My darling mother was Emmeline Dale, the daughter of Sir Hector Dale, of Drumlarish, Ayrshire, a laird of vast acreage, little means and less intellect. My parents married in 1891. My mother was the fifth child of Sir Hector (his wife, her mother, died when she was five). She had four older brothers and a younger sister, Faye, who lived in England. My mother was by all accounts much in love with my father. They met when he came to cauterize an inflamed goiter on Sir Hector’s throat. In those days Sir Hector possessed an Edinburgh town house, in the New Town, Ann Street (which was shortly sold, alas), where the Dale family spent the worst winter months, returning to the big house at Drumlarish in the spring. Innes Todd married Emmeline Dale in St. Mungo’s parish church in Barnton, then a village outside Edinburgh, whence the Todds originally hailed. Sir Hector conferred on his daughter a modest dowry and the young couple moved into the enormous apartment my father had taken — for reasons best known to himself — in the unfashionable High Street where, again by all accounts, they lived in blameless happiness — until I arrived.
In 1892, some sixteen months after the marriage, my mother gave birth to her first child, a boy, my brother. Prior to his conception my mother had miscarried when five months pregnant. (A girl, I later learned. Ah, my lost sister, what a difference you would have made!) The new child was thus doubly anticipated and the anxiety attending his birth also multiplied. Not uncalled for, as it turned out. My brother’s proved to be a difficult, painful parturition and, although he was robust and healthy enough, my mother required several months’ convalescence. He was called Thompson Hector Dale Todd. Curiously, he was Sir Hector’s first grandchild (his four sons were all bachelors and deficient in all manner of areas) and this fact, and the suppliant nomenclature, earned my brother a lucky financial settlement from his grandfather’s dwindling estate (I was some years too late).
T.H.D. Todd, my brother. Thompson Todd. I believe some of his friends actually call him Tommy, but, even since earliest childhood, I swear, I have been unable to call him anything else but Thompson. Names are important to me, almost talismanic. As a Christian name Thompson seemed (and seems — he still flourishes, the miserable bastard) absolutely perfect for him. The stolidity, the solidity, the thick consonants, the — from my point of view — utter impossibility of imbuing it with any tones of affection.
Go to Edinburgh. Stand on the esplanade of the tremendous castle, the gatehouse at your back. You are looking down the Royal Mile, the ancient High Street of the city, the spine of the Old Town. Ignore, if you can, today’s scrubbed stone and loving restoration, the bright tat and crass bustle. When I was born the Old Town was in a state of severe decay, the buildings black and scrofulous, dark already but darkened further by the smoke and cinders of a million chimney pots and the belching soot from the railway station in the valley below. The street itself was erratically cobbled; some of the stones were two hundred years old, round and worn like pebbles on a beach. In other places they had crumbled or subsided and the holes in the pavement were filled with sand and dirt. Here and there were pale-gray new cobbles of Aberdeen granite. On either side stood dark misshapen tenaces of shops and houses.
Turn now and look north towards the Firth of Forth. All of Edinburgh’s dignity and decorum has moved across the steep valley of Waverley Gardens to the neat elegant grid of the New Town. Its sunny leafy squares, its classical assurance, its perfect Georgian symmetry, stood in potent contrast to the narrowing foul descent from the castle on its crag to the palace of Holyrood and its modest park.
Now leave the castle’s esplanade and walk down the High Street towards St. Giles’s Cathedral. Stay on the left-hand side. Through the Lawnmarket and on. As you go, you pass low doorways, squat dark tunnels that lead down to chill terraced canyons. Let four or five of these doorways go by and you will come to an entranceway named Kelpie’s Wynd. Enter. Those of you taller than five feet eight inches will have to duck your heads. Pass through the tunnel and you emerge in Kelpie’s Court. Look up. The tall, stepped gables crowd in above, revealing a hedged, mean patch of sky. Only in midsummer are the old heavy flags of the courtyard warmed by the sun. This is where the Todd family lived. Second door on the left. Number 3.
These are curious buildings on each side of the Royal Mile. Imagine the street as being set on top of a vast sloping ridge. On the south side the buildings clutter and tumble haphazardly to the Grassmarket and Victoria Street below. But on the other side, the north, there is an abrupt steep descent to the railway lines at the bottom of the valley. On the north side of the High Street a house with four stories at the front can have, because of the angle of the slope, nine or ten at the back. From Princes Street, across the valley gardens, these vast strict blocks face you like masonry cliffs seamed with narrow chasms. In those days they seemed prodigious edifices, embryonic skyscrapers, still growing.
Some of these old buildings contained up to twenty apartments, some small, some grand. Ours was one of the latter; I think at one stage, two had been knocked into one. There was a large drawing room, a library, a dining room, six bedrooms and a bathroom. A large kitchen with a pantry, a scullery and a sleeping closet constituted the servants’ quarters. There had been buildings on this site since the fifteenth century. From time to time they had fallen or burned down and new dwellings had been constructed on the ruins. The architecture on the High Street had the character of an antiquated stone shantytown. Houses had grown piecemeal, by accretion and alteration. Windows were all sizes — actually a pleasing diversity — and installing water closets and modern plumbing required real ingenuity.
The oldest part of the building was invariably the stairs and stairwell. Stone and spiral, they survived the periodic destructions. The steps were smooth, concaved by the stigmata of a million boots. The doors off were small — easier to defend, I suppose; or built for smaller, earlier Scotsmen. The well was always dark. A faint light drained down from a high window at the roof. Here and there a gas mantle hissed. There was a musty vegetable dampness about these stairways — like an old gloomy cellar: earthy, mossy, feculent.
Our apartment was on the first floor. Through the tiny doorway was a hall with wooden boards, empty save for a fireplace with a coal fire always burning there winter and summer, as if to shield our home from the stairs’ chill grip. To the right a door led to the kitchen; to the left, the living rooms. It was as if one moved not only from one climate to another but also to another era. From a world of stone and steel (the pocked handrail) to wood, paneling, paper, rugs and pictures. The drawing room had a fine molded ceiling, the library an Oriental silk carpet. The corridors were paneled in fumed oak, the bedrooms lined with hand-blocked printed papers. This was a legacy of my mother’s last, fatal confinement. After her death, the character of the apartment — which had been tasteful, soft and comfortable — changed, so I was told. The house I grew up in was comfortable enough, but in a severe way. Few traces remained of my mother’s presence. Or rather, by the time I was old enough to notice them, they had been transformed by time: sun-faded platinotypes, damp-stained wallpaper, worn-flat rugs. My father did not believe in change for change’s sake. Thank God my mother had installed a water closet — at least we could shit in a civilized manner. There were still not a few apartments in the “lands” (as these great tenements were known in Edinburgh) further down the High Street where a housemaid collected chamber pots from every bedroom and emptied them down some infernal funnel set in the corner of the kitchen floor, where the excrement dropped a hundred feet into a communal septic tank, emptied once or twice a week by corporation night-soil workers.