Alexander McCall Smith book is story of Edinburgh

FLOUR fills the air as the cheers go up accompanied by the splatter of rotten fruit on the steps of Old College.
Flour and rotten fruit fly during a rectorial battle in the Old College Quad in 1959. Picture: TSPLFlour and rotten fruit fly during a rectorial battle in the Old College Quad in 1959. Picture: TSPL
Flour and rotten fruit fly during a rectorial battle in the Old College Quad in 1959. Picture: TSPL

It’s a ritual no longer carried out among Edinburgh University students when they’re campaigning for a new rector, but for decades the egg and flour bombs would litter the quadrangle, while the professors hid indoors behind shuttered windows.

Similarly the rigorous physical education of the female pupils at the Edinburgh Merchant Company school, which looks akin to torture for the poor girls dangling from the bars, has long gone the way of pinafores and plimsolls as uniform staples.

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And the days when rows of taxis would line up beneath the towering Scotsman newspaper office waiting to deliver the latest news hot off the press, are as dead as the Evening Dispatch.

But these images, and many others of a bygone era, fill the pages of a glossy coffee-table book which was one of the bestsellers at Christmas.

Alexander McCall Smith’s A Work of Beauty sees the novelist trawl the photographic and map archive of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, choosing the images which reflect his own Edinburgh, the city he says he “loves and always shall”.

The book is packed with his reminiscences as well as images which tell his story of the Capital.

From photos of tenement stair bell pulls – “as if one might summon long-departed residents from their slumbers” – to those of sheep grazing on the Meadows, architectural drawings of some of the city’s famous buildings to life in the slums, the book leaves no stone unturned in his journey through time and around the city.

Given the author, it’s perhaps no surprise that interest in the tome has been high. According to the RCAHMS demand has exceeded supply and it’s already on its third reprint.

McCall Smith, who is about to publish his 15th Mma Ramotswe novel, is not Edinburgh born, but in the book he says his love of the city began when he arrived as a student. And it has never ceased.

“I write about it. I dream about it.

“I walk its streets and see something new each day – traces of faded lettering on the stone, still legible, but just; some facade I have passed before and either not noticed or not looked at closely enough... every day this city can reveal something old that is for me, in a sense, something new.”

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The book, through the eyes of an author, proves that Edinburgh is a city of stories, “from historical upheavals to the individual lives of its people, that every spire, cobblestone, bridge, close and avenue has a tale to tell”.

For McCall Smith the stories are in the city’s dreaming church spires, the worn steps of its educational institutes thanks to countless pupils and students, the wards of the hospitals, the lives of the people who live here.

He writes: “Inevitably if one spends many years in a city, particularly in a city one loves, there will be places within it what have very strong associations – memories linked with a room, a building, a street or a corner... but it is not just personal associations which make a city... it is the spirit of the place, a difficult to define quality that gives a town or city it’s particular character.”

He believes, he says, that cities which grow organically are the ones which have “soul”. “An artificially created city, one which has grown too quickly, will lack soul. It will not be a place that makes people fall in love with it, even those who visit for a short time, or those who do not visit at all, but merely read about it or see pictures.

“The great cities of this world, I suspect, are loved by many who may never have the chance to see them... Edinburgh too may be just that for some – a place they have seen depicted in photographs and wish to visit.”

Certainly the photos which he has selected from the archives would paint a picture of a city most would want to explore. And he says the light of Edinburgh is another reason why people fall in love with it.

Most of all though it’s a combination of nature, Scottish culture, and organic growth inspired by its population which makes Edinburgh feel “just right”.

A Work of Beauty by Alexander McCall Smith is £25 at all good bookshops.