I am continually disgusted by my ignorance of Scottish literature, history, geography, poetry and art. Where once I had purposefully spent hours exploring, going down streets and alleys simply because I had not done so before, now it is a matter of getting to my destination as quickly as possible. The city has plenty of decent museums and galleries, but these days my knowledge of what goes on in them is limited to the posters on walls I glimpse as I cycle by. I have probably not been to an exhibition for almost 2 years.
By no means is this something willful. It is what usually comes of living in the same place for a long period of time (in my case, almost 7 years in Edinburgh). I am aware of this lamentable state of affairs, but it is too comfortable a rut to get out of. Only occasionally do I lift my head and look around and properly comprehend how rich and interesting it is to live here. Usually after I’ve read something like Neal Ascherson’s Stone Voices, which, in its tour through Scottish political history, makes many interesting stops.
For instance, whilst I vaguely knew that Edinburgh had been the site of some serious shifts in geological thinking, I did not realise how profoundly they had altered people’s thinking.
At the end of most streets in Edinburgh’s Old Town rises the crimson wall of Salisbury Craigs, a lesson in the unimaginable force and lapses of time which have gone to shape the world. The Craigs are a basalt intrusion, a fossil tide of volcanic rock which surged through the foundations of a dead volcano some 200 million years ago. Geology and paleontology, with their revelations of deep time and alien life-forms, towered up wherever nineteenth century Scots turned their eyes. The ‘testimony of the rocks’ threatened their moral universe, its narrative incompatible with a creation myth or even with a creator.
Equally powerful testimony exists less than a twenty minute walk from my house, on Blackford Hill, where there is a rock i have passed dozens of times (on which, now I think of it, there is even a plaque). As Ascherson says, “Here, in 1840, the Swiss naturalist and geologist Louis Agassiz arrived in the company of Charles Maclaren, the Scotsman‘s first real editor.” It was his observations of the horizontal scratches on the stone that led him to claim they were the work of stones carried by a moving force, in particular ice masses.
From the Scotsman, the entire British public learned for the first time that there had been an Ice Age in their own land and throughout the northern hemisphere. Conventional religion was faced with proof that much of the world had been overrun, buried and reshaped by an ice-cap and glaciers hundreds of feet thick- and at a relatively recent period. Here was a cataclysm which the Book did not even mention.
As it with the Aggasiz rock, so it is with the shaped stones that constitute the buildings of a city. These too have their plaques that speak of what was done and said within, usually before our time. Perhaps, when we occasionally pause to read them- when the bus is late, when she is late -we find nothing of interest, no connection to the person who lived there or wrote X while doing so. The fault for this is entirely our own. We must unblock our ears.