Edinburgh likes to present itself as a city of rational thought and enlightenment. A city with a New Town which was consciously planned. Walking through the New Town’s grid of streets feels like taking a lesson in Euclidean geometry. The streetnames are related to each other – literally so as they’re named for various members of the Hanoverian Royal family.
But the New Town faces the Old Town, a more haphazard place. Here, streets are piled on top of other streets and maps are inadequate, because this part of the city exists in a slightly different and more complex continuum. Walking along Carlton Road one day, I encountered a tourist who said rather plaintively ‘I’m down here and I want to get up there’ (and she pointed above us to Waterloo place). I tried to direct her to the nearest narrow street that curved away from view. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘Are you sure?’
The Old Town’s anti-apex is Cowgate; an uncanny valley made in stone, a city canyon. Here the city is in perpetual shadow, here is the city morgue and here was the place for public hangings. The different levels of the Old Town are connected by a series of side streets or lanes or vennels or ginnels. If you set out on one of them, you are never quite sure what you’re going to find.
This workshop is being held in one of those – Infirmary Street. Here, we’re neither on the upper level of the Bridges, nor down on the Cowgate. We’re in a sort of liminal halfway state, which seems fitting for a discussion of something as uncategorisable as the uncanny. The Dovecot is not particularly uncanny itself, but it is a building that has had different functions. It was originally a public baths before it became a weaving studio and exhbition space. We’re sitting in a room called the Ladies Baths, but there is no water in it now.
‘Shedding Life’ by Miroslav Holub is an essay about mopping up a dead muskrat in an empty swimming pool. Holub muses on the innate and hidden complexity of life, and shows how death cannot be a single event. Even after the muskrat has been shot, various essential functions carry on working. Its blood is forced into the open, something that should remain hidden is now in view. Perhaps that is rather uncanny.