As the campaign to safeguard the future of Edinburgh Cental Library intensifies, RAY BURNETT shines a light on the importance of Carnegie's legacy within the historically contested terrain of the Old Town

 ECL Protest


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. 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.


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 Edinburgh 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 revoked.

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.


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.

Alisons Close before 1922

 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’. 


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 The Right to the City: A Verso Report, 2017) 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.

© Ray Burnett, Isle of Benbecula, Sanct Andra’s Day, 30th November 2017

Commissioned by Bella Caledonia and published with their kind permission.

Ray Burnett, a user of Edinburgh Central Library for over 60 years, is an Old Town exile with deep family roots in the Auld Toon. Ray has written and presented extensively on James Connolly and the radical traditions of the Old Town in various events, conferences, books and journals. This article is taken from a work in progress on James Connolly and the Scottish/Edinburgh left.