A Tale of Two Book Cities

2 September 2023

George Street, Princes Street, Leith Street, Hanover Street, Canongate. Waverly, Leith Valley, Corstorphine, Carlton Hill, Mussleburgh and Portobello. Names, to steal a line from Lauris Edmond, that ‘sing softly across the water’. And what a long stretch of water it is, between Edinburgh in Scotland and its wee sister city Dunedin in the south of the south. I glimpsed the sea from cobbled High Street, and thought of the sailing barque Philip Laing setting off from nearby Greenock in November 1847, carrying 26 crew and 247 emigrants – including Robert Burns’ nephew, the Reverend Thomas Burns – bound for Port Chalmers, where it finally dropped anchor in April 1848. The John Wickliffe, with 97 passengers, had departed from Gravesend near London a few days earlier, reaching Port Chalmers in March 1848. The Scottish settlers on both these ships brought with them a strong sense of the value of education. The children on board the Philip Laing attended school during the voyage, a school that was transferred to land on arrival, eventually becoming Arthur Street primary school, which still thrives nestled in its spot just below Dunedin’s Green Belt. It wasn’t very long before the fledgling Dunedin city could boast secondary education for boys and for girls (Otago Boys’ High School was established in 1864 and Otago Girls’ in 1871) and a university (the University of Otago was established in 1869).

A love of books runs in the bloodlines of both cities, which have both been designated as UNESCO Cities of Literature. Arriving by train in Edinburgh, we exited the station towing our heavy suitcases beneath the words of Walter Scott. It’s fair to say that Walter Scott looms large in Edinburgh. This monument to the novelist and poet dominates its stretch of the Princes Street Gardens.

We dropped in at the Scottish Poetry Library, which is an absolute gem of a spot. The door swings shut behind you and you’re … gone. You’re in a quiet, softly lit, dedicated space, surrounded by poetry. I swear there’s a lodestone beneath the building, some sort of Everyready Word Battery zizzing out inspiration – I just wanted to sit at the table and start writing.

But … distraction! I sat down and looked around me, and my eye instantly snagged on the word ‘Dunedin’. Here’s Dunedin: The city in literature edited by Dunedin’s very own Christine Johnson (Exisle Publishing, 2003). And then we found …

… here’s a selection of some of the books by Ōtepoti Dunedin writers held in the Scottish Poetry Library published by Otago University Press.

What a lovely connection between the two poet-prolific Edins.

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