• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

The case for Doyle's home city feting author

YESTERDAY morning I got off the bus into Edinburgh a few stops before Princes Street, at the point where begrimed Leith Walk is within touching distance of the gilded New Town.

It is not one of the city's lovelier quarters. It is dominated by the brutalist architecture of the St James Centre and two noxious, scary roundabouts on to which traffic is thrown like balls on a roulette table. My quest was to find the birthplace of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was born on May 22, 1859, at 11 Picardy Place, and baptised just across the road in St Mary's Cathedral.

In commemoration of all of this there is a statue not of the writer but of his famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, which was erected in 1991 by the local branch of the Federation of Master Builders. As ever, Holmes has a pipe in his hand and is wearing a deerstalker hat and an Inverness cape, though Conan Doyle did not explicitly say he wore either. I then went looking for a plaque, which would identify a house as that inhabited by the Doyle family.

The first I found was intriguing but unilluminating. "On this site Sept 5, 1782," it said, "nothing happened." A few doors along, however, there was another plaque, this one in memory of Holmes's creator. It indicated that the house in which he had lived was no longer extant, having doubtless been demolished to accommodate yet more cars.

Nearby, however, is the Conan Doyle pub which is particularly proud of its cottage pie "for two", oblivious perhaps to the fact that the man who lent its premises its name was vegetarian.

There were no tourists posing for photographs, as they do outside the cafe on George IV Bridge where JK Rowling wrote her Harry Potter books; nor is there a Conan Doyle trail, as there is, say, for his near contemporary and admirer, Robert Louis Stevenson, or Alexander McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street series.

While it would be wrong to suggest that Edinburgh, which basks in its status as a Unesco World City of Literature, has forgotten one its most popular and internationally celebrated sons, it does seem that he is barely on its radar. This is odd, not least because Conan Doyle is having what people in the media call "a moment". The principal reason for this is the BBC series, Sherlock, which has had glowing reviews and attracted nine million viewers per episode.

Taking the Victorian sleuth out of his comfort zone and setting him down in the here and now, it stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. The series has been sold to more than 20 countries and the New York Times is not alone in its feverish expectation of another "season".

Why, then, is Conan Doyle not as feted hereabouts as he should be? It is not an easy question to answer. That he is Scottish is beyond dispute; he lived in Edinburgh largely without interruption until he was 10. Thereafter, he was sent to Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, which is regarded as the model for the fictional Baskerville Hall and where he was educated by Jesuits. However, he returned to his birthplace and attended its university as a medical student.

It was then, he later recalled, that he fell under the spell of Joseph Bell, surgeon at the infirmary, whose deductive method of interrogating patients he gave to Holmes. "To his audience of Watsons," Conan Doyle later reflected, "it all seemed very miraculous until it was explained, and then it became simple enough."

Perhaps one reason why there is less fuss made over him in the capital than others of his ilk is that he went away.

Voluntary exile is rarely a good career move for those hoping for support from one's own backyard. Another reason may be because he decided to locate Holmes in London.

But as anyone who has read the books, as opposed to having watched the films and TV series, will attest, it is London in name only. Like Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which was also set there, the Holmes stories are evocative of a much smaller, more manageable and moody place, where mists swirl, the cobbled streets gleam in the gloom, and there are dark deeds afoot. Where else could this be but the town formerly known as Auld Reekie?

Contextual targeting label: 
Arts and Entertainment

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

205657