The Close and the Wynd

An ode to small spaces

Edinburgh / 07.06.19

Amongst many other things, in times of a pandemic we are presented with a peculiarity: a new universal unit of measurement – the 2 metre mark: the distance of safety that should separate us from any other living breathing human being. Our walks in the streets have come under new scrutiny, our gentle nods of greeting replaced by a ‘look the other way and hold your breath’, the paths we tread suddenly navigable under new laws – requiring a meandering, even dodging of passersby. Like soldiers, we’ll get into a single file if deemed appropriate. 

The funny thing about our newly calibrated looking glass onto our world is that many of our urban spaces simply cannot adapt to provide 2 meters of separation. We would sooner be smashed to smithereens than safely maneuver a pedestrian overtake on our Maltese pavements. It is under such new limitations that we perhaps find a latent appreciation for those spaces of intimacy, the little cracks in our built environment that stage the encounters that tease our comfort zones but which reveal little marvels of city-dwelling. 

In the closes and wynds of Edinburgh we find this playground ripe for picking. Abutting the town’s backbone main streets, Edinburgh’s closes and wynds radiate on each side like the spines of vertebrae. The closes are courts, culs-de-sac – the wynds, thoroughfares. Medieval devices for movement in the packed density of a town laid out onto a hill. Whilst many of these alleyways and courtyards link streets at different heights, thus being mostly thought of as ways up or down an inclination, their apparent containment within and behind built mass leaves for a peculiar concealing of little internal worlds. Like doors to Narnia, they feed out of and into the bustle of the Royal Mile and beyond, often framed by interestingly unique archways and porticoes, aptly known to be individually named after a past memorable occupant or a trade plied by one or more residents. What lies beyond is yours for exploring.

The secrecy of Edinburgh’s closes and wynds is apparent in the city’s plan – their physiognomy only emerging in a section taken a couple of meters offset from the ground plane. The pitched rooftop buildings seemingly guarding them from above, the alleyways burrow through: a threshold between outside and inside, between clamour and calm.

Dark and confined, the heads and tails of the closes and wynds, often peppered with graffiti and strewn rubbish, are like little punches on any city stroll – a moment of looming tension. Lipincott’s Magazine of Literature and Science, published in 1887, describes how these streets and alleyways, where previously lived the nobility and gentry of Edinburgh, were now (in 1887), for the most part given up to squalor and misery, looking like stage-scenes perpetually “set” for melodramatic horrors. “Truly ill adapted to modern ideas of hygiene”.  But in traversing, that tension precedes a sense of release – a wander into a different world where a slither of light may again enter; of backyards, back balconies, backs of people’s lives. The hearts of the closes and wynds leave for the tasting of some community life: hanging clothes lines, parked bicycles, colourful banners, potted plants and proudly displayed history-recording-placards. The crossings of the public with the intimate, marked most loudly by the very documentation of what the 21st century legitimises as navigable space – the humble google street-view.