A Picture from Edinburgh’s Crazy Past

So, the manuscript for The Edinburgh Dead will be going to the publisher soon (i.e. weeks rather than months), hence relative quietness around here recently.  But I thought now might be the moment to check out a picture, taken by my own fair hand:

Yes, it’s a graveyard with a fortified watchtower in it.  Why, you may wonder, would the good citizens of Edinburgh have found it necessary to defend their cemetries with miniature castles?  Here’s a case where the past, when viewed from enough temporal or moral distance, starts to look every bit as unfamiliar as any invented fantasy world.  It’s a pretty well known, if sordid, tale of our past, so will come as no surprise to many of you, but in 18th and 19th century Edinburgh – and a good few other places in the UK, since this was by no means a purely Edinburgh phenomenom – the dead required heavy duty protection of this sort against the living.  Strange, but very much true.

Fresh corpses were so much in demand for dissection in anatomy classes at the then flourishing universities, and in private anatomy schools of which there were a great many, that a veritable industry sprang up: graverobbing.  As I said, a well known tale, so no great surprise.  But this watchtower thing is a particular flourish on the story that I love.  Several of Edinburgh’s graveyards still have them: fortifications from which armed men could keep watch for the dreaded graverobbers (or Resurrection Men, which is the rather more dramatic name for them I prefer).

When you stop and think about it, it’s just too strange for words.  One of the country’s greatest cities had castellated towers in its cemetries, because a certain number of its citizens, including eminently respectable and indeed famed teachers of the medical sciences, were engaged in a racket that involved exhuming the corpses of innocent fellow citizens and cutting them up for the edification of students.  Weird.  And an enormously tempting historical oddity to play around with in fantactical fiction, of course.  Which brings me back to: the manuscript for The Edinburgh Dead will be going to the publisher soon (i.e. weeks rather than months).

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