Reviewed: On Edinburgh and Glasgow by Robert Crawford

Best of enemies.

Edinburgh's Royal Mile.
Edinburgh's Royal Mile. Photograph: Getty Images

On Glasgow and Edinburgh
Robert Crawford
Harvard University Press, 320pp, £20

Duality is the great theme of Scotland’s history and Scottish literature. Running from Walter Scott and James Hogg to Alasdair Gray, via Robert Louis Stevenson and Hugh MacDiarmid, Scotland’s sense of itself has always been double-sided. So perhaps it is not surprising that the rivalry between her greatest cities is but another example of the “Caledonian antisyzygy”, first identified by G Gregory Smith in the early 20th century.

Robert Crawford is that rarest breed of Scotsman: one who professes to love Edinburgh and Glasgow equally. If this “feels like bigamy”, it is, he admits, because “it is”. Most Glaswegians and Edinburgh natives recoil in disgust when faced with this manner of perversion. East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.

Edinburgh and Glasgow have never been friends. Like the rivalry between England and France, each city’s sense of its own superiority is undermined by the nagging recognition that the other has advantages it cannot honestly proclaim for itself. Beneath parochial assertions of supremacy lurks a quiet sense of occasional inferiority. Edinburgh folk, in an honest moment, might admit to envying Glasgow’s chutzpah and energy; Glaswegians, in return, might acknowledge that Edinburgh is rather more than a museum piece.

Crawford, professor of modern Scottish literature at St Andrews, is also a poet and he has produced a walking guide to Scotland’s greatest cities that will delight any literaryminded tourist. Many natives will learn much from this agreeable book too.

It is impossible to think of a comparably sized country that contains two such great – or such contrasting – cities that have contributed so much to the rest of the world. Most small countries must make do with but a single major metropolis; Scotland is fortunate, as this book makes evident, to enjoy two. Amid all the achievements Crawford celebrates, this is one of the most remarkable.

What a pair they are. Glasgow is welcoming, working-class, coarse and radical; Edinburgh aloof, middle-class, refined and conservative. Such generalisations contain truth but reality, as ever, is more complex. Many of Glasgow’s greatest assets – the Burrell Collection, for example – are the products of capitalist endeavour; many of Edinburgh’s finest monuments the result of state-sponsored patronage. Their fortunes have risen and fallen like cable cars passing one another on a mountainside. Edinburgh had the better Enlightenment (though Glasgow did not lack glory then either: Adam Smith was a Glasgow University man) but the 19th century soon belonged to Glasgow.

In its own golden Victorian age, Glasgow considered itself not Scotland’s second city but the second city of the Empire. Edinburgh, deprived of a parliament and lacking industrial muscle, became a provincial backwater. By contrast, the world took what Glasgow built. As Crawford notes, Glasgow was, typically, “one of the first cities in the world to beget a poetry of industrial pollution”.

Trade and commerce built Glasgow. The Merchant City and the tombs in its splendid Necropolis testify to that (Crawford, pleasingly, is good on cemeteries). Even today, Glasgow looks west to the new world. Not for nothing did it recently impersonate Philadelphia for a film shoot. If Glasgow can still sometimes feel American, Edinburgh is European, more akin to Prague or Florence.

Glasgow has often been a city in a hurry, disinclined to rest upon its past. Edinburgh’s lethargy spared it much architectural destruction; Glasgow’s embrace of “progress” saw it treat its own heritage with wanton disregard. Not even the buildings of its greatest architect, Alexander “Greek” Thomson, were spared.

Crawford argues that Edinburgh, after a century of genteel decline, was saved by the arrival of the annual International Festival. A city too much in love with its past now had cause to reach out to the world. Glasgow, on the other hand, suffered from the decline of heavy industry. The Clyde, once its lifeblood, is now just another river.

The arrival of the Scottish parliament at the end of the last century also gave Edinburgh a lift. A capital-in-name-only regained some sense of purpose. Despite the immolation of RBS and HBOS and a hopelessly botched tram project, Edinburgh has a confident swagger and bustle today.

Nearly three-quarters of the Scottish population live within commuting distance of these two cities. Only 50 miles apart and, by international standards, tiny places, in other countries they might be considered part of the same urban unit. Neither Glasgow nor Edinburgh can accept this. They are each defined by what they are not just as much as by what they are. A Glaswegian can never be wholly at home in Edinburgh and vice versa, and even bigamists know, deep down, that hey love one wife more than the other.