I had an unexpected morning free in Edinburgh (much to my disgust at the time, as I had formed careful plans which went pear-shaped). To distract myself from thoughts of the things I was going to say to Person X when I found them, and should have said to Person Y who had told me of the dropping off of the plans’ wheels, if only I had thought of them at the time and not been constrained by a lifetime of not yelling at people in public, I trotted up the hill to Chambers Street Museum, the headquarters of the National Museums of Scotland (or the Eastern Front, as some of us used to call it from branches which were not the headquarters, but enough of that). I love a ramble around a non-specific museum, and once I had calmed down a bit over my pear-shaped plans, I enjoyed myself.
My first port of call was an exhibition on Scots and their achievements worldwide, just a few representative ones like Elphinstone the Indian explorer, David Livingstone the missionary, and the Chambers brothers with their press (astonishingly they set up their press when they were 19 and 17 respectively). Scribbling Murray ideas in my notebook, I wandered on to look at bicycles. Someone at a signing event asked me recently how constricting it was to write crime novels set in the early 1800s before modern advances in crime investigation. In the course of a rather long-winded answer explaining at least in part why I would rather write historical crime rather than contemporary, I said that my only regret was that Murray was unlikely ever to have a go on a bicycle. At that point one of the audience said ‘What, not even a penny farthing?’ Confidently I replied ‘No, they’re a bit later!’ but it was one of those things that began to niggle me – was it a test to see I knew my historical period? Was I wrong? Well, I can now report to my anxious inner self that asks such questions at four in the morning – I was not wrong. Penny farthings couldn’t happen till someone invented long metal spokes, so they are indeed later. A scoot-along bicycle with no pedals appeared at Lord Hopetoun’s estate around 1819, but the first actual pedal-propelled, treadle-driven velocipede was invented by Kirkpatrick Macmillan around 1840. It looks like hard work, but perhaps Hippolyta or Patrick could try one in a few years’ time!
Some fun, then, in a costume exhibition, where I discovered precisely what it is that makes Hippolyta’s vast sleeves stick out so far and found a lovely evening dress which will appear in a later Murray (not on him, I hasten to add), and read a bit about attitudes to crinolines and the development of non-natural dyes.
One of my favourite things about Chambers Street Museum, though, is the grand hall which used to be the entrance hall. It’s large and bright and airy, not much what we think of as Victorian architecture but certainly something between a cathedral to knowledge and a riverboat. Large exhibits come and go, not quite as frequently as the tourists who fill the hall with noise but never quite seem to crowd it. The powers that be have taken away the carp pond, unfortunately, but there are still some patches of lovely encaustic tiles, and I love the round radiators that encircle the pillars all through the museum – though James Watt here seems to have tired of their appeal (and no, the picture would not rotate. Just would not.).
After Chambers Street Museum I wandered further up along the line of South Bridge into Nicolson Street, which Murray knows well though to be honest I was only there to look for a bank. But on my way I noticed the signs for the Surgeons’ Hall museum, which is now open every day (it has been for a while, but when I first went there, many years ago, it was open by some kind of special arrangement – I was lucky enough to know someone who worked there). The Playfair Building, which houses the museum, was purpose built and opened in 1832, a little while after Patrick would have known the buildings when he was a student at Edinburgh University, across the road. It’s a lovely neo-Classical building, arranged now with glass and steel stairs and bridges, to house the surgeons’ museum, with sections on the heart, the history of surgery, anaesthesia, Sherlock Holmes, and finding subjects for dissection (for of course we are in the place of Burke and Hare), and next door the Wohl Pathology Museum, ranks of specimens in glass jars, pickled or dried and varnished, with wax injected to highlight veins and keep the floppier shapes in order. The two rooms are two-storey with plain iron railings to form galleries on the upper floors, and they are well lit for the benefit of nearly two centuries’ worth of students who studied the models and specimens there. There is a wonderful essay by Kathleen Jamie in her collection Findings (one of my favourite books) on the museum, so much better than I could ever manage that I’m not even going to try (the Hvalsalle in the Natural History Museum in Bergen, Norway, is so proud of the essay she wrote about it that the book is everywhere in the museum). Outside is an appropriate bronze sculpture, particularly striking against the 1832 building, and by the time I took this photograph I was almost restored to good humour, though much in need of lunch.
I shouldn’t shop when I’m cross: I spend too much money in a kind of defiance of frustration with events. However, the Scottish textiles book looks pretty interesting! And the pottery one will follow up on a small exhibition in that lovely entrance hall – I’m sure they’ll both come in very useful … honest.