Alexander McCall Smith pens love story for Edinburgh

Alexander McCall Smith in Stockbridge, Edinburgh. Picture: Alex Hewitt
Alexander McCall Smith in Stockbridge, Edinburgh. Picture: Alex Hewitt
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HIS fictional tales of life in Scotland’s capital are adored by many and now Alexander McCall Smith writes about the Edinburgh he loves in a new book. In this extract, he reveals what it was like to be a student in the heady days of the late 1960s.

I love this city, and always will. I write about it. I dream about it. I walk its streets and see something new each day – traces of faded lettering on the stone, still legible, but just; some façade that I have walked past before and either not noticed or not looked at closely enough; an unregarded doorway with the names, in brass, of those who lived there 60 years ago, the bell-pulls sometimes still in place, as if one might summon long-departed residents from their slumbers; a slice of sky that suddenly reveals itself through an archway; some pokey café or bar out of which drifts an odour of coffee beans or beer; an odd section of railings standing like a line of spears, or a small ironwork balcony dignified, perhaps, by fleur-de-lys. Every day this city can reveal something old that is for me, in a sense, something new.

I first lived in Edinburgh as a student. It was then, as it still is, a wonderful place to lead the student life, a city every bit as romantic as Heidelberg or Bologna, or any of the other great university cities of Europe. The University of Edinburgh then occupied a significant part of the South Side of the city. At its heart was the Old College on South Bridge, set about its generous quadrangle, with its magnificent Playfair Library.

This was the seat of the Faculty of Law, and in its lecture halls, with their steeply raked floors and their highly uncomfortable wooden benches, I listened to lectures by gowned professors. Between lectures, or at lunchtime, we went to the café at the back of the Museum next door. We bought pots of tea there and greasy mutton pies with baked beans. Healthy eating was yet to be invented.

The stone staircases of the Old College were worn down in the middle by the tread of countless student feet. The building reeked of history. In the basement, it was said, there was a trapdoor through which bodies were brought for dissection by the medics. Burke and Hare, of course, had pursued their dreadful trade just down the hill, in the slums of the Cowgate. On a misty night, one might still imagine their shadows in the dark closes and entries. We knew, too, that this building had been built on the very spot, Kirk O’Fields, where Henry Darnley, husband of Mary Queen of Scots, had been murdered – blown into the air so high that he landed far from the bed he had occupied that evening. And in a corner of the building were the rooms of the Speculative Society, where Scott and Stevenson, along with so many other Scottish luminaries, had met by candlelight to read each other essays and discuss the topics of the day. The Edinburgh of their time was full of societies like that, and still is.

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The law students had their own favourite bar, The Captains Bar, in College Street, shared with the locals who lived in the 19th-century tenements that still dominated that part of the city. It was a long, narrow bar, the walls lined with those decorated brewers’ mirrors that gave old-fashioned bars such character.

I remember taking a visiting French law student there one evening and hearing at first hand of the events he had just witnessed in Paris. It was 1968, and Paris was experiencing what seemed to be a revolution. It was a long way from sedate Edinburgh.

A few blocks away was, and still is, fortunately, the MacEwan Hall, a great round statement of a 19th-century brewing magnate’s munificence. Inside are classical murals: Greek youths sit at the feet of toga-clad philosophers. Wisdom, says the legend painted above, is the principal thing: therefore get wisdom. We sat examinations in there and were encouraged, perhaps, by that exhortation. And it was there that the installation of the University’s rectors took place, accompanied by the singing of that most poignant of student songs, the Gaudeamus. To the side of MacEwan Hall was the Men’s Union (in those days they still had separate student facilities), a spiky gothic palace of dining rooms, rowdy bars, a library and a debating chamber that went sharply downmarket at weekends to become the Union Palais dance-hall. Here male students met young women training as nurses or studying at Atholl Crescent’s college of domestic science – fondly, but rudely, called the Dough School. Attitudes were different then; students smoked in libraries, the men wore ties and jackets, and everybody was less worldly-wise, less mature than they are today. It was, I suppose, rather an innocent time.

My student life was lived mostly in the Old Town and the South Side of the city. Later on, I moved to the rather more Bohemian area of Stockbridge, where I bought my first flat, which was small and part of a rather undistinguished tenement. I frequented a coffee bar that had been set up in a building called Duncan’s Land, one of the city’s oldest houses; I had meals in a restaurant on one side of St Stephen’s Street, a street of antique dealers and craftsmen, and met friends in a bar on the other side.

I used to go running with a friend along the walkway that follows the Water of Leith. We ran past the temple to Hygena and then under the towering Dean Bridge to the weir and millpond beyond. There was a very peaceful looking house, with a very large window, overlooking that bit of the river – a house that I learned belonged to the Polish artist Aleksander Zyw. Not far away, clinging to the face of the cliff, was a house that appeared to grow out of the bare rock, a seemingly impossible feat of architecture. Here, more than anywhere else in the city, it may be brought home to anybody who is prepared to crane his or her neck, that this is a place that has never been inhibited by hills and ridges.

After I married, we went up in the world and moved to Cumberland Street, in the Georgian New Town. A more expensive flat generally means more light: this was a lovely, airy flat with those pleasing Georgian proportions that make the New Town so agreeable a place to live. A few years later we moved to a house on the other side of town, acquiring what some architectural historians slightly disparagingly call a Victorian villa. That is where we remain.

Inevitably, if one spends many years in a city, there will be places that have very strong associations – memories linked with a room, a building, a street or a corner.

In one of the 44 Scotland Street novels, Love over Scotland, Angus Lordie, an artist who is given to philosophical reflections about the city, composes a poem in which he considers the meaning of place:

Although they are useful sources

Of information we cannot do without,

Regular maps have few surprises: their contour lines

Reveal where the Andes are, and are reasonably clear

On the location of Australia, and the Outer Hebrides;

Such maps abound; more precious, though,

Are the unpublished maps we make ourselves,

Of our city, our place, our daily world, our life;

Those maps of our private world

We use every day; here I was happy, in that place

I left my coat behind after a party,

This is where I met my love; I cried there once,

I was heart-sore; but felt better round the corner

Once I saw the hills of Fife across the Forth,

Things of that sort, our personal memories,

That make the private tapestry of our lives...

•Extracted from A Work of Beauty: Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh which is published on Friday by the Royal Commission on the Ancient & Historical Monuments of Scotland (£25, hardback). Readers of The Scotsman can order a copy of A Work of Beauty for the special price of £19.99 with free UK delivery. Call Booksource, tel: 0845 370 0067, Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm and quote “BEAUTY” to receive the discount.