We’ve taken vacations to the United Kingdom for the last four years, and focused on London and southern England. But given the fact that my first novel has scenes set in Edinburgh, which I’ve never visited except via the internet, Scotland has started exerting a stronger pull. After reading Robert Crawford’s On Glasgow and Edinburgh, the pull has become irresistible.
This is not traditional travel writing. This is more like a well-researched, filled-with-fascinating-facts love letter to two cities, which, Crawford points out in a long introduction, maintain a usually friendly rivalry for pre-eminence in Scotland.
What Crawford does for both cities is to take the areas where most visitors would see – the historical areas, the museums, the shopping districts, the historical neighborhoods – and then provide a detailed look at where they came from, who lived there, what life was like, and interesting facts (like murders and trials). The result is a rich tapestry of understanding, a look into life and people across different historical eras, and how these two cities developed as they did.
This is the kind of book you read before you visit. Perhaps you even bring it with you to consult during your visit.
You walk with Crawford on streets and neighborhoods, like the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and Buchanan Street in Glasgow, and you find history, commerce, art, literature, architecture, science, medicine, and people. You discover who built the universities, where the great art collections and libraries came from, and how Edinburgh became a royal capital and Glasgow a manufacturing one (and why both revere the poet Robert Burns).
And you discover Edinburgh’s poetry library, and Glasgow’s Mitchell Library. You learn who it was who pioneered what today we called an English literature course (Adam Smith, he who wrote The Wealth of Nations and the “father” of capitalism). You meet Mary Queen of Scots, Lord Kelvin, Dr. Joseph Lister (pioneer of antiseptic surgery), the murderers Burke and Hare who supplied cadavers to Edinburgh’s medical school, the architects, artists, sculptors, tobacco merchants, and shipbuilders. Best of all, Crawford does this in a well-written narrative; this is no laundry list of facts and figures but a story, a great story of two cities which have had a tremendous influence worldwide.
Crawford is Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St. Andrews, and a fellow of both the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Academy. He’s the author of The Savage and the City in the Work of T.S. Eliot (1991), and well as several works on Scottish literature, including Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and Literary Imagination 1314-2014, The Bard: Robert Burns, A Biography (2009), and Scotland’s Books: A History of Scottish Literature (2009). He is also a published poet, with six poetry collections, including Talkies (1992), Masculinity (1996), Spirit Machines (1999), Full Volume (2008), The Tip of My Tongue (2011), and Testament (2014). Earlier this year, he published Young Eliot: From St. Louis to The Waste Land, which I reviewed at Tweetspeak Poetry.
On Glasgow and Edinburgh is an informative, entertaining delight.
Yes, Scotland beckons.
Top photograph: The main building of Glasgow University on Gilmorehill. Photograph of Edinburgh Castle by Kevin Casper via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.