Edinburgh’s Hogmanay: the streets light up for Val McDermid

The streets of Edinburgh are being turned into the pages of a new short story by Val McDermid. Picture: Double Take Productions/Messages from the Sky
The streets of Edinburgh are being turned into the pages of a new short story by Val McDermid. Picture: Double Take Productions/Messages from the Sky
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The long dark days of January might sound like an ideal time for curling up with a good book, but the team from Edinburgh’s Hogmanay have come up with a new idea: wrap up warm and head out onto the streets to read a brand new short story by a leading Scottish writer on the walls of the city itself.

Developed with the help of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Message from the Skies turns the buildings of Edinburgh into the pages of a new short story by Val McDermid, written specifically for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. Projected on to 12 buildings and landmarks in the Old and New Towns, it forms a route which audiences can follow between 5pm-10pm daily from 1 January until Burns Night.

The project is one of the major arts components of this year’s Hogmanay Festival, and is co-ordinated by director and dramaturg Philip Howard, with projection and animation by young Edinburgh company DoubleTake Projections. While projecting words and images onto buildings now feels like a commonplace part of major festivals and events, projecting a complete story on to a series of buildings around a city is believed to be completely new.

“It is a storytelling event with sound and animation and a few other things, but it’s still a short story by a very well known writer which works on the page,” says Howard, former artistic director at the Traverse Theatre who now runs emergent theatre company Pearlfisher. “It’s celebrating Edinburgh’s built environment and its status as Unesco World City of Literature, and it’s also a quasi-theatrical experience. We have quite a few tricks up our sleeve, but I think I’d have to be killed if I told you what they are.”

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Val McDermid’s brief was to write a story in 2,500-3,000 words which touched on Edinburgh’s literary heritage. “And it was to have a bit of suspense, and ideally some death,” she smiles. “Because that’s what I do.” While the story itself, titled “New Year’s Resurrection”, is a closely guarded secret, she says it will touch on the life of Susan Ferrier, an Edinburgh novelist of the early 19th century who was very successful in her lifetime but is almost unknown today. Virago, an imprint of McDermid’s publisher Little, Brown, are to republish her best known novel, Marriage, to coincide with Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, with a foreword by McDermid.

“It’s quite remarkable that Susan Ferrier has slipped from sight,” says McDermid, who is one of Scotland’s most successful crime novelists; her 31 books have sold over 15 million copies worldwide. “In her lifetime she was a bestseller. She got substantial advances for her books, much more than Jane Austen did. Her books were read widely in Scotland and beyond.”

A near-contemporary of Austen, Ferrier was the daughter of a prominent Edinburgh lawyer. She was the author of three novels, Marriage (1818), The Inheritance (1824) and Destiny (1831), which have been described as vivid accounts of Scottish society, sparkling with wit and intelligence.

Her novels were first published anonymously as writing was not considered a suitable occupation for a society lady, but McDermid believes that Ferrier was supported in her ambitions by her family. “Her father’s signature is in the Signet Library (the starting point for Message from the Skies) and under it is written “The father of Susan Edmonstone Ferrier, writer”. It was remarkable for the time, that an early 19th century father would trumpet the success of a daughter who was a novelist.

“He was the lawyer for the Duke of Argyll, and he would take her with him when he went for long visits to Inverary Castle to sort out the Duke’s legal business. For someone in the Edinburgh upper-middle-class, she did have a wider experience of the world than most of the spinsters of her generation.”

Although Ferrier was a friend and correspondent of Walter Scott, McDermid suggests that he might be one reason why she has slipped from the collective memory. “He was such a huge literary figure, both in England and Scotland, and her picture of Scotland didn’t fit with the one he paints in so much of his work. In the popular vision, it was a land of noble clan chieftains and battles, chivalry and tartan and shortbread. What she was writing was more like social realism in the way that Austen did, but there was more breadth in her version, her books included the servants not just those above stairs. It was a more comprehensive view of the world.”

Howard says: “Val’s story poses some hard and very topical questions about why, as a female Scottish novelist, Ferrier has been excised from the literary history of the nation. It says much about Val’s instincts as an artist that her story chimes fascinatingly with events which have happened since she delivered her first draft. Questions are being asked about gender on the theatre stage and in public life. In my view, this discourse seems to be gathering a bit of momentum in a cultural movement which is despairing of Trump and Brexit. Val’s story chimes with all of that.

“It’s a beautiful piece of literary storytelling but Val has had a big ball of fun with it as well. We’re treading a course between honouring Susan’s legacy and restoring her voice and having a little bit of a crime caper along the way. There will be some murders – Val’s loyal readership would insist on that.”

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He said that working with McDermid had been “a joy”, as is working with DoubleTake Projections, the Edinburgh-based projection design company run by twin brothers Stephen and David McConnachie. The brothers, still in their twenties, set up the company in 2013 after being inspired by the projections for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Celebration the year before. Since then, they have worked for a wide range of clients, from Irn Bru to the National Theatre of Scotland, using backdrops as diverse as the Clydeport Crane and the mountains of Glencoe, but Message from the Skies will be one of their largest and most complex projects to date.

“We are thinking of each chapter as its own artwork,” says Howard. “Each building is a different canvas, we won’t use the same style on each one. Film and animation are used in different ways, and we have a lot of fun with the words. Three buildings feature bespoke artworks and three acclaimed theatre composers, Michael John McCarthy, Pippa Murphy and RJ McConnell, provide soundscapes for seven of the venues.”

Audiences can navigate the route of the project using a specially designed app (which also provides additional information, translations of the text in seven languages and an audio version) or follow the signage from venue to venue.

“I like the flexiblity of it,” says McDermid. “You can do a few sites and then have a pint. You don’t even have to do it all on the same night. And you can revisit some of the sites. From what I have seen of the projections, I suspect people will want to go back and look at them again, it’s absolutely stunning what DoubleTake are doing. I’m really looking forward to seeing it myself.”

Message from the Skies will be projected from 5pm-10pm daily from 1-25 January, and admission is free. For more information on the project and the app see www.edinburghshogmanay.com. Winning poems and stories from a writing competition for young people will be projected on to three of the same buildings from 4-5pm daily from 2-25 January.