it's time to get above ourselves

Reclaim the City

As the campaign to defend Edinburgh’s Cental Library steps up a gear, Ray Burnett looks at the Old Town’s radical history – and what we are losing with mindless development for the rich.

For Edinburgh to become, in 2004, the first ‘City of Literature’ in the world, the home of a concept that UNESCO has since taken around the world, was no mean achievement. Almost fourteen years on it has developed into a vigorous promotion of ‘Books, Words, Ideas’, drawing on the capital’s rich publishing, creative and intellectual history. One of the key strands it highlights and utilises is the City’s public library service, declaring: ‘Libraries are Edinburgh’s literary outposts; they are the beating heart of its communities, and they open a world, an escape hatch, for people of all ages…. Long live libraries!’

At the heart of the service is the ‘Central’, the splendid French Renaissance style public library on George IV Bridge, funded by the Scots American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie who laid its foundation stone in the Cowgate in 1887 [ see Shine a Light here]. Designed by noted Scots architect George Washington Browne, its decorated stone work a tribute to the skills of Edinburgh stone masons, the ‘Central’ remains the jewel in the crown of Scotland’s legacy of free public Carnegie libraries.

The first, and the progenitor of over three thousand libraries across the world, opened in Carnegie’s native Dunfermline in 1883. Earlier this year Dunfermline proudly celebrated with the opening of a state of the art extension to the original building. Fife Cultural Trust, who manage the Council’s libraries, justifiably hailed their £12million project as ‘a fitting celebration of the past, present and future of Dunfermline, one of Scotland’s ancient capitals.’ It demonstrated an award-winning blend of old build and new, thereby ‘ensuring that the legacy left by Andrew Carnegie lives on.’

In the current capital, however, a very different scenario prevails. Not only is the present amenity and future enhancement of the city’s own Carnegie jewel seriously impaired by the intrusive construction of yet another unwanted city centre hotel development. But the wanton disregard shown for the Library’s ‘outstanding universal value’ now threatens Edinburgh’s status as a City of Literature and that of the Old Town as a World Heritage Site. As Simon Byrom of the Old Town Community Council has poignantly observed Edinburgh, the once famed city of Enlightenment ‘is becoming a city of Endarkenment and the ancient neighbourhood at the heart of the nation is now in perilous decline’.

In voicing their opposition to this latest of Edinburgh’s sorrowful litany of unwelcome proposals the campaigners on behalf of the library have also posed fundamental questions of national significance. Who are our cities for? What are the principles and values that underpin the planning of our urban landscape? In the Scotland of the future what will the historic heart of our capital city be based on – people or profit? Ironically, these were the very questions being posed on precisely the same ground of the Central Library, Victoria Terrace and ‘the heid o’ the Coogait’ back in the 1890s. And then as now, it was the city’s Council that was angrily taken to task by the Old Town residents for the sordid interests its policies served, the chicanery through which they were imposed and the glaring hypocrisy exposed by the contradiction between avowed principles and actual practices.

 

II

Reflective of the signature inscription, ‘Let There Be Light’, carved above the Central Library’s entrance, as on all Carnegie public libraries, the building was purposely designed to have a substantial access to daylight. On the west side in particular, this is facilitated by a series of large imposing windows which also recognise the library’s unique location with iconic views across the Old Town to the Castle. Yet in 2016 the Council gave planning consent for the construction of a large luxury hotel (rising to 11 storeys) immediately behind the library that will drastically impair the daylighting, close down the iconic views and deny the library the very land that had been earmarked for further expansion.

Faced with this latest onslaught on the Old Town’s public assets and amenities, resident and community groups unanimously declared their opposition. Backed by statements of support from various prominent figures in Scottish cultural life, a substantial number of individual objections and an online petition of several thousand they voiced their opposition at the planning consent hearing.

Wendy Hebard of the Grassmarket’s Residents Association, lambasted the Council for allowing ‘irreparable damage to one of your own capital assets.’ Instead of taking the opportunity to enhance the library, the Council’s approval only ‘undermines the opportunity of developing the City’s reputation as the first UNESCO City of Literature, hence that organisation’s objection to this scheme.’ Neil Simpson, of the Old Town Development Trust and a chartered architect, concurred, stating that the proposal ‘makes the prospect of the library becoming a key resource in the literary and cultural landscape of Scotland’s capital city impossible’.

The community groups also objected on the wider grounds of further negative impact on the amenity of the Old Town without regard for the well-grounded concerns of the Old Town residents. As Bob Cowan of the Old Town Community Council (OTTC) succinctly put it: ‘We need developments that enhance not developments that exploit.’ Cllr Joanna Mowat (Conservative), one of the four ward councillors who were united in their cross-party opposition stressed that they wanted visitors to see the Old Town as a vibrant living community, and ‘having a local community there brings vibrancy. I don’t see where the people are in this application, the people who live here, and that’s why I’ve got really serious problems.’

Notwithstanding the strength and unanimity of resident opposition and the clear warnings as to the implications for the library and the protection of City of Literature status, approval was given for the 225-bed hotel development to go ahead. And despite community appeals to Scottish government and an unsuccessful attempt to achieve a Judicial Review this has not been invoked.

Central to the residents’ case was the knowledge that the land to the rear of the library had been specifically purchased by the Town Council to ensure ‘good light’ to the west side of the building and that the Council’s own 2002 Library Conservation Plan regarded it as ‘a hugely wasted opportunity’ if the Council land was not utilised for the benefit of the library. Ironically the information was obtained from the Library’s and the Council’s own sources. Yet an even further irony emerges when the historical associations of the site in relation to past controversies over the Council’s management of the Old Town amenities is examined.

III

In May 1892 James Connolly left his parent’s house in Alison’s Close, (in the heart of the present development site), to register the death of his mother. A manure carter with the Cleansing Department in King’s Stables Road, he knew the area well, having lived in various locations across the Old Town from his birth in the Cowgate to his present married abode in James Court, Lawnmarket. At his birthplace an Edinburgh Trades Council plaque briefly commemorates his life: ‘renowned international trade union and working class leader founder of Irish Socialist Republican Party member of provisional government of Irish Republic executed 12th May 1916 at Kilmainham Jail Dublin.’

Reflecting on the upbringing in the poverty of the Old Town of a man now acknowledged to be one of the most original radical thinkers of the emergent movement in Europe, Victor Kiernan of Edinburgh University described Connolly as ‘an example of how enormous a leap an individual mind can make when caught up by a progressive historical movement.’ In the 1890s, as Secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation, he was one of a small circle of left-minded radical activists in a diverse emergent labour movement promoting their ideas through open air meetings, lectures, campaigns and the columns of their flagship monthly paper, Edinburgh’s Labour Chronicle.

With its French revolutionary masthead, ’The great appear great to us because we are on our knees; let us rise,’ the Chronicle was edited by Alex Dickinson, a young man from Greyfriars Place and a parishioner of Greyfriars Kirk under its free-thinking minister, Rev John Glasse. Along with Leo Meillet, a former mayor and political refugee from the 1871 Paris Commune, Glasse also lectured regularly on socialism in Victoria Terrace. Although each retained its own distinctive orientation it was a circle of radical thinkers and ideas that overlapped significantly with the other Old Town circle of Patrick Geddes and his associates.

When the Chronicle launched in 1894 Dickinson declared it would be devoted to questions affecting the welfare of people – ‘questions which every working-man and working-woman ought to be, and we believe, are, not unwilling to understand.’ From their roots in the Old Town, through their meetings, talks and the columns of the Chronicle, Dickinson and Connolly actively encouraged self-education. Access to books was encouraged in a specific way: ‘This is one of those books that ought to be read in the Public Library. It can be read in an hour; but it cost 1s 6d, and isn’t worth it.’

And in ’Margaret and Meg’, a little sketch of two girls from either side of Edinburgh’s class divide, the Carnegie library is directly drawn on as a key amenity in overcoming the Old Town barriers of low self-esteem and over-crowded home conditions. Margaret uses her father’s library and gets books from the Free Library, ‘with occasional doubts as to their sanitary condition’. But for Meg it is difficult to read at home ‘to the accompaniment of a crying baby and a drunken man’. As a result, ‘Meg somehow hasn’t the reading habit. She makes no use of Mr Carnegie’s gift’. In short, from its inception the ‘Central’ was seen by Old Town residents as a key public amenity.

The inhabitants of the Auld Toon were well aware that the city fathers had persistently rejected the provision of a library as an unnecessary burden on ratepayers until Carnegie’s intervention. New developments were ripping apart the social fabric of the city’s communities with scant regard for their future well-being and the Labour Chronicle made clear its profound disdain for a Council that ‘betrayed the city to the Railway Company out of cowardice, or worse’. Then as now Council policies and performance were the focus of attention and as editor, Dickinson assured his readers: ‘As a local paper, it will give the most searching criticism of our local public councils and boards. Their misdeeds and mismanagement will be mercilessly laid bare.’

With 1894 being a year of local elections they looked forward to a time when ‘the smug respectability of the Merchant Company jobbers’ would ‘be unknown in the Council Chambers.’ For the first time socialist candidates were put forward in the principal working class wards to challenge the Council establishment on a clear platform of principles: ‘Purity of public life will be insisted upon, and jobbery promptly exposed; but corruption and venality cannot be got rid of until men whose whole careers is guided by “business” principles, by the false morality of commercialism, are cleared out.’

This was the context for Connolly’s earliest political writings, a monthly column on local affairs under the distinctively Edinburgh pen name of ‘R. Ascal’. Ironically, as the ILP/SSF candidate for ‘St Giles’, the ward that incorporated both Victoria Terrace and the Cowgate, his first piece of political writing focused on Council proposals for a gap site recently cleared between the High Street and the Cowgate.

The Lord Provost and Council’s proposal was the erection of yet more one and two-roomed houses. But as Connolly noted, ‘In St Giles ward where this piece of municipal philanthropy is to be perpetrated, there are already more one-roomed houses than in any ward of its size in the city.’ The proposal, wrote Connolly, was precisely the opposite of what the Old Town residents needed. ‘What is wanted in the slums is more fresh air, more sunshine, more elbow-room, larger houses with more apartments and cheaper rents.’

And in an observation that could have come directly from Patrick Geddes, he added: ‘A wiser plan would be to make a clean sweep of the whole inner line of closes and courts… and erect instead, either an immense playground for the children, with wash-house and drying-green for the inhabitants in general, or else, another public garden, planted with such trees and shrubs as would grow there.’

Connolly widened out his comments with the observation that: ‘were an honest attempt made to recover from the ground landlords of Edinburgh the wealth they have stolen from the people in the shape of ground rents, the money necessary for such schemes as the above would soon be forthcoming.’ And he concluded: ‘The taxation of ground values ought to be an article of faith with every voter who believes the City of Edinburgh belongs to the people of Edinburgh… But a middle-class Town Council will do none of these things’.

IV

While their numbers were small and their ‘voice’ gets scant recognition in the ‘heritage’ over history promotion of the Old Town, these early campaigners from and on behalf of the Auld Toon residents were not unimportant. Alex Dickinson died young at the height of his campaigning and over 2000 gathered at Greyfriars Kirk for his funeral, one of the largest funerals in the capital for years. The Rev Glasse, the translator of Marx, officiated, Meillet the Paris Communard gave the eulogy and James Connolly, his fellow activist, wrote his obituary. Alongside the hundreds of working men and women across the city many of those present would have come from the Patrick Geddes circle whose common cause was a vision of a city whose assets, amenities and spaces belonged to its inhabitants.

The ideas, the values and the vision, as elaborated by Dickinson and Connolly, also have a timely relevance to the present beyond their ironic resonance with the Central Library / India Buildings proposal. Connolly’s trenchant call for a Council programme based on land taxation and ground rent could have come directly from a Scottish Green or SSP leaflet. The radical call that was heard in the Victoria Terrace and Cowgate in the last decade of the 19th century echoes through Henri Lefebvre celebrated 1967 call for the inhabitants ‘Right to the City’ and incorporated into the UN’s New Urban Agenda of 2016. The dominant idea that the property rights of development speculators trump the use rights of inhabitants needs to be challenged and reversed. As Anna Minton has observed in relation to the question, ‘Who is the City For?’, the Right to the City stands for democratic citizenship against the steamroller of private property, use value over commodified exchange value. It is an idea whose time has come.

1. Anna Minton, ‘Who Is the City For?, in The Right to the City: A Verso Report, 2017, https://www.versobooks.com/books/2674-the-right-to-the-city

Donate Subscribe

Related Articles

See all related articles >

16 Comments

  • Graeme Purves 1 week ago

    Links between Patrick Geddes and Edinburgh’s left wing radicals are difficult to pin down, though it is known that he was greatly distressed by the execution of the leaders of the 1916 Rising in Dublin, alluding to the fact that he had known some of the participants personally. Back in the 1980s, the Vanguard veteran and Communist councillor Tom Murray told me that as a young man he had taken inspiration from Geddes’ lectures on the city.

    Reply
    • Ray Burnett 1 week ago

      I agree Graeme that the extent and nature of it is difficult to pin down but I am confident that there is sufficient circumstantial evidence to indicate a degree of interconnection or acquaintanceship, certainly in ideas and most probably in personal familiarity. My caution on this issue leads me to use the term ‘overlap’ rather than ‘link’ but evidence for the latter may yet emerge. Your recollected conversation with old Tom Murray is most interesting. It reinforces my long-held admiration for the extent of the reading of his and the earlier generation of lefties – which leads us back to the Carnegie libraries.

      Reply
  • Shiver 1 week ago

    The new library building in Dunfermline is attracting lots of visitors and generating a good deal of positive publicity as well as providing for the local people and the being true to the spirit of Carnegie. Pity Edinburgh Council can’t see all the plus points that would accrue from following Dunfermline’s enlightened lead ….

    Reply
    • Ray Burnett 1 week ago

      Dunfermline. Aye, indeed. There’s none sae blin’ as them that winnae see.

      Reply
  • A. Morton 1 week ago

    The City of Edinburgh Council’s policy of putting hotel/guesthouse owners, students and modern architects first has ruined many of the historic sites that tourists come to see. The current ideology of selling public land for private development, of funding events for visitors rather than funding essential services for residents, together with the calamitous overspending on projects such as the tram scheme, points to incompetence at worst, mismanagement at best, and lack of concern for permanent residents. Allowing yet another development that excludes citizens from the Old Town and reneging on the proposed use of the site for the Central Library is yet another example of blatant ignorance.

    Reply
    • Ray Burnett 1 week ago

      I think it’s the fact that this ‘policy’ is being actively pursued (and the manner in which it is being promoted) by a majority of both SNP and Labour councillors that I find so depressing. We face a bleak future across Scotland if this is the future. All thanks and power to the elbow of the residents and campaigners for refusing to lie down without a fight.

      Reply
  • Miss understanding 1 week ago

    I like many am disgusted at our present council and its complete disregard for any of the cities inhabitants views, in all manners of the word. The current naive planing department have a lot to answer for!
    It is a shameful situation, such a waste of our historic city, to see another concrete block erected within what was, up until not so long ago such a jewel.
    All its past wealth of outstanding architecture put to waste, slowly being surrounded by some feeble excuses and lies to become. Another nasty cheap facade, another blot another clot in the heart of what is rapidly becoming just another I’ll planed city.
    Not long now before they reach their target and loose world heritage status. Then it really will be a licence to print money. Sadly only then when it is to late will they realise why people used to want to visit in the first place.

    The narrow minded dishonest individuals within this corrupt council need to be weeded out and held to account.

    Reply
  • Miss understanding 1 week ago

    I like many am disgusted at our present council and its complete disregard for any of the cities inhabitants views, in all manners of the word. The current naive planing department have a lot to answer for!
    It is a shameful situation, such a waste of our historic city, to see another concrete block erected within what was, up until not so long ago such a jewel.
    All its past wealth of outstanding architecture put to waste, slowly being surrounded by some feeble excuses and lies to become. Another nasty cheap facade, another blot another clot in the heart of what is rapidly becoming just another I’ll planed city.
    Not long now before they reach their target and loose world heritage status. Then it really will be a licence to print money. Sadly only then when it is to late will they realise why people used to want to visit in the first place.

    The narrow minded dishonest individuals within this corrupt council need to be weeded out and held to account.

    Reply
  • SleepingDog 1 week ago

    Oh please, not another fulsome kissing of the Carnegie arse. The man climbed up on patronage, corruption, insider dealing and ruthlessness; screwed down workers’ wages with violence and terror; undermined democracy and bribed his way to a tax-avoidance legal climate with his robber baron cronies; not to mention being a corporate mass-murderer and drowner of Johnstown.

    After his red, reeking hands had clawed in such riches that he could hardly find anything to spend them on, and discovering his well-deserved unpopularity, he embarked on one of the greatest public relations spending sprees that still managed to slap his perma-credit over buildings part-funded by the public taxation he had so vigorously fought against contributing to himself.

    Every time some eejit sucks up to Carnegie it greenlights the avarice of plutocrats who love to peddle the great man theory and buy public adoration on the cheap with splashy shows of cultural affinity that sucks the life out of civic socialism.

    Reply
    • Ray Burnett 4 days ago

      Given the unpleasant and completely off target nature of the above comment I am inclined to let this particular ‘Sleeping Dog’ lie.
      However, mindful of both the hard work of the present campaigners on behalf of the amenity of Edinburgh’s Old Town and the future well-being of the city and of the past campaigning sacrifices of the pioneer generation of Embra socialists on behalf of the Auld Toon denizens that I sought to bring out of the shadows, I feel obliged to make a few things clear in reply.
      Firstly, the article is not remotely ‘another fulsome kissing of the Carnegie arse’. And while it may well be by a poor old ‘eejit’, (I’ve had worse), neither is it by ‘some eejit [who] sucks up to Carnegie’. In fact it is not about Andrew Carnegie at all. It is about one particular speculative property development proposal in Edinburgh, its impact on the Central Library as a public asset and on the amenity of the Old Town as a living community and the irony of the historical associations of the particular site in question.
      Secondly, the article expresses my own personal views. The various groups, civic, community, etc, who have expressed their opposition to the current India Buildings – Cowgate development have spoken for themselves from their distinct perspective and position. As to the wider ‘Let There Be Light’ campaign, by its very broad-based nature, it doubtless includes those who have an uncritical view of Carnegie and his philanthropy, others who are strongly critical of his brutal role as one of America’s most ruthless anti-organised labour ‘robber barons’, and probably several others who have no particular view either way.
      It seems to me that rallying behind Carnegie’s self-deifying signature inscription, (the incorporation of which in the building was mandatory in terms of the Carnegie funding), is a very apt and pertinent aspect of the library upon which two key aspects of the issues involved can be highlighted. One of the recognised key attributes of the Central Library’s architectural design is the use made of natural light ꟷ the very attribute of this category A listed building that is drastically threatened by the sheer scale of the proposed adjacent development.
      And the focus on the terms whereby the Council of the day secured Carnegie funding also underlines the obligations the Council entered into in accepting this support. They were neatly expressed by Carnegie himself in the telegram received and read out to the large gathering present at the library opening in 1890: ‘We trust that this library is to grow in usefulness year after year and prove one of the most potent agencies for the good of the people for all time to come.’ As the ‘let There Be Light’ campaign points out, the library can hardly ‘grow in usefulness’ when the public asset of the very land acquired at its foundation to ensure the space for future expansion and development was sold to Jansons Property of for private speculative development.
      NOTE ON THE SITE PLAN: The red line marks the extent of the area over which Jansons Property now has planning permission — the blue indicates the Carnegie endowed Edinburgh Central Library — while the X marks the Cowgate Occupy Camp.
      For previous Bella articles expressing the views of two campaigners, see Peter Burnett (no relation) at:
      Peter Burnett, ‘A Tale of Two Andrews’ Bella, 10th September 2016 http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2016/09/10/a-tale-of-two-andrews/
      And Grant Buttars at:
      Grant Buttars, ‘Shine A Light’, Bella, 1st June 2016, http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2016/06/01/shine-a-light/

      Thirdly, the central focus of my own contribution was to highlight the irony of the site’s historical associations with the pioneer generation of the Edinburgh socialist left and the identical issues they faced on behalf of the auld toon residents of Council chicanery and sharp practice in the promotion of private property development. Space precluded any direct reference to Andrew Carnegie in this regard but this dimension of the story is not without interest. It makes it very clear that there was no ‘fulsome kissing of the Carnegie arse’ by uncritical ‘eejits sucking up to Carnegie’ at that time either.
      As it happens, 1892, the year I flagged up to bring out the historical associations of the contested terrain of this site with James Connolly and the Edinburgh left, was also the year of the infamous ‘Homestead Strike’ or ‘Homestead Massacre’ in Pittsburgh, USA. Still remembered as the most violent industrial dispute in US history, 12 workers were killed and dozens were injured when Andrew Carnegie’s sought to defeat striking workers and crush trade unionism in his own steel plants through brutal intimidation and the deployment of armed Pinkerton agents and hired thugs.
      The strike was extensively reported on in the columns of the Edinburgh Evening News and there can be no doubt that Connolly and all his associates in the emergent labour and trade union movement would have been well aware of the tactic employed by Carnegie and his management. He would also have been aware that while this was happening in Homestead, Andrew Carnegie was conveniently back in his native Scotland, exercising his alter ego role as philanthropic benefactor. ironically, as it happens, he was actually in Aberdeen opening yet another funded city library and gaining the freedom of the city in the process when news of the
      Yet this awareness of Carnegie’s vicious anti-union policies as a ‘robber-baron’ steel magnate did not lead to Connolly, Dickinson, or the other early pioneers of the capital’s emergent left to deny the opportunities of access to books and knowledge that the opening of the capital’s Carnegie-funded public library in 1890 had provided but quite the reverse.
      From an auld toon upbringing when he had struggled to read by the ember light of a dying fire where even a candle was a rare luxury in the dark, fetid congested tenement rooms of his childhood, Connolly had no qualms in advocating and utilising the benefits of a public library provision in his native Edinburgh. It was from this background that Connolly became noted for his wide reading and his ready reference to books and authors on a broad range of subjects. And there can be little doubt that the works discussed in the columns of the Edinburgh Labour Chronicle and in their open-air meetings and lectures around the auld toon were accessed through its George IV Bridge public library.
      In later years, during their celebrated exchange in the Glasgow columns of Forward, his bitter Belfast adversary, an exasperated William Walker, wrote: ‘Andrew Carnegie, you have a few sins to answer for, and one amongst them is that your ‘free libraries’ entice people to borrow books….’, (his charge against Connolly being that he only drew on the books to quote from them, without understanding or applying their deeper content).
      Whether Connolly actually addressed the issue of Andrew Carnegie before he left the capital for Dublin in 1896 has not yet been ascertained but by 1901 one of his public lecture topics was ‘The American Socialist Movement’ and on one of his regular return trips to his native Edinburgh he gave a public open-air lecture, advertised in the Edinburgh Evening News under the heading ‘SOCIALISM’ specifically on the topic of ‘America, Carnegie and Scotland’. Unfortunately no report of the lecture appeared in the local press but I think it is safe to assume that it involved no uncritical, fawning adulation, either of Carnegie or of Allan Pinkerton, the other American Scot the fledgling socialist movement in the USA had to contend with.
      What is likely is that Connolly’s remarks on Carnegie would not have been confined to Edinburgh or to libraries. The steel magnate philanthropist’s involvement with Scotland was deeper and more complex than the funding of libraries. It involved financial support for a range of radical organisations campaigning on a wide raft of progressive policies.
      In the 1880s Carnegie was in correspondence with Prof Blackie, one of the Edinburgh Patrick Geddes circle, supporting him in his campaigning for land reform and promoting a land reform policy on Danish lines. His financial support also extended to his funding of the Fife People’s League, though it is unlikely he was aware of the full extent of their radical programme with its calls for Scottish Home Rule, an eight-hour day, nationalisation of the land and the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords. He also supported both Glasgow Trades Council and the Dunfermline Radical Association with their advocacies of land reform and Republicanism but he was forceful in making clear to the latter that they should not confuse Republicanism with socialism.
      In 1892 Carnegie also contributed significantly to the incurred the parliamentary election expenses of Keir Hardie in his momentous return to Westminster as an independent working class ‘Labour’ MP. News of Hardie’s acceptance of Carnegie’s financial support attracted substantial criticism however, and it was only partly dispelled when he announced that he was donating the same amount back to the striking workers involved in their deadly dispute with Carnegie at the Homestead Steel Works. Carnegie’s brutal strike-breaking tactics at Homestead also led the Carnegie supported Glasgow Trades Council to denounce him as ‘a new Judas Iscariot’. No ‘sucking up’ in Glasgow either.
      Lastly, while the article was specifically focused on the present issue of the furtive disposal of public assets to private developers by the Council and the adverse affect of the planned Victoria Terrace – Cowgate hotel development on both the future of Central Library and the amenity and well-being of the Old Town resident community, this is not to deny that there are several other related issues.
      In conclusion I sought to stress how the present programme of promoted ‘development’ in Edinburgh it is but a part of the deeper and wider question of our ‘right to the city’, both in the capital and across all of Scotland’s wider urban spaces. And there are many other issues specifically relating to libraries and the politics of knowledge: their design, architecture, management, the nature of tycoon philanthropy and not least the specific historic role of Carnegie libraries across the world.
      As various contributors to Bella have pointed out in recent months, these are critical and import issues of the present and our future. I sought to point out that there were also relevant and ironic echoes of our past. Now as then it is about wealth and power, control and ownership of the contested terrain of our public assets and public spaces.
      When community-based groups and civic agencies come together in a broad-based campaign to ‘act local, think global’ ꟷ (and, yes, I am aware that Patrick Geddes was not a socialist either) ꟷ to challenge the wealth, power and greed behind speculative property development and to ‘reclaim the city’ then it seems to me that they merit and deserve our support.
      When the men and women of the capital came together back in the 1890s to expose Council chicanery and its collusion with property speculators to promote developments antithetical to the needs and well-being of the Old Town residents they did so under the revolutionary rallying cry: ‘The great appear great to us because we are on our knees; let us rise.’ They chose action, building alliances and campaigning on a broad front.
      Vituperative outbursts of abuse from a ‘sleeping dog’ position of supine torpor may satiate a self-righteous sense of superior judgement on the contradictory character of one complex man some 130 years ago. But it contributes precisely nothing by way of support to those who deserve it for their selfless campaigning of behalf of all of us who value the vision of a regeneration of our auld toon as a ‘living community’ over short-term policies that dispose of public assets to further gratify the private benefit of those of wealth and power.

      Reply
      • SleepingDog 4 days ago

        @Ray Burnett, I seem to have hit a ganglion, but since you have crafted such a comprehensive response, I reread the relevant parts of the article along with your comments.

        I completely stand by my comments. Your language speaks of the Carnegie jewel. There is no balance in article or comments until mine, and now yours, which should be appreciated. My phraseology was chosen to counter the Carnegie brand, which tries to dignify the despicable. Sure, public libraries are good thing, but Carnegie no more invented these than he did the Bessemer process for steelmaking.

        In case my point about legacy was not clear, I ask: does Carnegie get to determine his legacy by putting his name on buildings and trusts, or is his real legacy something else, such as the corporate capture of government and deference to the super-rich which is literally destroying our world as we speak?

        You finish by asking whether I can judge the character (I was actually judging his behaviour) of a “complex man”. Was Cecil Rhodes a complex man? We may no longer want his effigy fronting architecture. Is Harvey Weinstein a complex man? How many scholarships must he endow to let his image shine once again? This is “great-man-theory” bollocks.

        But you are right that this discussion cannot be appropriately contained within this article.

        Reply
  • SimonB 7 days ago

    It hardly needs to be said, even if such a basic observation seems never discussed in the classrooms of academia, the ideology of capitalism, founded in the paradigm of ‘might is right’, is guided by a lack of morality, thereby assuredly rendering those who profit tainted and maligned.

    Having given greater consideration to Carnegie’s legacy after visiting his museum in Dunfermline, it is evident, in seeming to prick the conscience of his fellow plutocrats by giving so substantially back to the greater good, he became particularly maligned and caricatured.

    Yet in establishing the Peace Palace/ International Criminal Court and 3000 public libraries throughout the World, amongst his many other acts of philanthropy, his legacy is remarkable, helping to enrich and enlighten Humanity beyond the typical, patronising, feel good, sticking plaster philanthropy we otherwise know only too well.

    Perhaps one day we might collectively evolve so that we realise a better society where there is no more place or need for philanthropy and charity, but until then to allow the common inheritance of those thousands of workers who toiled to create Carnegie’s wealth to be run down and co-opted by commercial interests is a terrible tragedy indicative of these moribund times of endarkenment.

    “There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library; this republic of letters, where neither rank, office nor wealth receives the slightest consideration. A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never-failing spring in the desert” wrote Carnegie.

    As James Robertson puts it:

    One can argue with other aspects of Carnegie’s career as an industrialist and capitalist, but that is a noble statement of principle, one that he backed up with vast amounts of his own money. It is a principle that needs to be loudly restated and proudly upheld a century after his death.

    A poignant article Ray! Well done for shining some light!

    Reply
    • SleepingDog 6 days ago

      @SimonB, Andrew Carnegie was the Donald Trump of his time, who believed that the rich rather than the state or people should decide where the wealth of a nation should be spent (and spent great efforts corrupting that state and undermining democracy).

      Apparently Carnegie though himself a great statesman and deal-maker. He wasn’t.
      https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/andrew-carnegie-tried-to-bribe-germans-to-stop-ww1-1-3843781

      Some of the problems created by leaving wealth to privately-chartered organisations is that they can continue with creepy plans like eugenics and forced sterilisation, while their scientific grants warp the progress and direction of science:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Carnegie_Corporation_of_New_York

      All the while this is obscured by secrecy and extremely-well-resourced brand protection.

      Expect Donald Trump to fund lavish self-branded Internet archives (including all his Tweets) when he feels the cold hand of Death on his shoulder and runs out of time spend his ill-gotten gains.

      Reply
      • SimonB 4 days ago

        I recognise that in a hierarchical society founded on ‘might is right’ and underpinned by the acquisition of wealth, a few powerful individuals will prevail. Yet, rather than continue to be stuck in this paradigm allowing cynical negativity to perpetuate class tension, imagining a world beyond the landscape of divide and rule, I choose to concentrate on any good that may remain with the legacy of philanthropy and move on, particularly for the sake of those who toiled to create vast fortunes.

        Carnegie was certainly no saint and his thinking was of its time, yet as a man growing up in poverty, inspired by the writings of Robert Burns, he undoubtedly had a certain empathy which inspired his radical philanthropic endeavours, which sets him quite apart from comparisons with Donald Trump.

        Having endowing 3000 public libraries in order to enrich, elevate and empower Humanity Carnegie’s legacy is remarkable; yet it is also remarkable how few are aware of his efforts and what little is known tends to veer towards the negative, as if there has been a deliberate attempt to smear and undermine the man and his achievements.

        Indeed with the closing of hundreds of public libraries since the chicanery of 2008 and the subsequent imposition of austerity it would seem that this may well have been a long intended agenda.

        In a world where there is otherwise more than enough to satisfy a basic dignified life for all, our acquiescence to the old ‘might is right’ hierarchical paradigm, which supports the construct of money, creates this tragic reality of haves and havenots in which all become tainted whether morally or materially. In his efforts, as highlighted in the Scotsman article you link, Carnegie undoubtedly tried to use his great influence go beyond, revealing and reaffirming the higher motivations of our collective consciousness in spite of cynical scorn.

        Reply
        • SleepingDog 4 days ago

          @SimonB, you may indeed choose to “concentrate on any good” and “move on” but you can hardly call that shining a light on Andrew Carnegie by ignoring anything that upsets you, and then turning round and call valid criticisms “smears”.

          I was struck by the comment in this article:
          “apparently philanthropy means never having to say you’re sorry”
          https://www.philanthropydaily.com/how-the-carnegie-corporation-contributed-to-ncs-shameful-past/
          which I think is an attraction for people like modern technology tycoons.

          It was only ten years ago that Lauder College was renamed Carnegie College (and OK’d by the Scottish government), which somewhat undermines you claim that his reputation has been traduced in the popular mind or his lustre has paled.
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnegie_College

          Reply
          • SimonB 2 days ago

            No lying sleeping dog…

            Thanks for the interesting link to the Philanthropy Daily article and with it the extended discussion…

            I thought these paragraphs from the article were worth quoting:

            “Just as does its Judeo-Christian prototype, it should forever remind us that, for all our excellent intentions and formidable powers, we are not imperious gods able to eradicate our flaws once and for all by some grand, scientific intervention.

            We are, rather, imperfect human beings called to compassion and charitable care for other imperfect human beings”.

            Accepting that we are all imperfect, particularly when our dignity is by default compromised by the amoral construct of money, I haven’t chosen to ignore the negative aspects of Carnegie’s life, but to learn from and move on… and in regard to eugenics I sense if Carnegie were alive today his empathy would compel him to apologise for any personal associations to questionable causes and ensure that those foundations responsible were reformed to allow the light of transparency to shine.

            If you research the lampooning cartoons you’ll find that Carnegie was certainly smeared and ridiculed by his contemporary plutocrats who controlled the media and if you’re yet to visit the Carnegie museum in Dunfermline, which is a humble yet fascinating affair, reflective of the roots of the man, I highly recommend.

            In learning of the collective achievements of Carnegie and those who toiled to amass such empowering wealth I was staggered at how little I previously knew; perhaps the greatest philanthropic legacy of modern Civilisation?

            Though the lights may be going out in those 1000s of bequeathed public institutions due to the masterful trickery of the private global banking system, may the seeds planted germinate into the dawn of a new enlightened age beyond money, charity, poverty and war etc.

            Amen & Awomen

Leave a Reply to Graeme Purves Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other articles in Direct Action

See all in Direct Action >