Alexander McCall Smith to tell story of Edinburgh

The 44 Scotland Street author said the project was a chance to explore his favourite city afresh. Picture: TSPL
The 44 Scotland Street author said the project was a chance to explore his favourite city afresh. Picture: TSPL
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AUTHOR Alexander McCall Smith has joined forces with the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland ­(RCAHMS) to tell his version of the story of the capital.

A Work of Beauty: Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh, will use photographs, maps and drawings from RCAHMS’ ­extensive archive to reveal the writer’s secret guide to the city where he has set many of his most famous novels.

The 44 Scotland Street author, who moved to the capital as a law student in the 1960s and who lives in the city’s New Town, told Scotland on Sunday the project was a chance to explore his favourite city afresh.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to say something about Edinburgh. I’m very interested in how, if you walk through this city, at every corner there are buildings of interest which have all sorts of associations behind them. In my books that are set in Edinburgh I talk about many of those associations and I thought it would be wonderful to be able to reflect on those in this manner,” he said.

Although his No 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels are set in Botswana, many of his other books including the 44 Scotland Street series, serialised in Scotland on Sunday’s sister paper The Scotsman, are set in the refined streets of ­Edinburgh’s New Town.

“I love to look at some of the older buildings in Edinburgh and see the archaeology of them,” he said. “You can see old signs painted on to the stone and feel that you’re in touch with previous generations. It’s wonderful.”

The book will include old photographs from the ­RCAHMS archive, including early images of iconic Edinburgh buildings and landmarks such as the university, the castle, the Tolbooth Kirk, North Bridge and the Mound. There will also be early examples of aerial photography of both the Old and New Town, as well as some more unusual images, such as turn of the century photographs of school children at Stewart’s Melville College, and old architectural blueprints.

“I will be talking about some slightly unusual things that may not to be obvious,” said McCall Smith. “I think one wants to get some idea of life within the city as shown by the buildings, what you can read from the city’s buildings and how that give you an idea of the life and the people who lived there. One wants to say something about those lives when one’s looking at the photographs.”

Rebecca Bailey, head of education and outreach at ­RCAHMS, said: “Alexander ­McCall Smith has a clear love of Edinburgh and a wit and lightness of touch which we felt would be a really nice way to interpret our material and bring it to life.

“We asked him if he would like to dive into our archives and give his own story of Edinburgh through our material, and he loved the idea. What we wanted was a different take on the work that we hold.”

The book, which will be published next year, was inspired by an exhibition opening next week in Nanjing, in China, entitled A Tale of Two Cities. The exhibition looks at comparisons between Nanjing and Edinburgh using images from the RCAHMS archive. It was while doing research for the exhibition, which it is hoped will come to the Scottish capital next year, that Bailey discovered how many images the archive held of the city.

“We were discovering material on Edinburgh that hadn’t been catalogued or accessed and realising all these wonderful riches that we had. It was at that point that we thought – wouldn’t it be a wonderful idea to do a book?” she said.

The RCAHMS archive holds more than five million drawings, photographs, negatives and manuscripts relating to Scotland’s archaeology, buildings and maritime heritage. It also holds the National Collection of Aerial Photography which contains more than 20 million aerial images of locations around the world.

McCall Smith said that he wanted the nooks and crannies of Edinburgh to be explored within the pages of the book.

“Edinburgh is not a city that reveals itself immediately,” he said. “When people visit it they are immediately impressed with its beauty and one can understand that.

“It’s obviously a very beautiful and pretty city, but it’s a fragile beauty, a delicate beauty, which is interesting. But it’s also a city which is quite reticent, and I think that to really understand it you have to look a little bit behind what it presents. There’s a lot that you don’t always get at the first glance.”

Twitter: @emmacowing