The first humans​ settled in Scotland around 14,000 years ago. They must have arrived in summer; nobody in their right mind would choose to live here during the winter. Even as far south as Edinburgh, the sun emerges late only to disappear before 4 p.m., the rain eats umbrellas for breakfast and the Arctic gale is as rough as sandpaper. We don’t have much of a Christmas celebration to distract us from the gloom: the Scottish Reformation stamped out idolatrous Yuletide celebrations and Christmas only became a public holiday in 1958. Instead, we have Hogmanay.

Since the 17th century, the people of Edinburgh have celebrated the New Year with an informal street party outside the Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile. The church would ring the bells at midnight, sending people off first-footing around the houses armed with coal and booze. Such gatherings were especially important as the city became more socially segregated: the construction of the New Town, which began in 1767, emptied the Old Town of affluent citizens, leaving behind the poor. At the Tron, according to the historian William Knox, ‘social rank often became meaningless and a spirit of conviviality and general bonhomie enveloped the gathered crowds.’

Not always. On New Year’s Eve 1811, several New Town gentlemen were relieved of their valuables and a widely despised police watchman was beaten to death by Old Towners. The violence was blamed on gangs (which were certainly involved) and the corrupting influence of prostitutes. In the next few months, 68 youths, most of them apprentice tradesmen or demobbed soldiers, were arrested. Several of the culprits were deported and on 22 April three teenagers – Hugh MacDonald, Hugh McIntosh and Neil Sutherland – were hanged. Hundreds of police and soldiers lined the streets for the execution, in what Knox calls ‘a pageant of civil and military power’.

In 1993 the party was moved to the New Town. Princes Street had more space for what was by then a dangerously popular event, attracting tens of thousands to the slippery cobbles of the Royal Mile. The city council, enterprise board and the police teamed up with the party promoters Pete Irvine and Barry Wright, whose company, Unique Events, symbolised a new, quietly corporate Caledonian cool. In 1995, more than 400,000 people attended (close to the size of the population of Edinburgh) and with them came barriers, security guards and ticketing. Today, locals wishing to attend their own street party must compete for access with thousands of tourists.

It’s not just Hogmanay. The city also plays host to the Edinburgh International Festival, the accompanying (and far larger) Festival Fringe, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, the Edinburgh Science Festival, Art Festival, Book Festival and Children’s Festival. Other cities suffer from overtourism, but only Edinburgh is a non-stop event on the urban calendar.

Edinburgh was once famous for its special brand of middle-class joylessness and snobbery, and locals who complain about the city’s ‘festivalisation’ are easy to caricature. In 1967, Tom Nairn wrote that ‘Edinburgh’s soul is Bible-black, pickled in boredom by centuries of sermons, swaddled in the shabby gentility of the Kirk – what difference could 21 years of Festival make to this?’ The city’s churches now see more performances than sermons. Tolbooth Kirk, built to house the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, whose neo-Gothic spire looms over the Royal Mile, is now the headquarters of the International Festival and has been renamed ‘The Hub’.

The latest addition to the calendar is Edinburgh’s Christmas, which runs throughout December. The Walter Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens – once the biggest memorial to a writer in the world – is dwarfed by an enormous fairground ride called Around the World XXL, which lifts customers hundreds of feet in the air and swings them round the gardens, their trailing feet narrowly missing the local worthies depicted on the monument. A German Christmas Market offers artisanal tat and warm alcohol at London prices. Edinburgh’s Christmas is run by a company called Unique Assembly, a recent merger of Unique Events with a major Fringe venue company. Why put it on at all? There are obvious economic benefits to the cash-strapped council, but these depend on something harder to describe. David Harvey calls it ‘collective symbolic capital’, the ‘special marks of distinction that attach to some place, which have a significant drawing power on the flows of capital more generally’.

Edinburgh’s USP is a combination of historical fiction and spectacular geology: a fantasy city of classical and medieval inspiration, perched on an old glacial rubbish heap behind the vast dolerite crag that protects Edinburgh Castle. Nearly every landmark – whether a church, a castle, a university building, a monument or an ancient volcano – predates the 20th century; there are no corporate skyscrapers here. But there are two hotels on the skyline. The Balmoral, with its handsome clocktower, comes from an older, more exclusive age of tourism. The other hotel is new: a great twisted golden-brown blob of steel crowned with a cow’s lick. Publicists have tried to nickname it the ‘walnut whip’. Locals refer to it as the ‘Golden Jobby’ (‘jobby’ is a Scots word for excrement).

You can’t buy what Edinburgh has. You can, however, rent out certain kinds of access to it. This, as Harvey writes, is a recipe for self-destruction. The influx of international capital produces homogenisation, or worse, Disneyfication. The Golden Jobby would disgrace the skyline of any city; there is nothing particularly ‘Edinburgh’ about it, or about the new shopping centre that surrounds it or the bland Caltongate development nearby. The streets of the Old Town are given over to shops selling kitsch Scottish souvenirs, not really an improvement on the ubiquitous Harry Potter and Marvel memorabilia.

In Who Runs Edinburgh? David McCrone attempts to explain the fate of his adopted city (Edinburgh, £14.99). The answer to his question is no one. Edinburgh’s distinctiveness – its size, skyline, layout, demography – emerged from a complex local power structure sustained by particular patterns of culture, politics and economics. The city’s character reflects its curious entry into modernity: industry there was smaller, more stratified and more artisanal for longer, its workers were led by a moderate ‘labour aristocracy’ buoyed by luxury consumer demand from an exceptionally large professional class. This remains true: Edinburgh has ‘consistently and proportionately more managerial and professional workers than either Scotland or Britain’.

The city’s middle classes organised themselves through a series of secretive clubs and an insular education system (even today, one in every five teenagers in Edinburgh attends a fee-paying school). The collapse of Edinburgh’s two world-conquering banks in 2008 left the city leaders scrambling for external support. The St James development – which includes the Golden Jobby – has been passed between American and Dutch pension funds. A polluted brownfield site in the north of the city, currently being turned into houses and shops, is part-owned by Canada’s Public Sector Pension Investment Fund. Projects such as these rely on public money to attract private capital, but locals have little say in what gets built and much of the money flows out again: the catastrophic trams ‘mega-project’ saw decisions about the city’s transport network farmed out to bodies with almost no democratic oversight, and foreign companies were contracted to build trams and tracks that could have been made in Scotland. There were huge delays in the building of the tram lines, and the project ended up massively over budget.

Councillors can no longer promise the stable, steady governance that used to characterise city politics: today’s council is a febrile five-way fight between Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Tories and Greens. Such competition has its advantages, but these are rarely on display when the council has so little power. A decade of funding cuts and decades more of centralisation have left it flailing. Its reliance on outside companies is not just an attempt to cut costs: it no longer has the capacity or experience required to run its own projects. The Scottish government’s decision to freeze rather than reform council tax next year won’t help.

McCrone doesn’t shy away from the obvious cliché. Edinburgh, birthplace of the author of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, is a place of ‘interesting dualities’. It’s a success story, and a victim of its success. Walk around central Edinburgh and you can’t avoid the scaffolding that covers half the buildings, hinting at growth, or decay, or both. Money cascades into the city, but it’s hard to see how the city itself benefits. Rents in Edinburgh have risen by 16.6 per cent in the last year, more than anywhere else in the UK. In November, the council declared a housing emergency. Five thousand households face nightly homelessness.

The most interesting programme for urban renovation in recent years has been the so-called Preston model (pioneered by Preston council). It involves identifying ‘anchor institutions’ in your town or city – colleges and universities, housing associations, the police and so on – and encouraging them to use their powers for good, by spending money locally, for instance. But this is a strategy for places that don’t have money to begin with. Edinburgh has a different problem: money is coming in, but not going to the right places. What we need is a way of diverting it to where it’s needed.

Some new initiatives are trying to tackle this, with help from conservation groups such as the Cockburn Association and the more radical Living Rent Tenants’ Union. A control area limiting new short-term lets should discourage the conversion of homes into Airbnbs, though efforts to apply the regulations retrospectively are held up in court. The council is considering a visitor levy on overnight stays in the city, which might be introduced next year. The Scottish government’s proposals for nationwide rent controls, also due next year, should further challenge the power of property speculators to decide the city’s fortunes. These interventions represent an overdue statement of self-respect from a city that was beginning to seem desperate. Without serious consideration from above, resentment from below can spill out in all sorts of ways, and not just on Hogmanay.

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Vol. 46 No. 3 · 8 February 2024

Rory Scothorne, writing about the ‘festivalisation’ of Edinburgh, mentions the Walter Scott monument in Princes Street Gardens and the ‘local worthies depicted’ on it (LRB, 4 January). In fact, the vast majority of the 68 statues on the monument are imaginative models of characters from Scott’s novels: Ivanhoe, Jeanie Deans from The Heart of Mid-Lothian, Baillie Nicol Jarvie from Rob Roy and Meg Merrilees from Guy Mannering are among the better-known figures. Heads of Scottish writers, positioned round about, include those of Robert Burns, Robert Fergusson, Allan Ramsay and the not altogether Scottish Lord Byron. The only local worthy in evidence (unless we count John Knox) is Scott himself, seated with his beloved dog Maida at the centre of it all. He might be gazing wistfully in the direction of North Castle Street, running uphill from Princes Street, where he lived for many years at No. 39, until financial ruin in 1826 forced him to give it up, with much else, and move into bug-infested lodgings.

At the root of Scott’s disaster was over-spending. It held up, until, as John Buchan writes in his excellent biography, ‘a sudden crack split the whole complex fabric of credit’. Judging by what Scothorne says about the ‘catastrophic trams “mega-project”’, overseen by local worthies on the ‘cash-strapped council’, a bigger split could occur one day soon.

James Campbell
London W12

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