Mar 302015

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.

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