The good, the bad ... and the quirky

AN 18th-century woman who made clothes for the dead, a jazz trumpeter, a professional golfer and an early television commentator aren’t the first characters who spring to mind when it comes to naming important historical Edinburgh figures.

But they, along with scientists, film-makers and politicians, have been included among Edinburgh-born icons such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Alexander Graham Bell in a new dictionary of famous figures from Britain’s history.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is one of the world’s largest publishing projects and has taken more than 12 years to complete. Costing 25 million, it details the lives of more than 54,000 figures from Britain’s history.

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The original dictionary, containing just under 30,000 biographies, was first published more than a century ago. For the new dictionary, every entry in the original has been rewritten or revised, and 16,315 new lives have been added.

Many of the new figures are well known - it’s no surprise to see the late First Minister Donald Dewar included, or John Smith, the late Labour leader (one of the criteria for inclusion is that the person is dead). Some entries are more controversial - families of the Dunblane survivors have hit out at the inclusion of killer Thomas Hamilton.

Many don’t fall into the categories of political great or reviled murderer, but they have had an impact nonetheless.

One is Edinburgh-born Tommy Armour, a name which might have significance for keen golfers if only for his successful range of golf accessories, the reason for his inclusion.

Armour was a successful Scottish amateur golfer before he served as a machine gunner in the First World War, losing an eye during a mustard gas attack.

He went on to win the 1920 French golf amateur title before settling in America and taking US citizenship.

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Nicknamed the "Flying Scot", he won a string of titles during the late 1920s and early 1930s, including in 1931, the first Open championship to be held at Carnoustie. He also developed the "yips" - a self-coined phrase to describe a golfer’s nervous shakes that is still used by players today.

After retiring from tournaments, he became a club professional and wrote two successful golf guides, How to Play Your Best Golf All the Time and A Round of Golf With Tommy Armour.

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Leslie Scott Falconer Mitchell, on the other hand, is included because he was made the first honorary member of the Royal Television Society in 1983.

The pinnacle of his career was probably commentating on Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to Prince Philip in 1947 and the silver wedding anniversary of George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1948, both for television.

He was described as "charming and handsome", despite injuries he sustained in a motorcycle accident, and his immaculate grooming made him a favourite with pre-war television audiences watching him conduct interviews on shows such as Picture Page.

During the war, Mitchell, who died in 1985, was most famous for being the voice of the wartime cinema newsreels.

In 1951, he interviewed Anthony Eden in the run-up to the general election - one of the first political interviews to be shown on television.

Not all the entries have had an impact on our lives. Rather, they have been included because of the wealth of information they left behind, shedding light on an obscure part of our history.

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One such character is Janet Anderson, an 18th-century milliner and maker of graveclothes, who lived in Edinburgh between 1697 and 1761. Anderson ran a successful business in the Old Town where she made burial clothes for rich clients.

PHILIP Carter, publication editor for the dictionary, explains: "We’ve included two different types of people into this revised edition of the dictionary. And Janet Henderson is a great example of someone who managed to leave a mark on history without being particularly famous.

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"We’ve included those who have left behind details of their lives for us to study years, or even centuries, after their deaths.

"The thing that distinguishes Janet from any other milliner from the time is that we actually know about her - she left detailed records about her life and her businesses - that we just don’t find for many other people in her position.

"She is a remarkable example of daily Scottish life in the 18th century, and an important source for historians.

"The fact that she is a woman is even more important, as there are scarcely any accounts of female traders from this period of history."

Letters and documents kept by Janet Henderson provide a chronicle of her life, including the fact that one of her sisters spent time in Edinburgh’s correction house before being sent to America as an exile.

Although the exact whereabouts of her shop is not known, historians believe it might have been in the Old Exchange in Parliament Close, where many women had shops during this period.

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In 1718 she entered the Merchant Company of Edinburgh and began to sell millinery products, gloves and other accessories, and to make graveclothes. Bills from the 1740s and 1750s show that she was still in business long after this period, and that clients included influential Scottish families.

Some of her bills have even survived in the family papers of the Clerks of Penicuik, including accounts for the graveclothes for Sir John Clerk, who died in 1755, and for his daughter Anne. Others have survived in the papers of the Erskines of Dun and the Earls of Lauderdale, and show that she made wedding accessories for Lady Janet Maitland, daughter of the sixth earl of Lauderdale, in 1744.

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Julian Goddare, a Scottish history lecturer at Edinburgh University, adds: "Janet Henderson isn’t unique as such, but she is typical of a certain type of person in society at that time.

"Although her job isn’t particularly unique either, she left an unusual amount of documentation behind, and we can use this as a window on to 18th-century Edinburgh life.

"A milliner would have made and sold materials which would have been used to make posh clothes for rich people. It is probably likely that the burial clothes would have been a side business that didn’t make her quite as much money.

"However, it wasn’t uncommon to find independent women holding down businesses of their own at this time - unlike in the 19th century, when they were expected to be docile housewives and were far less independent.

"In fact, there would have been a number of other such women in Edinburgh at this time, but they didn’t leave anywhere near as much information behind as Janet did.

"The fact that she’s been included in this dictionary is great, because it shows that it is not just the rich, famous and powerful people from history who are being recognised."

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Among the other Edinburgh entries are communist activist and peace campaigner Rhoda Fraser, who died in 1970 after a lengthy career fighting against nuclear weapons, and Alexander Welsh, a former pupil of Broughton High School and Britain’s leading trumpeter in the Chicago-Dixieland style, who died in 1982.

Jack Aitken, the son of a miner from Bonnyrigg, is included because of "Aitken’s law". Aitken was an academic who was an expert in the Scots tongue. He described the law to which he gave his name as the "Scottish vowel-length rule" - a rule which differentiates "English" and "Scottish" vowel pronunciation. Aitken died in Edinburgh in 1998.

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SOME entries are more familiar figures, such as Alastair Sim, the actor and director, who was born at an address on Lothian Road in 1900 and whose first connection with the stage was from 1925 to 1930 when he was a lecturer in elocution at New College, Edinburgh.

The actor, best known for his roles in Scrooge (1951) and The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), also established a school of drama and speech training in the city. And it was in Edinburgh that he met his future wife, Naomi Merlith Plaskitt. They married in 1932.

In 1948 Sim was elected rector of Edinburgh University by a majority greater than that achieved by any of the prime ministers and field marshals who had preceded him. He died in London in 1976.

Another familiar face is actor Ian Charleson, who died in 1990. He was most famous for his portrayal of Olympic runner Eric Liddell in the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire.

Edinburgh does well for entries from the film world - director Bill Douglas, the son of a Newcraighall miner, is included. Douglas, who died in 1991, wrote and directed a trilogy of autobiographical films in the 1970s called My Childhood, My Ain Folk and My Way Home about his formative years living in poverty in the city.

And one Edinburgh man’s work still has a connection to the city, 11 years after his death.

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Sir George Taylor, who studied at Edinburgh University and carried out his first work on plants at the Edinburgh Botanic Garden, was an explorer and botanist who trekked around Tibet and South Africa.

His specialist field was the study of the genus of Himalayan and Welsh poppies. Earlier this year Edinburgh City Council adopted the blue Himalayan poppy as an emblem for the city.

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