Culture

The Literary Allure of Edinburgh, Explained

Edinburgh Castle in Edinburgh, Scotland/Photo © Shutterstock

Editor's Note:

Jonathan Skariton has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience and experimental psychology. He works as a cognitive neuroscientist for the largest fragrance manufacturer in the world. Séance Infernale is his debut novel.

Edinburgh is a Gothic mystery. There is fiction and horror, death and, on occasion, romance. There are things that go bump in the night. It’s the kind of place that makes you think witches – the Hansel and Gretel type, not Sabrina, The Teenage Witch – are real.

When I arrived in Edinburgh in the fall of 2001, the city was dank, cold, and wet. I walked the climb to Calton Hill, an extinct volcano, an easy walk up from the east end of Princes Street. The rain fell horizontally, and the wind blew freezing.

Then something extraordinary happened. Columns and classicism appeared out of nowhere. I reached the top of the hill and found a glorious skyline with a Grecian touch.

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, if you wanted to be among the greatest thinkers in the arts and sciences, Scotland was a hive of genius. The icons of the Scottish Enlightenment carried significant achievements in their fields and, in the process, they changed the world. The monuments on top of that hill were proof of this: The Scots had commemorated their people and intellectual giants like David Hume and Adam Smith, and they had decided to do it in the style of Ancient Greece. I felt a bizarre sense of pride by proxy.

On the other side of the hill, looking toward the High Street, hundreds of windows illuminated along grandiose townhouses above streetlamps once burning gas, up to the floodlit battlements and mossy walls of the castle. Night was falling and the soul of the city strolled proudly through its streets. People became shadows. It was a scene straight out of a Gothic novel: A place of mist, gloomy silences, winding alleys, and the unshakeable feeling that the city was watching you.

As I stood there past dusk, the northern light flickering across the sky in between scurrying clouds, I watched the city’s multiple layers of time and history promise to unfold, and in the dark they somehow felt more accessible.

This was Edinburgh’s drama.

A few years earlier, J. K. Rowling had started writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in cafés like the Elephant House. Later, she would finish the series at the Balmoral. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born here – Sherlock Holmes was inspired by Joseph Bell, a lecturer at the city’s medical school. Robert Louis Stevenson was also born here, and the setting in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde screams of Edinburgh in everything but name. A gravestone mishap in Edinburgh inspired Charles Dickens to write A Christmas Carol. From Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley to Ian Rankin’s gripping Tartan Noir, Edinburgh is bursting with stories. However, I believe this is not because of the beautiful vistas, the historic buildings, or the rich culture. Rather, it is the darkness that is deeply ingrained in this city, a world where Alexander McCall Smith’s Sunday Philosophy Club co-exists with Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. Even the most innocuous or noble aspect of Edinburgh’s history has a darker side to it. For instance, John Napier invented natural logarithms; he did it to calculate the date of the Apocalypse.

Every now and then an old close (narrow alley) on the most visited part of town might reopen. You could have walked past it every day on the way to work or school and you wouldn’t have noticed it. This is a way Edinburgh has. It is a way of hidden structures and hidden history. At times you get the feeling of being a long way from anywhere worldly, that this place is reserved for fairy tales and there is a whole other world waiting to reveal itself as long as you pay attention. Then you get the underground city, a labyrinth of tunnels and vaults and the ominous depths of buried spaces where nefarious history still clings to the walls.

And so Edinburgh happened to form the backdrop for the Victorian Gothic mystery part of what became Séance Infernale, and I came to know more about the city than the place I was originally born. It was in Edinburgh, rather than Boston or Athens or Lausanne, all of which I inhabited during my younger years, that I became most acutely aware of the hidden.

I came to love Edinburgh long before Séance Infernale started to write itself. I wish every visitor to Edinburgh discovers what I found on that hill the day I understood this city would haunt me forever – that I was cursed to dream about it, roam its passageways, and listen to its secrets, and both its magic and its poison were now in the wound.