily from hostess to host. You go to church, a bitter east wind is blowing in the sermon. The text is that divine one, GOD IS LOVE; and the discourse that follows is full of all uncharitableness.
Of all British cities, Edinburgh - Weimar-like in its intellectual and aesthetic leanings, Florence-like in its freedom from the stains of trade, and more than Florence-like in its beauty - is the one best suited for the conduct of a lettered life. The city as an entity does not stimulate like London, the present moment is not nearly so intense, life does not roar and chafe - it murmurs only; and this interest of the hour, mingled with something of the quietude of distance and the past - which is the spiritual atmosphere of the city - is the most favourable of all conditions for intellectual work or intellectual enjoyment. You have libraries - you have the society of cultivated men and women - you have the eye constantly fed by beauty - the Old Town, jagged, picturesque, piled up; and the airy, open, coldly-sunny, unhurried, uncrowded streets of the New Town - and, above all, you can "sport your oak," as they say at Cambridge, and be quit of the world, the gossip, and the dun.
In Edinburgh, you do not require to create quiet for yourself; you can have it ready-made. Life is leisurely; but it is not the leisure of a village, arising from a deficiency of ideas and motives - it is the leisure of a city reposing grandly on tradition and history, which has done its work, which does not require to weave its own clothing, to dig its own coals, to smelt its own iron. And then, in Edinburgh, above all British cities, you are released from the vulgarising dominion of the hour. The past confronts you at every street corner. The Castle looks down out of history on its gayest thoroughfare. The winds of fable are blowing across Arthur's Seat. Old kings dwelt in Holyrood. Go out of the city where you will, the past attends you like a cicerone. Go down to North Berwick, and the red shell of Tantallon speaks to you of the might of the Douglases. Across the sea, from the gray-green Bass, through a cloud of gannets, comes the sigh of prisoners. From the long sea-board of Fife - which you can see from George Street - starts a remembrance of the Jameses. Queen Mary is at Craigmillar, Napier at Merchiston, Ben Jonson and Drummond at Hawthornden, Prince Charles in the little inn at Duddingston; and if you go out to Linlithgow, there is the smoke of Bothwellhaugh's fusee, and the Great Regent falling in the crooked street.
Thus the past checkmates the present. To an imaginative man, life in or near Edinburgh is like residence in an old castle: - the rooms are furnished in consonance with modern taste and convenience; the people who move about wear modern costume, and talk of current events in current colloquial phrases; there is the last newspaper and book in the library, the air from the last new opera in the drawing-room; but while the hour flies past, a subtle influence enters into it - enriching, dignifying - from oak panelling and carvings on the roof - from the picture of the peaked-bearded ancestor on the wall - from the picture of the fanned and hooped lady - from the old suit of armour and the moth-eaten banner.
On the intellectual man, living or working in Edinburgh, the light comes through the stained window of the past. To-day's event is not raw and brusque; it comes draped in romantic Colour, hued with ancient gules and or. And when he has done his six hours' work, he can take the noblest and most renovating exercise. He can throw down his pen, put aside his papers, and walk round the Queen's Drive, where the wind from the sea is always fresh and keen; and in his hour's walk he has wonderful variety of scenery - the fat Lothians - the craggy hillside - the valley, which seems a bit of the Highlands - the wide sea, with smoky towns on its margin, and islands on its bosom - lakes with swans and rushes - ruins of castle, palace, and chapel - and, finally, homeward by the high towering street through which Scottish history has rushed like a stream. There is no such hour's walk as this for starting ideas, or, having started, captured, and used them, for getting quit of them again.
Edinburgh is at this moment in the full blaze of her beauty. The public gardens are in blossom. The trees that clothe the base of the Castle rock are clad in green: the "ridgy back" of the Old Town jags the clear azure. Princes Street is warm and sunny - 'tis a very flower-bed of parasols, twinkling, rainbow-coloured. Shop windows are enchantment, the flag streams from the Halfmoon Battery, church-spires sparkle sun-gilt, gay equipages dash past, the military band is heard from afar. The tourist is already here in wonderful Tweed costume. Every week the wanderers increase, and in a short time the city will be theirs. By August the inhabitants have fled. The University lets loose, on unoffending humanity, a horde of juvenile M.D.'s warranted to dispense with the sixth commandment.
Beauty listens to what the wild waves are saying. Valour cruises in the Mediterranean; and Law, up to the knees in heather, stalks his stag on the slopes of Ben-Muichdhui. Those who, from private and most urgent reasons, are forced to remain behind, put brown paper in their front windows; inform the world by placard that letters and parcels may be left at No. 26 round the corner, and live fashionably in their back-parlours. At twilight only do they adventure forth; and if they meet a friend - who ought like the rest of the world to be miles away - they have only of course come up from the sea-side, or their relation's shooting-box, for a night, to look after some imperative business. Tweed - clad tourists are everywhere: they stand on Arthur's Seat, they speculate on the birthplace of Mons Meg, they admire Roslin, eat haggis, attempt whisky-punch, and crowd to Dr Guthrie's church on Sundays. By October the last tourist has departed, and the first student has arrived. Tailors put forth their gaudiest fabrics to attract the eye of ingenuous youth. Whole streets bristle with "lodgings to let" Edinburgh is again filled. The University class-rooms are crowded; a hundred schools are busy; and Young Briefless,
"Who never is, but always to be, fee'd,"
the sun-brown yet on his face, paces the floor of the Parliament House, four hours a day, in his professional finery of horse-hair and bombazine. During the winter-time are assemblies and dinner-parties. There is a fortnight's opera, with the entire fashionable world in the boxes. The Philosophical Institution is in full session; while a whole army of eloquent lecturers do battle with ignorance on public platforms - each effulging like Phoebus, with his waggon-load of blazing day - at whose coming night perishes, shot through with orient beams. Neither mind nor body is neglected during the Edinburgh season.
In spring time, when the east winds blow, and grey walls of haar - clammy, stinging, heaven-high, making disastrous twilight of the brightest noon - come in from the German Ocean, and when coughs and colds do most abound, the Royal Scottish Academy opens her many-pictured walls. From February to May this is the most fashionable lounge in Edinburgh. The rooms are warm, so thickly carpeted that no footfall is heard, and there are seats in abundance. It is quite wonderful how many young ladies and gentlemen get suddenly interested in art. The Exhibition is a charming place for flirtation; and when Romeo is short in the matter of small talk - as Romeo sometimes will be - there is always a picture at hand to suggest a topic. Romeo may say a world of pretty things while he turns up the number of a picture in Juliet's catalogue - for without a catalogue Juliet never appears in the rooms. Before the season closes, she has her catalogue by heart, and could repeat it to you from beginning to end more glibly than she could her Catechism. Cupid never dies; and fingers will tingle as sweetly when they touch over an Exhibition catalogue as over the dangerous pages of "Lancelot of the Lake." If many marriages are not made here, there are gay deceivers in the world, and the picture of deserted Ophelia - the blank smile on her mouth, flowerets stuck in her yellow hair - slowly sinking in the weedy pool, produces no suitable moral effect.
To other than young ladies and gentlemen the rooms are interesting, for Scottish art is at this moment more powerful than Scottish literature. Perhaps some half-dozen pictures in each Academy's Exhibition are the most notable intellectual products that Scotland can present for the year. The Scottish brush is stronger than the Scottish pen. It is in landscape and - at all events up till the other day, when Sir John Watson Gordon died - in portraiture that the Scotch school excels. It excels in the one in virtue of the national scenery, and in the other in virtue of the national insight and humour. For the making of a good portrait a great deal more is required than excellent colour and dexterous brush-work - shrewdness, insight, imagination, common sense, and many another mental quality besides, are needed.
No man can paint a good portrait unless he knows his sitter thoroughly; and every good portrait is a kind of biography. It is curious, as indicating that the instinct for biography and portrait-painting are alike in essence, that in both walks of art the Scotch have been unusually successful. It would seem that there is something in the national character predisposing to excellence in these departments of effort. Strictly to inquire how far this predisposition arises from the national shrewdness or the national humour, would be needless; thus much is certain, that Scotland has at various times produced the best portrait-painters and the best writers of biography to be found in the compass of the islands. In the past, she can point to Boswell's "Life of Johnson" and Raeburn's portraits: she yet can claim Thomas Carlyle; and but lately she could claim Sir John Watson Gordon. Thomas Carlyle is a portrait-painter, and Sir John Watson Gordon was a biographer.
On the walls of the Exhibition, as I have said, will be found some of the best products of the Scottish brain. There, year after year, are to be found the pictures of Mr Noel Paton - some, of the truest pathos, like the "Home from the Crimea;" or that group of ladies and children in the cellar at Cawnpore, listening to the footsteps of deliverers, whom they conceive to be destroyers; or "Luther at Erfurt," the gray morning light breaking in on him as he is with fear and trembling working out his own salvation - and the world's. We have these, but we have at times others quite different from these, and of a much lower scale of excellence, although hugely admired by the young people aforesaid - pictures in which attire is painted instead of passion; where the merit consists in exquisite renderings of unimportant details - jewels, tassels, and dagger hilts; where a landscape is sacrificed to a bunch of ferns, a tragic situation to the pattern on the lady's zone, or the slashed jacket and purple leggings of the knight.
Then there are Mr Drummond's pictures from Scottish history and ballad poetry - a string of wild moss-troopers riding over into England to lift cattle; John Knox on his wedding-day leading his wife home to his quaint dwelling in the Canon-gate; the wild lurid Grassmarket, crowded with rioters, crimson with torchlight, spectators filling every window of the tall houses, while Porteous is being carried to his death - the Castle standing high above the tumult against the blue midnight and the stars; or the death procession of Montrose - the hero seated on hurdle, not on battle-steed, with beard untrimmed, hair dishevelled, dragged through the crowded street by the city hangman and his horses, yet proud of aspect, as if the slogans of Inverlochy were ringing in his ears, and flashing on his enemies on the balcony above him the fires of his disdain. Then there are Mr Harvey's solemn twilight moors, and covenanting scenes of marriage, baptism, and funeral.
And drawing the eye with a stronger fascination - because they represent the places in which we are about to wander - the landscapes of Horatio Macculloch - stretches of Border moorland, with solitary gray peels on which the watery sunbeam strikes, a thread of smoke rising far off from the gipsy's fire; Loch Scavaig in its wrath, the thunder gloom blackening on the peaks of Cuchullin, the fierce rain crashing down on white rock and shingly shore; sunset on Loch Ard, the mountains hanging inverted in the golden the winding Awe. He is the most national of the northern landscape-painters; and although he can, on occasion, paint grasses and flowers, and the shimmer of reed-blades in the wind, he loves mirror, a plump of water-fowl starting from the reeds in the foreground, and shaking the splendour into dripping wrinkles and widening rings; Ben Cruachan wearing his streak of snow at midsummer, and looking down on Kilchurn Castle and vast desolate spaces, the silence of the Highland wilderness where the wild deer roam, the shore on which subsides the last curl of the indolent wave. He loves the tall crag wet and gleaming in the sunlight, the rain-cloud on the moor, blotting out the distance, the setting sun raying out lances of flame from behind the stormy clouds - clouds torn, but torn into gold, and flushed with a brassy radiance.
May is an exciting month in Edinburgh, for, towards its close, the Assemblies of the Established and Free Churches meet. For a fortnight or so the clerical element predominates in the city. Every presbytery in Scotland sends up its representative to the metropolis, and an astonishing number of black coats and white neckcloths flit about the streets. At high noon the gaiety of Princes Street is subdued with innumerable suits of sable. Ecclesiastical newspapers let the world wag as it pleases, so intent are they on the debates. Rocky-featured elders from the far north come up interested in some kirk dispute; and junior counsel waste the midnight oil preparing for appearance at the bar of the House. The opening of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland is attended with a pomp and circumstance which seems a little at variance with Presbyterian quietude of tone and contempt of sacerdotal vanities. Her Majesty's Lord High Commissioner resides at Holyrood, and on the morning of the day on which the Assembly opens he holds his first levee. People rush to warm themselves in the dim reflection of the royal sunshine, and return with faces happy and elate.
On the morning the Assembly opens, the military line the streets from Holyrood to the Assembly Hall. A regimental band and a troop of lancers wait outside the palace gates while the procession is slowly getting itself into order. The important moment at length arrives. The Commissioner has taken his seat in the carriage. Out bursts the brass band, piercing every ear; the lancers caracole; an orderly rides with eager spur; the long train of carriages begins to crawl forward in an intermittent manner, with many a dreary pause. At last the head of the procession appears along the peopled way. First come, in hired carriages, the city councillors, clothed in scarlet robes, and with cocked hats upon their heads. The very mothers that bore them could not recognise them now. They pass on silent with dignity. Then comes a troop of halberdiers in mediaeval costume, and looking for all the world as if the Kings, Jacks, and Knaves had walked out of a pack of cards. Then comes a carriage full of magistrates, wearing their gold chains of office over their scarlet cloaks, and eyeing sternly the small boy in the crowd who, from a natural sense of humour, has given vent to an irreverent observation. Then comes the band; then a squadron of lancers, whose horses the music seems to affect; then a carriage occupied with high legal personages, with powder in their hair, and rapiers by their sides, which they could not draw for their lives. Then comes the private carriage of his Grace, surrounded by lancers, whose mercurial steeds plunge and rear, and back and sidle, and scatter the mob as they come prancing broadside on to the pavement, smiting sparks of fire from the kerbstones with their iron hoofs. Thereafter, Tom, Jack, and Harry, for every cab, carriage, and omnibus of the line of route is now allowed to fall in - and so, attended by halberdiers, and soldiers, and a brass band, her Majesty's Commissioner goes to open the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. As his Grace has to attend all the sittings of the reverend court, the Government, it is said, generally selects for the office a nobleman slightly dull of hearing. The Commissioner has no power, he has no voice in the deliberations; but he is indispensable, as a corporation mace is indispensable at a corporation meeting.
While the debate is going on below, and two reverend fathers are passionately throttling each other, he is not unfrequently seen, with spectacles on nose, placidly perusing the Times. He is allowed two thousand pounds a year, and his duty is to spend it. He keeps open table for the assembled clergymen. He holds a grand evening levee, to which several hundred people are invited. If you are lucky enough to receive a card of invitation, you fall into the line of carriages opposite the Register House about eight o'clock, you are off the High School at nine, ten peals from the church-spires when you are at the end of Regent Terrace, and by eleven your name is being shouted by gorgeous lackeys - whose income is probably as great as your own - through the corridors of Holyrood as you advance towards the presence. When you arrive you find that the country parson, with his wife and daughter, have been before you, and you are a lucky man if, for refreshment, you can secure a bit of remainder sponge-cake and a glass of lukewarm sherry. On the last occasion of the Commissioner's levee the newspapers inform me that seventeen hundred invitations were issued. Think of it - seventeen hundred persons on that evening bowed before the Shadow of Majesty, and then backed in their gracefulest manner. On that evening the Shadow of Majesty performed seventeen hundred genuflections! I do not grudge the Lord Commissioner his two thousand pounds. Verily, the labourer is worthy of his hire. The vale of life is not without its advantages.
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