The Edinburgh Literary Companion
By Frank R. Shaw,
FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, U.S.A.
This is a wonderful book. How long did it take from your initial
research until publication? What other books have you written, if
any? If you do not mind sharing with our readers, what do you have
planned for the future regarding your next book?
I suppose I’ve been researching it for over thirty years! I was at
boarding school in Edinburgh in the 1970s from the age of 10 to 18
as my parents lived in Bermuda and I had family in Edinburgh. I
grew to love the city and to spend much of my free time, whilst my
contemporaries were at rugby matches or shopping, exploring the
city. It is a magical city because quite rough country such as
Arthur’s Seat is literally at the foot of the High St and you
never know what wonderful vista you will find as you turn a
corner. I still haven’t walked every narrow alley in the Old Town.
Much of this exploring was done on foot, but during my last year I
secretly kept a bicycle which allowed me to explore further a
field. A few houses had plaques showing a famous person had lived
there, but otherwise I would stumble across an association in the
course of reading history books or novels and felt that
association should be better known.
When I returned to Edinburgh after Cambridge as a post-graduate to
study American Espionage (but that’s another story) I decided I
would write a different kind of travel book about the city of my
youth. One that was about the people who lived there, how the city
had affected them and how the city had been described in fiction
and non-fiction. After several rejections by publishers who felt
there was no market for the book,
The Edinburgh Literary Guide
was published in 1992 by a small Edinburgh publisher called
Canongate, received some good reviews, sold its modest print run
and went out of print.
I forgot about it as I pursued a career as a journalist, set up as
a literary agent and published other books on American spies and
the writer John Buchan. In the late 1990s, I noticed a publisher
had a series of literary companions to cities, such as Dublin, and
asked if they would be interested in adding a book on Edinburgh to
their series. They were and I quickly updated the book. Much had
changed in literary Edinburgh in the intervening eight years, not
least Ian Rankin and Edinburgh becoming the fictional crime
capital of the world. The book was published in 2000 as
Companion to Edinburgh
and I was invited to talk about it at the Edinburgh Book Festival.
This time, I saw it might have a longer term future as an
alternative guide to Edinburgh and something residents, visitors
and expatriates might equally enjoy. I sold the book on a limited
licence and was therefore free to again update the book following
the city’s successful bid to become the first UNESCO City of
Literature in 2004. For the third edition, published in July 2005
and now called The
Edinburgh Literary Companion,
some three hundred novels set in the city were added to the
existing list of two hundred and fifty, the Richard Demarco line
drawings dropped in favour of moody photographs and maps redrawn.
Six months after publication, I’ve already built up a large file
of new material to be added so it shouldn’t be long before there
is yet another edition if I can think of the right title.
I’m now writing a life of the British spy Guy Burgess, another
subject on which I’ve been collecting material for a very long
You mentioned in an email to me that your father has written a
book on Edinburgh. Please give us a brief comparison of the two
books as to emphasis and divergence?
My father’s book Auld
Reekie: An Edinburgh Anthology,
his first at the age of eighty and with an introduction by
Alexander McCall Smith, was published just before Christmas 2004
and has had extremely good reviews and sold well. Whereas my book
is arranged as a series of walks and concentrates on Edinburgh’s
literary associations, his book has a much wider appeal. It is a
portrait of Edinburgh seen through the eyes of residents, visitors
and well-known exiles such as RL Stevenson and Muriel Spark. Some
extracts are a few lines, others several pages and he wittily
juxtaposes his quotes to show how even the same experiences or
events in Edinburgh can elicit very different reactions. The book
moves from ‘First Impressions’ to quotes on well-known ‘Places’,
‘People’, ‘Visitors’ and, to my mind, the most original and
memorable section ‘Everyday Life’. His quotes give a picture of
Edinburgh enjoying itself and in adversity and also looks at the
various institutions which determine Edinburgh’s make-up -
Parliament, the Church and various professions such as the Law and
Medicine. He is now writing a book, though nearly blind, on the
Scottish feudal barony.
What does working as a literary agent entail? I think our readers
would enjoy hearing your answer.
Every day as a literary agent is different. I represent over a
hundred authors ranging from academics such as the new Professor
of History at Edinburgh, Tom Devine, who has written the acclaimed
The Scottish Nation
and The Scottish Empire,
to historians, such as Michael Fry who has just published a
revisionist book on the Highlands and delivered a book on the
Union of 1707, to young journalists such as David Stenhouse whose
book describing the Scottish takeover of England over the last
three centuries has generated a lot of debate. And that’s just the
Scottish authors. Add the memoirs of actors such as Sir John
Mills, Patrick MacNee and David Hasselhoff, the
Cambridge Guide to Literature in
and Oxford Classical Dictionary, Mind, Body & Spirit books and
literary fiction and you have some idea of the variety. You can
read about a ‘typical’ week on my website www.andrewlownie.co.uk.
Your book is chocked full of bits and pieces of information about
those who have walked the streets of Edinburgh in days of yore.
What process did you use to cultivate all this information on so
walking and checking. The information comes from a variety of
sources - novels, histories, memoirs, newspaper accounts,
interviews on websites - but it then has to be double-checked and
then I walk the route repeatedly for every edition to make sure
everything I describe is as it was. The Internet, Google Alert,
Abebooks and emails from readers all play a crucial part.
One particular person you quote a good bit is Sir Walter Scott, a
true Edinburgh resident. I have noticed distinguished authors like
you, Magnus Magnusson and Arthur Herman have quoted Scott quite
extensively in recent books. Have you noticed a “comeback” for Sir
Walter in recent years as to his popularity?
I don’t think Walter Scott, like my hero John Buchan, ever went
out of fashion but it is true their books are now more widely
available, readers are attracted by their sharply drawn
characters, intricate plot lines and strong narrative pace,
television and film have discovered the filmic qualities of their
books and their important role championing and popularising
Scottish history is increasingly being recognized.
Some of us in America are not as familiar with one of your “own
particular loves,” namely Robert Garioch. Can you tell us more
about him to whit our appetites enough to check him out on the
Internet or in bookstores?
I probably quote more Robert Garioch (1909-81) in the book than
any other poet, simply because he writes so evocatively and
powerfully about Edinburgh life and his poetry is so accessible,
witty and memorable. He saw himself in the tradition of his
predecessors Robert Fergusson, Robert Burns and Robert Louis
Stevenson (is that why I called my son Robert?) and deserves to be
as well known. His poetry is now widely available and I’d
encourage you to read him and Norman MacCaig, Stewart Conn…
How difficult was your self-imposed goal of trying to appeal to
local residents of Edinburgh and first time tourists? Do you feel
you achieved your goal?
I will leave the residents and tourists to judge but clearly the
level of knowledge and interest does vary and one can’t please
everyone. I’ve tried to include lots of quirky and less well-known
information, have lots of anecdotes, keep the narrative moving
along and let the quality of other people’s prose carry the book
but to also offer through the footnotes the chance to find out
more detailed information on particular subjects of interest.
You mention in the preface of your Edinburgh book that “…over 500
novels have taken the city as their backdrop - a hundred of them
published in the last fifteen years…” Why, in your opinion, have
there been so many people writing so many books about that city?
Does the same hold true of Scotland’s other major city, Glasgow,
or “the capital of the Highlands”, Inverness?
I think Edinburgh is unique because it was both the capital and
with its university a great European city; it was always seen, as
now, as part of any tour of Great Britain and it was a place of
literary pilgrimage, not least for European writers such as Hans
Christian Andersen who came to pay homage to Walter Scott. It is a
divided city with extremes of wealth and poverty, a paradoxical
and subtle city which appeals to writers and a breathtakingly
beautiful one. It is also a small and intimate city so more easily
known than larger metropolises and its fortunes throughout history
have of course been inextricably linked to the fate of Scotland.
My wife, Susan, and I were in London this past September (2005)
and were guests of the London Burns Club for a rather remarkable
luncheon at the Caledonian Club. Since you live in London with
your family, are there other clubs or attractions for those of us
who visit London where we may enjoy meeting with Scottish people?
I think the best way to meet Scottish people in London is through
the two Scottish churches - St Columba’s, which I attend, and
Crown Court. Both are very friendly and a wonderful mix of
regulars and visitors, young and old. Perhaps also clubs such as
the Caledonian but you have to be a reciprocal member of another
club or at a rugby match for London Scottish. David Stenhouse in
his book on Scots in London,
On the Make,
shows how easily the Scots assimilate and that there are few
Scottish ghettoes but does list a few places where Scots may be
I notice that Robert Louis Stevenson is another of your favorites.
On my trips to Scotland, I have not seen a statue, cairn or plaque
in his memory. I know from the eighty or so books I have on
Stevenson that he greatly impacted Scotland with his writings. On
page 74 on your book, you mention “the (Princes Street) Gardens
have several literary memorials including one to Stevenson - a
grove of birch trees designed by Ian Hamilton Finlay…” which I
plan to seek out on my next trip. Why do you suppose there are so
many memorials to Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott (more so on
Burns) but not to Stevenson?
Stevenson had a rather ambivalent view of Edinburgh, though one of
the best books on Edinburgh is his
and Edinburgh repaid the compliment. He perhaps was seen as too
critical of the city of his birth and someone who left it as a
young man rarely to return but that is all changing. North Berwick
are holding a literary festival in his honour this summer and I
suspect he is now more widely read and remembered in the city than
Burns or Scot.
Not many people are aware of the two trips Benjamin Franklin made
to Scotland. It is said that Franklin received the Freedom of the
City Award from George Drummond, Provost of Edinburgh, and was
recognized as a Guild Brother. I notice you mention Franklin in
your book and wonder if, in your research, you came across much
information on Franklin’s trips to Scotland?
Here’s a good example of someone else knowing much more than I do
and I will investigate further for the next edition. I’m also
planning to add more on the visits of Jules Verne, Hans Christian
Andersen and Washington Irving about which I wrote very little.
You write that “the three most important writers connected with
Edinburgh” are probably “Robert Burns, Walter Scott, and Robert
Louis Stevenson.” I am surprised and pleased that you include
Burns since he was only there twice as a visitor while Scott and
Stevenson lived there. Does Burns impact the literary history of
Edinburgh so much that in 2005 he is listed by you before Scott or
The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh is devoted to Burns, Scott and
Stevenson so I’m not alone in my assessment. All three wrote some
of their best work there, were inspired by their time in the city,
have written vividly about it and are recognized as writers of
international note. Burns’ visits to Edinburgh were instrumental
in bringing his poetry to wider notice and one might say the same
of a writer who deserves to be as well-known – James Hogg author
of that haunting classic on Calvinism
and Confessions of a
My book lists almost a hundred ‘Edinburgh Literary Figures’ and
that’s not all of them - I was criticized for not including JK
Rowling. There are now plans for a new and expanded literary
museum and perhaps the emphasis of the three will fade.
Your book is a good read. I would have loved spending an afternoon
on the second floor of the Princes Street Starbucks viewing “the
castle” across the street, with a cup of cappuccino and your book.
It couldn’t get much better than that! So, thank you for your
courtesies to me. Is there anything you would like to say to our
readers as a parting word?
Thank you for the opportunity to tell you a little bit about my
book and my beloved Edinburgh. I hope you enjoy both and I’m
always interested to hear from others about the city’s literary
associations. (FRS: 1-31-2006)