EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
Of all the figures who have shaped or influenced Edinburgh's development through the ages, one man probably deserves ultimate recognition for creating not just the visual appeal of the city as we know, but for developing the very principles which underpin Edinburgh's heritage sector.
Patrick Geddes had a major influence in a variety of different fields and subjects during his life, and Edinburgh was the focus of several of his major ideas for city planning and heritage preservation. He was born on 2 October 1854, in Aberdeenshire, and his journeys would take him not just across Scotland but around the globe.
Geddes's primary interest was in the natural world, and his career incorporated work as a zoology professor (in Edinburgh), botany (in Dundee), sociology (at the University of Bombay, now Mumbai), and town planning (in Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv - which became the only modern city fully laid out to Geddes's plans).
His diversity of interest led him to criticise the tendency for scientists to specialise in a particular field to the exclusion of others - the interconnectedness of the natural world and human civilisation was key to his multi-faceted approach to life.
The emblem of the three doves (seen on the sign of the steps which bear Geddes's name in Edinburgh's Old Town today) was a motif he used throughout his work, symbolising the three factors which he considered important in any work of human endeavour - hand, heart and head (in that order of priority).
In Geddes's Edinburgh, at the end of the nineteenth- and turn of the twentieth centuries, the crumbling structures of the medieval Old Town were being ritually demolished and replaced with 'modern' Victorian buildings. This improved their function, but lost the history and heritage of the older structures. Dismayed by this sacrificing of the old in favour of the new, Geddes experimented with a new way of thinking about urban development, which combined modernisation with historical preservation.
In 1886 Geddes and his wife purchased a block of eighteenth-century buildings on James Court, just off the Lawnmarket, which at that time had become a dense, dirty and overcrowded slum district.
Instead of demolishing the buildings, Geddes oversaw a project which he described as "conservative surgery" - he had the worst buildings removed, in order to improve the situation for the surviving structures. Creating more space, with more light, and a better flow of fresh air through the site, Geddes then renovated the surviving buildings to improve conditions. The site became a halls of residence for Edinburgh University students.
Geddes's next major project in the city was to take over the Outlook Tower on Castlehill, which had been built in the 1850s as Maria Short's Observatory and Museum of Science. Today the building survives as the city's Camera Obscura.
Geddes arranged the exhibitions in the building in order of focus, beginning on the ground floor with an overview of world geography, on the next floor was Europe, then the United Kingdom, then Scotland, and finally a feature dedicated to Edinburgh itself. The camera obscura on the very top of the building provided a real-time demonstration of Geddes's vision of Edinburgh as a living, breathing, developing city.
This sociological laboratory, as he described it, put the emphasis on observation and study as a means of understanding the world, and from that his ethos of 'diagnosis before treatment' - to understand a thing before an attempt to improve or renovate it. He disagreed with a trend at that time to build or develop a city with a pre-ordained sense of how its users would interact with it - better, Geddes thought, to understand how a historic population had grown to use their space, how a city had been shaped by its inhabitants, and to develop from that.
Across the Royal Mile from James Court was Riddle's Court, another run-down and poorly maintained building, this time a survivor from the sixteenth century. Riddle's Court had previously been associated with high status figures like the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, as well as having hosted James VI of Scotland his new wife for a banquet in their honour in 1598. By the 1890s the building was overcrowded, with terrible sanitation, and was ripe for demolition.
Instead, Geddes brought to bear his 'conservative surgery' method, stripping away the parts of the development which couldn't be saved, and transforming the remainder of the building into another student accommodation block, in which he also implemented the outrageous idea (for the time) of letting the student living here govern themselves! They set their own in-house policies, and were responsible for maintaining the building to suit their needs.
Riddle's Court was recently renovated by the Scottish Historic Buildings Trust, and today houses the Patrick Geddes Centre, a conservation and community organisation founded on Geddes's principles.
As well as the large buildings and gardens which survive as monuments to Geddes's vision, smaller details of the city also reflect his influence on the city. Notably on Wardrop's Court, another lane leading off the Royal Mile. At the entrance to the lane are two colourful dragon sculptures, commissioned by Geddes during his extensive renovations of the nearby structures.
Most poignantly, the pair of dragons on the inner court were carved not by a master craftsman, but by Geddes's youngest son, Arthur, with guidance from the sculptor Alec Miller.
They may not be as refined and expertly finished as the outer dragons, but they stand as a direct connection to Geddes family itself.
Past the dragons is the small courtyard of Lady Stair's Close, home to the Writers' Museum and sometimes known as Makars' Court. Lady Stair's House itself is another of Geddes's renovations, though not one he undertook himself. Rather he convinced the Earl of Rosebery, a distant relation of the original owner of the building, to buy the property back from Edinburgh Council in order to repair and restore the structure. Today the building has a decorative plaque bearign both the date of its original construction (1622) and the date of its restoration (1897)
One of Geddes's perennial concerns was the amount of green space in the Old Town of Edinburgh - or rather the lack of it. Geddes recognised the need for people to have access to open space, to have contact with the natural world in the heart of the densely crowded city.
As such, he introduced a number of urban gardens into spaces hwich had been left vacant by buildings which had been removed, or created green space with the intention of having them with public access for local people to enjoy as they saw fit. Examples of Geddes's gardens can be found around the Grassmarket, tucked away behind buildings or up narrow alleys, and further down the Royal Mile, off Canongate, is one of his original spaces which was renovated in the 1970s.
Dunbar's Close Garden is a recreation of an eighteenth century private garden, on land that was acquired by Geddes in the nineteenth century. It continues to offer a peaceful escape from the busyness of the city, and a secret oasis of tranquility just off the Royal Mile.
There are significant numbers of other buildings and lanes which bear the mark of Geddes's interventions to preserve and maintain them, but the one which most visitors notice at some point during their visit stands right in front of Edinburgh Castle.
Ramsay Garden was where Geddes himself lived for a time, in a development which began in the 1740s by the poet and librarian Allan Ramsay. This distinctive pink and white coloured building was built as a collection of private apartments designed for each individual family who lived in them, and as such the building has no fixed floor plan over its levels, but is instead a series of properties all constructed and laid out according to the the needs of each separate family.
Today flats in this building are some of the most sought after and highly valued properties in Edinburgh, with commanding views over the New Town to the north, or across to the mighty fortress of Edinburgh Castle itself.
And to think that without Geddes's vision and commitment to preserving the city's ancient structures and fitting them to the needs of the contemporary society, so many of these historic features may have been (as so many others were) lost to the merciless swing of the demolition ball in the nineteenth century development boom.
Truly, it is Sir Patrick Geddes to whom we owe a debt of gratitude of gifting us the modern Old Town of Edinburgh.
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