Edinburgh: Iconic Capital

31 Jul 2006
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Auld Reekie, Athens of the North, Festival City and now UNESCO City of Literature, Edinburgh has many monikers and epithets and has had many words written about it.

Auld Reekie, Athens of the North, Festival City and now UNESCO City of Literature, Edinburgh has many monikers and epithets and has had many words written about it. So it's only fitting to start with Robert Louis Stevenson, one of Edinburgh's most famous sons and one of Scotland's greatest writers. Stevenson spent much of his life travelling in search of good health. He finally settled in Samoa where he died in 1894. The south sea islands conjure up a picture of paradise for many and Stevenson was happy there, yet in his essay The Scot Abroad he expresses his desire to be buried in Scotland and his undimmed love of Edinburgh. Such longing for home is universal but Stevenson captures something quintessential about Edinburgh that many have felt but couldnt express so well: the hearth burns more redly; the lights of home shine softer on the rainy street.

Edinburgh is one of those cities, like Paris or Venice, which people fall in love with.

From the world-famous castle at its heart to the magnificent crags of Arthur's Seat to the far views from the New Town across the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh has vistas that command admiration time and again. Built on seven hills like Rome, it also boasts a majestic skyline of spires and cupolas that has been painted and photographed countless times in all its changing lights. It's a city tha'ts hard to tire of, which explains maybe why many of its natives are loathe to leave it for too long.

The centre of the city is effectively divided into the Old Town and the New Town, both of which are World Heritage sites. The medieval Old Town, with its maze of narrow alleyways and flights of steps between tall tenement buildings, is clustered around the Royal Mile, which leads from the massive castle to the Palace of Holyrood, which is still the Queens official residence in Scotland. Its as if there is history in every cobblestone. Romantic heroes, like Mary Queen of Scots and Bonnie Prince Charlie have ridden this mile, and darker souls, like Deacon Brodie and Burke and Hare have lurked in its shadows.

This is only one aspect of the Old Town. The Fringe Office is on the Royal Mile and the main festivals centre The Hub is at the top and during festival time, when thousands of tourists, theatricals and musicians swamp the city, you'd be hard put to find a more colourful and lively street anywhere in the world. This is a part of the city where you'll find new architectural wonders, like Dynamic Earth, The Tun, the new Scotsman building, the New Museum of Scotland and the splendid if controversial new Scottish Parliament.

Meanwhile, across the long hollow of Princes Street gardens (which once was a loch beneath the castle) is the New Town. Designed by James Craig in 1766, with substantial input from classicists Robert Adam and William Playfair, the New Town is one of the most satisfyingly unified towns ever built. It is the height of Georgian elegance with exquisite municipal buildings and town houses lining broad avenues, spacious squares and spectacular circuses. Everywhere theres a feeling of light and air and one of the marvellous things about the New Town is you can be walking down a sophisticated Georgian street of chic boutiques and stylish brasseries when suddenly you catch sight of an extinct volcano, a looming castle or a far view to a firth and distant hills. Its always exhilarating. In many ways Edinburgh is an icon of architecture old and new. But this is only one strand driving Edinburghs proto-theme of design icons.

Edinburgh is not only a fair city, its a bright one too. The elegance of the New Town was matched by the elegance of thought of those who lived there in the eighteenth century and formed what is known as The Scottish Enlightenment. Inspirational thinkers like David Hume and Adam Smith cast new light on the intellectual high grounds of philosophy and economics, building on an existing reputation for medicine, law and veterinary science centred around its famous university, founded in 1583.

A great age of innovation and engineering genius was to follow, with Edinburgh-born inventors like Alexander Graham Bell and scientists like Joseph Lister playing a leading role in Scotland's immense contribution to human scientific knowledge. Edinburgh today continues to exude an intellectual buzz, being one of the world's leading research centres in medicine, artificial intelligence and bio-technology which, of course, has given the world a futuristic icon of design in Dolly the Sheep. The city has also always been a leader in the financial world, with the Bank of Scotland dating back to 1695 and many of the great insurance and investment houses being established here in the Victorian era. Today its one of Europe's top financial capitals with an on-going reputation for innovation in delivering services to customers.

The first Edinburgh International Festival was held in 1947. Over fifty years later Edinburgh is now known as the Festival City, for the hugely successful International Festival has spawned not only the world-famous Fringe but a further eight major festivals that take place every year covering literature, film and television, science, children, folk, jazz, Hogmanay and the multi-cultural Mela.

Richard Demarco is right when he says that the festival has given Edinburgh a sense of its true destiny. The excitement, stimulation and sheer variety that Edinburgh offers its citizens and its visitors by way of its festivals is fantastic. Edinburgh itself has become synonymous with culture and ingenuity the world over: a truly international icon of the celebration of the creative spirit. So, for when Edinburgh finalises its thoughts on design icons watch this space.

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