Notes on Old Edinburgh

The following is from Notes on Old Edinburgh by Isabella L. Bird:

Chapter IV

I have given the aspect of the houses and population of a particular district by daylight, avoiding all sensational details. The "night side" of the same is well known from description--the High Street filled with a densely compacted, loitering, brawling, buying, selling, singing, cursing, quarrelsome crowd--every fifth man and woman the worse for drink so early as ten at night--a nocturnal market vigorously proceeds under difficulties--men and women puff their wares with stentorian tones and coarse wit--barrows with flaring lights, from which the poorest of the poor are buying the unwholesome refuse of the shops, stale fish, and stale vegetables--boys vending laces, nuts, whistles--women hawking tin and crockery ware, all eager, pushing, poor. Add to these, the exhibitors of penny-shows and penny cheats, the singers of low and improper songs, the vendors of popular melodies and penny narrations of crime, and an idea may be formed of the noisy traffic of the High Street. As the night goes on, the crowd becomes more drunk and criminal until the legal hour of closing the spirit-shops, when hundreds of pallid, ragged wretches are vomited forth upon the street to carry terrors into their dark, crowded homes. The majority are half-mad, and almost wholly desperate. Men and women, savage with drink, are biting, scratching, mauling each other; the air is laden with blasphemies, brutal shouts from the strong; cries from the weak; blows are dealt aimlessly; infants at midnight cry in the wet street for mothers drunk in the gutters or police cells; young girls and boys are locked out for the night by parents frantic with drink, viragos storm, policemen here and there drag an offender out of the crowd amidst the chaffing and coarse laughter of young girls bearing the outward marks of a life of degradation; mothers with infants in their arms lie helpless in the gutters, to be trundled off to the final ignominy of the police cell, wretches scarcely clothed, whom the daylight knows not, slink stealthily to some foul cellar lair,--and all this, and worse than this, from the Tron down the Canongate, and along the Cowgate, and in the Grassmarket, and in numbers of the lanes and alleys, broad and narrow, which border upon them. The district we visited by day we visited also by night, to find that at 11 P.M. the whole population of the lands previously described was astir, mostly from evil, partly from the impossibility of quiet; that small children were still out among the influences of the closes and the street, and that there was no sign that the night had come, except the darkness and the increased overcrowding of many of the rooms. The dark, narrow passages were in several places almost impassable, owing to the dead-drunk men who lay across them; the rooms were thronged and stifling, and sick and well, drunk and sober, vicious and virtuous, were all huddled together with only a pretence of separation. Whole families were sitting in the dark, or cowering round fires which only rendered the darkness visible. "A horror of great darkness" rested on all the houses. The noise was hideous. Decent people might well be afraid of going to bed. Half the inmates were under the influence of drink. Drunkards tumbled up the long dark stairs, and reeled down the dark passages, with shouts and imprecations, destitute even of the instinct which teaches a wild beast the way to its own den. Sounds of brawling, fighting, and revelry came from many of the rooms. Here a drunkard was kicking through the panels of a neighbour's door; there two dead-drunk women lay on a heap of straw; here a half-tipsy virago protested to us, with the air of a tragedy queen, that she "took in none but respectable lodgers;" there a man mad with drink tore his wife's throat with his nails. One room presented a scene of disgusting revelry and vice. In the next a feeble woman was stilling the moans of a dying child. "And that day was the preparation." It was the Edinburgh Saturday night, and over the din and discord of city sins, and over the wail of city sorrows, came the sweet sound of St. Giles's bells announcing that the Sabbath had begun.

Of that Saturday night in Edinburgh the Rev. R. Maguire, rector of Clerkenwell, who was one of our party, writes, in the Church of England Temperance Magazine--"We can but say that all we saw that night has left upon our mind the painful feeling, that of all the dark and desolate places of the earth the Old Town is about the darkest and the most desolate." He adds, in the same paper, after a description of some of the dwellings in Hume's Close--"We can scarcely feel surprised to know that the condition of these thousands is far past all hope."

Clerkenwell itself, Whitechapel, and Lambeth can furnish enough of misery and crime, but it is not believed that any city in Europe contains an area of wretchedness so large and unbroken as Edinburgh. In other cities the miserable dwellings and their inhabitants hide themselves out of sight in obscure purlieus, scarcely known to the rich by name, much less by observation. Here the very core of all is the High Street of the city, with a royal palace at one end and a royal castle at the other, and studded down the whole of its picturesque length with public buildings. Here are the Courts of Law, the Parliament House, the City Chambers, the Assembly Halls of the Established and Free Churches, the Cathedral, numerous places of worship, some of which at least are, or were, fashionable, newspaper offices, printing establishments, and one of the most frequented shops in the city, the wholesale and retail establishment of Duncan M'Laren and Son. Thus, instead of being hidden away, the wretchedness and vice of the High Street and Canongate obtrude themselves on all passers-by, from the representative of royalty who in semi-regal state passes up and down the whole extent of this Via Dolorosa, several times annually, to the summer swarm of tourists from all parts of the world, who return to their own cities rejoicing that they are not as the metropolis of Scotland. But it is not from such casual visitors that the amelioration of the condition of the poor is to be expected--not on them that the responsibility rests. It is on the gentlemen who cross the High Street daily to lounge in the Parliament House, on the literati who frequent one of the finest libraries in Britain, on the antiquarians who explore the wynds and closes in search of an ancient inscription or a remnant of a cornice, on the hundreds, both of ladies and gentlemen, whose avocations continually carry them to the various public offices in the High Street, on all who see and all who hear. Can it be that the feelings of all these are blunted by familiarity with sights which shock a stranger; or that the upper classes in Edinburgh are steeped in an unwholesome indifferentism; or that the Christianity of the city is waxing feeble and old? Without admitting one or all of these defects, it is difficult to account for the extreme complacency with which the majority of the upper classes are acting out the creed, "Forget the painful, suppress the disagreeable, banish the ugly;" content to add luxury to luxury, and to throw away money on ill-considered alms, while the poor are perishing from neglect. It is difficult to comprehend such intense apathy, after all that has been written by the daily press, private individuals, and lastly by the "Society for Improving the Condition of the Poor," to show the thinly-crusted abyss over which people are disporting themselves. It might have been supposed that when facts similar to those stated in these Notes have been reiterated from various quarters, so that no adult in Edinburgh can plead ignorance concerning the state of the poor, that the appeal for visitors made by the Society aforesaid would have met a tremendous and immediate response, and that the gentlemen of Edinburgh would have come forward, as those of other and busier cities have done, to offer willing aid. If there be another thing more mournful than the poverty and immorality of the poor, it is the vicious selfishness of the rich. It is observable in Edinburgh, as well as elsewhere, that the upper classes indulge very freely in the expression of opinion on the "dirt, vice, and improvidence of the poor," but the lapsed masses of the Old Town have a "public opinion" also regarding the selfishness, heartlessness, and indifference of the rich, and express it without much reticence of phraseology. Indeed, it is doubtful whether there is a man or woman who looks across the green ravine which separates the Old Town from the New, who has not a very decided opinion, right or wrong, that the negative and positive delinquencies of the best-instructed class have a great deal to do with the lapsing of the masses in this city. Almost the first steps have yet to be taken towards removing this baneful hostility of class, and promoting a healthy feeling on each side.

In "house-to-house visitation" in Edinburgh, I have observed with much surprise that among 145 families visited 143 were Scotch. In almost the whole of these the influence of a decent upbringing, and the restraints which connexion with a church imposes, had been thrown away, and the people, utterly debased and pauperized, had not a rag of Scottish pride left. It appears from all that can be observed that the mere existence of these unbroken masses of poverty, overcrowding, and vice, has a tendency to denationalize the people, and to produce a population which shall be absolutely barren of those virtues which have been considered peculiarly Scotch--a population, in fact, knowing nothing of truthfulness, modesty, reverence for parents and old age, independence, Sabbath observance, and thrift. These masses, which are sinking lower and lower, in spite of existing agencies, have little to distinguish them from the "dangerous classes" of London, Paris, or New York, except that they are more drunken and dirty. Their mere existence, to say nothing of their increase, is sapping the foundations of "Scottish nationality."

Another thing which impresses a stranger is a peculiar habit of speech common to nearly all these people, and is possibly nearly the only relic of their more religious days. "God-forgotten" was the phrase they nearly all used, an expression which gives occasion to the question, "Have Christians, who are the representatives of God upon earth, misrepresented Him to these people by their neglect?" A grudge against God, an idea as if He were the author of evil and not good to them, seemed general. Many of the phrases used showed a sort of reckless belief, which, under the circumstances, was worse than unbelief. Coming down a long dark stair late at night, from an overcrowded land, a frightful hag clutched my arm with her skinny hand, and hissed into my ear, "Is it God's elect you are seeking here? It's the devil's elect you'll find," laughing fiendishly at her own wit. "So this is Blackfriars Wynd," remarked one of our party, as we passed down the crowded alley. "No, it's hell's mouth," exclaimed a forlorn woman, who was dragging a drunken man to his joyless home. "Do you think the missionary would dare to mock me by telling me of God's love? Could he have the face to do it here?" a poor woman exclaimed, whose three fatherless children lay ill on some straw, which served for a bed in a cellar, of which it and a kettle were the only "furniture."

It is one thing to hear unpleasant facts stated by unwelcome speakers, or to meet with them fossilized in statistical tables, but altogether another to confront them in beings clothed in kindred flesh and blood, in men, women, and children claiming a common Fatherhood, and asserting their right to be heard. These our brethren, haggard, hopeless, hardened, vicious, on whose faces sin has graved deeper lines than either sorrow or poverty; this old age which is not venerable, this infancy which is not loveable, these childish faces, or faces which should have been childish, peering from amidst elvish locks, and telling of a precocious familiarity with sin,--these glowering upon us from the tottering West Bow, with its patched and dirty windows, from the still picturesque Lawnmarket, from the many-storeyed houses of the High Street,--these are spectres not easily to be laid to rest, and "polite society," which has become perfect in the polite art of indifference, must encounter them, sooner or later, in one way or another.

Surely it is possible to raise these our brethren, who are living and dying like brutes, to a platform on which the gospel of Him who came to preach glad tidings to the poor would not be met by nearly insuperable obstacles. Though more wretches have been pulled out of the mire by mission churches than by any other agency, the masses are "lapsed," "gone under," sunk on the whole to lower depths than the ministerial plummet can sound, and the ministers, most of whom are hampered by the existing necessities of large congregations, are not directly responsible for a condition of things which is a disgrace to Scottish Christianity. My own experience leads me to believe that these lapsed masses must be raised out of the "Slough of Despond" before they can hear or see; that these miserable thousands must have at least as much light, air, and space as we give our brutes, before a ministerial visit can be aught but a mockery,--before they can rise to manhood and womanhood in Christ. The ministers are not to be altogether blamed for failing to carry the tidings of peace to those who are too deaf, from drink and demoralization, to hear them. Condemn them if they fail to thunder into ears scarcely less dull, that the blood of those who are going down alive into the pit will be required of a church-membership which is bound to aim at no lesser measure of devotion than His who laid down His life for the brethren. Let them demand the lives of these godless ones from the respectable who enjoy the Sabbath luxury of sermons; let them declare a crusade against the Christlessness and apathy of those who sit at ease at communion-tables, content to leave those to the outer darkness for whom that same body and blood were broken and shed, and they will be guiltless.

It was by a life of sacrifice and a death of shame that the redemption of this world was wrought; and it is by a life of sacrifice alone--if loving search after the lost, if personal sympathy with the wretched, if stooping to raise and aid the poor are to be called sacrifice--that the Master's steps can be followed and His work on the earth be completed.


Copyright Scotland from the Roadside 2016