Edinburgh Dead Photo Trailer

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… recent developments in Edinburgh connect to stuff that happens in that book.

Someone who gets quite a bit of mention in The Edinburgh Dead – even though he’s long dead at the time of the story – is Major Weir, Edinburgh’s most infamous, notorious warlock. The book’s hero, Adam Quire, even ventures into Weir’s derelict, haunted former residence. I had to improvise a bit for that scene, since Weir’s actual house isn’t there any more. People who tried to stay there after his execution reported all manner of distressing manifestations and supernatural goings-on, and it was eventually demolished.

Or was it? Someone thinks it survived, and they reckon they’ve identified it. So perhaps Edinburgh’s most famously haunted and creepily-historied building is, in fact, still here. Amongst us. Watching us. It was apparently absorbed into the building pictured on the right.

I’m instinctively a bit sceptical, to be honest, but who knows? Anyway, if true, it amuses me that Weir’s house was apparently incorporated into a chapel building, which is now the Quaker Meeting House. I confess, that building’s not quite where I chose to put Weir’s house for The Edinburgh Dead, but I was only off by about fifty yards, which isn’t too bad I reckon.

The tale of Major Thomas Weir is, by the way, crazy and creepy – worth a read if you’ve not heard of him – and also perhaps kind of sad, since it seems more than a little likely he was, like many people in the past, unpleasantly executed basically for being mad.

Slightly more tenuously connected to The Edinburgh Dead, but included here because it’s pretty: there’s been an exhibition of Chinese lanterns in the University’s Old College this week.

The Edinburgh Dead‘s based on the true history of grave-robbing and the illicit trade in corpses for medical dissection, and quite a few of those corpses ended up in Old College. Indeed, in one of fate’s most wry and satisfying twists, William Burke – who was one half of the Burke & Hare duo who murdered to meet the demand for corpses, and who appears in The Edinburgh Dead – ended up on a dissection slab in Old College. After he was hung, his corpse was publicly dissected there. There was such demand to witness the butchering of his body that there was a near-riot when audience space proved inadequate.

Anyway, nice lanterns don’t you think? Based on the famous terracotta army, of course.

Check out the Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer for lots more visuals and history that connect to the book.

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As a sort of addendum to The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer, I thought it’d be fun (for me, anyway) to run through a few of the people, and maybe a couple of the places, appearing in the novel that – it might surprise some folk to learn – I didn’t make up, but plucked from the real and true history of the city.

Burke and Hare, of course.  Don’t need much of an introduction for most people: infamous murderers, who killed at least 17 innocent folk and sold their corpses to the anatomists of Edinburgh for dissection.

All I’ll say about them here is that I think, despite its notoriety, their story has actually received less popular attention than it deserves.  Jack the Ripper is often thought of as the first ‘modern’ serial killer, but Burke and Hare predate him (whoever he was) by decades, and there is – to me, at least – something fascinatingly modern about their crimes.  They killed for financial gain, in the ‘service’ of famed and ambitious scientists, preying on the vulnerable.  When their misdeeds became known, the public uproar was pretty much unprecedented, and prefigures the kind of media-driven hysteria we see nowadays, including exclusive confessional newspaper interviews, exhaustive reporting of every gory detail, public disorder and so on.

Robert Knox, who the hero of The Edinburgh Dead, Adam Quire, encounters in Surgeon’s Square, is entirely real, and his appearance and demeanour in the novel are – as best as I could manage – historically accurate.  Self-important, abrasive, with only one good eye and a collection of gruesome anatomical specimens.  He did, as described in the novel, treat injured survivors of the Battle of Waterloo during his early years as a surgeon, and was, by 1828, by some distance the most successful and sought after private teacher of anatomy in the city. (A remarkable oddity of the time: there were plenty of such private teachers, operating outside the established University – or any other institution – busily dissecting cadavers for the edification of paying students).

And he was, as the novel hints but does not fully describe, undone by his hubris and his … let’s call it, to be charitable, morally questionable judgement.

And I’ll add in passing that Surgeon’s Square, was, of course, a real place.  It’s been more or less completely built over nowadays (by University buildings), but there’s a plaque on a wall pointing out its site.

Robert Christison.  Easily my favourite discovery in the course of research for the novel.  This guy was, if you ask me, remarkable.  In a lot of ways, I’d have liked to give him an even bigger role to play in The Edinburgh Dead than he has, just because I find him so interesting.  He was one of the great pioneers of what nowadays we would probably call forensic medicine, almost before it existed as a clearly defined concept.

In The Edinburgh Dead we see him pretty early in his career, when he was becoming recognised as a serious expert on things like poisoning.  (He even took poisons himself to more thoroughly understand their effects).  He went on to greatness, producing definitive texts and eventually even being appointed a physician to Queen Victoria.  A perfect example, in many ways, of the fruits of the inquiring, imaginative ambition that took hold of Edinburgh’s thinkers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: he went after the secrets that the emerging scientific understanding of the human body unlocked, and applied them to the real world.

His expertise led him to be involved in many high profile criminal investigations, including that resulting from the misbehaviour of Burke and Hare.

James Robinson really was in charge of Edinburgh’s police force in 1828, and was indeed a former military man.  What happens to him in the course of the novel is, broadly speaking, what actually happened to him in the course of that year, though it didn’t necessarily happen for precisely the reasons I suggest.

Andrew Merrilees (Merry Andrew) was a real bodysnatcher, as were his cronies Spune and Mowdiewarp.  (They all sound to me like refugees from Gormenghast).  They provided the esteemed anatomists of Edinburgh with a great many fresh corpses.

They’re examples of what you’d call the ‘professional’ corpse-thiefs: a criminal underclass that emerged to service the needs of the professors.  Bizarrely, at least as many corpses were dug up and stolen by the anatomists themselves – or more often their over-enthusiastic and infatuated students – so you almost had two different classes of bodysnatcher operating at the same time: the dodgy and distinctly unsavoury criminals, and the highly educated ‘amateurs’ who moonlighted as dastardly resurrectionists.

The Holy Land, the Happy Land and the Just Land.  I wish I could take credit for making these places up – or at least inventing their names – but I can’t.  They were real, and notorious tenements (i.e. apartment blocks, for anyone not familiar with the term) populated almost entirely by prostitutes, their pimps and assorted criminally-inclined hangers-on.  I have shifted them slightly from their historical timing, since the references to them actually place them a little bit later than 1828, but I don’t actually know when they acquired their unpleasant reputation so it’s not toally inconceiveable they were as I describe them even in 1828.

They’re all named, as I say in the book, with ‘dour irony’, since not a one of them was remotely Holy, Happy or Just, but for what it’s worth, the Just Land was allegedly not quite as bad as the others, since it contained only prostitutes, with no pimps.

The Dancing School was also a real place, but also one I’ve moved back in time a bit, just because I thought it was kind of fun.  As in the book, the teaching of dancing was in fact pretty low down on its list of priorities.

John Ruthven is not real.  But his (presumed) ancestors were.  There were at least a couple of members of the high-ranking Ruthven family, back in Scotland’s past, with a dark reputation for dabbling in the arcane.  They seem to have escaped any of the then-popular punishments for those accused of witchcraft, but got in various kinds of trouble on account of their political manouevrings and conspiratorial tendencies.

And there’s more – quite a bit more – but that’s probably enough for now.  Can always come back to some further examples of historical truth some time in the future, should it seem like a good idea.  Those wanting more on the historical background to the novel can always browse the rest of The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer.



So what’s the best bit about writing a book? Well, it’s rarely the actual writing, I can tell you that much.  In the case of The Edinburgh Dead, it was the research, so you’ll have to forgive me if I digress from the main thread of the Photo-Trailer in order to dispense some heartfelt affection.

In 1710, the Library of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh was granted the right to claim, from its publisher, a copy of every book published in Great Britain.  So for three hundred years it, along with a select few other institutions, has been steadily, remorsely amassing a vast, almost unimaginable compendium of the written word.  It became the National Library of Scotland, and in 1956 took up its present abode behind an admittedly somewhat forbidding facade on George IV Bridge (a bridge that, by convenient coincidence, does get a mention or two in The Edinburgh Dead, since it was being built at the time of the novel).

Behind that unshowy exterior lies a world of wonder and dreams. It is the manual, analogue internet, and a place, I think, in may ways far richer and deeper and more intoxicating than the digital version that rules our lives now. There are no hyperlinks to guide you, no Google to impose its presumptive structures upon your wanderings. You have to do the work yourself. Hold the books in your hands; read not short, snappy summaries but page after page of considered text; follow trails through quotations and references and indexes. Map out your own exploration, and do it slowly, with care and reflection.

That modest doorway is the portal to centuries of human thought upon every conceiveable subect. The NLS currently holds over 14 million printed items in their collections. 14 million. And it is freely available to anyone with the inclination and cause to investigate it. What a thing. What a wondrous, wonderful thing.

Within, beyond the obligatory cafe (which does rather good tea, by the way – the diligent researcher must know where his restorative refreshments are going to come from) and cloakroom and exhibition space, a relatively modest stairway leads us up towards the light, towards the doors of the reading room.

That’s the doors there, and I took my camera no further, because snooping around in there taking photos seemed unlikely to be welcomed. So we’ll have to make do with this little snapshot I pinched from the NLS’ own website.

The Reading Room’s a modest space – demure – unlike the cavernous, crowded reading rooms of the British Library in London. Always busyish, but never overcrowded. Wonderfully quiet, of course, save for the tip-tap of fingers upon laptops and the occasional cough from the assembled readers.

Who are a diverse lot, as befits the clientele of a national library. Students and academics, of course, but amateur researchers too, hobbyists and genealogists, writers and readers of all sorts. Each one of them in his or her own world, immersed in the mental space created by printed words upon a page; words that have been brought forth from the vast, unseen storage spaces that reside in that same building or other sites around the city like some titanic literary iceberg whose merest, random tip is each day brought forth into the light by the specific requests of those visiting the library.

And while you wait for the books you have requested to be produced for your perusal, you can browse the shelves, where an eclectic selection of stuff awaits your curiosity. That’s where I found the old proceedings and records of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which – like George IV Bridge – can be found within the pages of The Edinburgh Dead. The Society was founded way back in 1780, and is still going today, which makes it almost, but not quite, as venerable an institution as the National Library of Scotland.

Above the door of the NLS, obvious to all as they depart, is a map that says as much as any words can about how deeply into the past go the foundations of the building.  It shows Edinburgh as it was three hundred years ago, when the seeds of the National Library were sown.  The city – and the world – may have transformed around it, but the idea that the Library embodies and fulfils is still there, unchanged.  And a jolly good idea it is too.

Previous instalments of The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer:

Duddingston Loch

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins

Guarding the Dead


So, What’s a Close, Then?


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:

Duddingston Loch

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins

Guarding the Dead


The Edinburgh Dead is set in 1828, a time of relative peace in Britain and Europe.  But it is not itself a particularly peaceful story, and I have to report that on a number of occasions within its pages, various characters resort to violence.  So: the equipment of violence.

This is a Land Pattern musket:

It’s a weapon I didn’t know anything in particular about until I started researching the book, but the more I read about it the more interested I became.  Like a lot of guns, I find a certain appealing, utilitarian grace in its design.  (Even as I find an ugliness in its purpose).  What really got me interested, though, was its nickname.  An enormous number of different versions of the Land Pattern were produced for use by the British armed forces in the 18th and 19th centuries, and many of them were known by those who used them as Brown Bess.  As someone observes in The Edinburgh Dead: ‘a soft, almost companionable, name for something that had spat such storms of smoke and fire and lead and spilled such torrents of blood the world over.’

The Brown Bess was, in some ways, the ferocious midwife to the birth of the British Empire.  More directly relevant to The Edinburgh Dead, as will become clear, she was at the side of thousands of British soldiers fighting in the brutally extended Napoleonic Wars that ravaged Europe in the early years of the 19th century.

This is a briquet, a French sabre:

A blade of the sort carried into battle by the French soldiers striving to fulfil Napoleon’s imperial ambitions.  Guns of one sort or another had been the dominant force on the battlefield for a very long time by the start of the 19th century, yet there was still a place for the devices of horribly intimate slaughter.  I can only guess that people could still find a use for swords of one sort or another mainly because the reload time for many of the firearms then in use was such that not all killing could easily be done at a distance.  But still, even the muzzle-loading flintlock Brown Bess shown above could apparently be reloaded by a skilled operator remarkably quickly: three or four shots a minute was evidently possible.

This is a French flintlock pistol of the time:

Pretty, no?  Strange how such gruesomely-intentioned equipment can appear so elegant.  Why the emphasis on French weapons, you might wonder.  Well, The Edinburgh Dead‘s central character – Adam Quire – is a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars.  At the time the novel is set, he lives still with the physical, psychological and material legacy of that conflict.  It casts a faint shadow over much of what happens in the book, and that includes the weaponry that appears in the story.  Each one of the three weapons pictured here features somehow, so this really is a very literal photo-trailer.

And I’ll add one more image, by way of a less specific hint.  Not strictly a weapon, but an important player in the action of The Edinburgh DeadYou don’t need me to tell you what this is:

Previous instalments of The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer:

Duddingston Loch

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins

Guarding the Dead

Graveyards as fortresses. Not for fear of the rising dead, but – as a character in The Edinburgh Dead puts it – for the protection of the dead against the avaricious living.  Corpses had value in 18th and 19th century Edinburgh, as educational material for the city’s famous medical schools.   The bodysnatchers (or, as they were more dramatically known, the resurrectionists) emptied graves at night.  Yes, if you died in Edinburgh in 1828, when The Edinburgh Dead is set, and left a reasonably presentable corpse, there was a chance your mortal remains would be surreptitiously dug up, bagged, sold to an anatomist, possibly pickled, and then displayed and dissected for the edification of medical students.  The good folk of the city, not unreasonably, thought that more than a little uncalled for.  They took steps to deter the nocturnal corpse-thiefs.

They built and manned watchtowers in their cemeteries. (The one shown above is at Duddingston – a location that’s featured in this photo-trailer before).

They set cages about the graves of their loved ones.

They even resorted to massive, impenetrable iron coffins.

It could all easily be an array of defences against the undead, inspired by superstitious fear of revenants clawing their way out of the soil.  What’s more unsettling, though?  Those fantastical notions, or the truth: that men thought nothing of digging up their recently deceased fellows and selling them for dissection, and that respected – indeed internationally lauded – teachers of medicine found the imperatives of their calling so pressing that they thought it an acceptable way of obtaining cadavers for their anatomy lessons?

Previous instalments of The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer:

The Arthur’s Seat Coffins

Duddingston Loch

A briefer entry in The Edinburgh Dead photo-trailer this time around.  Its contents, I think, speak for themselves, if in a mysterious and rather cryptic way, so there’s no real need for me to elaborate much.  As I said, Edinburgh’s history has no shortage of odd little details that fed into The Edinburgh Dead.  Here is the simple, yet decidedly puzzling, outline of one of those details.

In 1836, some boys messing about on Arthur’s Seat – the huge, wild formerly volcanic hill that looms over Edinburgh – chanced upon a tiny cave or crevice, and found something extraordinary within it.  Seventeen miniature coffins, each containing a hand-made, clothed wooden figure.

Only eight survive today, and they are on display at the National Museum of Scotland (from the website of which the above photo is borrowed).  The origins, purpose and significance of the coffins have remained a mystery.  Their maker is unknown.  There has, as you might imagine, been an enormous amount of speculation on the subject, much of it revolving around witchcraft, murder, or both.

I read quite a bit about these coffins while I was researching The Edinburgh Dead.  I visited them in their museum lodgings (and very strange and slightly spooky they are too).  They played a part in shaping the story I came up with.  But to say any more than that would be to say too much, I think.  So I won’t.

I’ve got the Godless World Gazetteer here on the website, a modest little library of odds and ends fleshing out some aspects of the setting and history amidst which the events of that trilogy play out.  A little bit of bonus content for readers, if you like.

In the run up to August publication of The Edinburgh Dead, I’ve been thinking of doing something similar, but different.  It’s a book that offers rich potential for footnotage.  Being the faintly obsessive sort I am, it’s very tempting to offer a detailed breakdown of which bits of the book are historically accurate, which are not and which fall somewhere in between (I’ll bet you there’d be those greatly surprised at some of the stuff I didn’t have to make up, because Edinburgh’s history offered details easily odd and unpleasant enough for a writer of dark fiction).

I may give in to the temptation to attempt some sort of historical compare and contrast exercise here on the website eventually – we’ll have to see – but in the meantime, as publication draws near, I thought I’d use the next month or two for a slightly different exercise.

Welcome therefore, to the first instalment of a sort of photo-trailer for The Edinburgh Dead.  There will be no major specific spoilers in these occasional posts, but there may be hints.  Foreshadowings.  Possibly even red herrings, but only if I’m feeling particularly mean and out of sorts.

So, we’ll begin with something pretty.  Duddingston Loch.

A modestly wild wetland lying beside Duddingston village, which was long ago absorbed by Edinburgh’s urban sprawl (there’re some notably run-down bits of the city lying just to the south of it).  It’s a nature reserve now, has been for a long time, and only a smallish section of its bank is easily accessible to the public, but on a the right day it’s a lovely, peaceful oasis of green calm.  There’s not many cities can match Edinburgh for semi-wild and dramatic green spaces (I mean, we’ve got an extinct volcano dominating the whole eastern half of the city), and Duddingston Loch is a part of that claim to fame.

But the place is not just about tranquility and wildlife.  It’s got it’s history, too.  A couple of hundred years ago, when the climate was evidently more conducive to such things, it was the place for Edinburgh’s folk to go for a spot of skating and curling, when the long, dark winter got cold enough to lock the place up in ice.  Nowadays, of course, people are no doubt told to stay off the ice for fearing of fatal misfortune, and to be honest it’s  pretty rare for there to be thick enough ice that anyone but a complete idiot to think some skating would be a good idea.  Back in the day, though, it was all the rage, as one of Scotland’s more famous paintings shows:

That – as I wouldn’t blame anyone for not knowing – is ‘Reverend Robert Walker (1755-1808) Skating on Duddingston Loch’ by Sir Henry Raeburn.  To digress into ungenerous scepticism for a moment, I’ve never really got why people seem so fond of this painting.  I don’t particularly like it.  Bit dull, if you ask me.  But then, you could accomodate my knowledge of art in a thimble.  Maybe a teacup.

A slightly more interesting snippet of Dudidngston Loch’s history (to my mind, anyway): way back in the 18th century, a mysterious hoard was dredged up from the loch.  Weapons and other artefacts something like 3000 years old.  A little bit of magic to reflect upon, as you sit today on its grassy banks, enjoying the view: a thousand years before the Romans came to Britain, or Christ was born, way back in the dark, numinous past, people of the Bronze Age stood at perhaps the very same spot and for reasons we can never know – magical or mundane – they consigned to the waters a whole load of what must have been to them quite precious metal.  And three millennia later, a rather uptight-looking reverend in black coat and hat went skating on the ice above those very waters.  Funny old world.

What does all this have to do with The Edinburgh Dead?  Well, I’m not saying, of course.  Except that Duddingston Loch’s in the book.  Our hero pays it a visit, and for reasons that have nothing whatever to do with skating.

I think for the next instalment in this photo-trailer, maybe something a little less pretty is called for …