One of the most important characters in The Edinburgh Dead, I like to think, isn’t a character at all: it’s the city’s Old Town.
Edinburgh has one of the most spectacular and beautiful geographies – both natural and man-made – of any British city (actually I’m bending over backwards to appear less partisan than I am, there; truth is, it’s head and shoulders above all its competitors in that department). But the Old Town, the ancient heart of the city, has an intimate, intricate, dark geography that is not exactly spectacular, but no less fascinating for that.
An aside: How can you tell when a city is ancient? Well, Edinburgh has a New Town as well as an Old. The New Town dates back almost 250 years. That’s what counts as New in Edinburgh.
Anyway, back to the Old Town. Here is what part of it looked like, very roughly around the time of The Edinburgh Dead:
A multitude of narrow streets projecting from one long, central thoroughfare that runs up the rising ridge from the Palace of Holyrood to the famous Castle. What you can’t tell from that bird’s eye view is that all those narrow streets are not only narrow, but deep.
Centuries ago, the good folk of Edinburgh were modest pioneers of the skyscraper. Nobody wanted to build outside the city walls, for fear of someone (well, let’s be honest – not someone; the English, that’s who) coming along and trashing everything. So everyone kept living and building inside that tightly-defined limit, and they built higher and higher. The result is the dark geography that still characterises the Old Town: narrow, straight alleyways sunk down beneath soaring tenements. Places where sunlight hardly ever reaches.
Each one of these alleyways has it’s own name, more often than not a piece of deep history. That one above is Fleshmarket Close, for example, because once – long ago – the Old Town’s meat market was down at the foot of it. They are almost all called something-or-other Close, or sometimes Such-and such Wynd.
Here is the entrance to Borthwick’s Close:
Inviting? Let’s venture down it a little way …
Places like this are where, until the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the vast majority of Edinburgh’s inhabitants – rich and poor alike – lived. Packed in, piled one atop one another.
At least until the rich tired of the intimacy, the filth, the intensity of it all, and decided to build themselves a grand, spacious New Town. By the time of The Edinburgh Dead, many of the great and the good had moved out of the Old Town, but thousands of people still lived and died there, the patterns of their lives shaped by these architecural canyons.
Borthwick’s Close has an important part to play in The Edinburgh Dead. At its foot, in a watery dawn, a body is found curled up on the doorstep of a shuttered whisky shop. So there you are: a character portrait in photos.
Previous instalments of The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer:
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