Menu Close

From Pall Mall Magazine: “Without Prejudice,” Review of The Evergreen, Vol. 1-2

A NORTHERN SEASONAL AND ITS SIGNIFlCANCE—THE REGENERATION OF OLD
EDINBURGH—
TILL I went to
Edinburgh I did
not know what
the “Evergreen”
was. Newspaper
criticisms had given me vague
misrepresenta-
tions of a Scottish
“Yellow Book”
calling itself a “Northern Seasonal.” But
even had I seen a copy myself I doubt if
I should have understood it without going
to Edinburgh ; and even had I gone to
Edinburgh I should still have been in
twilight had I not met Patrick Geddes,
Professor of Botany at the University of
Dundee. For Patrick Geddes is the key
to the Northern position in life and letters
The “Evergreen” was not established as
an antidote to the “Yellow Book, though it
might well seem a colour counter-symbol—
the green of spring set against the yellow of
decadent leaves. It is, indeed, an antidote.
but undesigned; else had not yellow figured
so profusely upon the cover. The “Ever-
green” of to-day professes to be inspired by
the “Evergreen” which Allan Ramsay pub-
lished in 1724, to stimulate a return to local
and national tradition and living nature
Patrick Geddes and Colleagues, who publish
it and other books—on a new system of
giving the author all the profits, as certified
by a chartered accountant—inherit Ramsay’s
old home. That is to say, they are located
in a sort of “University Settlement,” known
as Ramsay Garden, a charming collection of
flats, overlooking from its castled hill the
picturesque city, and built by the many-sided
Professor of Botany, and they aspire also to
follow in “the gentle sheperd’s” footsteps
as workers and writers, publishers and
builders. In fact, their aim is synthesis,
construction, after our long epoch of ana-
lysis, destruction. They would organise life
as a whole, expressing themselves through
educational and civic activities, through art
and architecture, and make of Edinburgh
the “Cité du Bon Accord” dreamed of by
Elisé Reclus. They feel acutely “the need
of fresh readings in life, of fresh groupings
in science, both now mainly from the hu-
manist’s side, as lately from the naturalist’s
side.” In this University Settlement the
publishing and writing department is to
represent the scriptorium of the ancient
monasteries. Of the local and national tradi-
tions this new Scottish school is particularly
concerned to foster the incipient Celtic re-
nascence, and—what is more interesting to
outsiders—the revival and development of
the old Continental sympathies of Scotland.
The ancient league with France has deeply
marked Scotch history, and even moulded
Scotch architecture. As Disraeli said in
his inaugural address on his institution as
Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow,
“it is not in Scotland that the name of
France will ever be mentioned without
affection.” So, among the endless projects
of the effervescent Professor, is one for
reviving the Scotch college in Paris—the
original building happening still to survive
—and for making it a centre for Scottish
students and Scottish culture in the gay
city. Thus, while the men of the “Everg-
green” “would renew local feeling and local
colour,” they “would also express the larger
view of Edinburgh as not only a National
and Imperial but a European city— the
larger view of Scotland, again as in recent,
in mediæval, most of all in ancient times,
one of the European Powers of Culture—as
of course far smaller countries like Norway
are to-day.” An aspiration with which all
intelligent men must sympathise. The quest
at once of local colour and cosmopolitanism
is not at all self-contradictory. The truest
cosmopolitanism goes with the intensest
local colour, for otherwise you contribute
nothing to the human treasury and make
mankind one vast featureless monotony,
Harmonious diversity is the true cosmopolitan
concept, and who will not applaud this desire
of Edinburgh to range itself again amongst
the capitals of culture? Why should it take
its tone from London? That centripetal
force which draws villages to towns and
town to capitals everywhere tends to concentrate
in one city a country’s culture, and to
brand as provincial that which is not of the
centre. Our English men of letters abhor the
town and if now and then a great man does
abide therein, it is because he has the gift
of solitude amid crowds, and is not obnoxious
to the contagion of the common thought.
The Scotch School, though its effort to
emancipate itself from the intellectual thral-
dom of London is to be commended, does
not escape the dangers that lie in wait for
all schools, which upset one convention by
another. Still a school of thought which is
also a school of action has in itself the germs
of perpetual self-recuperation,

Yes, there can be little danger of sinking
into barren formulæ, into glib æsthetic prattle
about Renascence, in a movement of which
one expression is the purification of those
plaguy, if picturesque, Closes, which are
the foul blot upon the beautiful Athens of
the North. Those sunless courts, entered by
needles’ eyes of apertures, congested with
hellish, heaven-scaling barracks, reeking
with refuse and evil odours, inhabited
promiscuously by poverty and prostitution,
worse than the worst slums of London itself
—how could they have been left so long
to pollute the fairest and well-nigh the
wealthiest city in the kingdom? “Do you
wonder Edinburgh is renowned for its
medical schools?” asked the Professor
grimly, as he darted in
and out among those foul
alleys, explaining how he
was demolishing this and
reconstructing that — at
once a Destroying Angel
and a Redeemer. Veritable
ghettoes they seemed, these
blind alleys of gigantic
habitations, branching out
from the High Street,
hidden away from the
superficial passer-by faring
to Holyrood. They were
the pioneers of the trans-
Atlantic sky-builders, were
those old burghers, who,
shut in about their castled hill by the two
lochs, one of which is now the enchanting
Princes Street, were fain to build heaven-
wards as population grew. It was a stormy
morning when the mercurial Professor of
Botany, recking naught of the rain that
saturated his brown cloak, itself reluctantly
donned, led me hither and thither, through
the highways and byways of old Edinburgh.
Everywhere a litter of building operations,
and we trod gingerly many a decadent stair-
case. Sometimes a double row of houses
had already been knocked away, revealing a
Close within a Close, eyeless house behind
blind alley, and even so the diameter of the
court still but a few yards. What human
ant-heaps, what histories, farces, tragedies
played out in airless tenebrosity! The
native writers seem to have strangely neg-
lected the artistic wealth of all this poverty:
pathos and humour reside, then, only in
villages! Thrums and Drumtochty and
Galloway exhaust the human tragi-comedy.
Ah ! my friends, go to the ant-hill and be
wise! The Professor of Botany—seeming
now rather of entomology— explained the
principle upon which he was destroying and
rebuilding. One had to be cautious. He
pointed out the head of a boy carved over
one of the archways, the one survivor of a
fatal subsidence many years ago, when the
ground floor of one of the gigantic houses
was converted into a shop, with plate-glass
windows in lieu of the solid stonework.
“Heave awa’ ! ” cried a piping voice amid
the débris: ” I’m no dead yet.” The Pro-
fessor’s own destruction was conservative in
character, for it was his aim to preserve
the ancient note in the architecture, and to
make a clean Old Edinburgh of a dirty.
Air and light were to be no longer excluded,
and outside every house, as flats or storeys
are called, a balcony was to run, giving on
sky and open ground. Eminent person-
ages, ancestrally connected with ancient
demesnes, long perverted into pigsties, had
been induced to repurchase them, thus
restoring an archaic flavour of aristocratic
prestige to these despised quarters. The
moral effect of grappling with an evil that
had seemed so hopeless could not fail to be
inspiring; and, as we plodded through the
pouring streets, “I will remove this, I will
reconstruct that,” cried the enthusiastic Pro-
fessor, till I almost felt I was walking with
the Emperor of Edinburgh. But whence
come the sinews of war? Evidently no
professor’s privy purse would suffice. I
gathered that the apostle of the sanitary
picturesque had inspired sundry local capi-
talists with his own patriotic enthusiasm.
What a miracle, this trust in a man over-
brimming with ideas, the brilliant biological
theoriser of “The Evolution of Sex” in the
Contemporary Science Series, the patron of
fantastic artists like John Duncan! Obvi-
ously it is his architectural faculty that has
saved him. There stand the houses he has
built—visible, tangible, delectable; concrete
proofs that he is no mere visionary. And
yet we may be sure the more frigid society
of Edina still looks askance on this dreamer
in stone and fresco; for after all Edinburgh,
a Professor Blackie said, is an “East-windy,
west-endy city.” Cold and stately, it sits
on its height with something of the austere
mournfulness of a ruined capital. But we
did not concern ourselves about the legal
and scholastic quarters, the Professor and I.
We penetrated into inhabited interiors in
the Closes, meeting strange female ruins on
staircases, or bonny housewives in bed-sitting
rooms, in one of which a sick husband lay
apologetically abed. And when even the
Professor was forced at last to take refuge
from the driving rain, it was in John Knox’s
house that we ensconced ourselves— the grim,
unlovely house of the great Calvinist, the
doorway of which fanatically baptised me
in a positive waterfall, and in whose dark
rooms, as the buxom care-taker declared in
explaining the presence of an empty cage,
no bird could live. It is not only in its
Closes, methought, that Scotland needs re-
generation. Many a spiritual blind-alley has
still to receive sunshine and air, “sweetness
and light.” So let us welcome the “Ever-
green” and the planters thereof, stunted and
mean though its growth be as yet; for not
only in Scotland may they bring refreshment,
but in that larger world where analysis and
criticism have ended in degeneration and
despair. Mayhap Salvation is of the Celt.

MLA citation:

“The Evergreen.” Review of The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, vol.1-2, The Pall Mall Magazine Feb 1896, pp. 327-329. Yellow Nineties 2.0, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/EG2_Review_The_Pall_Mall_Magazine_Feb_1896/