Scottish Journey

Canongate Tolbooth

Canongate Tolbooth

The pleasures of travel writing are obvious. We visit places, and meet their inhabitants, with none of the trouble, expense (and sometimes, danger) a real trip might entail. There is no risk of missed connections, inclement weather, of being hurt or robbed (and even if these mishaps occur, it is not to us, which makes them enjoyable). Best of all, there is no chance of boredom, of knowing you are wasting more time and money than usual. In place of the meaningless sequence of events that make up most trips, there is always a purpose, better still, a narrative. In travel books, things are always done for a reason (even if it is only so they can be written about).

Consider then the added appeal of the out of date travel book (by which I mean those that are non-contemporary). One is transported in not just space, but time as well. One need not resent the author for showing oneself up by virtue of having gone somewhere, and done something, which one could easily have done, given enough nerve or imagination.

Edwin Muir’s Scottish Journey, based on his travels in 1934, provides all these pleasures, plus the added one of being about the place I currently live in.

The first sight of Edinburgh after an absence is invariably exciting. Its bold and stony look recalls ravines and quarried mountains, and as one’s eye runs up the long line of jagged roofs from Holyrood to the Castle, one feels that these house-shapes are outcroppings of the rocky ridge on which they are planted, methodical geological formulations in which, as an afterthought, people have taken to living… Perhaps it is the height of the houses, the great number and smallness of the windows, and the narrowness of the space in which one has to walk that give [a] sense of watchfulness and sinister familiarity. But there is in it, too, something of the terror of narrow rocky passes in savage and possibly inhabited regions.

Often, he articulates thoughts that have gurgled in my own mind:

Nowhere that I have been is one so bathed and steeped and rolled about in floating sexual desire as in certain streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

The joy of his book (for me at least) is that it is both familiar and strange (a contradictory combination that one, from habit, declines to believe is possible, until it occurs with particular force, from sentence, to paragraph, then page). One sees the city as it was, as it is, as it may perhaps shall be. There is an awareness of what has survived amidst the spill of change.

Edinburgh has a style, and that style was at one time, indeed as recently as a century ago, the reflection of a whole style of life. While the city itself remains, this style of life has now been broken down, or rather submerged, by successive waves of change which were first let loose during the Industrial Revolution, an event that has on a large scale swept from the great towns of Europe the character they once possessed. the waves have almost completely submerged London; but Edinburgh, being a high, angular place, is more difficult to drown. So it presents outwardly the face it had a hundred years ago, while within it is worm-eaten with all the ingenuity in tastelessness which modern resources can supply.

Hear, hear, one thinks, but does not say (after 9 years, still not feeling one has the right).

So although Edinburgh is Scottish in itself, one cannot feel that the people who live in it are Scottish in any radical sense, or have any essential connection with it. They do not even go with it. They look like visitors who have stayed there for a long time.

There is still this air of transiency, of people who were passing through but never made it out the other side. As I mentioned earlier this year, I do still (occasionally) try and move on. It may happen. It may.

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