BOOK FESTIVAL – Reading The City

An Edinburgh City of Literature event, director Ali Bowden introduces author and poet James Robertson, who examines how writers past and present have chosen to represent the varied delights and charms of Auld Reekie.

Robertson reads passages from Sir Walter Scott and Victorian writer Isabella Bird, set in and around the Royal Mile. Scott’s Mile, represented by passages from Guy Mannering, is a place of winding closes and covered stairs where friends and business partners meet in packed taverns. Writing as social commentary, Bird’s Royal Mile is plagued by poverty and filth, where women and children wait hours to draw water from one of the city’s municipal wells.

The readings serve to highlight Edinburgh’s dual nature: a place of enlightenment, letters and learning, sitting cheek by jowl with what Bird refers to as one of the most poverty-stricken cities in the country.

We are transported towards the New Town courtesy of an evocative extract from Robert Fergusson’s Auld Reekie, then find ourselves amidst the confused commercialism of Princes Street, via passages from Joan Lingard’s Prevailing Wind and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. Alasdair Gray’s 1982 Janine ushers us towards the literati of Norman MacCaig’s Milnes Bar, then we follow the Davy Balfour of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Catriona through an almost unrecognisable Edinburgh on a trip to Pilrig House.

An extract from one of Robertson’s own novels, set amidst the shady delights of the Cowgate and Grassmarket of the 1970s, completes a revealing and enjoyable round trip through Edinburgh’s literary history, which serves to illustrate not only the diversity of the city’s many facets, but also of its home-grown literary talent.

In the second segment of the event, Robertson introduces the audience to a very special guest – none other than Sir Walter Scott himself. In an entertaining and tongue-in-cheek half hour, the celebrated man of letters returns from the grave to give us his views on culture, progress and – given the current year – politics.

This proves an enjoyable and diverting end to a love letter not only to Edinburgh, but also to the notion of what it means to be Scottish – in the past, present and forwards into a future which none of us can truly predict.

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