Catriona McPherson’s Edinburgh of Fear
Catriona McPherson’s Edinburgh of Fear
Today we head to Edinburgh, capital of Scotland but more importantly, setting of the new Catriona McPherson’s new novel.
In Place of Fear is set in Edinburgh, my home city, in 1948. That much is clear from a glance at the jacket with Edinburgh Castle on the iconic skyline and a lit silhouette of the old Royal Infirmary.
But the action takes place in a tight little patch of the working-class ward of Fountainbridge, partially in tenements familiar to anyone who’s ever walked around a Scottish city and looked up: Edinburgh’s tenements are no different from Glasgow’s (see Bill Paterson’s Tales From the Back Green, for instance), or from Dundee’s (as depicted in D.C.Thompson’s The Broons) or Dumfries or Dunfermline or anywhere.
Each city’s tenements are however very different one from the other, in the eyes of the people who live there.
A bay window beats a flat front; a so-called “wally close” – tiled passage and stairs – trumps distempered plaster; and a ground-floor flat with a “front garden” is as far above a ground-floor flat with windows directly onto the street as . . . Well, the only analogy I can think of is the difference between leasing a Brighton beach hut or wriggling about on the shingle under a towel.
“Front-garden” earns its quote marks, by the way, because we’re talking about a strip a few feet deep, in full view of the pavement, accessible only by leaving the ground-floor flat by the common stair, coming out the shared door and entering through a gate.
So much for the tenements, showing off about a stone transom here and an encaustic tile there, in the pursuit of individuality. The other main setting in the book has an easier time claiming uniqueness. “The Colonies” are specific to Edinburgh.
Briefly, colonies are short, usually dead-end, streets of purpose-built workers’ homes, funded by benevolent employers and other philanthropists at the height of the industrial age, specifically to raise artisan workers up out of squalor in the slums. They are couthy wee places: gardens bursting with colour; cats sunning themselves on traffic-free cobbles; kids playing out today as they would have in the 40s, no reason not to.
Most Edinburgh locals know the Stockbridge colonies. They’re the smartest in the city, since Stockbridge is Hebden Bridge with even worse weather, basically. I also knew that there were colonies in Abbeyhill, Pilrig, and Shandon, because I know people who live there, but a quick look on Wikipedia informs me of more colony houses in Haymarket, Slateford, Lochend and two different bits of Leith.
In Fountainbridge, lie Rosemount Cottages – the most interesting of all. Rosemount always put me in mind of those odd little London squares that Margery Allingham used for dark deeds in her weirder novels. Why? Why would quiet, pleasing streets of spacious, sturdy, light-filled homes evoke Allingham territory? Well, Edinburgh’s colonies have a particular quirk.
Each terrace consists of a row of upstairs houses, with exterior staircases rising from a private garden to a private front door.
The downstairs house has a private garden and its own door too, but it’s on the next street over. So, the neighbours, who are a floor away from one another, whose windows look out on one another’s drying greens and rhubarb patches, do not share an address and have scant likelihood of meeting. I could never work out whether that’s a sensible response to the lack of a space in an inner city, or a bizarre impediment to neighbourliness, bound to cause trouble. I’m a crimewriter to the bone, though. So I came down heavily on the side of the more interesting answer.
What’s more, the last two colonies houses at the far end of Rosemount, off Gardener’s Crescent, deep in the heart of Fountainbridge, smack in the middle of the city, are not even part of a longer row. Whether the builder miscalculated or there was some good reason for isolating this pair, one up and one down, who knows. In any case, they are squeezed onto a tiny plot of ground, at a dead end, the loneliest spot for miles, perfect for where the fiction fairy was taking me.
BookTrail Boarding Pass: A Place of Fear