The Duality of Edinburgh – the Light and the Dark

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in the August issue of Echelon magazine.


For its role in the 18th century enlightenment Edinburgh earned the title “Athens of the North”. As well as enlightenment, Edinburgh has darkness – and cold- and rain- and wind. Getting off the night-sleeper from London at Waverley Station, I felt I had landed on another planet- a cold, wet, windy planet. Waverley rests in a steep, narrow valley between the medieval Old Town and the 18th century New Town. Climbing the hill (Robert Louis Stevenson once called Edinburgh a “precipitous city”) from the station, battling in the face of a cyclone, I noticed huge pieces of metal and large dustbins flying all over the street. On my right, I saw a shop sign that said “Brass Monger”. This brought to mind the old saying: “Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”. Was this shop in the business of fixing them back on again? (There is also a pub called the Brass Monkey  on Drummond Street,  close to the University’s  Old College).



In the 18th century novel The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett, one character describes Edinburgh as a “hotbed of genius”. By 1750, Scotland’s major cities had created an intellectual infrastructure of mutually supporting institutions, such as universities, reading societies, libraries, periodicals, museums and Masonic lodges. The Scottish Enlightenment had numerous dimensions, including architecture, art and music. The central achievement was a new capacity to recognize and interpret social patterns.


David Hume

Intellectual life in Edinburgh from 1710 revolved around gentlemen’s clubs. One of the first was the Easy Club, co-founded by the Jacobite printer Thomas Ruddiman. The Political Economy Club created links between academics and merchants. Other clubs in Edinburgh included The Select Society, formed by artist Allan Ramsay, and philosophers David Hume and Adam Smith.


Adam Smith

David Hume (1711–76) was a major influence on later Enlightenment figures. His Treatise on Human Nature (1738) and Essays, Moral and Political (1741) helped outline the parameters of philosophical Empiricism and Scepticism. The influence of the movement spread beyond Scotland across the British Empire, and onto the Continent. The political ideas coming out of Edinburgh had an important impact on the founding fathers of the US. Representative of the far-reaching impact of the Scottish Enlightenment was the new Encyclopædia Britannica, which was designed in Edinburgh and published between 1768 and 1771. While the Scottish Enlightenment is traditionally considered to have concluded toward the end of the 18th century, Edinburgh made large contributions to British science and letters for another 50 years.


Even in the 18th Century, Edinburgh had a dark side comparable to that conveyed in the writings today of Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin. By the first half of the 18th century, despite rising prosperity evidenced by its growing importance as a banking centre, Edinburgh was being described as one of the most densely populated, overcrowded and unsanitary towns in Europe. Various social classes shared the same urban space, even inhabiting the same tenement buildings.

The Edinburgh Medical School was established in 1726, and soon attracted students from across Britain and the American colonies. It is one of the oldest and best medical schools in the English-speaking world. However, it relied increasingly on body snatchers for a steady supply of “anatomical subjects”. The activities of these “resurrectionists” were so profitable that they progressed from grave robbing to murder. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about Burke and Hare in his short story, The Body Snatcher in 1884. The story was the basis for a 1945 film directed by Robert Wise and starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.





Deacon Brodie was a member of The Edinburgh Cape Club. He was a cabinet-maker, deacon of a trades guild and Edinburgh city councillor, who maintained a secret life as a burglar, partly for the thrill, and partly to fund his gambling. He fathered five children to two mistresses (who did not know of each other). Brodie was hanged on 1 October 1788, before a crowd of 40,000. Robert Louis Stevenson, whose father owned furniture made by Brodie, wrote a play (with W. E. Henley) entitled Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life, which was unsuccessful. However, Stevenson remained fascinated by the dichotomy between Brodie’s respectable façade, and his real nature and was inspired to write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886)

In 2004, Edinburgh became the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature, an accolade awarded in recognition of its literary heritage and lively literary activities in the present. Waverley Station is named in honour of Sir Walter Scott and his memorial watches over the main shopping thoroughfare, Princes Street, like a Victorian Gothic space module. Scott was the respectable face of Edinburgh writing and was the first English-language author to have a truly international career in his lifetime.

There is a darker side to Edinburgh literature. James Hogg published Confessions of a Justified Sinner anonymously in Edinburgh in 1824.The book is an early example of crime fiction with the story told partly from the viewpoint of the killer. It was greatly praised in the 20th century as a representation of the power of evil and a case-study of totalitarian thought. It inspired RL Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. One interpretation of Stevenson’s novella sees the Jekyll and Hyde duality as representative of Scotland and the Scottish character. There is a further parallel with the city of Edinburgh itself. Edinburgh consists of two distinct parts: the old medieval section historically inhabited by the city’s poor, where the dark crowded slums were rife with all types of crime, and the modern Georgian area of wide spacious streets representing respectability.

The novella has also been noted as “one of the best guidebooks of the Victorian era” because of its description of the fundamental dichotomy of the 19th century “outward respectability and inward lust”. Edinburgh was once called a city of “public probity and private vice”. Morningside, a late-Victorian suburb on the south side of Edinburgh, epitomises this hypocrisy and has been described as “propriety in built form”. The area has been caricatured as being patrolled by curtain-twitching killjoys. In fiction, it was the home of Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie. In real life, Ian Rankin lived in Morningside (or rather in nearby Merchiston).

Drugs, AIDS, Poverty

Welsh’s novel Trainspotting is set in Leith, Edinburgh, in the mid-1980s, when heroin use there was just taking off. Pure opium arrived in the city in 1693. By 1877, it was widespread among the middle classes. Heroin was first synthesised in 1884, and Edinburgh factories were soon manufacturing it. By the end of the 19th century, Edinburgh produced most of the world’s opiate drugs, heroin included. Production continues to this day.

There were 584 drug-related deaths in 2011, 99 (20 per cent) more than in 2010. This was the highest number recorded since the series of figures began in 1996, was 10 (2 per cent) more than

the previous largest figure (which was 574 in 2008), and was 252 (76 per cent) more than in 2001. The number of drug-related deaths has risen in six of the past ten years: the long-term trend appears to be upwards.

In the 1980s, Edinburgh was known as the AIDS capital of Europe. The Muirhouse council housing estate was the centre of the 80s drug scene in Edinburgh. Junk devastated many families and completely ruined a community. Even today more than 30 per cent of households in Muirhouse are  on low income.

The Duality of Inequality

Ian Rankin has written: “Edinburgh has always seemed to me a furtive place. Throughout history it has made its money from invisible industries such as banking and insurance.” Edinburgh’s relatively buoyant economy, traditionally centred on banking and insurance but now encompassing a wide range of businesses, makes it the biggest financial centre in the UK after London. However, a new report on inequality describes Edinburgh as “a city divided” with average incomes nine per cent above the rest of the country, yet 50,000 families below the poverty threshold. At the end of last year, the Trussell Trust estimated there were 6216 people in Edinburgh and the Lothians relying on food banks. The report said 22 per cent of households in the city live on incomes below the poverty threshold Eighteen per cent of all children in Edinburgh live in low income households, a total of some 17,600 young people, and 19 per cent of workers were paid below the living wage.

The Enlightened Future

Scotland decides on September 18 whether Edinburgh becomes the capital of an independent Scotland with Alex Salmond as prime minister. Salmond maintains that Scotland is a rich nation held back by being part of the UK. He calls on the values of the Edinburgh Enlightenment. “Our national story has been shaped down the generations by values of compassion, equality, an unrivalled commitment to the empowerment of education…I ’m going to argue that our international policy – like our domestic policy – should be governed by another enlightened Scottish idea – the one Adam Smith pursued in the Theory of Moral Sentiment – of enlightened self-interest. By helping others, we will help ourselves.”