Scottish Books Long Weekend


PART OF THE Caledonia Noir ISSUE

The Shifting Landscape of a City

Doug Johnstone has called Edinburgh home for a very long time. But only recently has he tackled it as a landscape in his novels. Here he explores how a city becomes a new thing in the hands of a writer.


For a long time I think I was a little bit scared to write about Edinburgh. My first novel, Tombstoning, had some scenes in the Scottish capital but was mostly set in Arbroath where I grew up. My second book, The Ossians, began and ended in Edinburgh but the rest of it was set all round the Scottish Highlands. And Edinburgh featured again rather obliquely in my third novel, Smokeheads, which was set in Islay but which concerned four main characters who all came from the city.

Looking back on it now, it’s clear to me that I was skirting around the issue, avoiding staring headlong at the city, despite the fact that I’ve now lived there for well over two decades. Initially, I think I felt that Edinburgh was such a well-mapped literary landscape, what could I add to that body of knowledge? Over the centuries, so many great Scottish writers have written about Auld Reekie, it felt rather impudent to think I could improve on any of them.

But I slowly came to realise that it’s not about improving or competing with all the writers who had gone before. Just because Irvine Welsh, Muriel Spark, Walter Scott and Ian Rankin have written about a place, doesn’t mean that I can’t write about it too.

My version of Edinburgh, I came to understand, is just as valid as any of theirs, and it’s very different too. My experience of Edinburgh is different from Muriel Spark’s, different from Ian Rankin’s, different from Kate Atkinson’s and different from Alexander McCall Smith’s. It’s very different from Alexander McCall Smith’s, to be honest.

None of this was really a conscious decision but more of a slowly creeping realisation that I had this wealth of knowledge about the place, I’ve lived the majority of my life there now after all, that it was crazy not to use that.The Jump

And so I did. My next three novels – Hit and Run, Gone Again and The Dead Beat – were all set entirely in Edinburgh. Even more than that, they’re all set in specifically constrained areas of the cities, usually away from the tourist traps and ancient stonework of the city centre too.

Generally, I write physically constrained books anyway. It helps add to the sense of claustrophobia, the sense of impending doom, the sense that the characters can’t escape the awful fate that awaits them. And so with my Edinburgh novels, it was exactly the same.

Hit and Run centres around an incident on Queen’s Drive underneath Salisbury Crags, and the characters rarely get farther than a mile away from that focus. Gone Again is set almost entirely on and around Portobello beach, while The Dead Beat focuses on Duddingston and the surrounding area, although it does at least make it as far into town as North Bridge for a bit of last minute drama.

I recently took part in an event at Bloody Scotland, Scotland’s crime writing festival in Stirling, entitled Capital Crime: Edinburgh Noir. Alongside fellow authors James Oswald and Neil Broadfoot, we talked about the city and the place it has in our writing. And what was clear from that event was just what I had been thinking all along – that each writer has a different city, a different Edinburgh, in their mind when they write, and each one is equally valid.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a city can be written and rewritten infinitely. Much is often made of the fact that Edinburgh is a city of contrasts – the rich and the poor living cheek by jowl, the good and the bad rubbing shoulders in the dark pubs of the Old Town. You know, the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the city’s dark past and all that.

And while all that is true, I have a feeling that that juxtaposition exists in any city, indeed, in any place. Writers are usually tuned to that dichotomy, that contrast, and if they’re any use at all at telling a story then they can squeeze some drama out of it in their own individual way. That’s what I try to do, at least.

Edinburgh does have the advantage of an abundance of dramatic scenery – if you’re going to write something dramatic, it helps if you can do it with Arthur’s Seat or Edinburgh Castle looking over your characters.

But for me, I think the most important thing is to really know the place I’m writing about. There are plenty of authors who can write brilliantly about somewhere without ever having been there, and that’s great for them, every single one of us does it differently. But for me, I have to soak up a place before I write about it, I have to know the little secrets, the local knowledge, to hopefully lend the whole thing at least some veracity.

And it’s not as if I’m now just sticking to Edinburgh as a setting for the foreseeable future. My most recent novel, The Jump, is set almost entirely in South Queensferry in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge, and the book I’m working on at the moment is set completely in Orkney. But will I return to Edinburgh? I think so. I’m certainly not scared to write about Edinburgh anymore.

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