Canongate Stars and Stories
an illuminated literary walk
through Edinburgh’s Old Town
Edinburgh is a hot-bed of genius– Tobias Smollett
Tobias Smollett was an author and translator of the Scottish Enlightenment who lodged with his sister at St John’s Pend, close to the building that today hosts Hillcrest Housing Association. Along with his famous 1755 translation of Cervantes’ masterpiece Don Quixote, Smollett was also a tremendously popular author of what are broadly termed ‘picaresque’ novels of the late 18th century.
This quotation is taken from The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, a novel presented in the form of letters, which follows Matthew Bramble, his family, and his servants as they travel through England and Scotland.
Here we see that Bramble is especially impressed by the inhabitants of Edinburgh, having met “many authors of the first distinction,” including “the two Humes” John and David, Adam Smith, and Robert Fergusson.
Ill-fated genius!”– Robert Burns
This powerful line begins Robert Burns’ 1787 poem ‘On Fergusson.’ Robert Fergusson was a brilliant Edinburgh-born poet, living and writing at the height of the Scottish Enlightenment.
A huge influence on Robert Burns, Fergusson is widely considered a genius by many and has inspired both his contemporaries and poets down successive generations. But Fergusson’s fortunes declined, and when he died it was in such poverty that he was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in the Canongate Kirkyard, just across the road from Hillcrest.
Dismayed by this injustice, Robert Burns arranged for him to have a proper gravestone, gathering support and funds to make a monument with an inscription befitting his hero. A more recent statue of Robert Fergusson stands outside the Kirk gates.
Fergusson has been caught mid-stride with his coat-tails flapping, perpetually on his way down the Royal Mile, with a book in hand.
Pinning It Down
A city is a drama in time”– Sir Patrick Geddes
On the other side of the road from Hillcrest Housing Association lies Dunbar’s Close, a lush 17th century style garden, originally designed by Sir Patrick Geddes.
As well as coming up with this pithy phrase about Edinburgh, Geddes is renowned for his innovative ideas on social reform, environmentalism, and town planning. While the garden now provides a haven from the Old Town bustle, the area was previously known for quite a different scene as the location of a popular oyster cellar. Oysters, now a luxury, were once a staple meal for the working classes due to ample supplies from the Firth of Forth. Legend has it that the oyster cellar in Dunbar’s Close was frequented by none other than Robert Burns.
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