Alone in the library one evening, early winter, I chance to stumble upon a curious title: History and Derivation of Edinburgh Streetnames, published by The Edinburgh Corporation, City Engineers Department, May 1975. I dust down the cover and settle down at a reading table to flick through a few of the pages.
I’m surprised, first of all, to discover that the city once had its own engineer; a certain A.S. Crockett, whose various designatory letters are listed after his name. I wonder whether this is still the case; I wonder too, what Mr Crockett and his predecessors would make of the current state of affairs.
Turning the pages, it fascinates me to learn of the histories which accompany the street names: Morrison Street, so called because it occupied part of Mr Morrison’s land; Elm Row, which took its name from the line of Elm trees running parallel to Baxter place, marking the boundary of the land of a certain Mr Allan; or Fountainbridge, which I am informed takes its name from an old bridge over the Dalry Burn, flowing from the Borough Loch and passing by Lochirn to Coltbridge. It intrigues me to learn of the long-lost hydrology of a sector of the city which is now fully developed, without a burn or a loch in site; it’s no surprise, I reflect, that the area was once so popular with the city’s brewing trade.
I close the book and rest my eyes. Looking out of the window, gazing across the meadows, I see the moon hanging high in the night sky, a thin yellow crescent. I’m struck by the sheer volume of history that lies before me, the hidden past of artefacts which I, and no doubt many others too, take for granted. I try in vain to conjure up an image of Mr Morrison and his land, or Mr Allan and his, perhaps out hunting one frosty winter morn, the trusty hounds trotting by their sides, their paws making a gentle crushing sound as they pad over the grass. But the city stops me: its stone and concrete stands firmly in the way of this bucolic scene. For their part, Borough Loch and Coltbridge are but names to me, and the Dalry Burn a feature of the city that has long since gone.
It disturbs me to discover the transience of objects which, for all intents and purposes, appear to us as permanent, unchanging. Returning the volume to its position on the shelf, I pay silent tribute to Mr Crockett, whose labours have succeeded in preventing, at least for the time being, these historical fascicles from becoming forever lost to the sands of time.
Stepping out into the night, I am at once met by the crisp winter air; the stars shine brightly in the sky above. The city bristles around me, in all its occult past; the street signs wink at me, hinting at their histories from all around.