Nov 122015

During last week’s British Library Labs Symposium, the BL Labs team led by Mahendra Mahey announced the results for the BL Labs Awards in different categories recognising digital humanities activities involving data from the British Library.  The Palimpsest team is proud to have been selected as runner-up in the research awards category for our work on mining Edinburgh’s literary landscape and it’s fantastic to see our work recognised in this way.

Announcement of the British Library Labs Awards

Announcement of the British Library Labs Awards

The data behind the LitLong interfaces, which were developed by the SACHI lab as part of Palimpsest, was created by text mining out-of-copyright literary works as well as a select number of contemporary books, and included work from Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, Muriel Spark and Irvine Welsh. It is also accessible via a search API. 111 books and over 12600 excerpts – over 20% of the Palimpsest data – were retrieved from the British Library Nineteenth Century Books collection, a set of over 65000 works covering philosophy, history, poetry and literature.  We would like to thank Mahendra Mahey and his team for their support in giving us access to the data.

All location mentions within the Palimpsest data were geo-referenced by the Edinburgh Geoparser to a fine-grained Edinburgh gazetteer, and excerpts containing them are linked back to the original electronic documents of its data provider, and in the case of the BL works to JISC Historical Text, to enable close reading.

The well deserved winners of the BL Labs research award are Professor Ian Gregory and his team working on the Spatial Humanities project. Their work examines the London based newspaper The Era made available by the British Library to determine how the Victorian Era discussed and portrayed disease, both temporally and spatially.

You can read more about the Awards on the British Library’s Digital Scholarship blog.

Jul 142015

We are delighted to announce the launch of the LitLong iOS app, put together by the Palimpsest project team of researchers and literary scholars at University of St Andrews, EDINA, and University of Edinburgh.

The LitLong:Edinburgh mobile app allows you to use your iOS device to explore Edinburgh’s literary past, and it is free to download and use. Click on any of the download links in this post, or search the App Store for “Litlong” and, once you have downloaded a copy to your iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad you can then use the app, as you move around Edinburgh, to discover how your location has been represented in literature.

Image of the LitLong app on an iPhone

The app shows you text extracts of books that mention place-names in Edinburgh. These extracts are shown with the title, author and year of the book, and can be found either by exploring books that are nearest to your current location, or by browsing the map and selecting pins to see how far that place is from you, and what texts are mentioned there.

The app contains over 47,000 extracts from 550 books across 1,600 locations in the city – so you are never going to be far from a relevant and interesting literary extract in Edinburgh! What better way could there be to explore the first ever UNESCO World City of Literature!

Download the app here:

More details about the app and LitLong can be found here: 

We welcome all of your comments and feedback on the LitLong app. Please do leave us comments here, tweet us @litlong or get in touch with the team. We would also love you to leave comments and ratings in the App Store, as this will help other potential LitLong App users to understand if this is the right app for them.

You can read more about the app on the St Andrews SACHI blog, in a post from David Harris-Birtill, who built the LitLong app: LitLong App now available to download from iTunes.

Meanwhile, the Palimpsest Project and LitLong have recently been featured in the Edinburgh University alumni magazine, edit, with their article “Literature with Latitude“. In addition to a great write up of the project, the piece also includes this video shot at the press launch on the day of the Lit Long Launch event. Keep an eye out for James Loxley as well as long-dead literary greats Walter Scott and Margaret Oliphant:

YouTube Preview Image

If you have any comments about the app, the project, or would like to find out more about future events and plans connected to the Palimpsest project and LitLong resources, please do get in touch with the project team.


Mar 302015
lit long launch leaflet image

This evening we are blogging live from the official launch of Lit Long:Edinburgh, an interactive resource of Edinburgh literature emerging from the Palimpsest project. This blog and the LitLong news page will both be receiving our live updates from the event, which is taking place at 50 George Square, Edinburgh.

As this is a liveblog, please do forgive any typos or small errors – we very much appreciate your comments – including any corrections or additions you may have. 

Our launch follows an exciting day of press activity, with write ups in the Guardian, on the University of Edinburgh website, and a photo call this morning where our friends Walter Scott and Margaret Oliphant also put in an appearance…

Actors dressed as Walter Scott and Margaret Oliphant try out the LitLong app on iPads

The event this evening will feature:

  • The unveiling and demo of Lit Long: Edinburgh interactive online resources and mobile application
  • Readings by and discussion with Edinburgh authors featured in Lit Long, including Doug Johnstone
  • Announcement of the Palimpsest writing competition winner
  • A casual wine reception, with an opportunity to play with the project resources, and chat with the Palimpsest team and featured authors

Welcome and Introduction to the Project – Prof James Loxley

Thank you all for coming along to the launch event for what has been 15 months of extremely hard work, of a fantastic team working across English Lit, visualisation, Informatics and our friends in EDINA who have built our database.

This evening we’ll be telling you a bit about what we’ve been doing, how we’ve built this… And we’ll give you a bit of a tour of our site ( and our app (coming soon). Then we’ll take a wee break for drinks and nibbles. Then we will return with what this is really all about, which is writers who will share their sense of place.

Lit Long is the work of the Palimpsest project, which began 15 months ago with generous funding of the AHRC. But Palimpsest really began properly 3 years ago with Miranda Anderson, who worked with Amy Guy in Informatics to build a prototype app… They were pioneering an idea, which they brought to me (I was head of english at the time) and was about trying to geolocate the writing of Edinburgh. Not the writing which comes out of Edinburgh, but the writing that is about Edinburgh, that takes Edinburgh as it’s setting and it’s resonance as a city. So we built a prototype app… curated into a little database… and used it as an opportunity for little extracts to pop up on visitors phones to understand literature as they moved about the city… To see the extract out of context of the book, but in the context of the place. To see the familiarity and connection perhaps, but also the possibility of disjunction of the place and lived experience, the change.

The limitations of that extract was that we couldn’t get enough material into it… We couldn’t read enough books, we couldn’t get enough extracts in… And we had a fairly sparse experience, despite a lot of good work. And we really wanted to scale that up. Given that this city is so written about, the High street is worn as much by the writing as by shoe leather, we wanted to capture that as well… But that wasn’t something people could do, unless we had a huge army and a lot of time. So we brought in the machines, and our colleagues in Informatics who are experts in text mining… We didn’t know what it would create… perhaps a Frankenstein’s monster… But perhaps in a great way.

Once you try to capture the kinds of ways that the city has been written it’s not one really where you can see everything at once, we’ve tried to acknowledge that we can’t see it all at once. One of the books that inspired this project is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Romantic Edinburgh Notes, and he writes about a view from Calton Hill “These are the main features of the scene laid beneath, how each stands out against the ground… It is the character of such a prospect to be full of change and things moving… The multiplicity of the mind suffers itself so much that it embaresses and stuns the eye” [quote to be checked and included in full] and that multiplicity is what we are trying to capture here.

Text mining for LitLong: Edinburgh – Bea Alex

I am not one of the machines! We work on text mining, and on geolocating placenames in texts. We started by collecting data from different literature providers, with anything we could access including large collections from HATHI and the British Library. We then needed to mine those data sets for works on Edinburgh, to find their relevance, to rank them using the Edinburgh Gazeteer and to pass them to the literature scholars to assess those choices. And then around each location we extracted snippets and ranked them by text specific interestingness…

But it doesn’t always go write… If we look at an extract here we see the “old new town” and the “new new town” etc… We can only pin this to the “New Town”! And we had a reference to the “green mantle” mapping to a pub of the same name… But most of the data is accurate now. And if you have any questions about the data mining please do get in touch.

Site and app demos – David Harris-Birtill

We are the visualisation team based at the University of St Andrews and we have been trying to create a way for researchers and visitors in the city to understand what has been written about the location they are in now.

So, the first thing we needed to do was to help literature scholars visualise if texts were actually about Edinburgh – so we created an assessment tool to take data from, and pass back to, the text mining team. The literature scholars were able to look at snippits, to assess their Edinburghyness and relevance and remove any misleading of incorrect results.

So, we’ve come up with an interactive visualisation, mainly the work of my colleague Uta Hinrichs, which enables you to explore by area, by authors, by areas, by keywords, to really explore the literature in the context of the city. We have also built a mobile app, which I’ve been working on, which shows you snippits near you as you walk around town and allows you to explore the snippits (click on the “i” symbol) and to see the full text, or browse other works in that place…

And now I’d like to do a live demo…

David is currently demonstrating the iPhone/iPad app which enables you to see all of the extracts around you, to explore snippits, or to switch to view the texts in a larger map. The app places you inside the map…

But if you are at home and just want to browse the map… Here you can see a map of Edinburgh and see the locations mentioned within the texts. Clicking on a number lets you zoom into the map and the mentions. You can also click on a book title (from the list) and see the snippit, the highlighted keywords, and click through to the full text…

And if I demonstrate a keyword search for, say, “rain”, we’ll see it is mentioned a lot!

You can also browse the list of authors – the author names are scaled by the number of Edinburgh references in their work – so you can see that Alexander McCall Smith mentions Edinburgh a lot!

I would recommend you browse and explore yourself! And enjoy browsing literary Edinburgh…

And now back to James Loxley who is going to demonstrate a particularly unusual search… So if we select Irvine Welsh from the author list… then browse the keywords… well you can see a few choice examples! And actually if you look at his Edinburgh versus Walter Scott’s Edinburgh, you’ll see the centre is substantially further North in Welsh’s work than in Scott’s!

And after a short break for drinks and snacks, we are returning for the second half of our evening… 

And we return for the readings from several Edinburgh authors… Three in our map and our five shortlisted authors. 

Doug Johnstone

Tara Thomson is introducing Doug Johnstone, a notable Edinburgh crime writer who is also the judge of our writing competition. 

I was so pleased to be asked to be involved in this project as Edinburgh is a subject close to my heart. My first three novels weren’t about Edinburgh, I didn’t want to write about Edinburgh at first – this city is already so well written about and you think well what can I contribute to this whole thing… But then I thought “oh fuck it! It’s stupid”… I had lived in Edinburgh for 20 years and my experience of the city is very different to those other writers…

So then I wrote my first book set in Edinburgh, which was called Hit and Run, which is all set in SouthSide and Newington and really not beyond that space…  And my next book was called Gone Again which was set in Portabello, where I was living. And my most recent book, The Dead Beat, is set around North Bridge… where people start falling off in mysterious circumstances… I won’t say where this extract is set, if I’ve done my job you should be able to figure it out!

Doug is now reading the opening section from The Dead Beat, published 2014. 

Announcement of writing competition winner, and winner reading

It was my absolute pleasure to be the judge of the writing contest that the Palimpsest project set up. The quality of entries was so high. All five of the shortlisted entries were publishable standard and I look forward to seeing them all in print… But the story I’m going to introduce is Candlemaker Row, by Jane Alexander.

Jane Alexander

I’m just going to read a short extract of my story but when I was writing this story I dealt with the problem of all that past writing about Edinburgh by destroying the city, with an unspecified disaster. And then exploring it through a project to rebuild it.

Jane is now reading from her winning story, Candlemaker Row, which you can read in full on the Lit Long website.

Regi Claire

You will hear from my accent that I am not a Scottish native, I am from Switzerland. But I have been living in Scotland for a long time and have written four books, with The Waiting (2012) the book I think of as my Edinburgh book. This is a story that really started with The Meadows, and the area around the Meadows, and I’m going to read an extract from early on in the book.

Regi is now reading from The Waiting, 2012. 

Tara is noting that we are in really excellent company tonight. In addition to the out of copyright works which we included in Lit Long: Edinburgh we were delighted that a number of wonderful contemporary authors who agreed for us to include their work, including those who are with us this evening.

I also wanted to say, now that our winner has been announced, that the full story is now available to read on the Lit Long website. You will also find a page about our writing contest where we have listed all of our shortlisted authors, who are here tonight and who I’d like to thank for their excellent pieces.

And now, for our final reading, we have former Edinburgh Makar, Ron Butlin

Ron Butlin

I’m sorry I’m so late but as former Makar for Edinburgh I was at an event at City Chamber for an Edinburgh City of Literature event, marking 10 years of that initiative. And I think that Palimpsest is really taking us into the future – and it is really wonderful that you are starting with a competition and encouraging people to write as part of the project.

I used to take Edinburgh for granted – that there were so many writers everywhere… But when I became Makar I was forced to reexamine that, and

The first poem I’m going to read is “The Other Edinburgh”, which is really all about the different levels, the eery sense that takes over, particularly after darkness falls… Ron is now reading his poem, The Other Edinburgh.

When I was a student, at this institution which has clearly been very well dusted since then, I sort of studied around a really busy social life… just about fitting lectures in around everything else. I studied philosophy, and this poem is about David Hume, a great Edinburgh philospher… And he was here at a time of fun. He spent his time getting roystered out on the High Street, but he was also a great thinker. But the only negative thing for him was that he was an aethiest, and a happy aethiest. The church couldn’t stand it… As he was on his death bed, dying and knowing where he’d be going after death – nowhere – he had an endless stream of Scottish ministers bothering him, trying to convert him… So here “David Hume takes a walk on Arthurs Seat”.

Closing remarks – Prof James Loxley

By way of conclusion there are a whole series of thank yous that I would like to annunciate upon you, if I may…

My first thanks go to all the wonderful entrants to our competition, expecially our marvellous short listed stories. There were so many and so varied takes on the city of Edinburgh, it is so much more than just writers in frock coats. I would like to thank all of our authors who read this evening, especially Doug Johnstone who was our competition judge.

I would also like to single out some of the people who have helped along the way here, to Mark Hadden who provided design for our website, to Jane Hislop who allowed us to use their artwork. I am also hugely grateful to Artemis Scotland for allowing us to bring Walter Scott and Margaret Oliphant back to life, initially for an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival where for one glorious hour Walter Scott was in conversation with James Robertson. They were also present at Doors Open Day, where they filled the Playfair library.

My deepest and heartfelt thanks to everyone on the project, it has been a wonderful team. I am going to name all of them… Jon Oberlander, James Reid, Aaron Quigley, Bea Alex, Miranda Anderson, Miranda Anderson, Ian Fieldhouse, Claire Grover, David Harris-Birtill, Uta Hinrichs, Nicola Osborne, Lisa Otty, and Tara Thomson.

Mar 102015

Duncan Milne, Edinburgh Napier University

The Scottish Literary Renaissance was a movement among key writers in the early twentieth-century to at once revive a submerged Scottish tradition and to ‘make it new’ by inflecting it with the new techniques and awareness of European Modernism. It is perhaps surprising, then, that this movement was begun from a small town on the east coast of Scotland. The Modernist Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid valorised the homogenous, incorporated society of Montrose and other north-east towns like it, as much as he did the language in which they spoke. This favouring of a semi-rural, ‘peripheral’ Scotland as being somehow more authentic was a theme which would be repeated throughout the movement, in the writing of Edwin Muir, Lewis Spence and Violet Jacob.

In contrast, at the same period, there was a developing literature of industrial experience centred on the Clyde, as seen in the fiction of George Blake and the range of vernacular poetry which arose in the shipyards and factories of Glasgow. Here was a competing notion of Scottish modernity, focused on the experience of the urban labouring classes, a demographic hitherto absent from Scotland’s representations of itself.

brodie muralBut in this, where was the capital? The supposed cultural heart of the nation, a city which had been for a time the intellectual heart of Europe? Edinburgh is a conspicuous absence in Scottish Modernism. Aside from MacDiarmid’s estimation of the city as ‘a mad god’s dream’, the closest Edinburgh comes to appearing in the context of the Scottish modernist period is in Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Here we have a book which resurrects the Edinburgh of a past in which Edinburgh did not represent itself. In its description we can perhaps see why the capital had no voice in the Scottish renaissance: Brodie’s Edinburgh is contradictory, disunited, alien to itself and still more to the rest of Scotland. Edinburgh at the time of the Scottish Renaissance lay twelve miles to the east of Scotland, unassimilable into a broader narrative of Scottishness.

Photo credit: Angus Sutherland

Mar 022015

lit long launch leaflet image

We cordially invite you to join us on 30th March 2015 at the launch of Lit Long: Edinburgh, an interactive resource of Edinburgh literature emerging from the Palimpsest project.

Lit Long: Edinburgh features a range of maps and accessible visualisations, which enable users to interact with Edinburgh’s literature in a variety of ways, exploring the spatial relations of the literary city at particular times in its history, in the works of particular authors, or across different eras, genres and writers. Lit Long: Edinburgh makes a major contribution to our knowledge of the Edinburgh literary cityscape, with potential to shape the experience and understanding of critics and editors, residents and visitors, readers and writers.

The event will feature:

  • The unveiling and demo of Lit Long: Edinburgh interactive online resources and mobile application
  • Readings by and discussion with Edinburgh authors featured in Lit Long, including Doug Johnstone
  • Announcement of the Palimpsest writing competition winner
  • A casual wine reception, with an opportunity to play with the project resources, and chat with the Palimpsest team and featured authors

Date: 30th March 2015
Time: 6:30 – 9:30 pm
Location: 50 George Square, Project Room (rm 1.06), Edinburgh, EH8 9JX

Lit Long: Edinburgh is the visual, interactive component of Palimpsest, an AHRC-funded collaborative project between the University of Edinburgh’s School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures; the School of Informatics; the University of St Andrews’ SACHI research group; and EDINA. The team includes literary scholars, computer scientists specialising in textmining, and information visualisation scholars.

Download the leaflet here: Lit Long launch leaflet

Feb 272015

Miguel A. Nacenta –

We conventionally describe our world as 4-dimensional. The three dimensions of space (left-right, forward-backward, up-down, or any hybrids of these) and time. Although this simple Euclidean way to think about the world is useful and practical, it does not quite correspond with how we, as humans perceive the world.

The human perception of the world is still largely spatial, but different in many ways. In terms of evolution, it was important for us to remember where we found food last time, or what was a safe spot for us to sleep. Nevertheless, our representations of the world are not accurate, and rather than being based on an intrinsically existing space, they are based on the creation of links and connections between places, landmarks, events, milestones… In other words, our internal experience of the world is not objective and static, but rather a network of subjective relationships of what matters to us, somewhat loosely connected to a sense of space and distance.

Although it might seem that these less accurate way of seeing and representing the world is inferior, and we perhaps should direct our efforts to make people be able to perceive the world as accurately as possible, in my opinion it is better to think about how to take advantage of the flexibility, ambiguity, and connectedness of our natural perceptions of space. In my own research I take advantage of this ambiguity by making non-linear deformations of space useful and easy to do (see and the image below), and by trying to understand better how people perceive space in flat and non-flat digital representations (


The Palimpsest project is an important contribution to this endeavour to break and mix the repositories of knowledge that have traditionally kept space on one side and people’s experience of the city (in this case, literature) on the other. Palimpsest will help us relate the space of the city to the more human and more complex collective experience of literature in the city and, importantly, to perceive it across time. It has a tremendous potential to open up new areas of inquiry that come from both the sciences and the arts.

Jan 212015

Elspeth Jajdelska, University of Strathclyde

salisbury crags 2

Salisbury Crags is a ridge of rock on one side of Edinburgh’s mountain, Arthur’s Seat. In the late eighteenth century, Edinburgh scientist James Hutton, known later as the ‘Father of Geology’, used the Crags to develop his theory of the earth as an ancient system of heat and rock in constant (if slow) change. This was a radical departure from the idea of the earth as created in seven days some few thousand years ago. Hutton’s account had its own poetry – ‘we find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’ – but his description of the Crags themselves is detached and factual: ‘These masses of whinstone are from three or four to an hundred feet thick, running parallel in planes inclined to the horizon’ (Theory of the Earth, vol.1, 1795).

Charles Darwin recorded one visit to the Crags in both human and geological time. In a letter to his cousin, he mentioned that ‘a solitary walk on Salisbury crags’ had called up ‘old thoughts of former times’ as a medical student in the city. But in his field notes he describes the crags in the language of geology.

Hutton’s discoveries had surprisingly little impact on literary descriptions. The late eighteenth century had already seen a shift in feelings about mountains. In the 1690s, the Leeds diarist Ralph Thoresby had described mountains as hazards, ‘dangerous, terrible and tedious’, hellish enemies of man, which could be tamed by God alone, breaking them with ‘earthquakes and tempests’ (Diary of Ralph Thoresby).

Walter Scott, however, followed the taste of the romantics, for whom mountains were sublime and even gothic. In The Heart of Midlothianhe writes that, ‘The valley behind Salisbury Crags…has for a background the north-western shoulder of the mountain called Arthur’s Seat, on whose descent still remain the ruins of what was once a chapel, or hermitage, dedicated to St. Anthony the Eremite. A better site for such a building could hardly have been selected; for the chapel, situated among the rude and pathless cliffs, lies in a desert’.

Hutton’s findings were easily incorporated into this romantic view of the Crags. William Hazlitt wrote of them as the work of Nature the artist, operating at a scale beyond human capacity: ‘No imagination can toss and tumble about huge heaps of earth as the ocean in its fury can. A volcano is more potent to rend rocks asunder than the most splashing pencil’ (from The Elgin Marbles).

Dec 182014

edinburgh Writing Edinburgh

From the Old Town, with its dark, winding closes and looming gothic spires, watched over by the castle perched on craggy cliffs, to the New Town with its elegant rows of Georgian houses, public gardens and dramatic vistas out over the Forth, Edinburgh has inspired countless writers.

We invite you to respond to this rich literary history and/or to Edinburgh’s geography and urban development, taking as your starting point either a map or a text. The style and genre of the piece are up to you, but submissions should be prose fiction up to a maximum of 3000 words.

The contest will be judged by a team of literary critics and published authors, led by Edinburgh-based novelist Doug Johnstone. The results will be announced at public reception in March and shortlisted authors will be invited to read at the reception. There will be one winner, who will receive a cash prize of £250. The winning entry will be incorporated into Palimpsest’s literary history of Edinburgh through publication on our website.

Doug Johnstone is the author of six novels, most recently The Dead Beat which was published by Faber & Faber in May 2014.

Doug Johnstone is the author of six novels, most recently The Dead Beat which was published by Faber & Faber in May 2014. Photo credit: Chris Scott.

The competition deadline is midnight on Friday 30th January 2015.

The competition is open to anyone over 16 years of age.

Entry is free but all entries must be accompanied by a completed entry form.

You can download an entry form here: Palimpsest Writing Competition – Entry Form.




Full Terms and Conditions


  • Entries are restricted to one entry per person and all entries must be accompanied by an entry form including contact details. Submissions will be acknowledged within seven days.
  • All work submitted for consideration can be on any subject, and written in any style or form, but must be fiction and the entrant’s own original writing, and should not have appeared in print or appear on a website (including blogs and social networking sites) or have been broadcast, or be submitted for publication or consideration elsewhere,
  • Entries must clearly address the brief, responding to historical or contemporary mappings of Edinburgh and/or to the city’s geography.  A collection of historical maps digitised by the National Library of Scotland is available here.
  • All work must be typed or word processed, clearly legible and written in English. Presentation (e.g. font) is at the entrant’s discretion.
  • The maximum word count for each entry is 3000 words (titles, pager numbers and blank spaces/lines are not to be included in the word count) and entries longer than 3000 words will be automatically disqualified.
  • Entries received after the deadline (given in UK time) will not be considered.
  • Entries will be accepted only by post or online via the competition email.
  • Amendments cannot be made to entries after they have been submitted; stories cannot be amended, corrected or substituted.
  • The organisers reserve the right to disqualify any entry if it has reasonable grounds to believe that the entrant has breached any of these terms and conditions.


  • Judging will be fair and unbiased: judges will declare any potential conflict of interest e.g. family relationship with entrants. All entries will be assigned a number and made anonymous upon receipt. Judges will not have entrants’ names during the reading and judging processes. Names will be reattributed to entries only after the short list and winners have been decided.
  • The judges’ decision is final and no individual correspondence can be entered into.
  • Judges are unable to comment on individual entries
  • Short-listed entrants will be invited to attend a prize-giving event in mid-March 2015. The winners will be announced at this event. Short-listed entrants will be notified by email or telephone before the end of February 2015, and asked to confirm attendance at the event. In cases where short-listed entrants are unable to attend the event, an extract of their entry will be read and they will be asked to submit a short written statement to be read out at the ceremony should they win.


  • Selected pieces may be printed in publications and journals in relation to the Palimpsest project and may appear in electronic format on the project website, or in other electronic forms. For this reason, entrants are deemed to grant to Palimpsest a non-exclusive, worldwide licence over each entry. The copyright in each story submitted remains with the author and authors are free to submit stories for consideration elsewhere after the competition has concluded.
Nov 042014

John Speed’s Prospect of Edinburgh (1610)

Last weekend the Scottish Storytelling Centre held a series of events exploring the history of the ‘glorious half mile to Holyrood’ that is the Canongate. The event was part of the Scottish International Story-Telling Festival Once Upon a Place.

The Palimpsest team went along to talk about the ways in which this ancient and intriguing part of the old town has been immortalised in writing. Our  ‘virtual tour’ looked back through historic maps of the area, courtesy of the National Library of Scotland, and traced the ways in which the Canongate has developed from its foundation in the early 12th Century through to the 21st Century.


James Gordon of Rothiemay, Plan of Edinburgh (1647)

The maps themselves tell interesting stories of how travellers and inhabitants experienced and thought of the city. You can see in the 1610 prospect by John Speed, for example, that the Canongate seems to be very much a part of Edinburgh, with no division between the neighbouring burghs. In fact, as James Gordon of Rothiemay’s 1647 plan makes clear, Edinburgh and the Burgh of Canongate were distinct at the time and separated by the imposing Netherbow gate.  It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th Century in fact, long after the Netherbow gate had disappeared, that the two burghs were officially united.

boswell and johnson

Illustration of Boswell and Johnson

To illustrate the visual stories of the maps, we read extracts of literary works that are set in or describe this important thoroughfare, its architecture and its inhabitants. Among them Daniel Defoe’s  ‘A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain’  gave us an image of the Netherbow, while Boswell’s account of his meeting with Samuel Johnson in the Black Bull Inn and their stroll up the mile together gave a visceral sense stench of the overcrowded slums, and Robert Fergusson’s Auld Reekie painted a picture of a ruined Holyrood House, once a great palace but then a squatters sanctuary:

For O, waes me! the Thistle springs
In Domicile of ancient Kings,
Without a Patriot to regrete
Our Palace , and our ancient State .
Blest Place! whare Debtors daily run,
To rid themselves frae Jail and Dun

canonagte taraThe picture of the Canongate that emerged from writing about the area is fascinating: from its 17th century grandeur, with its  luxurious palaces with lush gardens, it gradually declined through the 18th and 19th centuries, coming to be marked by  industrialisation and poverty and associated with the dark deeds of figures like Deacon Brodie and Burke and Hare.

In the 20th century, as its inhabitants were moved out to social housing on the outskirts of Edinburgh, it became something of a backwater, a quiet and rather neglected area.

With the arrival of the Parliament, however, and with active community centres like the Storytelling Centre drawing people and attention to the old town, a new phase in the area’s development is in full swing and it looks like the Canongate’s future will be as glorious as its past. It was certainly great fun to be a part of the celebrations.

–  Lisa Otty

Oct 142014

Every year Edinburgh holds an Open Doors weekend giving public access to some of the city’s most interesting buildings. With lots of venues presenting talks, tours and exhibitions, it’s a great opportunity to visit some exceptional spaces and learn about the history and culture of the city. This year Palimpsest took part, bringing our wonderful Walter Scott back to life again and this time providing him with a charming companion in the form of Mrs Margaret Oliphant, one of Edinburgh’s most prolific and, in her day, most popular authors.*

Scott and Oliphant in the Playfair Library

Scott and Oliphant in the Playfair Library

Sitting in the enormously grand Playfair Library, listening to Mrs Oliphant recount the details of her eventful life and share her opinions on everything from on Scott’s work to the place of women in society, it was immedately clear how people and personalities can change the way we experience a space. The normally cavernous room was animated as the actors talked and strolled around: watching them promenade together and greet visitors, you got a sudden sense of what the library must have been like when it was in use, a grand social space in which countless people would not only consult books and study but also people-watch, make acquaintances and converse with friends.  No longer museum-like, the library seemed to come to life again, restored to its original character.

Perhaps this is why visitors to Edinburgh seem to have been struck by the people of the city as much as by the its architecture and geography. Sifting through nineteenth-century travel narratives and memoirs as part of the data curation for the project, we’ve come across lots of accounts that stress the distinctive character of the Edinburghers. When the American traveller Henry Brevoort arrived in March 1813,** for example, he quickly penned a letter to his friend Washington Irving relating the sights of the Scottish capital with its “promenades crowded with rival belles” and “old Thebans with hats quaintly cocked and renowned soap-boilers with greasy aprons.” Although home to these colourful metropolitans, the city that he described was also a place of culture, with the university’s influence on civic life apparent in its “shops and libraries stored with the treasures of the learned” and its “walks along streams consecrated to the muses by the melody of verse.” Indeed, for Brevoort, Edinburgh’s grandest figure was William Playfair, after whom the Playfair library is named: “Prof: Playfair is decidedly the luminary of Edinburgh;” Brevoort writes, “he is universally beloved & looked up to, & is not less distinguished for the simplicity of his manners than by his genius & profound knowledge.”


The city was not only inhabited by the learned and the fashionable, however. Writing in the late Nineteenth Century, the soon-to-be novelist Margaretta Byrde found herself intrigued and touched by the city’s waifs and strays. In her 1898 article ‘Small People of the Pavement’*** she describes the antics of the Edinburgh’s street children who, when they are not engaged in the rather alarming “species of tobogganing which they much affect on the steeper streets”, are to be found taking on odd jobs to earn a penny for Sunday School. There is, she writes, “a wonderful reticence—it would perhaps sound ridiculous to term it delicacy in a mere street boy—about some of the Scotch lads” who strike her as more polite, more honourable and more intelligent than boys of other countries. They are also surprisingly learned: mistaken for a Salvation Army singer in the Cowgate, she finds herself surrounded by children demanding a song

humbly explaining that I was merely a tourist and unable to oblige the company, I further lowered myself in its esteem by asking if they knew who Sir Walter Scott was. I don’t know the Scottish equivalent for ‘rather’, but, had American boys been asked of they had ever heard of George Washington, their facial expression would have contained much the same blend of pity and contempt.

Byrde writes, she says, to give “honourable memory” to the easily forgotten children of the street: her small people, just like Brevoort’s Professor Playfair, are remarkable for their honesty and simplicity, their intelligence and their respect for learning and culture. The Playfair Library stands in memorial to the famous professor and exceptional figures like Scott and Oliphant are remembered by many, but as Byrde’s article reminds us (and as the thousands of accounts, memoirs and descriptions of Edinburgh that we have for our project also make readily apparent) it takes multitudes to create the particular atmosphere of a city.  The patterns created over time by these multiple voices and personalities is precisely what we’re trying to reveal with Palimpsest, but perhaps there’s scope to take our historic reanimations further: tobogganing down Castle Hill anyone?

 – Lisa Otty

* Scott and Oliphant were reanimated by Artemis Scotland.

**Letter from Henry Brevoort to Washington Irving March 1st 1813. Letters of Henry Brevoort to Washington Irving. P. 70 – 72.

*** Margaretta Byrde ‘Small People of the Pavement’ The Living Age (Boston) April-June 1898 pp. 532-35.