But the neo-classical grandeur of the Signet Library is about to be shaken up by a series of chilling events inspired by the darker side of one of the city’s best known authors.
A psychologist has unveiled plans to stage regular Walter Scott Seances after discovering the writer’s little-known interest in the supernatural, folklore and the occult after moving into his old house in the New Town.
Professor Richard Wiseman has won permission from the historic legal society which runs the library to use a chamber beneath the elegant lower library where afternoon teas are currently served.
A little-known book by Scott on witchcraft and demonology, the writer’s death mask, and the seal used for his will are among the props expected to feature in the “mystery and magic” event, which launches on 4 June.
Professor Wiseman has unveiled plans for the new venture six years after launching a new “Edinburgh Secret Society” to stage one-off events and experiments “for those of a curious disposition” around the city.
He said: “The secret society grew and grew, and our events would always sell out, but they were always one-offs and as we had set the bar fairly high each one of them involved an enormous amount of work. The thinking behind the new event is that it will hopefully grow into a whole new attraction that lives in the city.
“I started to read about Scott when I moved into his old house on North Castle Street about four years ago. There’s obviously the well-known main story about Scott and his involvement with the city, but there is also a weird undertone with him in that he was really into ghosts and hauntings, which has kind of been whitewashed out of history.
“He had a collection of more than 250 volumes at his home at Abbotsford in the Borders.
“He wrote his own book on witchcraft and demonology, which is really interesting, as he is pretty torn between being sceptical, as this is during the era of the Scottish Enlightenment and he has a thing about there being a rational explanation for everything, but as a writer he obviously just loves ghosts.”
The underground Napier Room – named after 19th century solicitor, university professor and Encyclopædia Britannica editor Macvey Napier – will open to the public for the fitst time to play host to the 50-minute “performances.”
Partly inspired by Edinburgh-born Scott’s links with the WS Society, where he had an apprentice, the events will be open to audiences of only around 30 at a time.
Professor Wiseman will introduce them to a number of historic artefacts linked to Scott, including his death mask, discuss the kind of interests that inspired his book on Demonology and Witchcraft and his ghost story The Tapestries, and then attempt to summon his spirit.
He added: “The Napier Room we are using has been pretty much untouched since the library was built in 1822 and when Scott would have known it. When the Signet Library told me about it I thought it would be really interesting to do something to bring Scott and his interests in ghosts alive in there.”