A heart of darkness
"THERE are no stars so lovely as Edinburgh street lamps," Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote in a fit of affection for the home town whose perfidious climate drove him into exile. A bit rich, one can't help thinking, coming from the man who wrote The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which, while ostensibly set in London, is as Edinburgh as you can get in its classic portrayal of the good/evil dichotomy.
Stevenson's "fine bogey tale", as he called it, was very much the creation of an Edinburgh author and his stony-hearted city, and one regarded as encapsulating the dark duality of Scotland's capital. Edinburgh can boast Princes Street Gardens, the largest arts festival in the world, and history by the acre, but also such notably duplicitous characters as Deacon Brodie, Burke and Hare, and Major Weir.
It is a city where the murderous Burke and Hare helped supply the dissecting tables that established its renown as a centre of medical teaching and research, a city which, in its demarcation into Old and New Towns, is divided by its very nature.
As a character in Reichenbach Falls, BBC4's forthcoming drama set in the city, remarks: "Jekyll and Hyde is the quintessential Scottish myth. It tells you everything you need to know about the Scottish psyche." And one might add that it was written by a man who grew up with a cabinet in his bedroom, made by the notorious Deacon Brodie, Edinburgh's municipal icon of sinister dualism.
Reichenbach Falls was, of course, the waterfall over which Sherlock Holmes plunged in what seemed to be his final encounter with his nemesis, Professor Moriarty. And Holmes's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - another Edinburgh man - makes an improbable but essential appearance in this surreal, one-off drama, written by James Mavor and based on an idea credited to Ian Rankin, creator of Detective Inspector John Rebus.
The drama includes some intriguing roles from weel-kent faces such as Richard Wilson and John Sessions, with walk-on parts for Kirsty Wark and Rankin, but it's tempting to conclude that the real star is the city, its townscape - or psychogeography, to use a currently trendy term - pervading the action, from the top of the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill to the dank tunnel under Old College, in which a 100-year-old skeleton is discovered.
The programme's director, John McKay, previously worked on the time-travel-cop series Life on Mars - appropriate grounding, perhaps, for the present drama, in which contemporary crime and Edinburgh's murky past become bizarrely intertwined. "I've always loved walking through Edinburgh and seeing it as a cinematic location," says McKay, who grew up in North Berwick and went to Edinburgh University. "It's so full of alleyways and ups and downs and hidden darknesses. I always wanted to film a chase across the glassed roofs of Waverley Station and up the closes of the High Street and down into the underbelly of the city.
"When you live in Edinburgh, you're very aware of what's on top and what's underneath in the town. One of the things that appealed to me in James Mavor's script was it was about that; there's what goes on the top of our lives and then the sort of secret, things that go on underneath."
In Reichenbach Falls nothing is quite what it seems, as its central character, DI Jim Buchan (played by Alex Newman) finds to his cost. A whisky-swigging detective so hard-bitten and disillusioned he makes John Rebus look like some dewy-eyed romantic, Buchan is bitterly estranged from his former best friend Jack Harvey (which, as Rankin buffs will know, was a pseudonym used by the writer in his non-Rebus novels), who turns out to be... wait for it... a crime writer. Harvey is played by Alastair Mackenzie, who also plays Buchan's arch-enemy, "The Monkey" (more dualism).
Reichenbach Falls works itself into a pretty surreal yarn, agrees McKay, who first met Mavor at university. "To begin with, it works as a hard-boiled crime story, then the character has a sort of breakdown and falls apart, and you start to realise there may be something else going on here. Hopefully, viewers will find the end, while strange, makes complete sense."
The late Sidney Goodsir Smith described Edinburgh, in his pithy Scots verse, as "This rortie, wretched city... The hauf o't smug, complacent... the tither wild and rouch as ever in its secret hairt". It's that secret heart which clearly intrigues Mavor and McKay, as it has done a whole recent generation of acclaimed Scottish crime writers, whose heroes and villains play out their roles down these cobbled mean streets. According to Rankin, Iain Banks, Christopher Brookmyre, Carol Anne Davis, Quintin Jardine and others, Edinburgh is littered with cadavers. A neatly filleted corpse lies on a slab in a High Riggs fish shop (Banks, Complicity), a body sporting a severed finger in each nostril disturbs the tranquility of Gayfield Square (Brookmyre, Quite Ugly One Morning), while another, nastily mutilated, is found hanging from a meat hook in the city's reputedly haunted Mary King's Close (Rankin, Mortal Causes).
Even the Parliament at Holyrood isn't immune from this epidemic of corpses, as bodies old and new are unearthed during the reconstruction of Queensberry House (Rankin again, Set In Darkness). Yet Queensberry House has grim tales of its own. Edinburgh lore has it that while the Second Duke of Queensberry was up the road, accompanied by virtually all his household, signing the Act of Union in 1707, his monstrous idiot son escaped from the room in which he was normally confined and came upon a kitchen boy, turning a roast on a spit. When the jubilant treaty signer returned, he found the son roasting the hapless kitchen boy over the spit - a divine judgment, some murmured, against the Duke for selling Scotland down the river. Auld Reekie at its rortiest, as Sidney Goodsir Smith might have put it.
Edinburgh may like to flourish its Enlightenment laurels as a hotbed of genius, but it can also come over as a dark hole of evil and duplicity, with unsavoury fact fuelling the fiction.
So, in the 1780s, you have the infamous Deacon Brodie hobnobbing with his fellow burghers during the day, a respected town councillor, cabinet-maker, locksmith and deacon of the Guild of Wrights, and at night housebreaking with his gang - for which he was ultimately strung up on a gibbet of his own design.
Then you have Burke and Hare, Edinburgh's favourite sack-em-up men, who rather than rob graves to meet market demand from the city's pioneering medical schools, as did the other "resurrectionists" of the day, simply got their victims drunk then smothered them, delivering the fresh corpses to a leading anatomist, Dr Robert Knox, at Surgeon's Square. Once again, Robert Louis Stevenson crops up - his chilling short story, The Body-Snatcher, came in for criticism from medical men angry that one of its characters, known only as K— , was a clear reference to Knox. A university enquiry had exonerated the anatomist from complicity in the Burke and Hare murders but Edinburgh lore has enshrined him rather differently:
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief
And Knox the boy that buys the beef.
Then there was Major Weir, the 17th-century warlock of the West Bow - a former Covenanting soldier under Montrose and famously pious member of a strict Presbyterian sect - until, that is, he confessed to sorcery, incest and other crimes for which he was sentenced to be "hanged, strangled and burnt between Edinburgh and Leith", while his sister and accomplice, Grizel, was hanged in the Grassmarket.
Major Weir, whose infamous staff was said to run errands for him and precede him as he strode down the Lawnmarket, found his way into a recent novel, James Robertson's The Fanatic, just as the city's Porteous Riots in 1736 found their way, less than a century later, into Sir Walter Scott's Heart of Midlothian. The city has a long memory for such things, and even today, much to the bemusement of tourists, locals will spit in the brass-studded heart which marks the site where the infamous Tolbooth Prison once loomed outside St Giles - the "Heart of Midlothian".
Even the physically and socially divided nature of the city itself left its legacy. An article in this newspaper in 1841 commented: "Few who take a tourist's passing glance at the rugged picturesqueness of the old town of Edinburgh - few even of those who see it towering before the windows of their handsome mansions in the New Town, know the nature of the population that burrows in its noxious caverns."
Perhaps it is appropriate for a city so ingrained with covert duality to be used as a film set, and it has provided locations over the years, from the douce cloisters of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie to the less picturesque toilets of Trainspotting. Steven Frears filmed his melodramatic take on the Jekyll and Hyde theme, Mary Reilly, in the Old Town, with Carrubbers Close awash with buckets of blood.
McKay, however, reckons Edinburgh remains underexploited as a film location. "Filmmakers say they come to Scotland either for a bit of urban squalor or for the Highlands. Edinburgh has a third note to add. Edinburgh also has this very strong literary tradition, that's very contemporary as well as historical. The trick with Reichenbach Falls was to mash it all together, in a half-classical, half-punk way."
While "mashing it all together", McKay's crew had a very Edinburgh experience. "We used a big Victorian house looking on to the Meadows as Jim Buchan's flat, and as we were shooting a few exterior shots, this wee man popped up and gave us a photocopy of an article which said that Arthur Conan Doyle had lived in that house and had based his first Sherlock Holmes story, it's believed, on a murder which took place just round the corner. So we found ourselves with a surreal coincidence of our own."
Perhaps we should blame it all on the North Sea haar which comes rolling in, even on the hottest of days, to truncate steeples and bedevil our perspective, lapping at windows and filtering Stevenson's beloved street lights into floating globes of bleary light, to create a nocturnal city worthy of Burke and Hare or Brodie.
You can imagine the stern figure of Major Weir striding out of such a fog, his infamous staff preceding him, or Jekyll (or is it Hyde?) or, for that matter, Sherlock Holmes, exchanging London fog for his near-native Edinburgh haar, as he pursues Moriarty on their inexorable path to the Reichenbach Falls. In such a gloomily surreal townscape, no wonder bodies - and crime yarns - proliferate.
• Reichenbach Falls is on BBC4 on Thursday 1 March
Grim tales of the capital
Ian Rankin: The Falls
"Historians and sociologists will discover more about the city in Rankin's fiction than in a host of serious tomes," is one reviewer's verdict on Ian Rankin's Rebus novels. This one revives another of the city's real-life mysteries - concerning 16 miniature coffins, each containing a miniature corpse doll, found on Arthur's Seat.
Christopher Brookmyre: Quite Ugly One Morning
Brookmyre's gleefully gory tale sees the debut of investigative journalist Jack Parlabane, as he risks life and limb while investigating some nasty goings-on in the NHS. "Harsh, witty, erudite and cynical, though not without redemptive qualities," was how one Scotsman review put it.
David Ashton: Shadow of the Serpent
David Ashton's Inspector James McLevy is based on a real detective who worked in Edinburgh in the 1830s and published several collections of his cases. Here, McLevy courts disaster, investigating corruption at the highest levels during the Gladstone-Disraeli election stand-off.
Robert Louis Stevenson: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
OKAY, so it was written in 1886 and is set in London, but it's easy to substitute London fog with Edinburgh haar in this ground-breaking exploration of the evil that lies within us. "A fine bogey tale" as Stevenson described it, having quite literally dreamed it up.
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