City of Stone

City of StoneIf on an autumn night a traveller were to find himself on a train carriage, journeying northbound from London, passing by the Cheviot as the sun sets the sky ablaze, bathing the land in its rich evening light, passing by the hills and leaving far behind him memories of the Thames, the Docklands, of Aldgate and Kew; if he should chance to gaze absentmindedly from the window, surveying the landscape that is passing before his eyes, perhaps he might feel a fond flicker of nostalgia for the land he is leaving behind him, a land of Tudor mansions, terraced houses and red-brick homes. And should his thoughts turn to such matters, perhaps something might cause him, as the train ploughs on into the wild landscapes of the north, to register a change in the buildings that now populate the countryside: perhaps, even if only vaguely, he will become aware that the red bricks which were once so prominent, have all but gone, being replaced instead by constructions of an altogether different hue. Alighting from his carriage in Edinburgh’s Waverly Station, perhaps then, stepping out into the cold night, he will be struck immediately by the full force of her gothic splendour: solid, indelible, the wind dragging the clouds across the sky — an eternal city: a city carved from stone.

Perhaps it was a meditation of a similar nature which led Ian Hannah to remark, in his book Story of Scotland in Stone (1934) that “the buildings in Scotland are almost wholly stone. Brick and timber, used with such effect in England and other European lands, are hardly to be found at all.” What’s more, in Edinburgh we are to find a particularly fine example of this phenomenon: from the gothic splendour of St. Giles Cathedral in the heart of the Old Town, to the more humble forms of the tenements lived in by the city’s workers, Edinburgh is, through and through, a city made of stone.

When the sun shines, we can see her buildings react to its light: bejewelled and resplendent, who can fail to admire her sundappled stonescapes, the panorama which meets our eyes as we gaze out towards the Old Town from Princes Street, across the site of the former Nor Loch and over into a labyrinthine world of stone passages; or standing atop Calton Hill, looking out over the Firth of Forth, our eyes tracing a line down Leith Walk to the port which once served the burgeoning petropolis, the sandstone of the New Town glittering in the afternoon sun, a kaleidoscope of buffs, ivories and arenaceous creams.

Yet when the sun is gone—as it so often is—the city’s timbre changes: oppressive, lugubrious, occasionally subdued, the long, dark winters reveal to us another side of her beauty, the full weight of our stern Calvinist past bearing down upon us with all its might, an omnipotent and inescapable reminder of the history to which we are inextricably bound.

Everywhere we go, we come up against reminders of the hopes and dreams of our forbearers, codified in stone, petroglyphs that make up an integral part of the heritage bequeathed to generations to come. Yet for the most part, it would seem we remain only dimly aware of this treasure trove of ornamental embellishments linking us to the past: few of us notice, and less still stop to admire, the scenes depicted above the doorway of the Central Library, or the face of Young McIver as he lies buried in the rubble, a faint cry of heave awa lads, I’m no deid yet to be heard lingering in the air, or the majestic stone eagle which protrudes from the quoins of a certain West-Edinburgh tenement block, its feathers ruffled, it’s wings spread wide, impervious to the winter’s icy winds.

Alas, should we compare the old with the new, it becomes clear that our constructions have become progressively more functional over the course of the years, their ornamentation more impoverished, the role of the imagination more marginalized. Where it was once the staple of Scotland’s architecture, stone has been relegated to a mere cladding material, a surface used sparingly to endow a veneer of prestige to buildings whose appearance would be otherwise unremarkable.

Returning to Hannah then: “no nation,” he observes, “can ever help reflecting its character in its buildings, and that works of art, particularly architecture, are among the most valuable materials that exist for searching out the story of the world and the deepest thoughts of man.” But isn’t that just the problem? The constructions of this day and age reveal to us not our deepest thoughts, but perhaps the paucity thereof; they reveal to us a society from which the spiritual, the aesthetic, the imaginative, has been stealthily eroded, triumphed instead by the bleak economy of a vapid utilitarianism.

Looking around at the buildings of our time, perhaps it is worth pausing to reflect just what are our deepest thoughts: what stories of the world will we leave behind for generations to come?

Illustration © 2011 Studio Monik. All rights reserved.



One Response to “City of Stone”

  1. Interesting, thoughtful post. Thank you.

    (D Blaikie, 12 November 2010)