Edinburgh Book Festival: Brian May and Ian Rankin sell out Charlotte Square

Brian May and Roger Taylor (not that one). Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Brian May and Roger Taylor (not that one). Picture: Lisa Ferguson
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‘You probably know who I am,” said Brian May, taking to the stage in a sell-out Book Festival event. But many of those who had queued to see the legendary Queen guitarist might have been surprised to learn that May has a PhD in Astrophysics, and a passionate interest in Victorian stereoscopic photography

Those who hoped to see two Queen members, however, were disappointed: the Roger Taylor with May is an art historian who has written a book on 19th-century Aberdeen-based photographer, George Washington Wilson. May said that he hoped the book, which was being launched at the Book Festival, would “put Washington Wilson back on the map” as one of the pre-eminent photographers of his age.

Born in Banffshire in 1823, the son of a crofter, Washington Wilson became a pioneer of photography, particularly stereoscopic photography – 3D images that became all the rage for the chattering classes in the 1850s. May has long adored the format for its “magical” three-dimensionality, and was responsible for resurrecting the long-defunct London Stereoscopic Company.

Despite the considerable challenges of early photography (each stereoscopic image card took ten hand-crafted stages to make), Washington Wilson not only produced award-winning images but turned them into an enormously successful business. With Queen Victoria rebuilding Balmoral, and tourists flocking to Scotland in her wake, he became the official photographer of Royal Deeside.

Another Book Festival guest who needed no introduction was Ian Rankin, talking to a sell-out crowd about his new Rebus novel, In a House of Lies, due out in October. Rankin was in contemplative mood, looking back on the 31 years since the first Rebus novel. His hard-bitten detective is now retired, but still keeping his crime-fighting hand in, although the fresh-faced desk sergeant at Leith Police Station no longer recognises him.

Rankin recalled how he had planned to kill Rebus off at the end of the first novel so he could get on with his ambition to become a literary novelist. It took time, and some wise advice, for him to realise that he could write about Edinburgh, it’s stratified society and Jekyll and Hyde faces, more effectively in a crime novel than anywhere else.

Rebus may be getting a little creaky, but there’s still plenty of life in the old dog yet. Charles Lawson (Coronation Street’s Jim McDonald) will take the role on stage in a new touring play, Long Shadows, on which Rankin has worked with playwright Rona Munro – and a new TV adaptation is also in the pipeline, with Gregory Burke (Black Watch) as screenwriter.