IT is possibly the most beloved Christmas story ever written. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the story of a mean, miserly old man who learns to appreciate the true value of his life thanks to a visit from three Christmas ghosts, has been told and re-told countless times since it was first published in 1843, inspiring films, TV shows and countless imitators across the world.
And this week it will be coming back to the place where it all began, as a host of authors, including Alexander McCall Smith, gather in the Canongate Kirkyard for a reading of the book.
For while Ebenezer Scrooge may have inhabited the twisting alleys of Victorian London, the character owes no small debt to an undistinguished grave marker which for a time rested in the grounds of the imposing Canongate Kirk.
It was here in 1841, the author later wrote in his diaries, that the character was first born during an evening stroll through the kirkyard.
Dickens, a frequent visitor to Edinburgh, was in the Capital to deliver a lecture to an audience of Edinburgh notables and he was taking a walk when he happened upon a grave marker for the vintner Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie.
The simple stone marker – now sadly lost after it was damaged during construction work at the kirkyard in 1932 – identified Scroggie as a “meal man”, which was a description of a corn merchant. But in a fateful twist, due to the fading light and his mild dyslexia, Dickens misread this as “mean man”, and from this was born the character of scrooge.
Indeed, Dickens later wrote that it must have “shrivelled” Scroggie’s soul to carry “such a terrible thing to eternity”.
Scroggie was, in fact, about as far from the character of Scrooge as could be imagined, a generous man who threw parties and was probably the life and soul of them.
“There’s not a great deal known about his life but certainly from what we do know he was not, as Dickens had it, a ‘mean man’, and has been rather tarnished by this,” said Canongate Reverend Neil Gardener, who has organised the event along with Katie Munnik, the associate for children and families at the church.
“I never got the chance to see the grave marker, sadly, and as far as I know there’s no pictures of it remaining,” he said.
“It’s not that uncommon – there are quite a few such that will have vanished over the years, and I don’t think its location was ever recorded, so there’s no way of knowing where the grave originally was.”
While not a great deal is known about Scroggie, it is recorded that he was a relative of the 18th century political economist and philosopher Adam Smith, and had catered the visit of George IV to the Capital and was also noted for winning the first contract to supply whisky to the Royal Navy.
Hardly the mark of a miser, and yet his name will forever be linked with a character who has now come to symbolise those who put their own wealth above all else.
So it is perhaps fitting that the reading on Wednesday is being held to raise funds for Streetworks, a local group working with the homeless in Edinburgh, as well as the Barnabas Fund, which supports persecuted church communities around the world.
The dramatic reading was inspired by Dickens’ own habit of reading his stories aloud, and also the tradition of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which holds events every year as a way of raising money for charity.
Rev Gardner was also able to convince best-selling author McCall Smith, above, to take part, while broadcaster Sheena McDonald is a member of the congregation and so has agreed to take on the role of host for the evening.
“Alexander McCall Smith is someone who I am friendly with, and so when I asked he was happy to take part, and it’s great to have him involved,” said Rev Gardner.
“Every year we support two charities, one local and one national, but it is very fitting that this reading of A Christmas Carol will got towards helping the homeless in Edinburgh at Christmas.”
• A Christmas Carol, Canongate Kirk, Wednesday, December 12, 7pm, tickets £5.