Alec Aitken arrives in Edinburgh

After serving in World War I, Aitken taught at Otago Boys' High School beginning in February 1920. On 21 December 1920 he married Winifred. Towards the end of 1922 he applied for a University of New Zealand scholarship to fund him undertaking research at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, advised by E T Whittaker. He was awarded the scholarship and left Dunedin in New Zealand on 30 July 1923. He travelled on his own, Winifred remaining in New Zealand until November when she would sail to Southampton. Travelling by train, ship, then again train, Aitken reached Auckland on 1 August. On 7 August he sailed on the ship the Port Hunter from Auckland, reaching London, England, on 23 September. On the late evening of 25 September, he took the overnight sleeper train from Euston, London, arriving in Edinburgh in time for breakfast in the Caledonian Hotel on Princes Street.

We now give quotes from Alec Aitken which we have filled out a little to identify people mentioned only by initials, and added words to make sentences etc. What follows is only a selection of Aitken's notes for we have omitted some parts not relevant to his mathematics.

Thursday 27 September 1923.
The Caledonian Hotel is too costly. All hotels are crowded, for the season is closing; and I found I could get in only at the Cockburn Hotel, near Waverley, Room 93. Its patrons seem for the most part to be commercial travellers. There were letters for me at the University Students' Union. I read them in the central public library, George IV Bridge, a building bearing no name, only the inscription "Let there be light". Edinburgh does not seem to trouble to label its streets excessively, or to label its buildings.

Saturday 29 September 1923.
I went to the Carlton Hill. From there I had a remarkable prospect of chimneys in a mist, near and far in interesting perspective, and of church towers along the ridge rising to the Castle. This must be a unique urban view. I crossed to Holyrood, which is too low down and dominated by breweries, and then went a little way up Arthur's Seat. In the evening I wandered about the old town trying to learn its topography. I seemed to move on two or three different levels, but kept emerging at Tollcross, an inescapable "branch-point" of this "Riemann surface". The women seem here (by contrast with New Zealand) to have admission to hotel bars, and in the Lawnmarket not a few were swearing and singing. I commented on this to a clergyman who was passing (his name, he said was Lochore), and he seemed to take notice of it as if for the first time.

Sunday 30 September 1923.
I go to the Castle, to the Haig Statue, and to the Meadows. There is a queue of people in top hats and gloves outside St Giles Church. My room is entered at night by a drunken and obstreperous waiter from the Royal British Hotel, M Grant.

Monday 1 October 1923.
On this day I called on Professor E T Whittaker, F.R.S., 35 George Square. His family are out; he comes from the back, where he has been gardening, and most kindly takes me to the Y.M.C.A. (where we meet Mr Darling) to get a list of lodgings. On the way there we go in to Greyfriars Churchyard, where he points out, on the south side of the church, the plaque to Colin Maclaurin ("Infra situs est ..."). Then we go to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, George Street, where I was introduced to the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Professor R A Sampson, F.R.S. We also look in at the Mathematical Institute, 16 Chambers Street, an uninspiring place.

Tuesday 2 October 1923.
I visit several lodgings in Bruntsfield and Marchmont. I found the local customs at first perplexing; the locked gates, the stair-levers, the multiple bell-pulls. Eventually I came to terms with Miss Shiels, 1 Bruntsfield Terrace, my room being a large corner one, high up, with a view upon Bruntsfield Links and the Castle. Later, at the Mathematical Institute, 16 Chambers Street, Professor Whittaker introduces me to members of his staff, Dr Bevan B Baker and Mr George Robinson. The latter invites me for the evening to his home, 1 Chesser Crescent, Gorgie.

Thursday 4 October 1923.
I am installed at 1 Bruntsfield Terrace. In the afternoon I walk with Robinson to Slateford, Craiglockhart Church, Kingsknowe and Colinton. In the dell we meet J M Whittaker, the son of Professor Whittaker. I spend the evening at Robinson's.

Friday 5 October 1923.
On this day I met another member of the mathematics staff, E T Copson, a young man of 22.

Saturday 6 October 1923.
Went to a "Celebrity" concert in the Usher Hall given by the German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus.

Sunday 7 October 1923.
I made my first visit in the morning to the top of Arthur's Seat. I had a memorable view over into Fife and Perthshire, and east along the Forth to Berwick Law; but the wind was very strong and blew my hat into a gully.

Monday 8 October 1923.
I begin work at the Mathematical Institute, 16 Chambers Street, and meet my fellow researcher G Leslie Frewin, who graduated in July. I solved a slight problem involving Σ1n/(2n+1)\Sigma -1^{n}/(2n + 1).

Tuesday 9 October 1923.
The University of Edinburgh term officially begins. I meet another research student, a Hindu from Benares, Gorakh Prasad. In the afternoon I attend the Inaugural Address by the Tait Professor of Applied Mathematics, Charles G Darwin entitled "The New Mechanics". Darwin's lecture was introduced by Principal Sir Alfred Ewing. The lecture is mostly beyond me.

Sunday 14 October 1923.
On Sunday evening I was invited to Dr Baker, 30 Murrayfield Gardens. He is an excellent pianist, not only technically accomplished but sensitive. He composes songs; has a "Sea Fever" and others. Mrs Baker is a graceful violinist. I play Bach in D minor (2 violins) with her and Dr Baker.

Thursday 18 October 1923.
I attended a lecture of Professor Charles G Barkla to the Edinburgh University Physical Society entitled "X-ray clouds". He had interesting material and lantern-slides, but a curious delivery, a quasi-soliloquy, with alternate right and left profile, and very little full-face. "Fish-Tracks" played a prominent part.
[Note by EFR: When air in a cloud-chamber is exposed to hard X-rays, three types of beta-ray tracks are seen (i) Long tracks, (ii) spherical tracks, and (ii) middle length tracks whose initial direction is the same as the X-rays. Type (iii) are called "Fish-Tracks" by Barkla who was led by them to postulate the existence of J-radiation (although he never proved its existence). Charles Barkla had won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1917 "for his discovery of the characteristic Röntgen radiation of the elements".]

Saturday 20 October 1923.
I went to a "Celebrity" concert in the Usher Hall given by the Austrian born violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler. He played the César Franck Violin Sonata, and trifles he composed himself such as an arrangement of Rimsky-Korsakov, etc. In the evening I was invited to the Robinsons at 1 Chesser Crescent, Gorgie, where I find Copson also.

Wednesday 24 October 1923.
This is Professor Whittaker's 50th birthday. Present in the Research Room are: Dr and Mrs Horsburgh, Dr and Mrs Baker, Mr and Mrs Gibb, and Copson. Mrs Whittaker and J M Whittaker are also guests to the tea. G Leslie Frewin and Miss Marion C Gray also there. Professor Whittaker was presented with two pictures, both classic Italian. They appear to be Raphael and Botticelli, one a Madonna and Child.
[Note by EFR: Seven years after this Professor Whittaker became a Roman Catholic.]
In the evening there is a social of the Physical Society, at 53 George Square. Professor Barkla sings "Had a Horse", a Hungarian song arranged by F Korbay, and Schumann's "The Two Grenadiers".

Saturday 27 October 1923.
I went to a "Celebrities" concert in the Usher Hall. William Primrose, a young Scottish violinist, played the Prelude to Bach's Partita in E as an encore, very well. Also Wassily Sapellnikoff, a virtuoso Russian pianist of the old school, a real thunderer.

Sunday 28 October 1923.
Invited to tea at Professor Whittaker's, 35 George Street; Stephen Whittaker and Miss McClelland were there for the tea.

Friday 2 November 1923.
Meeting of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society. Read the notes An elementary proof of Girard's theorem and An infinite product of Euler. Premature. Miss Marion C Gray also reads the note The equation of telegraphy.

Saturday 3 November 1923.
In the evening I went to G Leslie Frewin's in Portobello. Archie Smith and Alan Richardson played piano duets.
[Note by EFR: Alan Richardson was born in Edinburgh in 1904 and moved to London in 1929 to study at the Royal Academy of Music.]
Copson was there too.

Sunday 4 November 1923.
Evening at Dr Baker's, 30 Murrayfield Gardens.

Friday 16 November 1923.
Night journey Princes Street to Euston.

Saturday 17 November 1923.
Midday train Waterloo to Southampton.

Sunday 18 November 1923.
To Docks, 8.30 a.m. The passengers of the Rotorua about to disembark, catch sight of Winifred aboard. To Waterloo. Lovely morning in Hampshire. Stay in the Ivanhoe Hotel in London.

Monday 19 November 1923.
Train from King's Cross to Edinburgh leaves 11.30. Pullman carriage and a sunny day all along the East Coast.

Friday 7 December 1923.
Edinburgh Mathematical Society meeting in Glasgow. Professor G A Gibson, courteous old Scottish gentlemen of marked personality, entertains the Society to tea in his home, 10 The University. Dr John McWhan, Dr John Dougall, Dr Peter Pinkerton, A G Burgess, Dr MacRobert, Mr Blades, Copson read papers. Also myself; but again premature.

Saturday 15 December 1923.
We leave Miss Shiels and move to a furnished house on the north side of Edinburgh, 15 Denhamgreen Place, Trinity. Proprietrix is Mrs Purves, an aunt of W Russell Flint, the water-colour painter, whose early efforts, fishing boats in harbour, hang on the walls. No trace in these amateurish productions of his later mastery of the technique.

Monday 17 December 1923.
It is the vacation.

Tuesday 25 December 1923.
To lunch at Dr Baker's. A brownish fog at midday, peculiarly thick at Haymarket, is dispersed by a fall of snow. At Baker's is a veritable roomful of presents for the children, our own gift, a clockwork peacock, seeming a negligible offering in this bazaar. Dinner in the evening at Wilson's, 54 East Claremont Street, Bellevue. The hospitality here is lavish. Unable, because of it, to retaliate upon snowballers at Cannonmills, while returning home at 11.30 p.m.

Monday 31 December 1923.
The year ends with the midnight bells from the Tron Kirk, and the distant sounds of late revellers. These seem to return home at all hours up to 3 a.m.

Tuesday 8 January 1924.
Term begins.

Friday 1 February 1924.
A meeting of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society in the Research Room. Papers by Professors Turnbull [Canonical forms of the cubic surface] and Whittaker [On inverse functions], and others [John Williamson, The linear complexes belonging to the invariant system of three quadrics], including R Vaidyanathaswami, on determinants with multiple suffices.

Friday 22 February 1924.
A meting of the Edinburgh International Club takes place at Whittaker's 35 George Square. Dr and Mrs Baker, Copson, Dr J Y Simpson among guests. The highlight is a game of musical chairs, resorted to in order to break down shyness. At the penultimate cycle a Romanian, M Budeanu, had his chair pulled from under him and occupied, as a practical joke. Intense resentment, snapping of fingers and calls for "Justice, justice!" A similar trick is played upon Copson, about to occupy the last chair; he comes rather heavily to the floor and the "winner", rather concerned, vacates the chair to lift him up. Immediately M Budeanu rushes forward, sits on the chair in triumph, and his good spirits are restored. Perhaps this throws light on Balkan politics.

Friday 7 March 1924.
Meeting of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, but I was not present, being leader of the orchestra of Edinburgh University Musical Society, which is giving a concert in the McEwan Hall.

Thursday 13 March 1924.
Term ends. I have learned much, but do not quite know where I am in mathematics; algebraist more than analyst perhaps. Professor Whittaker allowed me to attend his Honours course in Higher Algebra, and Matrix Algebra has fascinated me; coordinate geometry might be concisely rewritten in terms of it.

Many years later Aitken wrote about these early years in Edinburgh:

Those early days, of October and November 1923, when I was alone in Edinburgh, had a peculiar colour, deriving from a mixture of interest in the novel and strange with a marked nostalgia for the sunlit Antipodes. It is a mood not to be caught in words; the only way which even I myself can recover it, and then only partially, is by way of certain music. Miss Shiels' piano was not a very good one, but on it (though not a pianist) I studied and absorbed John Ireland's Pianoforte Sonata in E (1920). The slow movement, in B flat (i.e. as remote as possible from the E minor of the opening movement) with the added seconds, sixths and even, at times, sevenths, in the chords, the dark colours, more than Brahmsian, held this mood and fixed it.

Edinburgh then was a very different Edinburgh. In tea-rooms it was not the radio, only rather subdued gramophones and the perpetual emanating of "soh/Lah soh/Doh soh/fa Me" etc., a banal refrain from Friml's Rose Marie. I used to lunch at places long since demolished to clear a site for the new Sheriff Court. Of the outskirts and environs of Edinburgh, I knew as yet neither Corstorphine Hill nor any of the Pentlands. How well I remember our pleasant Sunday evenings at Wilson's, 54 East Claremont Street! The warmth of welcome, and Mr and Mrs Jolly; the glimpse at sunset, from the high windows, of green country over to Warriston and the Forth beyond; all far away now and changed - for I write many years later.

Last Updated November 2019