Edinburgh: Mapping the City

Author: Christopher Fleet and Daniel MacCannellPublisher: Birlinn Books

Over the years, I’ve seen some very beautiful cities while travelling through Europe and all have their own allure. Rome’s ancient and eternal splendour, the medieval fairytale that is Prague, the wealthy buildings of Amsterdam’s mercantile elite along its canals, the proud imperial architecture of London. Edinburgh is also one of those wonders.  The capital’s historic heart is rich in culture and the New Town is a bold statement of power and prosperity. There’s a relaxed and friendly atmosphere that offers a change of pace from your usual big city. Whether you’re looking out from Princes Street onto The Mound, the castle and Scott’s Monument, or strolling down the Royal Mile past Saint Gilles Cathedral, there’s just no escaping the city’s long history – and the stories that come with it.

Edinburgh: Mapping the City does an excellent job at telling some of the most interesting stories in 71 maps – some that were never before reproduced. It offers a generous cross-section of history: from reconstructions of the pre-historic Mid-Lothian and the medieval Old City, past Elizabethan upheaval and the leaps and bounds progression of the Industrial Revolution, to modern post-war visions of reconstruction and the democratic promises of digital mapping.

This lavishly crafted book is divided into accessible chapters of no more than three pages discussing one particular map, its design and maker, and the year in history it depicts. It makes reading this heavy tome a lot less demanding, offering snapshots of Edinburgh’s past, choosing to frame them with enjoyable and informative anecdotes, instead of having to wrestle your way through page upon page of progressing history. At the same time, the maps’ stories are written in powerful prose, with Fleet and MacCannell deliberately offering their readership a level-headed and faithfully scientific approach to Edinburgh’s history, while leaving the reader ample space for romanticism.

Between the pages, it becomes clear that Mapping the City tells much more than the story of Edinburgh. It relates as much about the city as it does about what could be considered a British family history. And like all good family histories, this too is fraught with rivalry and war, reconciliation and reunions. The authors eloquently place the city in its broader Scottish context, as well as in relation to England, and ultimately as a distinctive part of the British Isles. As a reader, I found the chance to connect the dots a very rewarding exercise. It’s a peculiar, exciting sensation to learn how the smallest, inconspicuous detail on a centuries old map of Edinburgh – a broadened street, a closed-off wynd or the sudden disappearance of a small church – can tell so much about the identity of the long-gone inhabitants of Auld Reekie, and of history beyond the Lothians.

What also really stands out from this collection of maps is people’s unfailing talent to selectively reveal as well as obscure what they think of the world around them. While all these maps are treasure-troves of information on the development of Edinburgh, they can be just as informative in what they neglect to tell, and are almost never objective or neutral – always trumpeting progress and victory for the winning side. They show their makers rejoicing in rationalized urban development, yet disregarding the consequences for local communities, heralding the triumph of kings over their slain enemies, and cheering on the advent of roads, rails and automobiles – blind to what might be lost in the process. Most interestingly are those instances where the mapmaker has gotten ahead of himself and drawn up intricate plans for what could have been; ambitions which were subsequently abandoned, like idyllic 18th century suburbs which were never realized, or three-storey bypasses criss-crossing a drastically altered Mound.

With remarkable talent and clarity, Fleet and MacCannell show maps to be much more than just items of use to find your way around. Instead, they convincingly offer a different perspective; of maps as visual representations of fledging ideas, even dreams, captured on parchment or paper at a precise moment in time, and preserved for posterity. Together, they tell the tantalizing story of Edinburgh and of the people who made it into what it is today.

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