Haunting images of city back in the light

YOU’LL find the places are instantly recognisable, yet different; images of Edinburgh captured forever, but which seem ghostly; captured moments in history where time seems to be standing still.

The fascinating but haunting pictures were thought lost forever until yesterday when they were returned home to Edinburgh, having been discovered in an album going under the hammer at a Swindon auction house.

The 206 pictures - known as calotypes, the forerunners of modern-day photographs - were made using a process that reproduced images from a light box on to chemically-coated paper and were taken by members of the Edinburgh Calotype Club in the 1840s and depict a city deserted and still, quite a contrast to today’s gridlocked Capital.

The album which was produced by the club - and now returned to the city at a cost of 233,997 after being purchased by the National Library of Scotland - is packed with images of castles, houses, churches and rural scenes, from the Borders to the north of Scotland and from the west to the east coast. But it’s the fading images of Edinburgh that capture the imagination.

In one, the Scott Monument stands proud, its stone as yet un-blackened by the decades of exhaust fumes to come. Behind it the chimney of the Edinburgh Gaslight Company in New Street dominates the skyline, while the familiar incline of Salisbury Crags crouches in the distance.

Like many of the images, the picture is uncredited. However another, a slightly sinister study of the Gothic gateway that leads into Dalry Cemetery, is known to be the work of Edinburgh advocate and cleric, John Francis Montgomery. And it was he who is believed to have formed the Edinburgh Calotype Club shortly after the process of recording "photogenic drawings" was discovered by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1840.

Montgomery, who lived between 1818 and 1897, is also credited with recording a partially-finished Greyfriars Church, and a crumbling John Knox House.

The area of bustling activity and industrial grime that was then Leith Harbour and is now the popular Shore, is also caught in another unattributed image as sailing ships wait to load their cargo. Other images include the head of West Bow from Castle Terrace, the old Chain Pier at Newhaven, as well as a posed shot of a Newhaven fisherman and fishwife.

All the images, which are being hailed as of "international importance in terms of the development of photography" and which provide a fascinating insight into life in the mid-19th century, were taken by the rich and influential of the day. Men like Sir David Brewster, inventor of the kaleidoscope; John Cay, Sheriff of Linlithgow; and University of Edinburgh professor Cosmo Innes.

A similar album, also produced by the club, has been in the care of Edinburgh’s Central Library since 1957, and Martyn Wade, head of the National Library, says he is "delighted that such an important piece of photographic history has been saved for the nation".

And thanks to the advent of digitisation - and a spirit of co-operation between the National Library of Scotland and the Edinburgh City Libraries - the public too can access all these snapshots of Edinburgh’s history online as the photographic treasures from both albums can now be viewed by visiting www.nls.uk/pencilsoflight.