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.
Sep 052014

The literary city of Edinburgh has its own, distinctive and well known, psychological profile. The relations between its various districts reveal it, as does the array of prospects with which the inhabitant or visitor is so often greeted. Stuart Kelly, in his book Scott-Land, has put it well:

The poet Hugh MacDiarmid referred to Edinburgh as a ‘mad god’s dream’. It exemplified antisyzygy, his preferred creative term, meaning a ‘zigzag of contradictions’… The Edinburgh I walk through each day is part Piranesi, part Peter Greenaway. I can’t tire of its soaring bridges that never cross water, its Tetris blocks of Gothic tenements framed in classical Palladian arches, its tug-of-war between secret vennels and stately locked doors.

Edinburgh’s centre is riven, bifurcated: on one hand, the vertiginous, overlapping, haphazard, medieval Old Town, and on the other, the geometric, unfolded, planned, neoclassical New Town.

This profile gives the city something like its own mental world, its own personality – a complicated one, naturally enough, perhaps even one in need of analysis or treatment, but a clear character. It’s almost like you can know the place as you know a person.


But at the same time the city has been imagined and rewritten by so many writers who have loomed almost as large in their readers’ minds as their books – Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Muriel Spark, Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, to name only some of the most prominent. These strong authorial personalities have drawn our attention, too, and coloured our sense of the city they animate in their writing. Part of the point of Palimpsest is to allow us to explore and compare the cityscapes of individual writers, as well as the way in which literary works cultivate the personality of the city as a whole.

So how good would it be if you could somehow come face to face with one of the most influential of these formative authors, whose depictions of the city established a precedent and example against which all their successors are measured? Well, a fantastic collaboration between Palimpsest, the UNESCO World City of Literature Trust and Artemis Scotland allowed us to try this experiment out before an enthusiastic audience at the Reading the City event, part of last month’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.

IMG_4616-800x600   Image of Sir Walther Scott's participant badge at the Book Festival

After reading some evocative extracts from works set in Edinburgh, James Robertson, one of the finest chroniclers of contemporary Scotland, had the chance to put a series of searching questions to Sir Walter Scott – who had unexpectedly returned from the beyond to mark the bicentenary of the publication of Waverley in 1814. Their exchange took in topics including the Edinburgh of Scott’s life and times, the nature of his celebrity, and (with a little poetic or historical licence) his views on the monument erected in his honour and the current debate around Scotland’s constitutional future. It was great to witness this interaction across two centuries of literary history, made all the more intriguing by the knowledge that James Robertson undertook a PhD on Scott some years ago!

Image of James Robertson interviewing "Sir Walter Scott" at the Reading the City Event.

James Robertson interviews “Sir Walter Scott” at the Reading the City Event.

Sir Walter enjoyed his time in Edinburgh so much that he’ll be returning to meet more of the city’s inhabitants and visitors at the Playfair Library in the University’s Old College during Edinburgh’s Doors Open Days on 27 and 28 September. And this time he’ll be accompanied by another of Scotland’s fine complement of nineteenth century authors, so make sure you don’t miss the chance to come face to face with a couple of the authors of this most literary of cities.

Sir Walter also took time out of his busy festival schedule to give Summerhall TV an exclusive interview on his take on modern Scotland and the upcoming Scottish Referendum:

Related resources

Jun 182014

The Palimpsest Methodologies Day, which took place on 13th May 2014,  was an opportunity for the project team to meet and share ideas with our wonderful advisory board, whose experience and expertise spans the wide range of academic and technical areas needed to help guide our multidisciplinary research. It was a chance for us to discuss past projects and methodological approaches, as well as to reflect on how Palimpsest is developing so far.

The afternoon began with brief presentations from the project team, covering the background to the project and the literary tasks and aims (James L), the gazetteer and textmining challenges (Bea), the mapping and database aspects (James R), social media and communications (Nicola) and finally the creation of data visualisations (Uta and David). Slides from these sessions will be available soon via our forthcoming Publications and Presentations page.

The introductions to the Palimpsest project and project team was followed by presentations by the advisory board, many of whom will soon themselves appear as guest bloggers on this blog:

Screenshot of map selector in Walking Through Time App

Screenshot of map selector in Walking Through Time App

Chris Speed (Edinburgh College of Art) discussed the concept of  “Temporal Ubiquity”: the notion that many times and places co-exist. Many of Chris’s projects have played with this idea, such as Walking Through Time which allows you to explore old maps of Edinburgh as you walk through the modern world and so experience both time periods. Chris added: “I wish I had put the Abercrombie plans into that app – a utopian future that never actually happened”. He went on to explain the ways in which technologies are supplementing our mobile temporal consciousness: we can follow long-dead people on Twitter, we can re-experience our own earlier lives through tools like TimeHop, and send messages to our future selves. All of these aspects create temporal ubiquity and provide new ways to open up and explore time and place.

David Cooper (Manchester Metropolitan University) spoke about his work as a literary geographer. David’s interest in this area began with his research on post war writers descriptions of the Lake District. Of particular interest to David is the ways in which the burden of the past affects contemporary authors, and he explores this in terms of issues of spatial intertextuality and imaginative embedding. David was involved with the digital humanities project, Mapping the Lakes, which  reapplied urban studies of literary place to rural topography, micromapping works by Thomas Gray and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This included an attempt to map authors’ emotional responses to landscapes and raised the issue of what we are doing when we attempt to map subjective emotional qualities. Finally, David emphasized the need to consider how we can convey the multisensory aspects of literary works.

Jonathan Hope (University of Strathclyde) described his research on the Visualising English Print 1470-1800 project as part of the Text Creation Partnership, a collaborative venture between universities who have been creating a corpus of works input as text (rather than just page images). From 1st January 2015, they will start making freely available the Early English Books Online texts, which range from 1450-1700. The TCP project will then move on to Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) although these present more complex copyright challenges. But it’s one thing to have the texts – what do you do with them? The team Jonathan works with is creating new tools and methodologies for working with these texts. Jonathan also raised questions for the Palimpsest team around the multidimensional nature of the data we are considering and stressed the need to enable the exploration of their intricate relations without flattening their complexity.

Jason Dykes (City University London) raised five areas of reflection for the project team to consider:

  1. Location – designing for legibility and comparison.
  2. Representation – you don’t need precision for qualitative narratives.
  3. Annotation – test as spatial information, the words are the map!
  4. Connection – maps that tell (spatial) stories.
  5. Collection – explore content through visualisation.

In discussing these areas Jason raised examples of work he and his colleagues have done at the giCentre at City University London that offer clever and playful takes on each of these dimensions.

Screenshot of the Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-61

Screenshot of the Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-61 built by Axis Maps Dr Vincent Brown’s African Rebellion Project, Harvard University.

David Heyman (Axis Maps) talked about the difference between map making and cartography, a difference which he defined as “the purposeful design of maps”. He talked about the importance of communicating a message to an audience and what that means for map design. For instance, in interactive cartography that means ensuring we design features that define functionality, communicate it to the user, and contextualise the thematic display.

Miguel Nacenta (University of St Andrews) described several ways in which meaningful distortions in visualisations can help to communicate the information shown.  FatFonts, which he created with Uta Hinrichs (on our visualisation team) and Sheelagh Carpendale, is a type face that provides a hybrid of the symbolic and the visual, by using a thickness of ink that is in proportion to the number being represented. These fonts are designed to highlight numerical changes and cluster numbers in a multilevel way to give you a sense of scale and meaning when you glance at a visualisation. Another of Miguel’s projects called Transmogrifiers enables users to interact with and transform a map to allow a new view of the information – as did the Jonson and Ward 1862 atlas, which showed rivers’ lengths juxtaposed in order to make visible a comparative sense of their scale.

The 1862 Johnson and Ward Map or Chart of the World's Mountains and Rivers - Geographicus. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The 1862 Johnson and Ward Map or Chart of the World’s Mountains and Rivers – Geographicus. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Ewan Klein (University of Edinburgh) closed the presentations with a discussion of vernacular geography – the sense of place reflected in ordinary people’s language, which reflects a vagueness in semantics, that is often not acknowledged. The Natural Neighbourhood Questionnaire included two questions: what is your postcode and where do you live. The answers suggested that there was no clear boundary between or shared definition of neighbourhoods, with a heatmap version of the responses making visible a number of in-between places and showing Leith over represented territorially, perhaps  partly due to streets such as Leith Walk , which despite their name stretch beyond Leith itself.

The day concluded with very useful discussions of future challenges and opportunities for the Palimpsest project – as well as some fantastic and inspiring resources, which will feed into our work over the coming months.

As a thank you to our advisory board, and as introduction to Edinburgh’s rich literary past, many of us followed the Methodologies Day with a literary walking tour of the city, finding out all about both some of our best known literary figures and some of their less well-known peers and inspirations for their characters. Thanks to a serendipitous accident of timing this included sighting one of Edinburgh’s most prominent present day writers, Ian Rankin, who was conveniently standing outside the very pub our guide had just mentioned as a favourite of his!

Resources and projects highlighted during the day:

– Nicola Osborne and Miranda Anderson