Elementary, my dear Edinburgh

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SIR Arthur Conan Doyle was born in Edinburgh 150 years ago this month. Here, Jim Gilchrist looks at how the city shaped the man who created the legendary detective, Sherlock Holmes

SOME mornings, walking in to work under the red basalt cliffs of Salisbury Crags, I find myself keeping an eye out for marauding pterodactyls. Youthful imaginings die hard. But in The Lost World, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic adventure yarn about a dinosaur-infested South American plateau, the narrator compares its looming cliffs to these same Edinburgh crags, which Doyle would have known, having been born in the city 150 years ago this month.

It is well known that it was one of Doyle's Edinburgh University mentors, the surgeon Joseph Bell, who was the inspiration for his most universally known creation, Sherlock Holmes – soon to undergo yet another screen incarnation at the hands of Robert Downey Jr. However, as a celebratory gathering at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh (where Doyle sweated over anatomy exams) will hear on the anniversary date of Friday, 22 May, Edinburgh crucially informed much more in terms of Doyle's writing and indeed his very personality.

Doyle and his fictional world give the impression of a very English author, but he was, of course, born at 11 Picardy Place in Edinburgh, on 22 May, 1859, the vicinity now marked by a statue of Holmes. He was of Irish Catholic descent and his family had a pronounced artistic streak. His uncle Richard "Dicky" Doyle was a noted caricaturist, establishing the style for the cover of Punch magazine, while his father, Charles Altamont Doyle, a senior surveyor in the Scottish Office of Works, was also a talented designer and painter of vividly whimsical images. Unfortunately, Charles was also an alcoholic depressive, eventually being committed in a succession of mental hospitals.

Quite apart from the long and tormented shadow of his father, Doyle grew up in a city of dualities, a post-Enlightenment hotbed of intellectual and scientific ferment where the dissecting tables of its renowned medical school were supplied by the grave-robbing sack-em-up men, or by the murderous Burke and Hare; a city which, through its demarcation into its fashionable New Town and by that time squalid Auld Toon, was divided in its very nature.

Such contradictions could hardly fail to provide material for a future writer, as with that other Edinburgh literary lad, Robert Louis Stevenson. The London fog that swirls about Holmes and Watson as they pursue their cases – just as it laps at the horridly metamorphosing Jekyll in Stevenson's fable – is really Edinburgh haar.

One of the speakers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh (RCSE) on the 22nd is Owen Dudley Edwards, historian and Conan Doyle expert, who confirms the profound impact of Doyle's birthplace and suggests that his medical education there modelled the basic format of the Holmes stories.

"The Sherlock Holmes stories are basically medical case studies, a very good formula for an extremely successful series of stories. He kept the same division of narrative: little conversation, arrival of client, statement of what's wrong – criminally in the story, medically in reality – then the previous diagnosis of the case by Watson or by Scotland Yard or by someone else, and Holmes's attempts to improve on that and the final discovery of a solution, often followed by a confession from the murderer, the antecedent of which was the patient saying how he now felt."

As illustrated in an ongoing exhibition, The Real Sherlock Holmes at the RCSE, Conan Doyle modelled his Baker Street hero's apparently uncanny methods of scientific deduction on those of his old teacher, Joe Bell, who emphasised to his students that diagnosis should be grounded in "the precise and intelligent recognition and appreciation of minor differences". Doyle, who would dedicate The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to Bell, recalled in his autobiography his time as clerk in Bell's ward: "His intuitive powers were simply marvellous. A case would be introduced and Bell says, 'A cobbler I see.'

"Then he would turn to the students and point out to them that the inside to the knee of the man's trousers was worn. That was where the man rested the lapstone – a peculiarity found only in cobblers…"

When the fictional (as we sometimes have to remind ourselves) Holmes first meets Watson, his first words to him are straight from the Joe Bell manual: "How are you? You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive."

Other notable figures from Doyle's medical school days inform Holmes, such as Sir Robert Christison, a pioneer of forensic medicine, and Dr Henry Littlejohn, who helped introduce innovations such as fingerprints and photography into court proceedings.

The Edinburgh legacy reaches further and deeper than Holmes, however. The irascible Professor Challenger – Doyle's own favourite among all his characters – who blusters his way through The Lost World with his Assyrian beard and booming voice, was modelled on Doyle's physiology professor, William Rutherford. And Dudley Edwards points out that the hilariously unruly student audiences that heckle Challenger's lectures – ostensibly set in London – are pure "rentamob" from Edinburgh University's notoriously stormy rectorial elections (which also feature, in their authentic Edinburgh setting, in one of Doyle's lesser-known novels, The Firm of Girdlestone).

But it was more than Edinburgh's academic life that permeated Doyle's consciousness. "The city exists on two levels," says Dudley Edwards, "with a lower class or criminal world and a bourgeois world, and of course Doyle, being from an Irish Catholic background, was between the two of them; his people were respectable but with his father's drinking they suddenly became not respectable. That comes over in some of the Holmes and other stories quite a lot, switching from one class to another – take The Man With the Twisted Lip. They're set in London, but you can see he's still thinking about Edinburgh."

Also, as both Dudley Edwards and Doyle's recent biographer Andrew Lycett – who will also speak at the RCSE event – point out, Doyle was a contradictory combination of scientifically trained doctor and creator of a famously rational fictional sleuth, and a highly imaginative writer who also produced a continual flow of supernatural tales. He would ultimately become a high-profile proselytiser for spiritualism and undermine his credibility in the Cottingley Fairies faked photographs incident. "There was a perpetual war within Conan Doyle between the spiritual and the scientific," says Dudley Edwards, "and that comes from his Catholic background and medical training."

Doyle's childhood Catholicism was, in fact, held up against him by bigoted campaigners when he ran, unsuccessfully, for parliament as Liberal Unionist candidate for Central Edinburgh in 1900, by which time he had become a household name. This little-known episode is dramatised in Vote for Conan Doyle, on Radio Scotland on Friday. Doyle, who is played in the drama by the estimable John Sessions, regarded the sectarian campaign as doing him "considerable harm at the polls", as he wrote in a letter to this newspaper, condemning posters which described him as "a Papist conspirator, a Jesuit emissary, and a Subverter of the Protestant Faith".

Describing the affair as "a very grave public scandal", Doyle said that he had not been a Catholic since his school days, declaring that "a man's soul and reason are his own, and he must go whither they beckon".

Dudley Edwards comments on Doyle's rumbustious Brigadier Gerard stories, about a Napoleonic French cavalry officer. "His trick was to view Europe, and particularly England, through hostile but not entirely unfriendly French eyes," he says, and suggests that the author's Catholic background in a Presbyterian city, as well as his schooling in England at the Jesuit-run Stonyhurst College, would have informed this 'outsider' stance. In 1860s or 70s Scotland, the assumption was that you were a Presbyterian or you were nothing. In a way, Doyle was writing as the invisible man."

Also pointing up Doyle's outsider credentials is the crime writer Val McDermid, who explores them in another Radio Scotland programme, In the Footsteps of Conan Doyle, today: "I think for Conan Doyle the seeds of his creativity were twofold.

"Firstly, for him there was a sense of Edinburgh being the small city you could hold in your head.

"I knew Edinburgh pretty well, spending quite a lot of time there while growing up in Fife… reading the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was a teenager, it was always Edinburgh that was in my mind's eye. That was partly my own familiarity, but I think he does summon up the spirit of Edinburgh.

"We all get caught up in the Doyle-Joe Bell thing, and that was important, but what we sometimes lose sight of is what it must have been like for Doyle growing up in this tremendously complicated family background. I think to some degree that separated him from his contemporaries and that, as many writers are, he was a bit of an outsider."

Not just for sectarian reasons: "Going off to Stonyhurst, where they would all speak with a different accent. I have to say, from my own experience of going to Oxford, this working class lassie frae Fife, the first thing I had to learn was to speak English, and I'm sure Conan Doyle must have had a similar sort of experience."

She also refers to the fact that, unlike many of his better-off fellow-students, while at medical school Doyle took on relatively menial tasks to help meet his fees.

"So in many respects you can see the roots of Sherlock Holmes in the boy and young man that Doyle must have been. Because Holmes is the archetypal outsider, although he can fit in when he assumes a disguise. And if you look at Conan Doyle's later life, I think a lot of it was trying to fit in as an English gentleman."

Certainly it is in the persona of a bluff Victorian-Edwardian gentleman that we see Doyle in some grainy film footage from 1927, depicting a burly, avuncular figure ensconced with his dogs in an English country garden – though still with a distinct Scots burr. Fifteen years before, he had prefaced his best-known non-Holmes book, The Lost World, with these lines:

I have wrought my simple plan

If I give one hour of joy

To the boy who's half a man,

Or the man who's half a boy.

The man from the top of Leith Walk who created the sleuth from Baker Street, and much else, still gives much joy to readers the world over, but his home city remains a touchstone.

&#149 For further details on celebration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh on Friday, telephone 0131 527 1649, or e-mail: museum@rcsed.ac.uk

&#149 22 May, 1859: Born Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle at 11 Picardy Place, Edinburgh

&#149 1868: Sent to Stonyhurst College, a Jesuit boarding school in Lanarkshire

&#149 1876: Enters the University of Edinburgh Medical School where he meets Dr Joseph Bell, inspiration for Sherlock Holmes

&#149 1879: Writing published for the first time, The Mystery of the Sasassa Valley

&#149 1887: Now a GP in Portsmouth and married to Louise, he publishes his first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet

&#149 1891: He gives up medical practice

&#149 1900: Serves in Boer War

&#149 1907: Louise having died the previous year, he marries Jean Leckie

&#149 1912: The Lost World published

&#149 1916 Publicly professes belief in Spiritualism

&#149 1920: Becomes involved in the "Cottingley Fairies" faked photographs episode

&#149 7 July, 1930: Dies at home at Crowborough, Sussex, aged 71