On Glasgow and Edinburgh by Robert Crawford

Willy Maley identifies an old-fashioned charm in the telling of a tale of two rival, divided cities

February 14, 2013

This is a fascinating book, if in some ways a peculiar one, part coffee table, part high table, elegant and erudite but wearing its learning lightly. Robert Crawford, poet and professor of modern Scottish literature at the University of St Andrews, is writing here about two towns with strong literary traditions, but this is not a literary history, and he makes no effort to do what Moira Burgess did in Imagine a City: Glasgow in Fiction, or Andrew Lownie in The Edinburgh Literary Companion. Instead, he sets out to tackle “A tale of two cities”, two notches on the Central Belt of Scotland, as an exercise in comparative cultural history, in the spirit of another poet-professor.

In 1935, Orkney-born Edwin Muir published Scottish Journey. Like Henry James revisiting the US in 1904-05 and then recording his impressions of a now alien landscape in The American Scene, Muir looked at Scotland through the eyes of a judging stranger, taking nothing at face value. What made his book special was the way it undid false binaries and uncovered sectarianism and social division. Every city is a tale of two cities, with its zones of separate development. Yet the overweening stereotypes persist. Glasgow still wears its badge as Red Clydeside. Edinburgh is still seen as the Athens of the North (a status that appears more problematic now than when first applied to the Scottish capital’s Victorian splendour). Crawford doesn’t always work hard enough to challenge such distinctions. He references Muir only fleetingly. We are told: “Muir, who saw Glasgow as hell on earth, regarded Scotland as having at its heart ‘a blank, an Edinburgh.’” Reading this, one would get the impression that Muir’s journey was black and white - or blank and white - but that’s far from the case. The picture of poverty-stricken Glasgow and posh Edinburgh was always a way of talking about class without really talking about it. Civic rivalry disguises and displaces social divisions.

‘Poverty-stricken’ Glasgow and ‘posh’ Edinburgh was a way of talking about class without really talking about it

Muir saw 1930s Edinburgh as “a city of extraordinary and sordid contrasts”, with “the historical part…a slum intersected by ancient houses…segregated and turned into museums and training-colleges”. Nothing blank about that. In Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995), novelist Irvine Welsh writes: “Edinburgh to me represented serfdom…it was exactly the same situation as Johannesburg; the only difference was that the Kaffirs were white and called schemies or draftpaks.” Ironically, Welsh compounds the problem in his anti-Glasgow sentiments, refiguring the anti-Catholic “soap-dodger” slur as applying to the great unwashed of Glasgow as a whole, and thus playing into the nursery narrative that makes Edinburgh king of the castle and Glasgow the dirty wee rascal. Welsh’s civic sectarianism undercuts his criticisms of Edinburgh’s social apartheid.

As for Glasgow, between the makeover for its year as European City of Culture in 1990 and the latest slogan, “Scotland with Style”, efforts to paper over the cracks in the pavement or the scars on the faces of some of its inhabitants continue. Yet reading Welsh or James Kelman, the two cities’ grittiest chroniclers, one gets the impression that social divisions within them are more important than any rivalry between them. Muir arguably remains the most clear-eyed chronicler of both cities’ underbellies and of their underlying complicities and complacencies. There’s an old-fashioned gentleness and charm to Crawford’s tourist- friendly version of the Glasgow-Edinburgh story, as he maps, meditates and muses on their heritage, but as Muir observed in 1935: “The tourist’s eye is a very specialised mechanism…capable of such apparently impossible feats as taking in the ancient monuments and houses of Edinburgh without noticing that they are filthy and insanitary.” Today it is the peripheral housing estates mapped out by Welsh that conceal the other Edinburgh.

On Glasgow and Edinburgh, as subtle and perceptive a book on urban myths as you’ll read, “is arranged sequentially in terms of space, rather than chronology”. According to Crawford: “The idea of portraying an entire municipality by means of a panoramic view reproduced inside a large cylindrical surface was first conceived on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill by Irish artist Robert Barker, who patented the device in 1787 and soon had the temerity to exhibit his depiction of Edinburgh in Glasgow.” Crawford presents no such panoramic perspective, but sets out to “exhibit revealing glimpses of each city to the other…concentrating mainly on city-centre heritage sites that present-day tourists may readily visit”.

Crawford admits to paying less attention to “football, folksongs, and food” than another writer might have, but he opens with bread, and an odd instance of one-upmanship, before suggesting, in a closing image of reconciliation, that everything is coming up roses. The one-upmanship comes in 1656 when enterprising Edinburgh bakers, learning of Glasgow town council’s dissatisfaction with the city’s bread, offer to supply a superior product, giving birth to the now-ingrained idea of upper crust versus crusty.

The rosy reconciliation comes in the final pages. One of Scotland’s many pioneering achievements was the Forth and Clyde Canal, “the world’s first coast-to-coast ship canal opened in 1790”, linking Glasgow and Edinburgh along 25 aqueducts. A monument and testament to Glasgow as Second City of the Empire, and Edinburgh as what Ben Jonson called “the Heart of Scotland, Britain’s other Eye”, the canal fell into disuse in 1933 and closed in the 1960s. Then in 2002, in a remarkable feat of engineering, characteristically Scottish, the Falkirk Wheel, “the world’s first ever rotating boat lift”, reopened in spectacular fashion “after almost three- quarters of a century, a fully navigable waterway between Glasgow and Edinburgh”.

Crawford calls this achievement a “visually arresting fusion of sculpturesque architecture and heavy engineering”, and that could stand as an apt description of this book, at once weighty and airy. Indeed, his final words reflect both his own wishful thinking and the symbolic nature of a landmark that recalls the high tide of Scottish industrialism: “What you see when you visit the Falkirk Wheel in twenty-first century Lowland Scotland is something long regarded as almost impossible: a thoroughgoing, lasting, and utterly compelling handshake between Glasgow and Edinburgh”. As we say in Glasgow, “Aye, right!”, with a shake of the head. Glaswegians, as Crawford notes, deride Edinburgh as all “fur coat and nae knickers”, which is just another way of stating what Muir and Welsh spotted a Royal Mile away, that there’s bare life beneath the poshness, and the Glasgow-Edinburgh dichotomy is more than garters versus girders. Edinburgh remains “a city of extraordinary and sordid contrasts”.

Beautifully illustrated - the images of the Falkirk Wheel are stunning - and written in an effortlessly engaging style, On Glasgow and Edinburgh is a bold and breezy book, but the tale of two cities that it tells is too cosy by half. Dickens, who visited both on the same journey, told a different tale. He wrote from Edinburgh on 13 December 1847 of a recent stay in Glasgow, where he visited “a truly damnable jail”, witnessed “tremendous distress”, and “lived with very hospitable people in a very splendid house”. The posh pile he visited in Glasgow was Possil House, later demolished to make way for an iron foundry, around which arose a scheme that became a byword for poverty, the place I called home for the first 20 years of my life. The wheel has come full circle, and in terms of social distress it is a vicious rather than a virtuous circle, the beauty of the Falkirk Wheel notwithstanding.



St Andrews is a “big seaside village with a medieval skyline and its own international poetry festival”, and gives its name to the university where Robert Crawford is professor of English. He lives in the city “with my wife, Alice (a librarian working in the digital humanities), and our two teenage children. Recently we have been joined by a ukulele.”

Most people in Glasgow and Edinburgh “think about St Andrews very little, except occasionally in terms of golf”, he adds.

Detailing his attempts to ensure balance in this book, Crawford says that, having put Glasgow before Edinburgh in the title (for “cadence and upbringing”), he fair-mindedly “set E before G in the contents”.

“One of the fun things about doing the book was that the publisher sent a photographer to take quite a lot of pictures. Absurdly, the sun shone all the time he was in both cities.

“I had to impress on him that there needed to be exactly the same number of pictures of Edinburgh in the book as there were of Glasgow. He came up trumps. I had to impress on the map-maker that there should be exactly the same number of sites highlighted on the Glasgow map as on the Edinburgh map. She came up trumps. When the page proofs arrived, I discovered to my horror that I had written three more pages about Edinburgh than I had about Glasgow. So I feel I have let people down.”

Asked about the widespread availability of his own poetry online, he says: “Since self-googling leads invariably to madness, I’ve not checked up on this. But when you asked, I did google ‘Robert Crawford poems’. An entry came up with an unflattering but entirely recognisable photo of me accompanied by a biographical note. It explains that I am the first prizewinning haiku poet ever to publish in Australia, and that not a great deal is known about me except that I died unexpectedly in Sydney in 1930. Don’t you just love digital scholarship?”

On Glasgow and Edinburgh

By Robert Crawford

Harvard University Press, 368pp, £20.00

ISBN 9780674048881 and 0671 (e-book)

Published 28 February 2013

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