Friday, December 2, 2011

On the North Bridge

One of the New York City area news stories today involves a man who sawed through cell tower cables to disrupt transmission, and thereby express his dissatisfaction with a newly built cell tower in his neighborhood.  Others in this man's neighborhood complained that the cell tower had sprung up virtually overnight, with no public hearings concerning its construction.   Development issues are nothing new, and Lord Henry Cockburn records in his memoirs that on December 2nd, 1817, a public hearing was held concerning the erection of the North Bridge Buildings in Edinburgh.  Per Cockburn’s history, public meetings were not common at that point.

‘The new street along the southern side of the Calton Hill disclosed some glorious prospects, or at least exhibited them from new points. One of these was the view westward, over the North Bridge. But we had only begun to perceive its importance, when its interception by what are now called the North Bridge Buildings raised our indignation; and we thought that the magistrates, who allowed them to be set agoing in silence, had betrayed ns. We were therefore very angry, and had recourse to another of these new things called public meetings, which we were beginning to feel the power of. It was held on the 2d of December 1817. Professor Playfair presided; this being, I suppose, the only time in his life on which that unobtrusive and gentle philosopher permitted himself to be placed in such a position. James Stuart of Dunearn explained the matter in a clear and sensible speech. Old Henry Mackenzie made his first appearance at such a meeting, saying that, though no speaker, it was impossible to submit in silence to the destruction of the town, and that facit indignatio versum." Resolutions were passed, a subscription opened, and we went to law, where we got an ornate speech from Cranstoun, who recited " my own romantic town" to the Court. But this was all we got. For while the judges were looking rather favourable, our funds ebbed, and of course our ardour cooled. Then persons of taste began to hint that we were all wrong, and that the position of the buildings was beautiful; and at last another meeting was held in May 1818, when we struck our colours. So we lost about £1000; the magistrates got a fright; and the buildings stand. But much good was done by the clamour. Attention was called nearly for the first time, to the duty of maintaining the beauty of Edinburgh. A respectable and organized resistance of municipal power was new here, and the example was not lost, though the immediate object of the battle was.’

North Bridge was, of course, a familiar site to Walter Scott.  J.G. Lockhart mentions in his “Memoirs of the life of Sir Walter Scott” an instance of Scott mulling over poetry while on the bridge:

‘…Not long before this piece began to be handed about in Edinburgh, Thomas Campbell had made his appearance there, and at once seized a high place in the literary world by his 'Pleasures of Hope.' Among the most eager to welcome him had been Scott; and I find the brotherbard thus expressing himself concerning the MS. of Cadyow :—

'' The verses of Cadyow Castle are perpetually ringing in my imagination—

'Where mightiest of the beasts of chase
That roam in woody Caledon,
Crashing the forest in his race,
The mountain bull comes thundering on—'
and the arrival of Hamilton, when
'Reeking from the recent deed,
He dashed his carbine on the ground.'

I have repeated these lines so often on the North Bridge that the -whole fraternity of coachmen know me by tongue as I pass. To be sure, to a mind in sober, serious street-walking humour, it must bear an appearance of lunacy when one stamps with the hurried pace and fervent shake of the head, which strong, pithy poetry excites."

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