What if this had been Edinburgh Castle? – Christine Jardine

Edinburgh is not just a city of beautiful, protected, architecture, it is a city whose buildings tell the history of our society and its changes, writes Christine Jardine.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 22nd April 2019, 3:19 pm
Updated Monday, 22nd April 2019, 3:24 pm

Sometimes I think that, living in Edinburgh, I take the city a little bit for granted.

There are days when I am able to spend time talking about its attractions, enjoying the zoo or taking in the view of the bridges in South Queensferry.

But much of my time is spent working on the problems which the people and communities across my constituency have in common with much of the rest of the UK.

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What if Edinburgh Castle had been engulfed in a fire like this? (Picture: Thierry Mallet/AP)

This week I had cause to pause and take stock.

I took time look around and take in what we have.

Initially it was prompted by the breathtakingly fierce and destructive fire which engulfed Notre-Dame in Paris.

Like so many people I am lucky enough to have stood and marvelled at the sheer magnificence of its architecture.

Watching it burn on TV, the memories of those visits brought with them a sense of personal attachment and nostalgia for the time spent in Paris.

I couldn’t help but think about the people I’d spent that time with and the fun we had.

But I also felt slight sense of guilt at being so concerned about a building.

Yes it’s a building which is of supreme significance to Parisians, to France and to Christian churches.

It took 200 years to build, is 800 years old and is a much-loved, much-visited tourist attraction.

But still there was that nagging sense of guilt.

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Every day I meet people who face the most challenging of circumstances for their health, their financial security or their family’s future.

I am constantly frustrated by the system’s inability to do more for those people I see every week whose well-being depends on a welfare state which is failing them.

Thousands of women in Edinburgh West are suffering because of mismanagement of the changes in the state pensionable age for women.

And a decision to make retrospective changes to the tax laws has meant hundreds of people are facing financial ruin because of so-called loan charges on past income.

Yet here was I worried about a building.

In the end I mentioned this to a friend, who said simply: “Imagine it was the castle.”

As luck would have it a few minutes later I found myself in the Grassmarket.

That is possibly my favourite of Edinburgh’s little gems.

Areas with their own unique feeling and attraction where you can almost feel the past watching to ensure you respect what their creativity and talent have left you to enjoy.

I thought about the Castle, about visits with my childhood friends and my daughter’s childhood friends, professional visits to write about the fireworks or political meetings there.

I thought about the fire in 2002 which ravaged the original Gilded Balloon in Cowgate.

I was also brought up in Glasgow and I remembered the sense of loss there after the second of the fires which, between them, destroyed the remarkable and irreplaceable gem that was the Glasgow School of Art.

But it was the Old Town and the Royal Mile especially which made me reassess that nagging guilt about my reaction to the Notre-Dame fire.

I remember as a child being fascinated by history lessons which focussed on how Edinburgh had been transformed in the Enlightenment.

How Scottish society of the time had been shaped by the fact that different classes lived cheek by jowl in cramped conditions until the New Town changed everything.

Every visitor I bring to the city has to suffer my proud ramblings about the planning of the New Town, how you can feel Scotland’s history in every inch of the Royal Mile, and how much our scholars, primarily David Hume, have given to the world.

I accept it’s a potted, and possibly only vaguely accurate representation of our past, but it is history as I see and feel it every day.

That realisation made me rethink not just my reaction to the fire in Paris, but whether I actually appreciate what we have living in a World Heritage Site.

Edinburgh is not just a city of beautiful, protected, architecture.

It is a city whose buildings tell the history of our society and its changes.

We learn who we have been and who we are in the journey from the Castle at the top, past St Giles to the new parliament and Holyrood Palace at the foot of the mile.

The same is true of cities and cultures all over the world.

Notre-Dame is also significant to the period of the French Revolution and a time when Scotland and France, Edinburgh and Paris were the closest of allies.

Thinking over this past week I now take a very different view of my reaction to that fire.

I recognise that what I felt was the loss of a connection to the past.

I understand completely why there has been such an outpouring of grief and commitment to rebuild.

More importantly I have taken time to appreciate the connections around me to our own past.