The night I met
Sir Walter Scott
The best thing about Edinburgh, I’ve always thought, is the board at Waverley Station that tells you the time of the next train to Glasgow. We’ve never got along, the capital and I. It is a city marinaded in moneyed self-satisfaction, a den of dreary tartanalia populated by brogue-shod, flush-cheeked conformists, yomping in their thousands towards the rugby at Murrayfield in matching Barbour jackets and daft bunnets, like an invasion of zombie gamekeepers.
If it’s a pretty city, it’s a beauty that has left me largely unstirred. The famous New Town is an accountant’s ledger of bland beige lines and fastidious uniformity. The Old Town is a grotesquerie of Celtic kitsch, comprised of gloomy hutches selling cheap scratchy kilts and over-priced thistle brooches. I’ve worked in Edinburgh, on and off, for many years, but I’ve never, ever, been tempted to live there.
I have, instead, been a Glasgow boy through and through — by practice, heart and inclination, if not birth. I love the pinball streets and the burbling semi-chaos — the sense that something unexpected, good or bad, might happen at any moment. Raise your eyes above street level in the city centre and there are architectural delights all around, each style clashing jarringly with the one next door. I prefer the insistent informality and the cool shabbiness, and, needless to say, its black, cutting humour is the stuff of life. Allan Brown’s wonderful book, The Glasgow Smile, tells the story of a German tourist who, encountering a harassed Glasgow mother smacking her errant child, intervenes: ‘In Germany we do not hit our children!’ ‘Is that right?’ replies the mother. ‘In Partick we don’t gas our Jews.’
I’ve been working in Edinburgh most of this year, and have had little difficulty resisting its eastern charms — until, that is, around 11 o’clock on the night of September 17. As I trudged along a dark Princes Street in the direction of Waverley and my escape train, I realised the streets were almost completely empty. There was a soupy fog, which meant visibility was limited, and total silence. It was like I’d stepped into another dimension. I was already slightly frazzled, having spent much of the day trying and failing to get my head round the fact that within 24 hours, following months of draining argument and confrontation, the United Kingdom may have been voted out of existence. I’d never experienced an atmosphere like it: a pregnant pause, an entire population holding its breath, a country on the precipice.
It was then that a familiar figure loomed out of the mist. Dear old Sir Walter Scott looked to be in much the same frame of mind as I: brow slightly furrowed, a pensive cast to his features, he was plainly musing on the end of a Union he had done so much to promote and sustain. He was distracted enough that he seemed to have forgotten about the quill and pad in his hand. As he sat on his plinth underneath 200 feet of Gothic fussiness, his deerhound, Maida, eternally at his side, was looking up at her master with concern — dogs, even ones made from Carrara marble, have a knack of sensing when something’s up. For a few seconds, the whole world amounted to just that fretful triptych: Sir Walter, Maida and me. I felt the bonds of history, of kinship and shared identity. I felt them keenly.
Anyway, I had a train to catch, so I left him to his thoughts. The next day Scotland breathed out and decided — for now, anyway — to stay in its greatest novelist’s good books. Serendipitously, within a few weeks Edinburgh was marking the 200th anniversary of Waverley, Scott’s first novel, in which the hero ends up with Rose, the woman who represents the rational choice of a modern Scotland within the Union, rather than the excitable Flora, who stands for the passionate, pre-Union past. The train station to which the novel gave its name is currently festooned with quotes from Scott’s works, all of which are apposite in our nation’s extraordinary year: ‘The ae half of the warld thinks the tither daft’; ‘The best of luxuries, the luxury of knowledge’; ‘In literature, as in love, courage is half the battle’; ‘O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!’
Edinburgh has never seemed quite the same to me since the night I bumped into Sir Walter — the fog has lifted, so to speak. I now struggle to understand how, for so long, I missed the romance of a city in which the main transport hub is named after a novel. I marvel at the poetry in the destinations on the front of its buses: The Jewel; Clovenstone; Hunter’s Tryst; Lady Nairne, Silverknowes, Holyrood. The Old Town skyline, sweeping from Arthur’s Seat in the east to the castle in the west, could be a Ruritanian fantasy. Now, in December, the Christmas lights have a Disneyfying effect on the old sandstone buildings, and a glittering funfair is in town — the Star Flyer, a 200-foot high carousel, takes riders within feet of the upper reaches of the Scott Monument. I’ve even found that some of the be-bunneted Barbour wearers are ok. Kind of.
And it turned out that the sturdy Edinburgh conservatism I so readily mocked delivered a No vote of more than 60 per cent. In Glasgow, by contrast, more than half of voters backed independence, making it one of only four regions to do so. That vibrant, febrile city was all too easily persuaded to suspend its critical faculties and independence of mind and be carried away by the empty demagoguery of Alex Salmond and the flights of fancy offered up as hard fact by various extreme-left con artists. By the end there was something of the hysterical mob about the chanting hordes occupying George Square, like giddy teenage girls awaiting the Bay City Rollers.
We all move on from things from time to time — as John Maynard Keynes put it, ‘when the facts change, I change my mind’. Glasgow and Edinburgh are the competing superpowers of Scottish life, twin poles that both attract and repel. Both, in different ways, are supremely romantic cities, but the referendum exposed to me Glasgow’s gloopily sentimental view of itself, its propensity for crowdthink and a self-righteousness that I found, to put it mildly, unappetising.
It’s like this, Glasgow: I guess we just don’t have as much in common as we used to. It’s not that I’ve stopped loving you, or ever will, but these days my heart is as open to the orient as to the occident. I choose Rose, not Flora.
(This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on December 8, 2014)