Words on the Street

Canongate Stars & Stories is an illuminated walking trail for Edinburgh’s Old Town, organised by Edinburgh City of Literature Trust. There are 20 lightboxes featuring quotations on the lower High Street, Canongate and surrounding streets and closes. Best seen after dark, they’ll be in situ till, I believe, the end of March. Below are photos of some of the light boxes, and notes about the quotations.

Fountain Close: Blessed be the sempill lyfe, Robert Henryson (c.1420–c.1490), from the fable ‘The Twa’ Mice’ (c.1480s), printed by Thomas Bassandyne (d.1577) who lived in Fountain Close.

Blissed be sempill lyfe withoutin dreid;
Blissed be sober feist in quietie;
Quha hes aneuch, of na mair hes he neid,
Thocht it be littill into quantatie.
Grit aboundance and blind prosperitie
Oftymes makis ane evill conclusioun:
The sweitest lyfe thairfoir, in this cuntrie,
Is sickernes with small possessioun.

The White Horse Inn, Canongate: Every writer has his use, by Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), from Rambler, no.145 (6 August, 1751). Established in 1742, The White Horse is the oldest pub on the Royal Mile and on 14 August 1773 received Johnson, who had arrived in Edinburgh to meet his friend and biographer James Boswell (1740 –1795) before their tour of the Hebrides. Around the corner off St Mary’s Street, a plaque at Boyd’s Entry (named for the proprietor of the White Horse, James Boyd) commemorates the event.
As every writer has his use, every writer ought to have his patrons; and since no man, however high he may now stand, can be certain that he shall not be soon thrown down from his elevation by criticism or caprice, the common interest of learning requires that her sons should cease from intestine hostilities, and, instead of sacrificing each other to malice and contempt, endeavour to avert persecution from the meanest of their fraternity.

Our Dynamic Earth: Nothing but time, by James Hutton (1726 –1797), from Theory of the Earth (1788 / 1795). Edinburgh born and educated, James Hutton is often referred to as the ‘Father of Modern Geology.’ His research into local rock formations, particularly Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh, led him to formulate a new theory of the origins of the earth – an earth much older than previously thought, made of layers or rock with a molten core. He first presented his Theory of the Earth to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785, but his ideas only gained wide circulation and influence after his death.
From the top of those decaying pyramids to the sea, we have a chain of facts which clearly demonstrate this proposition, That the materials of the wasted mountains have travelled through the rivers; for, in every step of this progress, we may see the effect, and thus acknowledge the proper cause. We may often even be witness to the action; but it is only a small part of the whole progress that we may thus perceive, nevertheless it is equally satisfactory as if we saw the whole; for, throughout the whole of this long course, we may see some part of the mountain moving some part of the way. What more can we require? Nothing but time. It is not any part of the process that will be disputed; but, after allowing all the parts, the whole will be denied; and, For what?—only because we are not disposed to allow that quantity of time which the ablution of so much wasted mountain might require.

St John’s Pend: Edinburgh is a hot-bed of genius, by Tobias Smollett (1721 – 1771), from The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771). Smollett occasionally lodged with his sister at St John’s Pend, just off the Canongate. Along with his famous 1755 translation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Smollett was a popular author of ‘picaresque’ novels. The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, a epistolary novel, follows Mathew Bramble, his family, and his servants as they travel through England and Scotland.
Edinburgh is a hot-bed of genius. — I have had the good fortune to be made acquainted with many authors of the first distinction; such as the two Humes, Robertson, Smith, Wallace, Blair, Ferguson, Wilkie, &c. and I have found them all as agreeable in conversation as they are instructive and entertaining in their writings. These acquaintances I owe to the friendship of Dr Carlyle, who wants nothing but inclination to figure with the rest upon paper.

Canongate Kirkyard: Ill-fated genius! by Robert Burns (1759–1796), from ‘Lines On Fergusson, The Poet’ (1787). Robert Fergusson (1750 –1774) was a brilliant Edinburgh-born poet who died tragically young, and in such poverty that he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in the Canongate Kirkyard. Dismayed by this injustice, Robert Burns arranged for him to have a proper gravestone.

Ill-fated genius! Heaven-taught Fergusson!
What heart that feels and will not yield a tear,
To think Life’s sun did set e’er well begun
To shed its influence on thy bright career.

O why should truest Worth and Genius pine
Beneath the iron grasp of Want and Woe,
While titled knaves and idiot-Greatness shine
In all the splendour Fortune can bestow?

Jeffrey Street: the happier productions of female genius, by Francis Jeffrey (1773–1850), from a review of a book of poetry by Felicia Hemans (1793–1835) in Edinburgh Review (1828). Francis Jeffrey, after whom Jeffrey Street is named, began his Edinburgh Review in 1802 in order to guide contemporary readers toward works of high acclaim; the magazine was published quarterly until 1929.
No Man, we will venture to say, could have written the Letters of Madame de Sevigné, or the Novels of Miss Austin, or the Hymns and Early Lessons of Mrs. Barbauld, or the Conversations of Mrs. Marcet. These performances, too, are not only essentially and intensely feminine, but they are, in our judgement, decidedly more perfect than any masculine productions with which they can be brought into comparison. (…) We think the poetry of Mrs Hemans a fine exemplification of Female Poetry – and we think it has much of the perfection which we have ventured to ascribe to the happier productions of female genius.

Chessel’s Court: Man is not truly one, but truly two, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894), from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). Chessel’s Court was scene of an infamous crime that inspired Stevenson. Deacon Brodie (1741 – 1788), city councillor and master cabinet-maker, used his position to steal from the wealthy who sought his services. A botched robbery of the Customs Office in Chessel’s Court led eventually to his arrest and execution, and revealed to the public his double life. As a child Stevenson slept with one of Brodie’s cabinets in his bedroom (it is now displayed in the Writers’ Museum in the Lawnmarket).
With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two. (…) It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved day-dream, on the thought of the separation of these elements.

Dunbar’s Close: A city is a drama in time, by Patrick Geddes (1854–1932) from Civics: as Applied Sociology (1904). Geddes renovated buildings and developed green spaces, including the garden at Dunbar’s Close, in Edinburgh’s delapidated Old Town at the end of the 19th century. Geddes is renowned for his innovative ideas on social reform, environmentalism, and town planning, and his phrase ‘by leaves we live’ lives on in the Scottish Poetry Library’s Twitter handle.
But a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time. Though the claim of geography be fundamental out interest in the history of the city is supremely greater; it is obviously no mere geographic circumstances which developed one hill-fort in Judea, and another in Attica, into world centres, to this day more deeply influential than are the vastest modern capitals. […] Again the answer comes through geography, though no longer in mere map or relief, but now in vertical section – in order of strata ascending form past to present, whether we study rock-formations with the geologist, excavate more recent accumulations with the archaeologist, or interpret ruins or monuments with the historian. Though the primitive conditions we have above noted with the physiographer remain apparent, indeed usually permanent, cities have none the less their characteristic phases of historic development decipherable superposed. […] In a word, not only does the main series of active cities display traces of all the past phases of evolution, but beside this lie fossils, or linger survivals, of almost every preceding phase.

The World’s End: For ever and aye till the World’s End, by Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915 – 1975), from Kynd Kittock’s Land (1965). The World’s End pub stands at the top of World’s End Close, on what was once the edge of Edinburgh by the former city walls. Smith’s words conclude his poem based on a character in a medieval poem, an innkeeper who, admitted to heaven after her death, leaves again ‘for to get hir ane fresche drink, the aill of hevin wes sour’.

Here I be and here I drink,
This is myne, Kynd Kittock’s Land,
For ever and aye while stane shall stand—
For ever and aye till the World’s End.

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