My City: Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh
By Alexander McCall Smith
Some years ago I started to write a serial novel, 44 Scotland Street, set in Edinburgh. In this series—now in its ninth volume—I wanted to explain why it was that this city should so beguile those who come to know it, why each morning makes me feel as if I am waking up to a continuing love affair with the place in which I live.
There are many reasons why one should want to write about Edinburgh. The Scottish capital is one of the most artistically interesting cities in the world, in the same league as Florence or Venice. It sits between rolling hills and the east coast of Scotland, a country with a stirring past and a haunting, romantic landscape.
It is a place known for its cultural festivals, and particularly for the Edinburgh International Festival and its Festival Fringe, which, for a giddy month each summer, make it the arts capital of the world.
It is a place of ideas, the birthplace of the Scottish Enlightenment, that extraordinary moment in the 18th century when Edinburgh briefly became the intellectual capital of Europe.
More recently it has been at the heart of an intense political debate about Scottish independence—an experience that has made its citizens look more closely at the issue of who they want to be. It is not a dull place.
I decided to base this series of books in one particular street, and a real one at that. Imaginary locations may have their place in fiction, but I have always preferred to know exactly where I am. Why should authors be coy? I chose a street in what is known as Edinburgh’s New Town.
The word “new” is relative: In Edinburgh the late 18th century counts as new enough, the Old Town being the ridge of narrow streets and alleyways that grew up from the city’s official foundation in the 12th century. The creation of the New Town was a response to the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions that had become an increasing problem.
Edinburgh is a place of hills, but on the other side of the Nor Loch, fetid and calling out for draining, lay a tempting stretch of land running down toward the sea, the obvious place to build a city from scratch. A competition was held, and James Craig, an untrained architect still in his 20s, came up with a classical design, a grid of elegant streets, punctuated here and there by squares and crescents.
That classical vision remains, in the largest body of unspoiled Georgian architecture to be found anywhere in the British Isles. It is a vast architectural museum, but one in which people still live and work—and some of them actually work in the city’s many museums, including the Scottish National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street, a great place to immerse yourself in Scottish art and history and then refresh yourself in its café (legendary scones).
I needed a street, and I found it in short, steep Scotland Street, at the eastern end of the New Town. Residential buildings line either side of Scotland Street, made of the stone that was used to construct the whole New Town. Like all the other streets in the area, its style is classic Georgian, with an emphasis on regularity and uniformity. That is the key to the aesthetic appeal of the New Town—beauty lies in the clean lines of doors and windows that are of the same pleasing proportions, house after house.
I placed many of the characters in apartments running off a single stair, the term used in Edinburgh for the communal stone staircase that unites dwellings under a common roof. It is a living arrangement that has helped to create and preserve the strong sense of community that prevails in Edinburgh. Rich and poor never lived too far apart in the Old Town, and even in the more prosperous New Town, a good social mix always prevailed.
Once I had created my characters, I found I could let them loose in the city, and in their lives. They seemed to make the choice for me, gravitating to work and play in Dundas Street, not far from Scotland Street, which affords arresting views toward the ancient Kingdom of Fife (long absorbed into modern Scotland), on the other side of the Firth of Forth.
At the top of Dundas Street, just round the corner from the Heriot Row home of the great 19th-century Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson, is a favorite café, Glass and Thompson, frequented by my friends and by my characters.
A few doors down is the Scottish Gallery, run by Guy Peploe, grandson of one of Scotland’s best-known painters, S. J. Peploe. Peploe appears as a character in my books, as I like to put real people into them—with their consent, of course. Edinburgh is that sort of place: People may be factual and fictional at the same time.
Edinburgh’s atmospheric bars also make useful settings for fictional characters. Mine go to the Cumberland Bar, a cheerful and welcoming place at the end of Cumberland Street. My fellow Edinburgh writer, Ian Rankin, sends his fictional detective, Inspector John Rebus, to the Oxford Bar, in Thistle Street. Ian’s books are darker than mine, and his characters prefer darker, simpler bars. To each his own.
Fictional characters have to go shopping, of course, and I regularly send mine to Valvona and Crolla, a real Italian delicatessen in Elm Row owned by Philip and Mary Contini, both of whom appear as characters in the Scotland Street novels. At launches for the books, Philip shows up to play music with his Neapolitan band.
Fact and fiction meet in this city all the time. And why not? Edinburgh is a place in which the imagination seems to thrive. There is something in the air here, something in the light. I’m not sure exactly what it is, but it’s there. Edinburgh has been called a dream in stone. Perhaps that explains it.