"Calton Hill: And the plans for Edinburgh's Third New Town" by Kirsten Carter McKee is published by John Donald, the academic imprint of the prestigious Edinburgh-based publishers, Birlinn Ltd. In many ways that tells you much about what to expect from this book. Birlinn have developed a habit of producing books that in simple physical terms pack a real "wow" factor, and "Calton Hill" is no exception. This is a book that draws attention to itself for all the right reasons. The cover is outstanding (yes, we know, you should never judge a book by its cover, but people frequently do) and the illustrations, comprising maps, drawings and photographs are sumptuous, consistently fascinating, and printed at sufficient size to ensure that their impact is maximised and their detail can be appreciated to the full. The result is a book that is is a sheer joy to handle, to browse and to read.
The author's text comes across as being superbly researched, and the result is both authoritative and definitive. It's difficult to imagine anyone in the future writing about Calton Hill and its environs without referring to what Kirsten Carter McKee has achieved between the covers of this book. The style is academic rather than populist, as befits a work published by an academic imprint. What we mean by this is that it takes a rigorous approach to working forward from and building upon identified sources in order to develop arguments and conclusions that are capable of withstanding academic scrutiny. This can at times impinge on the readability and accessibility of the text: but it's no criticism to say that the author has succeeded in achieving what she very clearly set out to achieve.
For those who don't know Edinburgh, Calton Hill is one of the city's many hills, forming a triangle with the rock on which Edinburgh Castle stands and the crags and summits of Holyrood Park. It dominates eastern views along Princes Street and stands out in many views of and across the city. In this book, Kirsten Carter McKee looks at the way in which what was once a rural outlier removed from the edge of the city came to form such a pivotal part of it. In doing so she looks at the associated development proposals (for what has been called a "Third New Town") in the area to the north-east of the hill, and she also reviews in considerable detail the history of developments - built and unbuilt - on Calton Hill itself. This moves seamlessly into considerations of Scottish cultural identity and both Scottish and British nationalism.
If we have one gripe about this book it concerns the odd typographical effect that has the lower case letters "c" and "s" linked to following consonants by a tilde-like squiggle. This doesn't aid readability and we found we were never able to get used to it sufficiently to simply ignore it: though it's hardly a major drawback in what is a significant and impressive book.