ARRIVING in Edinburgh in 1634, the English soldier Sir William Brereton found nothing to his liking. The people were “sluttish, nasty, and slothful”. Their houses were so filthy the kitchen sink was dirtier than a toilet, and the streets were just as bad: “Yea, I never came to my own lodging in Edenborough, or went out, but I was constrained to hold my nose, or to use wormwood, or some such scented plant,” he wrote. All this, despite the Privy Council’s efforts to force the population to clean the place up.

Fast forward 150 years and Britain’s most irascible celebrity, Dr Samuel Johnson, was just as sour about the capital, remarking that he could have found his companion James Boswell in the dark by smell alone and was repulsed by the stench of the High Street.

As Boswell conceded, although the custom of emptying chamber pots out of the window was frowned upon, “from the structure of the houses in the old town, which consist of many stories, in each of which a different family lives, and there being no covered sewers, the odour continues.” Sad to say, criticism of Edinburgh’s salubriousness endures to this day. Only last week a former diplomat, David Frost, offered a most unflattering envoi before departing for London. He poured scorn on the capital’s clutter of street furniture, overflowing bins, grubby streets, rows of unsightly recycling skips, the ill thought out train and tram routes, and grim traffic jams.

As one who is often trapped in the latter, the constipated convoys of buses in Princes Street more resemble a flotilla of logs on a sluggish Canadian river than an environmentally friendly transport system designed for the ease and comfort of passengers. Only the citizens themselves escaped Mr Frost’s wrath, for which one must be grateful.

It pains me not to be able to rebut this Jeremiah’s attack, but unfortunately my list of complaints is longer than his. As a former resident, and now near neighbour, the gradual erosion of Edinburgh’s charms has been excruciating to observe. It is like watching a great beauty ruin her looks with piercings and tattoos, or standing by while a portrait by Raeburn is given a makeover by a child with felt tips, glitter and glue.

In response to Mr Frost’s remarks, Edinburgh City Council replied with typical blather, spouting the bland PR so beloved of those whose benchmark is profit, not posterity, lucre not legacy. In its hands, Edinburgh’s reputation feels precarious. For years now the city has been under siege, eroded from within by blinkered planning officials who grant permission to ugly or inappropriate new-builds or renovations, and by tourist-touts who want to turn one of the most beautiful cities in Europe into a 12-month party capital, the Duracell bunny of the city-break circuit. Locals cannot be blamed for thinking that their needs come a very poor second to the flocks of seasonal migrants.

As a result, instead of looking forward to the Christmas and New Year season, many Edinburghers will, like me, be bracing themselves. It is miserable to sound like Scrooge at this tinselly time of year, yet this is the state of mind to which our capital’s lieges reduce us. As the Advent Calendar’s windows open one by one, the formerly elegant, atmospheric and mysterious New and Old Towns will throb to the sound of the carnival, all allure killed by noise and tat.

Grass will be trampled to mud or disappear beneath ice-rinks, streets suffocate under cheap market displays or open-air bars, while restful breathing spaces, such as St Andrew Square, are turned into outdoor malls reeking of animal fat, onions and stale ale. For nigh on two months, as during the Festival, Edinburgh will open its arms to those who love northern lights and promise them a good time. Fair enough, you might say. Scotland has always known how to throw a party, and why shouldn’t the capital make capital from everything it has to offer?

Only killjoys would wish to pull up the drawbridge and keep the jewel of the north to themselves. Better, surely, to share its world-class architecture and breathtaking views, its magnificent art galleries and museums, its inviting pubs and glitzy restaurants and clubs, its stylish shops and boutiques? I would wholeheartedly agree, if it weren’t for one small matter.

In pandering to tourists and visitors, to the marching tide of fashion and the encroaching flood of hoteliers and chain stores, the city faithers and mithers have sold their souls to the most demanding and fickle of masters. Yet in their eagerness to attract custom, they seem to have overlooked, or have actively neglected, the very things that make Edinburgh worth visiting in the first place.

Take a look around, and you’ll see what I mean. There are corners of the city centre that resemble the Pacific gyre, plastic swirling in the wind, creating tornados of rubbish that will outlive us all by centuries and more. There is litter and grime everywhere. There is graffiti and there are broken hoardings, burned-out bus shelters and abandoned traffic cones, toppled crash barriers and discarded sleeping bags from the hopeless army of homeless, the dark lining to the silver cloud of well-heeled revellers.

If I were throwing a party this Christmas, the first thing I would do is clean the house: scrub every corner and tidy up; not so Edinburgh. As Yuletide approaches, the streets look dog-eared and unkempt. If its people were poor, one could understand. But this is among the most wealthy, sophisticated metropolises in the world, where everyone pays their taxes.

Towards the end of every year my husband and I visit Italy, where we are always impressed by street cleaners sprucing up Florence in the dark. Sluicing pavements, sucking up dust, they are as careful as if the Piazza Signoria or Ponte Vecchio were their living room. By breakfast, the place is sparkling.

One begins to wonder if Edinburgh’s tired, grubby demeanour is a hangover from centuries of slovenliness, rather than a symptom of depleted civic funds. Or perhaps those in charge of the city are so dazzled by till receipts they simply cannot see their town needs taken care of.

Could this be the time to resurrect the idea of a hotel surcharge for visitors? If such revenue was ring-fenced for the city’s upkeep, perhaps those in charge would start to treat Edinburgh with the respect it deserves and seek to protect rather than despoil. Instead of disdaining the sober classical and medieval character on which its international reputation has been built, they might appreciate these priceless assets.

If they do not, I fear they will one day discover that the attraction of a city is like any romance. Once the magic disappears, it is almost impossible to rekindle. Following in the footsteps of William Brereton and Dr Johnson, people passing this way will begin to hold their noses, avert their eyes and hurry through without stopping.