George Lawson on Merchiston Castle

On Monday 1 August 1938 a letter by George Lawson, President of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, concerning Merchiston Castle was published in The Scotsman. It is a beautiful (mathematically written) letter:

Merchiston Castle.

49 Merchiston Crescent, Edinburgh,
July 29, 1938

Sir, - I appeal for your patience and for opportunity to state a case.

(1) "Cordial welcome to decision" (on Scottish administration); "Lively Satisfaction in Edinburgh and Scotland generally." These are quotations from The Scotsman of July 29; signs of a stirring of Scottish nation-consciousness. And observe sir, not in Scotland first, and Edinburgh in particular; no but in Edinburgh first and then "Scotland generally." That is as it should be if Edinburgh worthily times the beat of Scotland's heart.

(2) Over against this patriotic aliveness, thus skilfully and correctly presented as spreading from Edinburgh, place in contrast this other deadness - deadness is a fit word for it - a deadness in Edinburgh obviously but not - and I can prove it - not in "Scotland generally." In support of my accusation of deadness against Edinburgh refer to The Scotsman of July 26. There, in an account of an Edinburgh Town Council meeting we read of "the old Merchiston Castle School." An accurate enough historical reference certainly; but in a Scotland beginning to take a pride in Scottish achievement and supposed to be led therein by the capital city of Edinburgh, is Merchiston Castle School all that Edinburgh can bring to mind about Merchiston Castle? Has Edinburgh forgotten or does Edinburgh prefer to forget, that Merchiston Castle was the birthplace and home of the Scottish Mathematical genius, Napier of Merchiston, whose invention of the "mirifici logarithmorum canonis" brought world fame?

(3) In The Scotsman account of the Town Council meeting, and in other papers as well, the Lord Provost has every sympathy with the protesters; he is quoted verbatim- "There are not many of us would have welcomed such a home next door to us. ...." The reference is to the protest of ratepayers in Merchiston area against the establishment of a "remand home" in Merchiston Castle grounds. In these quoted words, the Lord Provost frankly admits that the Town Council, by force of a majority - a bare majority which hardly justifies change of status quo - is imposing a detriment and a degradation on Merchiston residents.

(4) About the thus acknowledged detriment the Lord Provost with his experience can speak with more authority perhaps than any other person in Edinburgh, and he speaks with an inviting sympathy; but my appeal to him, and with him to the Council and to Edinburgh Scots, is not an appeal from the side of merely material values. My appeal is, that what the Lord Provost sympathetically admits to be a material detriment and a degradation - the kind of thing which, in his own words, "we have to put up with" - must, from a national point of view, be reckoned an insult, little or nothing short of an insult, to our Scottish pride in Napier's achievement, this turning of what ought to be a shrine of learning and a place of mathematical pilgrimage into a "remand home" which, according to the Lord Provost's confession, everybody would hate to have to live next door to. Of course, Edinburgh Town Council, by force of its bare majority, can decide that this is the kind of thing that Scottish national pride, in the Lord Provost's words, "has to put up with" from Edinburgh, Scotland's capital.

(5) In paragraph (2) I undertook to prove that this deadness to Scottish national feeling while obvious in Edinburgh Town Council, is not to be found In "Scotland generally." Scotland in more spiritual things does not, perhaps, always accept Edinburgh's lead. My proof is as follows:

(6) The celebration of the tercentenary of the Scottish mathematician, Gregory, began in the Royal Society of Edinburgh in the afternoon of July 4, was continued at St Andrews University in a graduation ceremonial and reception on July 5, and was further continued for ten days by the Edinburgh Mathematical Society in a Mathematical Colloquium, over which I had the honour to preside, in the University Hall at St Andrews. Lectures were given, not only by Professor Turnbull of St Andrews on his six-years research into Gregory's unpublished papers, but also by professors from the Sorbonne, from Denmark, from Harvard, and from Edinburgh University. I mention such details in order to say again that all this was done in honour of a Scottish mathematician. Something of a contrast - isn't it? - with Edinburgh Town Council's treatment of Napier.

(7) One day at the Colloquium we had the pleasure of entertaining to lunch a Committee of the University Court of St Andrews. The Committee's business is to explore ways and plans to found a Chair and equip an observatory in honour of Napier. Startling isn't it? - to hear of a University Chair in honour of Napier at St Andrews and a "remand home" in his dishonour, as the Lord Provost would say, at Edinburgh.

(8) The St Andrews plan is, of course, in accord with the bequest of Sir Peter Scott Lang, a professor the memory of whose love for St Andrews and of whose own lovable heart is, I know, a delight and a refreshment to the soul of every St Andrews man of my time - the memory of a fine old Scottish gentleman. And this is what Sir Peter thought of Napier, a University Chair in his honour; not like Edinburgh Town Council, who count a "remand home" good enough.

(9) I wonder what Professor Blackie would have said to the Town Council's remand home. Would he have ordered them all into it?

I am etc.

George Lawson
President of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society.

Eleven years later Merchiston Castle was still attracting attention in the columns of The Scotsman:

Merchiston Castle.

8 Merchiston Crescent, Edinburgh,
October 10, 1949

Sir,- Since my last letter to you on July 23 regarding Merchiston Castle, rumours have been rife that repairs were about to begin but so far nothing has been done.

I am not an architect or builder, but I submit that Merchiston Castle is now in a dangerous condition, and will soon be beyond repair. Surely that is not the desire of the Edinburgh Corporation. Since they acquired the castle in 1930 their stewardship of it is certainly not to their credit. Every door and window has recently been smashed, thieves have torn the lead from the gutters on the roof and rain simply cascades into the building. All this can be seen by anyone who cares to look.

The value of Merchiston Castle as an asset to Edinburgh does not seem to interest the Corporation. It was proposed to make the castle into a detention home; fortunately that project failed to materialise and so it was saved from this ignoble purpose and the citizens of Edinburgh from the deserved scorn of the civilised world. John Napier of Merchiston, a citizen of Edinburgh, is one of the greatest of the many great men Scotland has produced. His invention of logarithms 400 years ago is in use today throughout the world. Surely we should at least respect the home where he was born and worked. Has the Cockburn Association or the Amenity Committee of the Town Council nothing to say in defence of Merchiston Castle? The Mathematical Society would no doubt wish to honour the memory of "this monarch of science, John Napier."

I am etc.


Last Updated November 2007