Tuesday, 27 May 2014

My Research Trip to Edinburgh


On the 5th May I started on my journey to go to Edinburgh to research my first historical fiction novel, The Touching of Stones. I have already done quite a lot of research on the internet, and through books, but quite honestly there is nothing quite like researching in the place that you are writing about.

I needed to get a feel for the place, the atmosphere, hear the accent, in short, just drink it in. At first it was all overwhelming. For one thing, the main accent that I kept hearing on my first day out and about, was American, then it was Chinese. Finally I tuned into some Scottish accents. Well, that took me by surprise. At first I found it hard to latch onto. Then, slowly, I unravelled the sounds. It is a soft accent, like listening to music. The rhythm of the speech is delightful. Now all I need to be able to do is to write in the accent. Some authors that I have read manage this very well, and I hope that I will be able to do the same.

I had planned for my book to be the first of a trilogy, though, since having visited Edinburgh, there may well be more than three. The Rosslyn Chapel, and St. Giles' Cathedral will be featuring to a large extent in book one of The Touching of Stones. I was, therefore, enthralled when I finally visited these places of worship.

I visited St. Giles' Cathedral first as it was literally just around the corner from my hotel. I was so excited that I could hardly contain myself. I donated my £3 entry fee, then paid my £2 for the permission to take photographs, and then ventured, slowly, to my first point of interest; the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial.
Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial
This is a large bronze casting made in 1904 by Augustus St. Gaudens, the renowned sculptor from America, and a great admirer of Robert Louis Stevenson. It really is an imposing memorial. I took my photo, the first of many, with my mobile phone. I then walked, awe struck, along the wall looking up, and back, and over.... trying to take it all in. I stood stock still and just listened. It was 09:45, and there was the hubbub of the public whispering, rising and falling, and then there was silence. The silence grew, surrounded me, and brought a peace that then followed me all around the Cathedral no matter who else was there. It was like being in my own bubble. My thoughts were tumbling as I viewed each piece of wonderful stone work, statuary, wood carving, stained glass window. I have been in many Cathedrals, admiring them for their architecture, their beauty and their sanctity. St. Giles' has a special aura about it. One that I haven't experienced in any of the others. It may be the multiple side chapels, each with their own quietude, a special ambiance of serenity.
The Memorial of James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose

  I felt almost as though I were intruding as I leaned forward to read the inscriptions. I whispered an apology as I took a photo. I stepped back to gaze up at the highest point and just wonder how they ever achieved such craftsmanship.

I wondered further along and came across another side chapel. A £2 charge for entering this one. My goodness! I had just entered The Thistle Chapel. The wood carving in this chapel was astounding in its detail.
An otter devouring a fish
Intricate filigree work all about, and on the pews were carefully carved animals. It felt as though, once we were all gone, the animals would scamper about so real were they. As you can see by the photo on the left, the detail in the carving is quite astonishing. Up close and personal, the otter has an angry face, almost challenging anyone to take his/her fish away. There were many such carvings in this side chapel, all of equally splendid workmanship. 
Detail from the pews

Study the detail in this one to the left. The intricacies of the flowers and the berries. I stood for many minutes studying this particular carving. I was trying to imagine the artisan working with his chisels, meticulously paring away the wood to reveal the objects within. I have always been in awe of both wood and stone carving. In awe of how the artist sees inside and then releases a three dimensional object so that we can see what was in his imagination.

I gradually made my way around the cathedral. To be truthful my neck ached from looking up at the wonderful roof. All cathedral roofs are a mathematical wonder to me. They are both beautiful and inspiring. Just look at all the detail in the picture below. The picture doesn't do it justice, but it is breathtaking. It really does look like the roof is stretching up towards heaven. 

Detail of the ceiling
In my young days I spent every Sunday in church and Sunday school. I would gaze up into the highest parts of the ceiling of our church and begin to wonder how on earth was it possible for all that to stay up there. Those highest stretches reaching across from pillar to pillar. It was as though they were outstretched arms pushing the ceiling upwards, stopping it from falling on us, the congregation. It was then that my initial fascination with both church and cathedral architecture hooked me, and eventually, in my retirement years I was drawn to the idea of writing a book featuring stone masons. I have gleaned quite a bit of knowledge over the years, but since deciding to write my book I have studied the architecture much more closely. As many would have seen on Facebook, I have bought several books on stone masonry and cathedral building. Some of my Facebook friends jokingly asked if I had planning permission to build a cathedral in my garden... Why of course I have!

Detail from the pulpit
Detail from the pulpit
Here are some of the exquisite details from the pulpit in St Giles' Cathedral. As you can see, the detail of the work is truly intricate. This work leaves me in wonder. The skill, the concentration, the determination to transfer a picture from the mind into a three dimensional object, it just truly astounds me.

Not all of St. Giles' Cathedral is from the 1400s, in fact there is very little of it left from that time now, but I find that it gives a real sense of how a building can still be relevant even though it has gone through many additions and alterations though the centuries.

John Knox
I finish with John Knox, (c1513-1514 - 1572), of which there is a really formidable statue. His statue is a rich black, and quite startling at first sight. It was cast by Pittendrigh MacGillivray in 1904, and is placed near the west end of the Cathedral. I have to admit that I just stood staring at the statue for quite some time. I was trying to remember my history about this man. The statue is life-like, although I would think a little larger than life-size, and if you stand really close to it, it is as though the man that was John Knox knows you are looking at him. It almost feels an intrusion. I did, however, study him quite closely. I wish that I could have asked him the questions that were buzzing around in my head. Would I have liked the answers? Probably not, but I'm sure we would have had a really interesting discussion. When standing directly in front of the statue and staring directly into his face, I saw a man full of religious fervour, his face has a great intensity about it. He is indicating to his Bible, as if reinforcing a point that he is making. His left foot looked in readiness to walk toward me, and I took a step back. I looked at him, his hat, his beard, his clothes, his shoes...I nodded to myself, thinking, this man was not going to go unheard. Nobody was going to ignore him or his sermons, and that was very evident from the stance of the statue. Yet again I was in awe of the sculptor, the person who could bring an historical figure to life so that we could all experience 'the man' that was John Knox.

The next day I visited Rosslyn Chapel. I had wanted to for so long, but never imagined that I would ever visit Scotland, let alone Edinburgh. I asked the receptionist at my hotel to call me a taxi, and sat down in the foyer to wait for it. While I was waiting I looked at my WIP notes that I had in my jotter. I had underlined the parts of the Chapel that I wanted/needed to look at that were important to my story. Like St. Giles' Cathedral, it too had undergone many changes since the 15th century.

The Chapel taken from the Visitor Centre
When the taxi picked me up, it was like having my own guide to Edinburgh. What a mine of information he was. He pointed out places of interest, and I was getting neck ache twisting this way and that way. Then we parked at the Rosslyn Chapel. Oh my goodness! I'd seen it on TV the week before I went to Edinburgh so I knew all the scaffolding was down, and so wasn't surprised by that being gone. What I was surprised about was the fact that it had a most modern Visitor Centre an immense juxtaposition to the Chapel. Gifts, trinkets, café with a wonderful view over the hills, and everything homemade. Homemade scones, soup, bread, and the aromas were very enticing. 

Anyway, I bought my ticket and guide book and was told that a talk would take place in the Chapel in about 10 minutes. So off I went. As I walked through the door into the Chapel all I could hear was the rumbling murmur of the visitors awaiting for the talk to start. It was packed. I found myself a seat at the back on the centre aisle end. I busied myself looking up at the ornate carvings on the ceiling, and down the walls. The many carvings of the Green Man, the flowers, the birds, everywhere I looked there was an image full of meaning. The stonework on the outside of the Chapel is in stark contrast to that of the inside. We were not allowed to take photos of the inside, but I can assure you the difference would need to be seen to be believed. Just imagine most of it had been open to the elements for years, and despite there being evidence of algae still, the restoration is extraordinary.

A detail from the rear of the Chapel
The work involved in the restoration must have been arduous and the results are incredible, and quite simply stunning. The Apprentice Pillar, for example, famous for its beauty, is so different from its many pictures. Up close it is more detailed, more intricate, more 'holy' than can be put into words. The picture to the right of this page is a detail from the rear of the outside of the Chapel. It is one of several alcoves with stone seating. I would imagine that they were necessary to sit out of the wind. The Chapel is built on an extremely windy hill. When I stepped into the alcove, it was almost still and silent, then just step back away from it and the noise of the wind takes over. So I stood in the alcove for a moment and tried to imagine what it must have been like back in the day. It started to rain, so reluctantly I moved to go inside the Visitor Centre again.

I went to the café to have some much needed lunch and a warm-up. As I waited, I got my notebook out again, scribbled some notes of what I had seen, and what the guide had said in her talk, which had taken about 35 minutes. All very interesting. My soup and roll arrived. Too hot to eat, so I sipped my tea and flicked through my guide book. The sky darkened, heavy clouds, pouring rain, gusting wind. The café filled up with customers looking for somewhere to sit and wait it out. It became so noisy that I just put my notebook away and finished my soup.

I had been given a card by the taxi driver to call them when I needed to go back to town. I did this, and only waited ten minutes. As I sat in the taxi, drifting away in my thoughts about what I had seen, my WIP started fitting together. I was becoming excited now. Having seen this most beautiful of places with my own eyes I began to have a sense of my characters, their foibles, their lives, their speech. Up until this point, most of the accents that I had heard in Edinburgh had been foreign, but at The Chapel, I heard Scots. Familiar words taking on new sounds, faces so animated, so friendly, so caring. I was falling in love with Scotland. My maternal grandmother was born in Stirling over 120 years ago. My mother visited Scotland many times in her childhood, but we, as a family, never went there. I was but a 16 month old baby when my grandmother died. I don't remember her voice at all, but my mother always told me that it was a soft accent. This I can now understand. I never quite knew what she meant by a 'soft accent' but it is a most fitting description.

This time my driver was the silent type, so I had plenty of time to think about my day. I may possibly have to go again. Take more detailed pictures of the outside. All in all, though, it was very productive. I had such a wonderful visit, especially the inside of the Chapel. Only when you have seen it with your own eyes, can you truly appreciate its splendour, its ambiance, its holiness, after all it is a living working Chapel, used every week for services. Quite simply outstanding, outstanding.

I have been back home now for just over two weeks. My notes now have annotations around them. I've started to read the books about stone masonry that I bought once I got back home. They are so interesting, absorbing even. Writing my historical novel is going to be really enjoyable, even down to the mundane aspects of a life. 

My main character is Nychol Granger. At first I thought him to be the youngest child of a master stone mason. But he told me otherwise. He told me he was, indeed, the eldest child, and because of that he felt that the story should lead with him. I listened to him, I did, but I'm not sure yet where I want him to come into the story. He's angry with me. He wants to be on the first page. I will have to do an edit or two, but I'm sure he will be pleased where he comes into the story, I know I am. And, well, Nychol will just have to grin and bear it, won't he? Or will he get me to change my mind?

Louise can be found on Facebook here

Her book Future Confronted can be purchased here


  1. Patience Nychol, patience. Superb stuff Louise; a really enjoable read of your foray north of the border.

    1. Thank you Rob! I don't think that Nychol will take any notice of you though :)

  2. A truly wonderful post about your trip. I enjoyed reading it so much. Scotland is magical. Nychol sounds like quite an interesting chap. I can't wait to read his story. xx

  3. I just now am freed from relative house guests and so am a little late in reading your post. Wonderful! I especially like the way you seem to communicate with your surroundings. And are sensitive to each statue, landmark , sounds. individually. This was a thoughtful, contemplative report. I will look forwad to your novel! Best regards

    1. Thank you Judith. I'm glad you enjoyed it.