ANOTHER cult Edinburgh writer this week, only a little edgier, bit darker. We jest. Alexander McCall Smith is from the lighter side of town.

For my money, the recently knighted Sir Alexander is second only to PG Wodehouse for lightening your mood. 

If you read him on the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, I guarantee you’ll feel happier than when you set out. Even on arriving in Edinburgh.

Just his titles make you smile: Morality for Beautiful Girls; Tea Time For The Traditionally Built; The Finer Points Of Sausage Dogs; At The Villa Of Reduced Circumstances; The Unbearable Lightness Of Scones. 

His latest title, The Perfect Passion Company, about an Edinburgh dating agency, is out in a fortnight.

A tall, dapper figure, wearing made-to-measure pinstripe suits from Hong Kong, his mission is to show that life can be civilised. Extraordinary idea. He’s collegiate, sociable, and likes, according to an interview in The Independent, feather-light Belgian shoes, tea, bridge with friends, suburban strolls, and saddleback pigs: –“wonderful creatures”. 

More controversially, he also likes Edinburgh – “such a civic society” – and sets many of his books there. And we’re talking many books: he’s written and contributed to more than 100. 

Doing the maths, we conclude he’s prolific, writing around 1,000 words an hour, and publishing four or five new novels a year. He works all hours, sometimes including the middle of the night. 

Yet he remains a jolly fellow, frequently accused in literary circles of giggling. It says here that he’s also a legal scholar, which is nice, and that he’s been heavily involved in bioethics, a subject that I’m far too busy to go into here.

Suffice to say, he was professor of medical law at Embra Yoonie (he’s still emeritus professor at its School of Law), and has served as chair of the Ethics Committee of the British Medical Journal, vice-chair of the Human Genetics Commission, and member of Unesco’s International Bioethics Committee. Jeez, get a life, mate. 

The Herald:

Out of Africa
Rodney Alexander Alasdair McCall Smith began life on August 24, 1948 in Bulawayo in southern Rhodesia (today’s Zimbabwe). 

The “McCall” derives from his great-great-grandmother Bethea, a Dumfriesshire lass. Alexander’s father, a “gentle, nice man”, was a public prosecutor in Bulawayo. 

His mother spent ages writing a saga set in the Congo, which never saw the light of day and was indeed destroyed, at her request, after her death.

His paternal grandfather, Nairn-born Dr George Marshall McCall Smith, abandoned his wife and children in Scotland and ran off with one of his patients to New Zealand in 1914. Ach well. 

Mind you, his memory is revered there. He helped set up a hospital in Hokianga, which Alexander visited in 2014, greeted by his ancestor’s portrait. 

The likeness was uncanny, though George looked somewhat swashbuckling. Difficult to imagine Alexander buckling a swash.

Alexander – Sandy to his friends – had a “reasonably happy” childhood, educated at the “OK in parts” Christian Brothers College in Bulawayo before moving to Scotland as a young man to study law at Edinburgh. He then taught at Queen’s University Belfast and, while there, won a competition for children’s book writing.

He returned to southern Africa in 1981 to co-found a law school and teach law at Botswana Yoonie. 
While there, he co-wrote The Criminal Law Of Botswana. Spoiler alert: the butler did it. In 1984, he settled in Edinburgh were he and his wife Elizabeth bought and renovated a large Victorian mansion on a tree-lined street in suburban Merchiston, the douce capital’s unlikely Left Bank.

A new chapter
HE had 30 books published before beginning the series that bunged him forth into the limelight: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, set in Botswana – “as lovely a country as one can imagine” – and featuring “traditionally built” Precious Ramotswe.

The Herald:

The first novel was published, with a small print run, in 1998. 

By 2009, the series had sold more than 20 million copies in English. His total sales are probs around 50 million, and his works have been translated into 46 languages, with particularly high readerships in Sweden, Singapore and the United States. 

Luckily, he’s an obsessive traveller, skipping forth to attend literary events in any number of countries.

The aforementioned Precious was inspired by Alexander witnessing in Botswana a cheerful woman in a red dress making a clucking noise as she chased a chicken across a dusty yard. Using an inheritance of cattle, Precious establishes Botswana’s “first all-female detective agency”. 

Traditionally inclined, commonsensical, patriotic and positive, she treats each case fairly, her escapades in a drought-prone land related with dry humour.

Another famous McCall Smith series is 44 Scotland Street, which began life as a weekly serial in yon Scotsman. With characters having names like Angus Lordie, Domenica MacDonald, and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, it’s based in Edinburgh’s prosperous New Town.

There are no tragedies or unhappy endings here. All is pleasant, gentle, optimisic. The 17th in the series, The Stellar Debut of Galactica MacFee, published last November, involved a proposed merger of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Yikes!

Other series include the Isabel Dalhousie and von Igelfeld novels, the Corduroy Mansion tales, and the “Scandi blanc” stories set in Sweden. These last-named are an antidote to “Scandi noir”, the crime stories that give ordinary, decent sadists a bad name.

Featuring a detective called Ulf Varg (Wolf Wolf), from Malmo’s Department of Sensitive Crimes, McCall Smith’s Swedish stories are, in the author’s words, “just great fun … Nobody is ever killed.”

Words of Beauty
SIR Alexander has also been killing it on the non-fiction front, with titles such as A Work Of Beauty: Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh and What W.H. Auden Can Do For You.

An amateur bassoonist, he co-founded The Really Terrible Orchestra, “for hopeless musicians”, and helped establish Botswana’s first centre for opera training, writing the libretto for their first production, a version of Macbeth set among baboons in the Okavango Delta. 

In 2014, he bought the Cairns of Coll, a chain of uninhabited Hebridean islets, for around £300,000. Reachable only by boat in good weather, their sole inhabitants are seals and seabirds. 

The keen sailor said that, after his death, the islands would be left in trust for the nation, kept “in perpetuity as a sanctuary for wildlife”.

He added: “I want people who go there to return home, close their eyes, and feel some of the peace and content they can bring.” Just as his books do.