The execution of Deacon Brodie October 1st 1788

The desire for a 'new' town, to escape the dilapidated and disease-ridden conditions of Edinburgh, had suffered several false starts. However, in 1763, to reach the open farmland to the north, construction of the North Bridge was started; in 1766, James Craig won the competition to design the New Town (a mimic of the Old Town's layout, but in Hanoverian style), and in 1767, building of the New Town began.

Although many moved to the New Town (the Great Flitting), the Edinburgh of 1788 was still a mix of classes with rich and poor living side by side in cramped, over-populated housing. The schism of 'old' and 'new' Edinburgh, to be seen in all things, and which, arguably, only ended in the late 20th century, was beginning to open wide in Deacon Brodie's day — the rich could escape; the poor had no choice. The excerpt (below), from Deacon Brodie: A Double Life, sees Brodie's sister confronted by this division.

Brodie's younger sister, Jamie, and his brother-in-law, Matthew, hear of Brodie's return to Edinburgh.

The news that Brodie had been brought back to Edinburgh in chains and was now in the Tolbooth spread like a fire in the city. Wherever people met, in Old Town or New, Brodie's name was on their lips and everyone had an opinion on his guilt. Some blamed him for robberies as far afield as Glasgow; some had always had their suspicions – that was why they had held off concluding any deals with him. Whatever their view, throughout the city the shock that Francis Brodie's son had come to this sorry pass was palpable.

Jamie heard the news from one of her servants, and immediately told her husband that they were headed for the Tolbooth. "We must do all we can to help, Matthew." He had wanted to call for a carriage, but she had silenced him and the idea with a brusque, "It's a fine day, we shall walk."

As they stepped out to walk to the North Bridge and then up to the Old Town, she thought, I am my father's daughter and it is not seemly – especially at this time – to even begin to think of hiding from Edinburgh's eyes in a carriage. Despite what her elder brother may have done, she was still a Brodie and would carry herself with head held high.

Whether it was because she was not normally on foot, or that it had been quite some time since she had visited the Old Town during the day, as she set foot on the High Street and was assailed by the strident sounds and appalling smells confined within the densely packed street and the closes running off it, she felt once more that their move to the New Town had been justified. William had once asked her whether they were now gentlefolk because of this move, and as she looked about her, she felt that yes, we are now gentlefolk, if to be that was to be repelled by the mass of people from all walks of life and the sheer decrepitude with which they lived.

Today, as her troubled eyes caught the stew of raucous overflowing taverns; the brazen prostitutes openly soliciting; the boisterous mass of people and the utter squalor of some of the closes, Jamie saw this city of her birth, this dissolute Old Town, as a major factor in her brother's descent into vice. That her brother had chosen not to move and, if gossip counted for anything at all, had relished and even welcomed this disorder, was inconceivable to her. "Who chooses to live like this?" she asked her husband.

"I'm not too sure there's many here who have free choice in the matter, Jamie." Where his wife had seen a disordered Old Town standing in stark contrast to the ordered New Town, today, spurred by an incomprehension of his brother-in-law's apparent fall from grace, Matthew saw something quite different, something which had not struck him before.

Part by conscious choice and part by natural growth, Edinburgh was becoming two distinct cities. Yes, there were still those of higher rank living in the Old Town, but year after year this was becoming less and less the case. Where once all classes had lived cheek by jowl in harmony, Matthew saw that, socially, Edinburgh was beginning to fracture into two: a schism of the Old Town with its packed, haphazard poor, and the New Town with its genteel, ordered rich. Give it twenty years, he thought, and this Old Town will only house the lower orders, instead of being the grand mixture of classes with which he had been raised.

Rather than Jamie's thoughts of people choosing to live this way, eventually the inhabitants of the Old Town would have no choice other than to tolerate the squalor and decay in its main street and the dense packed closes, which dropped precipitously from that spine like the skeletal ribs of a very old and festering carcase.

© David Hutchison — All Rights Reserved


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