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Dr Iain Gordon Brown FSA FRSE, ‘Edinburgh as the Athens of the North’

Tuesday 07 Mar 2023

In the years between about 1810 and 1850, Edinburgh – long and affectionately known as ‘Auld Reekie’ – came to think of itself and to be widely regarded as something else. The city became ‘Modern Athens’, or subsequently as ‘the Athens of the North’. This phrase is well-known, but tends to disguise the often confused and contradictory messages hidden within the convenience of a trite term.

Dr Iain Gordon Brown’s new book Auld Greekie: Edinburgh as the Athens of the North examines the circumstances underlying a remarkable change in perception of a place and an age. It looks in detail at the ‘when’, the ‘why’, the ‘by whom’, the ‘how’ and the ‘with what consequences’ of the most interesting and complex metamorphosis of one modern, northern city into an image (whether physical, or spiritual or both) of another, ancient city remote in time and location. The story has its topographical, artistic and architectural dimensions – ‘the Modern Athens’ came to boast a splendid assemblage of Greek Revival buildings forming a townscape without peer – but also its social, cerebral and philosophical ones. Many Edinburgh citizens thought and spoke of themselves as ‘Modern Athenians’. In doing so, however, they laid themselves open to ridicule, ranging from benign satire to hostility and vituperation. Opposition to the notion of a ‘Greek’ Edinburgh – in terms of civic consciousness, and in the physical expression of that ideal (to many perceived as alien and un-Scottish) through the elegant and scholarly Greek Revival style of architecture and design – forms a major part of a story forming a fascinating episode in the history of British taste.

Edinburgh of the late Enlightenment may well have been thought of, for one reason or another, as ‘Athenian’. But, in essence, it remained what it had always been. Maybe, however, for a brief period it was really a sort of hybrid city: ‘Auld Greekie’.

We are delighted that Dr Iain Gordon Brown has agreed to talk to us, through what will be a richly illustrated lecture, about the concept and reality of Edinburgh as the Athens of the North.

Dr Iain Gordon Brown, whose academic career began as a student of ancient history and classical archaeology, is a graduate of the universities of Edinburgh and Cambridge and a Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries of London and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He was formerly Principal Curator of Manuscripts in the National Library of Scotland, where he is now an Honorary Fellow. Between 2012 and 2017, he held the elected office of Curator of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scotland’s national academy. Having served as President of the Old Edinburgh Club and as a Trustee of Edinburgh World Heritage, Iain is currently an Associate of the Centre for the History of the Book in the University of Edinburgh. He is a Vice-President of the Edinburgh Decorative and Fine Arts Society. In 2014 he was appointed Consultant to the Robert and James Adam Drawings Cataloguing Project at Sir John Soane’s Museum, London.

A widely-published scholarly author, Iain has written extensively on a broad range of inter-related subjects connected with the period of the Enlightenment, and especially on the literature, art and architecture of the golden age of Scottish culture in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Auld Greekie brings together many of his long-standing interests, and builds on a lifetime’s study of place and period.

This event is open to the public. A wine reception will follow.

Entry is free, but prior registration is required. Please book well in advance (registration closes on 6 March).


The Hellenic Centre


This event is open to the public. A wine reception will follow. Entry is free, but prior registration is required. Book via Eventbrite.