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

‘A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time’

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Jul 182014

Elizabeth Elliot, University of Aberdeen 

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In 1912, the Synod Hall in Edinburgh’s Old Town became the stage for a remarkable revival of the medieval tradition of civic drama. Around 650 participants collaborated on a performance of the Masque of Learning in celebration of the foundation of University Hall as a community bringing students, lecturers, and artisans into a productive association of ‘town and gown’. Its success saw a revival in revised and expanded form as the twinned Masque of Ancient Learning and Masque of Medieval and Modern Learning, performed in Edinburgh and London. Like University Hall, the Masques were devised by Patrick Geddes, reflecting his conviction that ‘there is no subject of study into which dramatisation, historical and other, cannot brighteningly be introduced’. These elaborate ‘silent or almost wordless’ performances, whose content is outlined in Geddes’ Dramatisations of History (1923), present a series of ‘characteristic scenes illustrative of the progress of culture, and of the history of education’. Marking what Geddes provocatively terms ‘an attempt to shadow forth the long Mystery-Play of the Ascent of Man’, the Masques conclude with the present and future, as the University and the City unite in the Procession of the Torch of Learning. Again, Geddes conceives this scene in terms derived from early drama:

a veritable Mystery Play, presented by the University for the enlightenment of the citizen. But thereafter appears its complement, correspondingly a veritable Morality Play, presented by the City for the edification of the scholar. For whatever his superiority over the citizen in actual attainment, whatever his pride of past tradition, does he not need to be reminded, now as of old, that well-nigh each great step in the progress of culture arises with the growth of the City?

Geddes’ question reflects his conception of the city as ‘the organ of human evolution’, playing a creative role as the embodiment of a community’s history, ‘selecting and blending memories of the past with experiences of the present and hopes for the future’. The public drama of Geddes’ Masques is a logical extension of his claim that ‘a city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time’. As the collective performance of a community, Geddes’ Masques are in sympathy with the tradition of civic drama associated with the feast of Corpus Christi. The medieval play cycles of towns such as York and Coventry gave expression to the identity of a community at the specific moment of their performance; the Edinburgh productions of Geddes’ Masques articulate and produce the particular community at University Hall. As self-conscious engagements with history, the Masques extend and reinforce Geddes’ work of urban regeneration in the Old Town: they are dramatic counterparts to the camera obscura housed in his Outlook Tower, which Geddes valued as a means to nurture the reflection on the past essential to human evolution. Like the Palimpsest project itself, Geddes’ work sought to provide multiple perspectives on the city, celebrating and contributing to the imaginative and physical strata of Edinburgh.

Records of the Masques are held amongst the Patrick Geddes papers at the University of Strathclyde.

Edinburgh and the Waverley Novels

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Jun 192014

Paul Barnaby, Walter Scott Digital Archive

“This, then, is Edinburgh?” said the youth, as the fellow-travellers arrived at one of the heights to the southward, which commanded a view of the great northern capital—”This is that Edinburgh of which we have heard so much!”

0030011: ‘The Heart of Midlothian’, pencil drawing by James Skene (1829) (Corson MSS)

‘The Heart of Midlothian’, pencil drawing by James Skene (1829) (Corson MSS)

Roland Graeme, page to Mary Queen of Scots in The Abbot (1820), is one of many Scott heroes dazzled by a first glimpse of Scotland’s capital. Awed by the ‘extreme height of the houses’, ‘the variety of Gothic gables and battlements, and balconies’, and the population swarming ‘like bees on the wide and stately street’, he descends the Royal Mile to Holyroodhouse where he is received by the Regent Murray. Graeme follows in the footsteps of Edward Waverley, who is presented to Charles Edward Stewart (‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’) at the same site, no longer ‘an irregular pile of monastic buildings’ but a ‘modern palace’. Waverley’s own first vision of Edinburgh is the Castle wreathed in gun smoke, as the garrison fires upon the invading Highlanders. He later traverses the ‘mean and dirty suburbs’ of the Canongate (a refuge for debters in Chronicles of the Canongate (1827)) to watch the Jacobite Army gather in Holyrood Park before the Battle of Prestonpans.

The fullest portrayal of Edinburgh in Scott’s fiction is, of course, The Heart of Mid-Lothian (1818), with its vivid pictures of the Old Tolbooth, Parliament House, the Grassmarket, St Leonard’s, and St Anthony’s Chapel. The capital, however, figures prominently throughout the Waverley Novels. In The Antiquary (1816), Edinburgh is again in a ‘military frenzy’, the threat of French invasion driving its citizens ‘mad—irretrievably frantic—far beyond dipping in the sea, shaving the crown, or drinking hellebore’. Guy Mannering (1815) commemorates the legendary Clerihugh’s Tavern in Writers’ Court, where the advocate Paul Pleydell entertains his clients,  as ‘a sort of Pandemonium, where men and women, half undressed, were busied in baking, broiling, roasting oysters, and preparing devils on the gridiron’.

Redgauntlet (1824), in particular, revisits the scenes of Scott’s childhood. Darsie Latimer and Alan Fairford evoke schoolboy battles in High School Wynd, scaling Cowgate Port to pelt passers-by with snowballs, and describe ‘being carried home, in compassion, by some high-kilted fishwife’ after wading out of their depth at Leith Sands. It also portrays the city’s professional classes deserting the overcrowded High Street. On medical advice, Fairford’s father relocates to the newly built Brown Square, with its elegant ‘self-contained’ houses, although ‘leaving his old apartments in the Luckenbooths was to him like divorcing the soul from the body’. Edinburgh features even in the London-set The Fortunes of Nigel (1822), as the expat Scot Richie Moniplies remains stubbornly unimpressed by the English capital:

“The Thames!” exclaimed Richie, in a tone of ineffable contempt—”God bless your honour’s judgment, we have at Edinburgh the Water-of-Leith and the Nor-loch!”

‘The March of the Highlanders’, engraved by Thomas Higham after J. M. W. Turner (1836) (Corson P.3613)

‘The March of the Highlanders’, engraved by Thomas Higham after J. M. W. Turner (1836) (Corson P.3613)

Edinburgh University Library’s Corson Collection of Sir Walter Scott materials, comprising nearly 7,000 books and 10,000 artworks, contains many engravings of Edinburgh scenes, illustrating or inspired by Scott’s novels. Many document vanished streets and buildings, including the Old Tolbooth and Guard House (sketched by Scott’s friend James Skene of Rubislaw) and Brown Square itself (demolished to build George IV Bridge and Chambers Street). Others are gloriously anachronistic, like J.M.W. Turner’s ‘The March of the Highlanders’ which shows the Jacobite army crossing the North Bridge from Calton Hill. Neither the bridge nor any of the New Town buildings portrayed existed in 1745. (Scott accurately portrays the army filing through Holyrood Park to Duddingston Village.)

Illustrations to The Heart of Mid-Lothian reflect the strangely dilated geography of that novel, where Holyrood Park and the ‘secluded cottage’ at St Leonard’s are so far from Mrs Saddletree’s shop in the High Street, that Jeanie and Effie spend months without seeing each other.

'St Anthony's Chapel, Salisbury Crags', engraved by Robert Staines after Henry Melville (1836) (Corson P.2938)'

‘St Anthony’s Chapel, Salisbury Crags’, engraved by Robert Staines after Henry Melville (1836) (Corson P.2938)’

Digital copies of these engravings can be accessed on the Edinburgh University Library website, the Walter Scott Digital Archive. Some can also be seen in ‘Waverley 200’, an exhibition marking the bicentenary of Scott’s first novel in the Centre of Research Collections, Edinburgh University Library. The exhibition also features many rare items from the Corson Collection, including presentation copies of the first edition of Waverley, French and Italian translations, a chapbook abridgement, and a popular theatrical adaptation. The exhibition is open to the public, Monday to Friday 9 am to 5 pm, until 2 July 2014. Do come along and see the collection for yourselves!

Palimpsest Methodologies Day

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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

Telling Stories with Maps

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May 052014

But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not ‘here, here, here’; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue.  She was all that.

How then to map that? Mrs Dalloway’s words reflect the fact that in literary narratives the sense of where one is may seem to have little to do with physical geography. While Virginia Woolf herself argued against attempting to physically locate a place an author mentions in a novel, since she believed that ‘[a] writer’s country is a territory within his own brain’, our project is based on the idea that the act of mentioning real-world place-names is in itself significant.[1] Woolf’s own liberal use of real-world place-names, albeit used with license, undermines her claims and indicate the broader basis of literary tradition and places in the world that provide a graspable structure to the reader of a literary work. Indeed, at least in terms of the significance of places the passage in Mrs Dalloway concurs, for it continues:  ‘So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places.’[2]

Hestia image

At the Hestia 2 Project symposium, Telling stories with maps, we found ourselves surrounded by scholars from diverse disciplines (including archaeology, history, political ecology, geography, philology, and international law) who were encountering similar theoretical and technological issues and questions concerning exactly what one is doing when one attempts to map qualitative narratives. Considerations of what is lost in translation from narrative to map or map to narrative form recurred throughout the day. Nonetheless, as Øyvind Eide stressed, such media differences can be productive, as long as the limits of the media are acknowledged.

There are also limits caused by availability of media platforms. Agnieszka Leszczynski and Sarah Elwood explored the ways in which hegemonic narratives of spaces and places are being contested through the wider accessibility of GIS media platforms; although in closing Leszczynski noted that nonetheless the majority of such platforms were still being created by tall, white, alpha males. Akiyoshi Suzuki explored the ways in which in Haruki Murakami’s works the dead, the lost and the forgotten are evoked as underlying human relations, for example, the circuitous walk taken by Naoko and Watanabe in Norwegian Wood follows the edges of where the land meets the water in ancient maps of Japan and passes through places relating to spirits of the dead.

Ian Gregory tackled the issue of the unmentioned places in works on the Lake District, by creating maps that make visible when places are mentioned only contingently in order to represent an otherwise indistinctly identified place or path, for example, by showing the likely path taken (from x to y) or place only indirectly mentioned (near x). Their use of the Edinburgh Geoparser to study place-name collocations is confirming the opposing nature of notions of the beautiful and the sublime in Romantic sentiment, since the places to which such epithets are applied do not tend to coincide in the text and, therefore, on the map.

This relates to the question asked of us after our presentation: whether we were not concerned that we would simply be reifying existing concepts of literary Edinburgh. In fact, as we explained, part of the aim of our project is that by uncovering thousands of works that have sunk into obscurity and by tracing the narratives told of place-names in Edinburgh across time we will be able to reflect on existing critical paradigms, such as the dual nature of Edinburgh and its literature, with its old and new town, its anglification and the demotic, and its enlightenment and the repression of the religious reformation. Uta Hinrichs on our visualisation team presented some of the ways in which we hope to bring the texts to life and provide multiple perspectives on the city and its literature (on which more to follow). For the aim of Palimpsest is to provide a new means to reflect on, excavate, and – indeed – celebrate the sedimentary processes which have given our city its literary shape.

– Miranda Anderson and James Loxley

Update: A version of this post can also be read at the Hestia project blog.

[1] Virginia Woolf. 1986. Literary geography. In The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. A. McNeillie. Vol. I. London: Hogarth Press, 35.

[2] Virginia Woolf. Mrs Dalloway, 129.

Apr 242014

The Palimpsest project aims to put literature on the map. To do that, it has to find the places in text where places are named – the textual locations of spatial locations. So, in addressing the challenges, we’ve naturally been thinking about the relationships between places and names.

One particular issue we’ve discussed is how to describe a specific, rather special quality we’re looking for in literary books and chapters. For example, we want to find all and only the passages of text that are obviously about Edinburgh, and places within it. Effectively, we’re looking for texts that have a suitable density of spatial location names. For want of a better term, we’ve been calling this property “Edinburghiness”. But while this mouthful might work so long as we only want to apply our methods to the City of Edinburgh, it doesn’t generalise (to Dublin, or San Francisco, or wherever).

After some discussion, we’ve decided to go with the term “locospecific”, to denote the quality of a text which seems to be “about” a specific place, and so “locospecificity” is the property we aim to measure in candidate texts in the collections we’re analysing. In case you think this is a neologism, the term has actually been used before, with the meaning we want, by Peter Barry in his 2000 book “Contemporary British Poetry and the City”.

While on the subject of names, we’ve also been thinking about names for papers describing our project, and names for the app that we will release to let people explore literature on the map. So far, our favourite paper title is “Lat Long Lit Ling” – latitude and longitude for literary linguistics. And our favourite name for an app is “Biblioscope” – a device for seeing books in a new way. But maybe “LitLong” would link it back to the paper. Either way, we welcome alternative suggestions from all our readers. Because names do matter.

— Jon Oberlander

Places as Portals

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Mar 072014
Plan of Edinburgh from 1631

Looking out at seascapes and hill ranges, a castle perched on a rocky outcrop leads down through labyrinthine closes and wynds to orderly Georgian squares and gardens. Wandering in this city, suddenly you may find yourself on a street that tunnels under another street above, while buildings pass upward across the horizontal levels of the city. Such disorientating alternations of heights and depths, Coleridge on first viewing described as ‘a section of a wasp’s nest’, and as like ‘a city looked at in the polish’d back of a Brobdignag Spoon, held lengthways – so enormously stretched-up are the Houses!’ Edinburgh’s distinctive cityscape has formed over the centuries a literary panorama of equally complex and intricate layers.

What’s in a name? Waverley, the Canongate, the long-gone Tolbooth and Luckenbooths, the New Town: each place name is a portal that calls forth layers of accumulated meaning, as every further reference draws on and diverges from its established coordinates in the fictional and historical works of our literary panorama. Our project is developing methods and resources in order to geo-reference place names in literary works, such as streets or buildings, local areas, or vernacular terms (e.g. “Auld Toon”). We will then examine the contexts and associations around these place names. We will provide an interactive website that will enable other people to explore the dimensions of literary Edinburgh through geo-located extracts of literary works dating from the early modern period to the twentieth century, either while traversing the city streets or from afar via a virtual representation of the city.

Palimpsest is an AHRC-funded project, which involves a collaboration between literary scholars, computer scientists working on text mining, and information visualisation scholars. Our name for the project, Palimpsest, evokes the multi-layered poetic, remembered and imagined city that we aim to reveal. There will also be a number of guest blogs and events along the way that will call on the creative impulses of today’s inhabitants or visitors of the city, with writing and storytelling competitions on ‘The Burgh’. To follow our story of discovering the city’s literary panorama, you need only find your way back here and watch as it materializes before you.

– Miranda Anderson and James Loxley

Edenburck in Schottl map (1631) © National Library of Scotland (