On January 25th, the city of Edinburgh celebrated, or should I say began to celebrate, Burns Night, honoring the 18th-century poet Robert Burns. Born in 1759, Burns is best known for his poetry, though he also was instrumental in Scottish traditional song collection and collation (check out the Scots Musical Museum here) and served as an Excise Officer after blowing all the money made from his publications. He has risen to the fore of the Scottish imagination as a literary giant embodying all things Scottish, with his traditional (whatever that means!) poetry and subject matter, his undeniable contribution to the preservation of Scottish (in that vague monolithic way) history and culture, and being a man who came from nothing and knew nothing yet rose to the fore as a prominent figure in society to live on forever (even though he was actually a very well-educated man, at the insistence and under the immediate direction of his father and mother).
Surviving in the Scottish imagination includes being immortalized through sculpture and plaques plastered all over the city of Edinburgh. Today, I took a walk around the city and visited some of these places where Burns’ legacy is fixed forever as integral to the very urban fabric of Edinburgh, fixed in bronze or cement or even just a plastic sign pointing us in the right direction. There are even memorials that are not for Burns but that we associate with him first and foremost because he is so gigantic in the historic and literary imagination. For example, one of the first places I visited was the Canongate Kirk, in front of which stands a statue of a man walking (see Image 1). I learned about the statue on a website detailing the Burns landmarks to visit around Edinburgh, so I naturally assumed this was a statue of Burns himself (obviously I don’t read very carefully). It was not until after I had already drawn the statue, scanned in the image, and typing up information for this post that I realized the statue is not of Burns but of another Robert – Robert Fergusson, to be exact, who Burns knew and considered his “elder brother in muse,” to the point where he commissioned a special gravestone to mark Fergusson’s place of burial in Canongate Kirkyard. I say all this to highlight the dominance of Burns in this situation – the statue, the burial site, the verse inscribed on the ground beneath him is all Robert Fergusson, but Burns is the one we see.
Robert Harbison in his book Eccentric Spaces has his own analysis of the architecture of books, giving us an amusing parallel with Burns’ preservation in the architectural landscape. Architecture serves many purposes, especially related to memory and remembering – we use structures as landmarks so we don’t get lost or to remind us where we are. Here in Edinburgh, as I’m walking along Nicholson (or South Bridge or A7, because they’re all the same) Street, as soon as I see the dome of the Old College, I know I’m almost home. If I’m ever lost in the city, if I can just find the steeple of St. Giles or the Hub, both along the Royal Mile, I’ll be able to find my way back to familiar territory. Architecture works this way on smaller scales, giving us a guide for how to act in and use certain spaces (see my post on the Teviot Row House bars), and the “architecture” of books helps us navigate new stories and scenes by placing them within familiar frames of reference.
Architecture also works this way in relation to memory. Memory is by nature spatially bound, specifically placed, and something we are always afraid of losing. When certain memories or ideas become especially important to us, we will go to great lengths to ensure we preserve that memory, either by writing it down in a journal or telling as many people as possible or taking a picture (and then backing that picture up on five different social media sites and your external hard drive). Architecture is the epitome of fixing something into place – once a building is erected, it is incredibly difficult to move. If that building has historical significance, it’s practically impossible to move. Architecture thus has the capacity to become memory fixed into place and preserved as a solid, tangible entity.
Such as it is with the legacy of Robert Burns. Would anyone deny that Robert Burns is important? Could anyone forget the name of a poet so widely remembered and highly spoken of? Do I really need to have a plaque at every pub he frequented and each close he walked down, prompting me to remember his greatness and respect his importance? It would seem the answer would be no on all accounts, especially when we consider how Burns as an idea and a heroic image is literally fixed into the urban fabric because of the statues, memorials, and places with which he is associated. The relationship between his memory and these places is wonderfully conversational, as they each rely on the other for their own protection. Places previously insignificant become paramount because of their association with Burns; Burns’ importance relies wholly on his association with place, even that as expansive as the entirety of Scotland (as an idea, geographical location, and culture).
Even if one wished to forget Robert Burns, it would be difficult (especially if you are a tourist travelling up the Royal Mile), as visual cues are plastered everywhere to remind us of his significance. In fact, these cues keep the attentive eye constantly aware of the fact that this man is important. That’s the incredible thing about plaques on concrete walls or statues – even if we have no idea to whom they refer or who they depict, we automatically ascribe and accept the depicted’s value. That is the power of architecture – it fixes memory into place and immortalizes the transient, communicating even to the uninformed a certain air of consequence. And when, as with Burns, this is repeated throughout a particular space – whether a city, museum, or even a book – the effect is compounded to the point where the figure we end up with is larger than life, able to embody an entire culture’s ideal and aspirations.
Or so such architectural presence would lead you to believe. I’ll let you decide for yourself.