Edinburgh's Dark Literary Past
Edinburgh's more sinister influences first came to the public's attention through a spate of 16th and 17th century books about the supernatural. The Mercat cross on the Royal Mile is famous as the site where the Devil predicted the battle of Flodden – an incident was recounted in Robert Lindsay's Historie and Chronicles of Scotland. Bear in mind that this was a history book, not a work of fiction – the appearance of Auld Nick in the centre of Edinburgh was presented as an unquestioned fact. Other 'serious' works, like Reverend Robert Law's The Memorable Things that Fell Out within this Island of Brittain from 1638 to 1684 also pointed an accusing finger towards Edinburgh being the capital of weird.
The Devil At North Berwick
Of course you can't get worse press than being written about by your own king – especially when he was born in the place. As well as overseeing the Bible, James VI personally wrote Demonology in 1597 – just in case the good book wasn't going to be specific enough on the Satanic problem. The fact that he thought the witches of Edinburgh and neighbouring North Berwick were out to get him didn't exactly put a halo over the city. Things were made worse when, in 1591, Newes From Scotland – published in London - gave a graphic and widely read account of the monarch's battle with the same Satanic henchmen.
Richard Bovet's Pandæmonium, or the Devil's Cloister Opened (1683) described vividly the story of the Fairy Boy of Leith and Professor George Sinclair portrayed Edinburgh as a hotbed of supernatural activity in his 1685 bestseller, Satan's Invisible World Discovered. This book in particular went through many editions and would have formed part of nearly any library in Scotland. The full title is Satan's Invisible World Discovered or A Choice Collection of Modern Revelations, Proving Evidently, Against the Atheists of this Present Age, that there are Devils, Spirits, Witches and Apparitions. This wasn't just a collection of entertaining ghostly tales - It was a warning. The good professor was determined to tell it like it was, even if he was making it up.
Nathaniel Crouch, in The Kingdom of Darkness (1688) exposed Sinclair's stories to an even larger audience - these books cementing Edinburgh's reputation as the creepy capital of a decidedly paranormal country. They made a celebrity of Major Weir and turned Mary King's Close into a phenomenon. It's a measure of their influence that Weir has remained famous and Mary King's Close is still considered to be one of the world's most haunted locations.
After that, all Edinburgh writers had to have a go at horror – even if it wasn't their preferred genre. Robert Burns, who lived in Lady Stairs' Close, wrote ditties about ghosts and Satan and his most famous work is Tam O Shanter - the poem, of course, concerning a drunken race against a coven of witches. His equally talented contemporary, Robert Fergusson wrote spooky poetry too, including one about Greyfriars Churchyard, The Ghaists: A Kirkyard Epilogue
Cauld blaws the nippin north wi angry south
And showers his hailstanes frae the Castle Cleugh
Owr the Greyfriars, whare at mirkest hour
Bogles and spectres wont to take their tour
Letters on demonology and witchcraft
Ironically, he died at the age of 24 in the Bedlam Asylum, just outside the graveyard gates, after falling down a flight of stairs.
Walter Scott also dabbled in supernatural writing. His first poems were included in An Apology for Tales of Terror (1799), his first book Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders (1802) was a collection of supernatural ballads and short horror stories like The Tapestried Chamber and My Aunt Margaret's Mirror are considered classics to this day.
None of this did anything to lessen the perception of his city as a ghost town.
In 1810 a young man named John Polidori enrolled at Edinburgh University Medical Department, next to Greyfriars Graveyard. This was at the height of the city's body snatching period – a time when enterprising fellows dug up fresh corpses and sold them to the university's Anatomy department to experiment on.
Six years later, Polidori found himself at Villa Diodoti on the shores of Lake Geneva, along with the writers Lord Byron, Percy Shelley's and Shelley's wife, Mary. Freaking each other out by reading horror stories, they decided to see if they could do better themselves.
It's somehow satisfying that Shelley and Byron – two arch egoists – didn't come up with anything much at all. But Polidori wrote The Vampyr – which features a dentally- challenged aristocratic and is generally regarded as the world's first 'proper' vampire story. It's easy to work out which famous gothic novel that inspired. There is no evidence that Bram Stoker based Count Dracula on Vlad the Impaler, or even knew about some obscure, Wallachian voivode. But he read Polidori's story and chunks of his gothic masterpiece were written in Scotland.
The West-port Murders: Contains the only real likeness of Burke
Polidori was on a roll that night for he helped inspire yet another famous horror tome. During an evening of telling horror stories, it seems certain the medical man would have mentioned Edinburgh's body snatchers. Polidori would have also known of experiments at Edinburgh University on 'Medical Electricity' – in which anatomists tried to bring back corpses from the dead by running live currents through them!
Lo and behold, Mary Shelley then begins writing Frankenstein - the story of a medical man who steals corpses and tries to bring them back to life.
1824 saw the publication of Edinburgh resident James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner – which dealt with Satanic possession, schizophrenia and split personality. James Hogg is now buried in Greyfriars cemetery – assuming no body snatcher sneakily dug him up.
At the same time, the Victorian essayist Hugh Millar was writing widely read tracts on the paranormal. Although he was a famous scientist he believed firmly in all things spooky and committed suicide in Portobello to the east of Edinburgh because of paranoid delusions about being hounded by an invisible entity.
Or perhaps he really was being hounded by an invisible entity.
In 1843 Charles Dickens brought out A Christmas Carol inspired by an Edinburgh tombstone that read Ebeneezer Scroggie – Mean Man. It actually read Meal Man – the poor bloke was a corn merchant – but Dickens obviously didn't look closely enough.
In 1886 an Edinburgh author came up with what is arguably the greatest horror story ever published. As well as writing popular short horror stories, Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a masterpiece that had a profound effect on the way the human race saw itself – anticipating the works of Freud and Jung by decades. It was inspired by the duplicitous life of local villain Deacon William Brodie but in many ways I think it is about Edinburgh itself – a city about whose internal divisions Stevenson often wrote passionately.
Another giant of gothic fiction was born the same year as Mr Hyde - Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle was another city writer who went to the University Medical School near Greyfriars and he based Holmes partly on an Edinburgh doctor named Joseph Bell, who taught at the School. Holmes' arch enemy Moriarty is inspired by yet another medical student at Edinburgh University – a serial killer named Thomas Cream.
Conan Doyle famously described Professor Moriarty as the 'Napoleon of Crime'. This is also the description T.S. Eliot gave to the feline villain Macavity the Mystery Cat in Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. The cats were based on real moggies he had observed on a 1937 visit to Greyfriars. (If you don't think that's got anything to do with horror, go and see the musical Cats.)
George Heriot's School
The fantasy/horror connection to Greyfriars Graveyard doesn't end there. J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone in a café window overlooking the cemetery. If you look across the view you can see Heriot's School – the huge castle-like building that used to be an orphanage. I used to write overlooking the graveyard too. Hey, it's my only chance to stick myself in the same paragraph as J.K. Rowling and I can't resist it.
Of all the books that celebrate the city's occult side, my favourite is The Key to World History by Comyns Beaumont, published in 1948. It puts forward the astonishing theory that the biblical depictions of Jerusalem are actually talking about Edinburgh and he argues this mind- boggling point rather eloquently. All right, it still sounds crazy, but Beaumont's eccentric theories have been proved right before. He was the originator of the 'Catastrophe Theory' – the idea that earth's history was periodically altered by cataclysmic collisions with comets. The hypothesis was scoffed at when he first wrote it, but we now know it to be correct – it's how the dinosaurs died out, for a start.
He was also the first man to explain anomalies in Old Testament timelines by suggesting that the Egyptian Calendar was inaccurate. He also claimed that Venus once had an erratic orbit which brought it close enough to earth to cause ruinous damage to early civilizations. After decades of protest, both theories are finally gaining credence among scientists.
So you never know.
Today Edinburgh inspires a new school of writers, whose plots are as dark as Satan's knitting. Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory is one of the creepiest things I have ever read. Irvine Welsh with Trainspotting, Ian Rankin with the Rebus novels, Quentin Jardine's Skinner series and Christopher Brookmyre's Quite Ugly One Morning positively revel in the malicious side of Edinburgh. Jonathan Aycliffe's Faustian chillier The Matrix and James Robertson's The Fanatic portray the city itself as a malevolent entity lurking under a thin veneer of sophistication.
Even Batman recognises this. In Alan Grant's Batman: The Scottish Connection, the caped crusader swaps the ultra gothic Gotham City to seek out evil in Scotland's capital - and he looks just right crouching on the misty ramparts of the Castle. Fittingly, he also gets mixed up with the Knights Templar at Roslin.
Holy Grail, Batman!
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- Quite Ugly One Morning - - Paperback
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This dark psychological fantasy is more than a moral tale. It is also a product of its time, drawing on contemporary theories of class, evolution and criminality and the secret lives behind Victorian propriety, to create a unique form of urban Gothic.
- Add to BasketTrainspotting - - Paperback
'Trainspotting' is hilarious, and profane, riddled with drugs, drunks and bad behaviour and rich with flawed characters. The interwoven stories of a group of friends and junkies, it is a trip through the highs and lows of their lives.