Our latest story on Our Town Stories highlights authors who have helped put Edinburgh on the literary map through their own connections to the city or because the city plays a central role in their stories.
We feature Jenni Fagan, Quintin Jardine, Doug Johnstone, Alanna Knight, Alexander McCall Smith, Ambrose Parry, Aileen Paterson, Ian Rankin, J.K. Rowling, Sara Sheridan, Muriel Spark and Irvine Welsh.
The changing face of the city is captured in its various guises from the dark Victorian streets of Inspector Jeremy Faro to the genteel private school of Miss Jean Brodie to the stark realities of Renton’s 1980s Edinburgh.
So, if you’d like to know a wee bit more about the people who created these books and characters closely connected with the city, and perhaps discover some reading gems you’re not so familiar with, take a look at Writers of…
A new exhibition of ceramics by Edinburgh artist Aleksandra Zawada opens on the main staircase at Central Library running from 5 April to 28 May.
Aleksandra Zawada studied Painting at Edinburgh College of Art. She lives and works in Edinburgh. Aleksandra creates hand-built, creature-looking sculptures. Her work is focused on simplicity of forms and yet is playful. Borrowing from an artist’s imagination as well as surveying ancient and oriental ceramics, she creates deliberately irregular, at times rough, works with a distinctive sense of style (and often humour!)
Aleksandra’s pieces are hand-built from mainly raku clay and bisque fired. They are hand-painted using oxides and glazes and then fired again. The artist’s love of colour makes her work not shy away from using strong tones. However, she often uses ones that reference historical glazes. Her sculptures are unique, escaping straightforward categorisation.
Aleksandra writes, “My work is inspired by Ancient; Oriental, Japanese…
A new permanent exhibition, Treasures of the National Library of Scotland, opens on Friday 25 March.
The Treasures exhibition reveals the stories of well-known and surprising items from the national collections, and is set to be a major attraction in Edinburgh.
Visitors will get a glimpse of our vast collections – from the groundbreaking Gutenberg Bible and the handwritten work of Robert Burns to multimedia displays showing early innovations in sound and film. This exhibition provides unique insights into Scotland’s story, and its place in the world.
As part of the UK Web Archive project, NLS are gathering online activity on the topic of the war in Ukraine, with a focus on the relationships with Scotland. This includes news and commentary, charities and fundraising, demonstration and community responses from Scots-Ukrainians, Scots-Russians and Scots-Poles.
A group of cultural heritage professionals – librarians, archivists, researchers, programmers – have set up Save Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online (SUCHO). They are asking for volunteers to help identify and archive sites and content, while they are still online. You do not have to read Ukrainian or Russian to help.
Edinburgh Libraries are celebrating International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month with a public mural project!
You’ll have noticed how few public monuments to women there are in Edinburgh, despite the tireless efforts of local groups such as the Elsie Inglis Campaign. Yet there are literally hundreds of notable women, past and present, whose contributions to our shared history and our city deserve greater recognition. At Central Library, we’ve decided to redress the balance by creating out own public monument to Edinburgh’s female pioneers and trailblazers. We put out a call to local women’s groups, charities, and organisations such as the National Library of Scotland, and asked for nominations for our mural. We asked local academics and campaigners to help us uncover the lives and stories of many of Edinburgh’s unsung heroines, and we did some digging into the Library’s own resources.
International Women’s Day (IWD) on 8 March acknowledges the cultural, political, and socioeconomic achievements of women. Each March, we also commemorate Women’s History Month which highlights the contributions that women have made to society throughout the years.
2022 has been designated Scotland’s Year of Stories, which celebrates and promotes the wealth of stories inspired by, created or written in Scotland. Exploring the records available on the ScotlandsPeople website and other published resources, we spotlight three very different, but remarkable Scottish authors and their achievements for IWD: Annie Shepherd Swan, Josephine Tey and Dorothy Dunnett.
ScotlandsPeople is a unique treasure-trove of information. It is the official Scottish Government website which provides access to digital images of statutory registers of births, deaths and marriages, census returns, church records, legal records and more.
Annie Shepherd Swan CBE (1859-1943), novelist [Married name Burnett Smith, pseudonym David Lyall]
When I began transcribing the borrowing registers of the Advocates Library, I expected to find that law reports, Session Papers, periodicals, and books of law were popular with the erudite lawyers of the Faculty of Advocates. I took stock upon the completion of the transcriptions for two registers covering the period from 1 April 1788 until 24 February 1791 (F.R. 262.a/15 and F. R. 262.a/16). These registers were chosen in accordance with our policy of focussing on particular decades as described here.
It was a surprise to find that the most-borrowed title was not a legal text or a work of history or philosophy. It was Le cabinet des fées, ou collection choisie des contes des fées, et autres contes merveilleux, ornés de figures a work of 41 duodecimo volumes published between 1785 and 1789.
Fifteen advocate borrowers between them borrowed 159 volumes from Le cabinet des fées between April 1788 and February 1791 This is nearly double the circulation of the next most-popular work, the Annual Register, another multi-item work which had a mere 76 loans in the same period.
It was clear that I needed to find out more about this collection of fairy tales and why the advocates were so interested in it.
There is a kind of Writing, wherein the Poet quite loses sight of Nature, and entertains his Reader’s Imagination with the Characters and Actions of such Persons as have many of them no Existence, but what he bestows on them. Such are Fairies, Witches, Magicians, Demons, and departed Spirits. This Mr. Dryden calls the Fairy way of Writing, which is, indeed, more difficult than any other that depends on the Poet’s Fancy, because he has no pattern to follow it, and must work altogether out of his own Invention.
— The Spectator, No. 419 (12 July 1712)
In August 1773, the Curators of the Advocates Library submitted a report to the Dean of Faculty about the results from their survey of the collection. They found several faults, including that the Library was ‘remarkably deficient in the modern classics’ and had ‘commissioned from abroad a very complete Collection of the most approved French and Italian authors’. This marked a change in policy from 1757 when Library Keeper David Hume resigned his position over a conflict about his purchase of French stories and satires.
French literary fairy tales emerged in the salons of Paris and the court of Versailles in the late seventeenth-century. They were inspired by Italian stories that featured ‘fairies, chivalry, and star-crossed lovers’. Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, a novelist, memorialist, and travel writer was first to publish a French literary fairy tale, ‘L’Île de la félicité’, in her novel L’Histoire d’Hypolite, comte de Duglas in 1690. She went on to be one of the most prolific writers of fairy tales. Between 1690 and 1715 the majority of French fairy tale writers were women. Their stories featured elaborate descriptions and the assurance that the hero – or more frequently heroine – will prevail. The stories could also be subversive and and satirical. D’Aulnoy’s ‘Belle Belle’, for example, has a heroine who disguises herself as a man and tricks a corrupt king into restoring property he has stolen.
Charles Perrault’s Histoires ou contes du temps passé of 1697 included elements of folklore to his stories and increased their appeal for child readers by adding the character of Mother Goose as the supposed story teller. Perrault, along with his niece Marie-Jeanne L’Héritier, an author fairy tales in her own right, championed the French literary fairy tale as superior to the Greek and Roman tales of the ancients.
The translation of the Arabian Nights into French by Antione Gallard from 1704 to 1717 provided fairy tale writers with new ‘oriental’ motifs including genies and exotic locations.
The French fairy tale proved to be an almost endlessly adaptable format encompassing a ‘myriad of forms, including oriental, sentimental, philosophical, parodic, satirical, pornographic, and didactic tales’. The genre became more male-dominated as the decades passed. Jean-Jacques Rousseau used ‘La Reine Fantasque’ to promote his thoughts, but, for the most part, the stories came to be seen as more for pleasure than for instruction.
The Cabinet des fées so popular with the advocates of Edinburgh in the late 1780s was the brainchild of its editor Charles-Joseph Mayer. Mayer collected and published what he saw as the best French literary fairy tales of the past century. He preferred moral tales with instructive messages and excluded tales that he identified as lewd or parodic. Readers of the Cabinet des fées would find classic tales by d’Aulnoy, Perrault, and many others packaged in an accessible pocket-sized format with illustrations.
Ten of the fifteen advocate borrowers of the Cabinet des fées were mostly admitted to the Faculty in the 1780s. They would therefore have been young and starting in their legal careers. Others, such as John Maclaurin, who became Lord Dreghorn in 1788 having been admitted to the Faculty in 1756, were more established. Maclaurin’s interest in the tales may stem from his studies of ‘the language and literature of France’. William Miller of Glenlee, the future Lord Glenlee (admitted 1777), married in 1778 and had nine children so it may be that he shared the tales with his growing family. Half of the borrowers, however, were unmarried at the time of the borrowings so it seems likely that the fairy tales were borrowed for their own enjoyment. Perhaps they borrowed the tales to improve their knowledge of French culture and language just as the Curators of the Advocates Library had envisioned a decade before.
Scotland, of course, has its own history of fairy belief and fairy writing. There is not the space to explore this here, but it will be interesting to see of another advocate, admitted in 1792, will borrow any volumes of the Advocate Library’s copy of the Cabinet des fées. I mean, of course, none other than Walter Scott who would become no stranger to ‘the fairy way of writing’.
The Minute Book of the Faculty of Advocates, Vol. 3: 1751-1783, ed. Angus Stewart (Edinburgh: Stair Society, 1999), p. 246.
 For this controversy see Brian Hillyard, ‘The Keepership of David Hume’, in For the Encouragement of Learning: Scotland’s National Library, 1689-1989, ed. Patrick Cadell and Ann Matheson (Edinburgh: HMSO, 1989), pp. 103-109.
The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, ed. Jack Zipes (Oxford: OUP, 2000), pp. 174-5.
 Her tales were frequently translated into English and she influenced British novelists including Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe. Christine A. Jones, ‘Madame D’Aulnoy Charms the British’, Romantic Review, Vol. 99, nos. 3-4 (2008), pp. 239-56.
Edinburgh Central Library are celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March with a focus on the women of Edinburgh. We’re exploring women who have made contributions to various professions and fields of learning as well as the experience of ordinary women living in Edinburgh. We’re also celebrating Women’s History Month, by creating a stencilled monument to the trailblazing women of Edinburgh. Central Library will be offering guided workshops where members of the public can contribute to this celebratory mural in honour of our city’s women.
Stop by our Central Library Staircase display to view items from our collections and read about a selection of women represented in our collections.
Thea Musgrave – composer Born 1928 in Barnton, Edinburgh and after a boarding school education, Thea returned to Edinburgh to the University to study Medicine but changed to Music. After a…