On Glasgow and Edinburgh by Robert Crawford - review by Frank McLynn

Frank McLynn

Jekyll & Clyde

On Glasgow and Edinburgh


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In so many ways Edinburgh and Glasgow express the duality of Scotland. Their intense rivalry, dating back to the 17th century, has been likened to that between New York and Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Moscow and St Petersburg, and Sydney and Melbourne. An original slant on this pairing was provided by the interwar travel writer H V Morton (a source not mentioned by Robert Crawford), who characterised the situation thus:

Glasgow plays the part of Chicago to Edinburgh’s Boston. Glasgow is a city of the glad hand and the smack on the back; Edinburgh is a city of silence until birth or brains open the social circle. In Glasgow a man is innocent until he is found guilty; in Edinburgh a man is guilty until he is found innocent. Glasgow is willing to believe the best of an unknown quantity; Edinburgh, like all aristocracies, the worst.

Edinburgh, with its connection to royalty and ancient pomp and grandeur, is innately conservative and oligarchic; Glasgow, with its history of rebellion, revolutionary politics and political martyrdom – the home of ‘Red Clydeside’ and a stronghold of the Independent Labour Party – is radical and democratic. The ‘unco guid’ and the feminine sensibility are located in Edinburgh; Rab C Nesbitt and the macho mentality in Glasgow. As the great Scottish writer Edwin Muir pointed out, every Edinburgh man considers himself a little better than his neighbour, but in Glasgow every man considers himself just as good as his neighbour. Another way of looking at the two cities is to postulate that Edinburgh, the ‘Athens of the North’, faces the North Sea and the Continent and is thus ‘European’, while Glasgow, facing the Atlantic, is ‘American’. Those who have visited both Glasgow and New York often comment on the similar mentalities. Muir thought that Glasgow suffered from the same malaise as New York in that technology had moved faster than the human capacity to absorb it, resulting in a crevasse between rich and poor. Yet even the simple pairing of Glasgow–America versus Edinburgh–Europe breaks down when we consider that Edinburgh, with its vistas over the Firth of Forth, say from a high building in George Street, looks remarkably like San Francisco. The lover of paradox would note the ambiguity even within the duality.

But the Edinburgh–Glasgow duality is just part of a wider fracture in Scotland. Edinburgh itself is divided into Old Town and New Town. There is the curious interpenetration of town and country which impresses all visitors and which Robert Louis Stevenson thought the most striking oddity about Edinburgh. Edinburgh, with its port at Leith, belongs to a wider family of city–port complexes worldwide, including Athens–Piraeus, Tokyo–Yokohama, Caracas–La Guaira and Lima–Callao. And there is the disjuncture between Edinburgh’s cosmopolitan elite and its historic past. Muir imagined a situation where the aboriginal inhabitants of Edinburgh had all been driven out, to be replaced by a new breed of quasi-Martian colonists who wandered forlornly through an alien landscape of bygone architecture.

When we widen the focus to Scotland as a whole, the picture becomes even more complex; it is no accident that ‘North Britain’ produced the ‘divided self’ motif, so noticeable in the works of James Hogg and Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Master of Ballantrae. At an intellectual level Scotland never resolved the conflict between the Jacobite and Covenanting traditions, or, at a more mundane level, between the austerity of Calvinism and the hard-drinking culture of the working class. Some would say that the Glasgow–Edinburgh differences pale beside the gulf between Highlands and Lowlands. From the early 18th-century Scottish writer Martin Martin onwards, critics have underlined the deep culture shock affecting Highlanders who venture into the two great Scottish cities. Orkney-born Edwin Muir thought that Glasgow was a vision of hell on earth, and he was not very much more complimentary about Edinburgh. The confusion of centuries that Muir detected in Edinburgh is echoed in D H Lawrence’s experiences of the Highlands, which he found as unreconstructed as the Greece of Homer’s Odyssey: ‘It is still out of the world like the very beginning of Europe.’ The Highlands also contributed to the problem of religious sectarianism. Refugees from the Irish Famine of the 1840s converged in Glasgow with a large number of Catholic Highlanders fleeing the Clearances, where they collided with the Kirk. Indeed at one time New York was the only city to contain more Irish and Catholics than Glasgow.

There is a great book waiting to be written about all this, but sadly Robert Crawford’s volume is not the one. It begins promisingly but the level of the first chapter is not maintained and it soon becomes just another routine travel book about Scotland, rather gushing and breathless in the manner of a guidebook – ‘the view from the top is breathtaking’, etc. There is none of the original insight of someone such as A G Macdonell, who spotted that Edinburgh’s Old Town was like Cracow, but grey instead of red. About halfway through, I began to feel like the animals in the fairy tale who told the owl, ‘We know all this.’ For someone coming fresh to these two cities the book might serve as a useful guide, but otherwise it is mostly old hat, with all the familiar tales recycled – Deacon Brodie, Burke and Hare, Greyfriars Bobby, Bonnie Prince Charlie at Holyrood, the alleged poisoner Madeleine Smith’s sensational trial in 1857, and so on. Quite apart from the general Panglossian tone and the wearying political correctness, at least three major criticisms could be made of this volume. There is little mention of the notorious political sectarianism in Glasgow, which all but bien-pensant sociologists concede is still a major problem on Clydeside, most obviously manifesting itself in the ‘ninety-minute bigotry’ of the Old Firm football matches between Celtic and Rangers. Crawford does not examine the huge gap between rich and poor that has always bedevilled Glasgow and which, from all available evidence, is widening yearly. And, most importantly, he does not address the issue of why Edinburgh and Glasgow have declined so disastrously since their glory days. Edinburgh was the home of the Scottish Enlightenment and hosted David Hume, James Hutton, Adam Smith and Robert Fergusson. Glasgow, in so many ways the heart of Scotland (Greater Glasgow and neighbouring conurbations make up around 40 per cent of the country’s population), was the world leader in shipbuilding and heavy engineering, the second city of the British Empire and, by 1939, the fourth most populous city in Europe (after London, Paris and Berlin). Surely a volume on these two cities must ask why they have both lost their place in the world.

As a professor at St Andrews, Crawford is unsurprisingly interested in the world of academe and perhaps it is a measure of his nervousness about this book that the back cover contains no fewer than four puffs from the great and good of the Scottish academy. Scotland is famous for its commitment to education and learning, but some commentators have queried whether the devotion might not be excessive and unbalanced. Glasgow and Edinburgh have four universities each but none rates higher than 32nd (Edinburgh University) in the Times Higher Education Supplement world ranking system for universities. One in ten of the population of Edinburgh is a student and a staggering one-sixth (168,000) in Glasgow. Can a faltering economy sustain this? Crawford does not even think the issue worth debating. His best point is that while Edinburgh has always traditionally won the honours for academic excellence and intellectual endeavour, Glasgow clearly has the lead in the creative arts. The roll call of theatres, orchestras and galleries in the Clydeside city is indeed astounding. And though Crawford can sometimes be a plodding guide to his two great loves, he is not without a sense of humour. As he points out, the Edinburgh bourgeois, surely the model for the cliché of the miserly Scot, has a cast-iron way of making sure he never dips his hand into his pocket. At whatever time a visitor arrives at a house to pay a call, the host (or hostess) will utter the predictable greeting, ‘You’ll have had your tea’, thus dispensing with the need for hospitality. If Robert Crawford was going to avoid all the big questions about Edinburgh and Glasgow, at least he could have given us a few more gems such as this.

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