Edinburgh in Literature


Not just home to years of heritage, beautiful scenery and the Proclaimers, Scotland’s capital has also lent itself to a variety of literature and film over the years, ranging from the famous detective exploits of Ian

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Rankin’s Inspector Rebus to Robert Louis Stevensons’ depiction of romance in wartime Hermiston, and films like ‘Trainspotting’, depicting the Leith drug scene of the 1990s. Through the mediums of film, TV and fiction, it seems that every side of Edinburgh has had its turn in the limelight.

Way back in 1896, one of Edinburgh’s most famous residents (and alleged inventor of ‘The Student’ newspaper) Robert Louis Stevenson began what some would consider his best work, The Weir of Hermiston – but tragically never finished it, due to a pesky brain haemorrhage. The story tells the tale of Archie Weir, a hopeless romantic banished from his family to live as a laird in Hermiston, where he falls in love with local girl Christina. We never get to hear what happens after the development of the relationship because of Stevenson’s sudden death, but we can probably assume that it involved some balance of drama and romance suitable for the desolate countryside scenery.

There is extra interest in this tale for those familiar with Edinburgh and its surrounding area – much

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has changed in the last 150 years and, while Stevenson’s story depicted young lovers frolicking amongst nature in the countryside of Hermiston, one would now find in its place the populised suburb of Currie and Heriot Watt University’s campus; probably setting to a very different type of love story, then.

If we fast-forward 63 years – during which Edinburgh found itself in the novel adaptation of Greyfriar’s Bobby as well as 1959 film The Thirty-Nine Steps – we find one of the most famous depictions of the city in Muriel Spark’s 1961 novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The plot itself has won many fans over the years with its interesting characters and use of prolepsis* as a structural tool, but Edinburgh natives will also revel in mentions of Middle Meadow Walk, Grassmarket and other Edinburgh spots, as well as the fact that Miss Brodie herself was based on a teacher of Spark’s at James Gillespie’s High School in the city’s South side.

In fact, the novel has such broad appeal that it forms part of Edinburgh University’s first year English Literature course as well as appearing on Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest Novels list and being adapted for stage and screen, with Maggie Smith depicting the maverick school mistress (sound familiar?) in the 1969 film adaptation of the same name.

The 1980s saw Inverleith, The Assembly and Holyrood Park take centre stage in historical Olympic drama Chariots of Fire, while Ian Rankin’s Rebus was born in the later part of the decade and went on to star in 18 novels and even more short stories right up to today – even giving his name to an Edinburgh pub crawl which I’m sure Rankin regards as his greatest achievement to date. His stories span a large area of Scotland, visiting nightclubs and mining towns, pubs and countryside, and even Edinburgh locations as specific as St Leonards Police Station near Pleasance and Marchmont’s Arden Street.

However, while Rankin’s novels often depict a stark and poverty-stricken Scotland, it wasn’t until the 1990s that these aspects of the country and its capital were explored properly in the gritty novel Trainspotting in 1993 and its consequent film adaptation 3 years on. The black comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller received almost universal praise, premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, although shown outside of competition due to its controversial subject matter. Well, its not exactly like Scotland is used to making it into major competitions anyway, as many a football fan will testify…

Trainspotting’s most famous scene opens the film with a police chase down Princes Street, and a scene that was cut before release depicted the actual theft from John Menzies superstore, where you would now find clothing chain Next. Politically of its time, Trainspotting happened against a backdrop of a dying Conservative government and the subsequent trend for rebelliousness after many a hard year.

But the grey and dreary Leith depicted in the film is not that which we see today. A refurbished port houses a range of fancy shops, bars and Michelin Star restaurants, and you’re more likely to find a botox needle than a heroin one amongst the new generation of yummy mummies and high-fliers setting up home in the district.

And so its clear that film and literature depicts not the city itself but a snapshot of it as it was at one particular moment. It is fitting then that one of Edinburgh’s most recent starring roles was in 2009 novel One Day (and 2011 film of the same name), which documents the lives of a couple on the same day every year for 20 years. With scenes purposely filmed at relatively unchanging landmarks like Arthur’s Seat, Parliament Square and Calton Hill, we’re reminded that, while the city has undoubtedly come on since Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1896 frolics in Hermiston, the features which give it its character and heritage will remain backdrop to many governments, innovations, buildings and generations.

So hey, maybe 116 years from now we won’t remember the trams at all.


*it means flashbacks/forwards – I would have had to look it up too had I not spent a painstaking first year as an English literature student.

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