What a strange wee place the Museum of Edinburgh is. It’s one of several free-to-enter museums operating on or just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile and it’s surely the most schizophrenic of the lot. Indeed, so multiple are its personalities that it feels like three or four different museums under a single roof.
It stands at Number 142 on the Canongate, the Mile’s lowest section, and occupies a building called Huntly House. This building dates back to 1570, when it was assembled out of three separate properties that’d previously occupied the site. It underwent a five-year restoration job from 1927 to 1932 and subsequently, under the auspices of Edinburgh City Council, reopened its doors as a museum.
Initially, it follows the regulations of the Trades Description Act and does what the sign outside says it does – it functions as a museum about Edinburgh. You get, for example, some intricate models of medieval Edinburgh’s Old Town, which I never tire of looking at. They remind you how, as a location for building a city, Edinburgh’s site was a defensive no-brainer – with Edinburgh Castle rock rising at its western end, and the Nor Loch (now drained and replaced by Waverly Station and Princes Street Garden) stretching along its northern side, all that was needed for the city’s defences were walls to its east and south.
You also see architect James Craig’s original plans from the 18th century for the altogether grander and more spacious New Town, which helped turn Edinburgh into the alleged ‘Athens of the North’ and make it North Britain’s most desirable address for posh folk. Not that this municipal success did much for Craig’s fortunes – according to the information in the museum-display, he was suffering serious financial problems by the 1780s.
Among the other Edinburgh-related items that catch the eye are the National Covenant of 1638, which is surely the most important and precious artefact in the building; a banner from the rather more recent Campaign for a Scottish Parliament; weaponry belonging to the City Guard who maintained law and order from 1679 to 1817; a couple of imposing grandfather clocks; and, to show the city’s modern councillors what a proper tram should look like, a model of one of the original trams from the days of the Edinburgh Corporation Tramways, which ended in 1956.
Inevitably, there’s also a display about Scotland’s most loyal wee dog, Greyfriars Bobby, who’s supposed to have slept on his master’s grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard for 14 years. The display includes his feeding bowl and collar. Well, I should probably say their feeding bowl and collar, as modern research indicates that there were actually two of the cemetery-haunting mutts – when the first Bobby died, a second Bobby was quietly substituted in his place to ensure that 19th-century tourists kept coming to Greyfriars to see him (and to ensure that the cash registers kept jingling in the vicinity).
As you climb the stairs to the museum’s upper regions, however, the tone changes. You find yourself in what is in effect a different museum, one devoted to pottery and ceramics and then to glass and silverware.
And once you’ve passed that, you arrive in a final couple of rooms that are dedicated to the life of Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the 1st Earl Haig and commander of the British Expeditionary Force during the latter three years of World War One. Haig was born in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh in 1861; and when he died in 1928, the museum’s premises, Huntly House, were in the middle of being restored. Haig was massively popular at the time of his death and his funeral was marked by a day of national mourning, so no doubt it seemed a good idea to have the museum pay tribute to him when it finally began operating in 1932.
That idea seems less good a century later, now that historical revisionism – in the form of, for instance, Alan Clark’s 1961 book The Donkeys, Richard Attenborough’s 1969 film Oh, What a Lovely War! and the 1989 TV series Blackadder Goes Forth (in which Stephen Fry seemed to channel Haig for his performance as the psychopathically blimpish commander Lord Melchett) – has changed the way we look at old Douglas. We’re less inclined to see him as a national hero and more inclined to see him as a deluded mass-murdering incompetent, as his common posthumous nicknames ‘Butcher Haig’ and ‘the Butcher of the Somme’ testify. Blackadder seems to have particularly done for his reputation. As Rowan Atkinson remarked in one episode, “Haig is about to make yet another gargantuan effort to move his drinks cabinet six inches closer to Berlin.” Perhaps that’s why I had the Haig section of the Museum of Edinburgh entirely to myself when I visited it recently.
Still, I really like this section’s display of Toby jugs that are fashioned in the likenesses of eleven political leaders and military commanders of the First-World-War Allies – including Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George and Lord Kitchener. Here’s the no-nonsense King George V-jug with the Haig-jug perched loyally by its side.
The Museum of Edinburgh is best described as ‘eclectic’ and that eclecticism makes it interesting. But it could do with a proper, unifying narrative to make it feel more orderly and satisfying. And maybe the problem is that the necessary narrative is already being used, elsewhere – just on the other side of the Canongate, at the People’s Story Museum.