Athens of the North

By Hariades, Isabel | History Today, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Athens of the North


Hariades, Isabel, History Today


Isabel Hariades traces her life in history publishing to a rich education in Edinburgh and Greece.

HISTORY COMES to a child, or did to me, almost imperceptibly through place and circumstance. I was born in Edinburgh and brought up twelve miles south of the city. Later more distant regions were to project me into different past eras, through random developments, when study and interest provided a structure and historical points to which I could comfortably refer.

The hilly Lothian landscape provided ample evidence of the past, for the Romans had traversed our fields and encamped across the valley in their march from Hadrian's Wall. Little visibly remained in our district from the early middle ages but from childhood I was familiar with Crichton Castle, though repelled by its grimness. Crichton was one of the seats of James, 4th Earl of Bothwell, third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, and she had been present there at the lavish wedding celebrations of his sister, Lady Jean Hepburn in 1567. Crichton had another monument of earlier times in its Collegiate Church founded in 1449 of which only part was built so ,that the intended chancel is now the nave of the present building in use as the parish Church until recently. Castle and Church dominated the lonely barren reaches of the upper tyne valley, spanned a little lower down by an elegant viaduct designed by Thomas Telford. The medieval buildings drew out in me a sense of loneliness. Loneliness, grandeur and grimness were the qualities associated with the uninhabited monuments of the past in our neighbourhood.

Yet a sense of splendour and elevation would also grip me when we went to Fala Moor, below Soutra Hill with its little Aisle, relic of a flourishing monastery. This grouse moor had also been a hunting ground for James IV (r.1488-1513) and one stout wall of his hunting tower stands to this day on the crown of a hill. James must have had, and we could share, a splendid outlook over the wealthiest part of his kingdom vast tracts of Southern Scotland with the Moorfoot and Pentland Hills dramatically breaking the horizon to the west and North, the ancient kingdom of Fife to the north-east with the fertile lands bordering the Firth of Forth below.

The outline of Edinburgh spelled grandeur with its spires and castle, in our day, but we could also see the industrial chimneys, the electricity power house at Portobello and the tips of the coal-mines which were still very active in the first half of the twentieth century.

We were early introduced to Edinburgh's past by our mother and grandmother. Internally Edinburgh was full of the past with the Old Town and the New providing contrasts and yet a continuum. We learned through the buildings tales of the kings and queens in their palace of Holyrood, Margaret, queen and saint though her chapel on the Castle rock, and the coming of the reformation and the struggles of the Presbyterians, with the pervading influence of John Knox whose house still stands. Part of our family heritage lay in Edinburgh, part in Fife and part in the Borders. An annual visit by train to our father's relatives across the Forth Bridge was always memorable; this triumph of more recent history spanned the waters famous in the First World War as a naval base, continuing in importance for shipping in the 1939-46 war. The Fife family had engaged in manufacturing and fishing in the midst of a coal-mining area of which we were very conscious, coal mining that constituted the principal livelihood.

Gradually I became aware of social difference and began to perceive the hardship and poverty that lay in the grand city of Edinburgh itself. The Old Town was still an insanitary place where the poor could be seen in the streets, women sometimes barefoot, carrying the youngest child in a plaid to leave their hands free for other children. Even in the countryside farm labourers lived in very humble cottages, and the first council houses with baths and lavatories were only being built in the early 1930s, the time of which I speak. …

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