Auld Reekie Retold: New stories of an old city

Our colleagues over in the city’s museums are launching their biggest collections project yet. Over the next 2 years, the Auld Reekie Retold team will be working through over 200,000 objects in stores across the city, checking records, photographing objects and researching the stories which bring the city’s collections to life.

The Auld Reekie Retold team explain more about their extensive and exciting project:
“The aim of the project is to better understand these objects so that we can preserve them for the future and find new ways to interpret them, with and for you, the people of Edinburgh. The objects are connected with the whole group of the city’s museums, from the Museum of Childhood to Lauriston Castle.

Keep checking the Auld Reekie Retold project page to see what we have discovered. Over the coming months, we will be hosting a range of interactive events online so that you can get involved with the collections, share your knowledge and add your family stories to their histories.

You can also see some of the most exciting or unexpected discoveries on Capital Collections in the first Auld Reekie Retold online exhibition.

A curator examining an archival object in a museums collections store room.

Earlier this year, Museums & Galleries Edinburgh stood in solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement and pledged to play an active role in standing up to racism.  Auld Reekie Retold is an important opportunity for us to understand the origins of the collections and the way they have been catalogued. Throughout the life cycle of the project, the impact of Colonialism will be highlighted, seeking to educate and bring new perspectives and hidden stories to light. Future phases of the project will involve working with diverse communities across Edinburgh to record objects in new ways that better reflect today’s world.

Current Covid-19 restrictions mean that our team is working from home, sharing stories and organising events online. We will be hosting real-life exhibitions and events in the museum venues and stores as soon as it is safe to do so. We look forward to welcoming you.

Please follow us on Social to hear the latest about the work we are doing and how to get involved:

Facebook: @MuseumsandGalleriesEdinburgh
Instagram: @museumsgalleriesedinburgh
Twitter: @EdinCulture

Please tag us in your posts: #AuldReekieRetold

What is Auld Reekie?
Auld Reekie is a nickname for Edinburgh. It’s a Scots phrase meaning “Old Smokey”, and refers to the thick smoke from coal fires in the Old Town tenements. There is no agreement about the first use of the nickname, but it seems Edinburgh was overcrowded, stinking and smoky from at least the 1600s. The early 18th century poets Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson both use the phrase, and Fergusson’s poem “Auld Reekie” in particular is a vivid, colourful depiction of a day in the life of the city.”

FUNgineers: Digging up the past & the wonderful world of archaeology!

Laura from Wester Hailes Library got in touch with us to tell us about their FUNgineers STEM group for children and the fantastic archaeology videos she has been making to keep the group’s activities going whilst the library has been closed.

Find Laura’s Archaeology activity videos on the Archaeology Scotland website.

“We run a children’s STEM club at Wester Hailes Library, aptly named FUNgineers. Over lockdown, I thought it would be fun to make archaeology activity videos for FUNgineers to post on our library Facebook page. But why archaeology? Simply put, archaeology is awesome! I admit, I am a little bit biased as I used to work as an archaeologist on construction projects, but archaeology is a brilliant cross-curricular, hands-on subject spanning the humanities and STEM subjects. (Believe me, I didn’t think I would use geometry in working life when I was at school!). There is also nothing more exciting than excavating material and knowing that the last people who handled the items, were those using them hundreds or thousands of years ago. It really is history at the cutting edge of the trowel.

Laura (on the left) pictured in her previous job!

So, I made a little collection of videos covering different aspects and periods of archaeology with a STEM or higher order thinking skills (hands-on) activity: interpretation in archaeology; the Neolithic; Ancient Egypt; the Iron Age; and Viking Age. I got in touch with Archaeology Scotland, a leading educational charity promoting Scotland’s archaeological heritage. They run a Heritage Resources Portal and our activity videos have now been added to their website!

One thing I am so excited about is to bring more archaeology activities and the skills which archaeologists use, to share with our kids at FUNgineers once we’re able to run activities in the library again.

Take a look at the Wester Hailes Library entry on the Archaeology Scotland website to find the videos for Primary School level resources and home education.”

If you’re interested to find out more about the wonderful world of archaeology, there’s also lots more information and activities on Archaeology Scotland’s website and their Heritage Resources Portal.

Reading around the world by Hope Whitmore and Cecylia O’May

One part of the library I have always felt drawn to is the travel spinner. Diagonal to the travel guides, it’s easy to walk past on the way to other books – useful books, which tell you where to stay in foreign cities, what restaurants to eat at, how to see the sights in a day. Suddenly though travel guides are no longer what they were. Instead of a selection of possibilities, we are faced, on opening them, with a world of impossibility. There is a sadness to these useful books, a wistfulness to the festivals listed, the convivial atmosphere cited, the bustling cafes and packed streets described.

2020 has been the year that travel went away, leaving us alone, as it were on a dusty train platform, our little case in hand, with no place to go, and no way to get there. Travel guides are poetic reminders of a world we once had, and will have again, but maybe not for a while.

The travel spinner is different. These books are not designed for purpose, rather they represent adventure, exploration and discovering something as yet undiscovered.

In this spinner are tales of Arctic adventures, walks across the Middle East, people who relocated to France or Spain or Italy and found something of themselves on the way. Spanning decades and centuries, the travel spinner tells not only of destinations the authors have visited, but the dusty slopes or frozen tundra they traversed to get there, and the people they met on the way.

While travel guides feel sad, robbed for now, of their purpose, these narratives of adventures old and new, ranging from Robert Byron’s The road to Oxiana to Rory Stewart’s The Places In Between charting his walk across war torn Afghanistan in 2002, the travel spinner contains books which can transport you not only to different places, but also different times, even in these Covid days.

Here, library staff members Hope Whitmore and Cecylia O’May choose their favourite books which can take you on adventures, even as you sit at home.

Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory MacLean is Cecylia’s favourite travel book, although as the member of staff who runs the Found In Translation Book Group, she is someone who literally reads around the world.

Berlin by Rory MacLean is not your typical travel book. Although it tells the story of Berlin, it is not your typical history book either. It takes you on a journey through Berlin with people who lived there. Starting with the portrait of poet, Konrad von Cölln in medieval times, and arriving at the twenty-first century and the story of Ilse Philips, a child who came to the UK in the Kinder transport. Along the way it tells the stories of Frederick the Great, Kathe Kollwitz, Marlene Dietrich, John F. Kennedy, David Bowie and many more characters who shaped that great city. 

First and foremost, it tells the story of Berlin from its brightest to its darkest moments. It’s a great read not only for those who know Berlin but also for those who have never been. This book will inspire you to go and visit one day when it’s safe to do so.”

Hope, who works in Central Lending, cites her favourite travel book as Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning.

“As young man, with very little money, Laurie Lee set out from his family’s small village in Gloucestershire, on foot, to London, where he lived in boarding houses for a year, scribbling poetry and making money where he could, before boarding a boat to Spain. 

‘Take me with you,’ say all the girls, and before he leaves his landlady’s young daughter – a child – stands on tiptoes, kisses his cheek and whispers ‘take me with you,’ too.

Flawed by the very things which create the magic — the youthful exuberance of the young Laurie Lee, and the nostalgia of the older author looking back on days which were almost certainly not as innocent and carefree as he thinks — As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, is enchanting, evocative and immersive, taking the reader to Spain in 1935. A Spain with long dry roads, bosky wine, dry bread, friendly people, and the rumblings, distant but ever nearer, of fascism.

The book ends with Laurie Lee being unwillingly rescued; evacuated to Gibraltar, with other British citizens, and from there taken home. The next year, he took a boat to France, crossing the Pyrenees in the snow alone to reach Spain and join the Republicans in their battle against Franco, as Fascism came in like an unstoppable wave over much of Europe. He wrote of this experience in A Moment of War.”

You may not be able to travel at the moment, but the travel spinner awaits you in the newly reopened Central Lending, ready to take you on adventures the world over.

Six of our libraries have reopened for browsing and borrowing. Please book your visit in advance via our online booking form or by phoning the library.

How to cure an earworm – and other musical niggles!

Once again, we hand over to Douglas from the Music Library who this time tells us how to cure an earworm…

“There will be no medical advice given at all, in the process of the blog.

I have recently been suffering from an earworm, a little snippet of music which wheedles its way into your head and stays there until you workout what it is or why its there. Sometimes they are easy to recognise and you would think easy to dismiss, Sarah Millican the comedy performer was on Desert Islands Discs and one of her choices was Paul McCartney and The Frog Chorus, which is a fine choice and with its lyric of “We all Stand together” a great sentiment for where we are today, as long as we stand two metres apart and perhaps wear a mask, but I digress. A great choice but one that stayed in my head for weeks and writing about it now has put it back in my head.

The other kind of earworm is more difficult to deal with, if you cannot put a name to it and you have no idea why it’s there it is much more tricky to budge. I have been suffering from one of those lately but more of that in a moment.

In an episode of the hit comedy “The Big Bang Theory” entitled “The Earworm Reverberation”, Dr Sheldon Cooper is troubled by a short snippet of tune which he cannot put a name to and has no idea why it’s there, this infuriates him, which in turn infuriates his friends. Eventually he solves his earworm, naming it as Darlin’ by the Beach Boys. Knowing this, the title and the lyric, bring him to the realisation that he must win back his ex-girlfriend Dr Amy Farrah-Fowler and curing his earworm.

For most people, the earworm is a benign happening which for the most part lasts 15-30 secs, for 92% of people they happen once a week. Although there seems to be a majority of people who find the experience, as said earlier, benign, 33% described it as unpleasant with 15% going as far as to say it was disturbing. These figures are from an article in the Scientific American.

The fact that there are facts and figures about this phenomenon, means that people have done work on earworms. Erudite analysis have been produced, papers written by learned people, about why a snippet of a tune appears in your head and why it should annoy you for a little while.  One of those is Dr Vicky Williamson, an independent authority and consultant on the psychology of music who produced a paper and did research with the aid of the good listeners to BBC Radio 6’s breakfast show.

Dr Williamson collect many experiences of people’s earworms and concluded much from that information.

Triggers for earworms include:-

  • Recent music exposure – my experience with The Frog Chorus
  • Repeated music exposure
  • Word triggers or associations – the word Faith on a shoebox from the shop called Faith, on a shelf, caused the person to hear George Michael sing his hit song Faith, every time that person sat down in their office. The solution was to move the shoebox to where it could no longer be seen.
  • People triggers – where sight or memory of a person is associated with a song
  • Situation trigger – weddings can cause you to remember your own first dance song)
  • Stress – another person tells of a time when they were first to sit an important exam and the song Nathan Jones by Bananarama was stuck in that person’s head. Now at moments of stress, into their head pops Bananarama singing Nathan Jones.
  • Dreams
  • Mind wandering

The trigger for this article was my own earworm weeks ago. I was walking it to town when a few bars of a tune entered my head and would not go away. It was a short extract from a work I knew well and, as Thomas Beecham told a NY taxi driver who asked him not to whistle, “You my dear fellow, can only hear me whistling: I can hear the full orchestra.”

I could hear the full orchestra playing this slow building, hypnotic extract and I found myself willing the orchestra to go on to a place in the music in which I could put a name to it. This continued for weeks listening to the same few bars, over and again, as if on some cruel repeat, but just yesterday I succeeded in naming the piece which had been following me for weeks.

As I said I know this piece well and when I  finally came to my eureka moment  I shouted out “Symphony of Psalms” by Stravinsky, which caused my follow shoppers to throw me a glance.

In 1978, for the Higher Music exam, I studied two works, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra written in 1943 and premiered in 1944, this work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who also commissioned the Symphony Of Psalms in 1930 for the same Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary. In 1978 I choose to write about the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra for my exam. What caused me to hear that short extract from the last section of the Symphony of Psalms I have no Idea, I have listened to it many time since 1978. So, I found a recording to confirm my theory. Has it cured that particular earworm? As yet, I have no idea.

In my short readings on earworms it would seem that there is no lasting cure, if you are prone to them, they will return. There are tricks to alleviate them, the main ways to reduce your earworm problem is to engage or distract:

Engage – engage the earworm by listening to the full song or piece from beginning to end, so it is no longer a fragment, it is a full work.

Distract – do almost anything to take your mind of the little snippet. Read, sing, play an instrument, do D.I.Y, anything and hopefully if you distract yourself fully, wormy worm will wriggle away.

When my cure came in a eureka moment it was not before I had scoured the playlists of Naxos Music Library and watched concerts on Medici.TV containing likely suspects.

If your earworm is from the world of classical music, Naxos classical on the library’s webpages may guide you to a solution to your worm problem.

If the snippet you are searching for is some cool saxophone playing or some frenetic scream lead trumpet, then Naxos Jazz might be able to find the home of your critter.

Alternatively there are hundreds of hours of concert footage and opera performances on Medici.TV, which you could use to either help or distract you on your search for a cure!

If your earworm problem is from the rock, pop, folk worlds I am afraid we cannot, as yet, help with that. We do not have any apps for those genres but there are websites/apps which can.

Good luck and may all your earworms be little and solvable.”

“We never realised we were making memories – we were just having fun.”

Today’s blog is written by Stuart Laidlaw who over the past few months has added hundreds of images of Sighthill to Edinburgh Collected, our online community archive.

We’re incredibly grateful to Stuart for uploading his wonderful pictures and memories of growing up in Sighthill during the late 1940s to mid 1960s to Edinburgh Collected so that this area of Edinburgh and this time of huge change in the city is better represented in our collections.

We never realised we were making memories – we were just having fun.

Stuart with his cousins in the back garden of the prefab at 11 Calder Drive, 1955

Back in 1930, a walk along the Calder Road from Longstone to the Union Canal would have meant a stroll past farms and fields on both sides of the road.

By 1950, the Broomhouse, Parkhead, Sighthill, Calders Prefab Estates and the Sighthill Industrial Estate had replaced most of them.

By 1970, the prefabs were gone, replaced by high rise flats.

I lived in the prefabs at 11 Calder Drive from 1949 until it and all the other 536 were demolished in 1965/66.

The prefabs on Calder Drive, Sighthill, 1949

Childhood was a time of walking safely the mile or so to and from school up to four times a day.

We could play happily in the streets or surrounding fields.

We went to Sunday School or Band of Hope.

We attended Cubs, Brownies,Scouts ,Girl Guides or the Boys Brigade.

Life was almost pollution free.

In the prefabs we had our own gardens.

So much happened that is now forgotten.

So much now disappeared without a trace.

Section of street plan showing Sighthill Prefabs and Industrial Estat 1965

I was inspired to contribute to Edinburgh Collected when I discovered that so little information about the area was available on the Internet.

With the help of the ex-pupils of Murrayburn Primary School from the 1940s,50s and 60s, I have gathered together photographs and memories of that era, many of them never before seen in public.

I hope that the Scrapbooks will bring alive the atmosphere of the times, and will prove both enjoyable and informative to present and future generations.

Stuart Laidlaw

View Stuart’s page on Edinburgh Collected to enjoy his wonderful collection of picture memories and scrapbooks depicting life in Sighthill during the post-war years.

Pentlands Book Festival 2020 online

The Pentlands Book Festival kicks off tomorrow, Tuesday 13 October with the War Poets Memorial lecture given by Dr Jane Potter. She will talk about Wilfred Owen’s letters which served as his “only diary” and now also his autobiography.

Dr Potter’s talk will premiere on YouTube on Tuesday 13 October at 7.30pm.

The festival also includes virtual sessions with Jackie Kay, the art of illustration by Metaphrog, local history, local authors and a community writing project.

To see the full programme and get involved, visit the Pentlands Book Festival online.

All of Us: Advice and Support for Families

We invited Carla, NSPCC Scotland campaigns manager, to tell us about a new campaign, All of Us being run with Edinburgh Child Protection Committee.

Carla and Sheen in front of All of  Us banner

NSPCC Scotland campaigns manager Carla (Left) and Sheena, Children and Families, Social Worker in Edinburgh, at All of Us community events

Looking after a child can be a challenge for all parents at times but even more so in recent months with social-distancing measures put in place to contain Covid-19.

The lack of respite from children’s needs or relationship strains will have taken their toll on many parents; some will have lost their jobs and be experiencing financial difficulties and there will be those who have suffered illness and bereavement.

These pressures and anxieties will have been intensified by the fact that families were having to cope without access to their usual support networks.

Many children have now returned to school and people are able to meet friends and family outside of their homes. However, we are all living with the uncertainty of how long this will last because of the possibility of stricter social-distancing measures being imposed in the future.

It’s so important that parents know that, whatever the situation, support is out there and there is somewhere to turn when they need extra help. That is why earlier this year, NSPCC Scotland teamed up with the Edinburgh Child Protection Committee to launch the All of Us campaign to let families know where and how they can get advice and support.

One of the organisations involved in the campaign is Stepping Stones North Edinburgh – a charity that supports young parent families.

A 20-year-old mum, who receives support from this charity, said:

“It’s good to be able to talk to others and know that we’re all in the same boat. It makes you realise you are not alone, no-one judges you and it’s confidential. I sometimes go to a session feeling really stressed but leave feeling chilled and happy to see my son and in a better place to play with him.”

A 21-year-old mum-of-two, who is also supported by the charity, said:

“Being a parent is the hardest job in the world, no matter what age you are or your kid is, and if you’re struggling just ask for help because there’s always someone out there.” 

Here is a link to a YouTube video of two mums supported by Stepping Stones talking about the importance of reaching out for help.

At the start of the year we held a number of community events across the city and then in April we brought together information on our web page about organisations and contacts where families could turn for help during lockdown.  This included information on support offered by public services, voluntary agencies and charities to support people who need it. Some examples are food banks, financial advice, crisis loans, activities for children and support and advice on home learning.

We have also sent this information in food boxes to more than 300 families across the city and via email to parents through schools. And we have been reaching out to families needing extra help with a targeted social media campaign.

The details on our web page are regularly updated so people know what support services are available under current circumstances.

The different organisations involved in the campaign have also been working together to gain insight into how they can best support families and protect children across Edinburgh, in online workshops. We are now planning on creating a webinar about neglect – the signs, impact and what to do –  tailored for adults working with children and families in Edinburgh. 

And, next month, we will be putting on a Virtual Fun Day with organisations across Edinburgh for families, who will be able to sign up to the different activities for free.

To find out more about the campaign and about available support visit

For parenting advice and support visit NSPCC helpline or call 0808 800 5000, weekdays 8am to 10pm and weekends 9am to 6pm. People can also contact Social Care Direct on 0131 200 2324.

Six Edinburgh Libraries Reopen from Tuesday 6 October

The first phase of reopening libraries will see a selection of branches across the city opening on Tuesday 6 October.

The six branches are:

Central Library
Kirkliston Library
McDonald Road Library
Fountainbridge Library
Stockbridge Library
Newington Library

Initially at least, services will be restricted. As you might expect, numbers within buildings will be limited and social distancing measures will be in place. Face coverings are mandatory in Libraries.

From Tuesday 6 October you can:
return your books
pick up Hey Girls sanitary products

You will have to book a slot to:
browse and borrow books
use a public computer
apply for a National Entitlement Card (bus pass)
collect hearing aid batteries

For more information visit the Libraries Reopening page.

You can make your booking online here.

Or by phoning one of the six branches above.

We appreciate your support and look forward to welcoming you back.

Edinburgh Libraries are supporting NHS Scotland’s Test and Protect. To stop the spread of Coronavirus we’ll record your name, contact telephone number, date of your visit, time of arrival and departure. We have a lawful basis to process your information. Contacting people who might have been exposed to coronavirus is an important step in stopping the spread. Your information will be held securely, controlled by City of Edinburgh Libraries and will be destroyed after 21 days. Your information will only be used if requested by NHS Scotland or statutory partners. You have the right to have your data erased or corrected. Full Collection of Data Privacy Notice. 

Book Week Scotland

Libraries Week is an annual celebration of the best that libraries have to offer. In 2020, it takes place between the 5th-10th October and this year’s theme is “Your Passport to Reading”.

Even with our libraries being closed for a long period this year we have still endeavoured to provide our readers with access to quality reading materials through our downloadable Library2go collections. So why not celebrate Libraries Week with us by exploring these services that have truly proved a passport to reading during lockdown.

Library2go provides a fantastic range of free ebooks, audiobooks, newspapers and magazines that you can use on your tablet, smart phone or computer. Sign in using your Edinburgh Libraries membership number and PIN. Forgotten your PIN? Use our PIN Reset service. Not a library member? Use our online Join the Library service.

Newspapers – get access to your daily newspaper without leaving the house. You can get 250 UK newspapers including the Edinburgh Evening news, The Scotsman, The Herald, Scottish Daily Mail, The Guardian and the Daily Record on our PressReader service.

eBooks – thousands of best-selling books for adults, teens and kids can be found on OverDrive. Read through the OverDrive website your computer or with their brilliant Libby app on a phone or tablet.

Audiobooks – listen to best-selling books with fantastic narrators on our OverDrive, RBdigital, BorrowBox and uLIBRARY sites.These four downloadable audiobook services give you a wide range of adult, teen and children’s titles to choose from.

Magazines –  hundreds of UK and worldwide magazines are available to read through RBdigital and PressReader. So whether you’re in to Hello!, Amateur Gardening, Good Housekeeping, Auto Express, TV Times, BBC Good Food or Amateur Photography we’ve got it covered.

There are clear instructions on how to use all these services available from Any further questions please contact

Maths Week Scotland

Here at Edinburgh Libraries our Children and Young People’s facebook page will be celebrating all things mathematical next week as they help celebrate Maths Week Scotland which runs from the 28th September until the 4th of October.

Join us throughout the week on our facebook page for all our usual activities but with a number or counting theme!

Maths week Scotland have kindly funded our new digital maths ebook collection for children which you can borrow using your Edinburgh Libraries card. Simply install the Libby app on your tablet or smartphone or go to the OverDrive website on your computer and login with your Edinburgh Libraries membership card and PIN.

Maths Week Scotland have a fantastic range of events and activities over on their website  – and you can follow the news on twitter with #Mathsweekscot.

Fountainbridge Library in 1940

Alice Strang is a Curator and Art Historian.  As part of Edinburgh Doors Open Days 2020, she takes us to Fountainbridge Library in 1940, thanks to photographs in Capital Collections

Fountainbridge Library exterior

Unknown photographer, Fountainbridge Library, with Murdoch Terrace on the left and Dundee Terrace on the right, 1940

Fountainbridge Library stands on the corner of Dundee Street and Murdoch Terrace on Fountainbridge. It opened to the public on 11 March 1940. It replaced the combined ‘Nelson Hall and West Branch Public Library’ of 1897, which had proved to be too small and too expensive to maintain.

The new building was designed by the architect John A. W. Grant and it was constructed between 1937 and 1940. It is a rare and important example of modern Scottish architecture. It is a four-storey building which consists of two wings on either side of a central corner tower; the back is stepped so that the top floor is only one room deep. The main features of the exterior are the large windows, which fill the open-plan interior with natural light.

The stone carving above the entrance, of a fountain under a bridge, is by the sculptor Charles d’Orville Pilkington Jackson. It is inscribed ‘Fountainbridge Public Library 1939’ – which is wrong! The library was meant to be called ‘Dundee Street Library’ but the Public Libraries Committee liked Pilkington Jackson’s design so much they decided to change the name, whilst construction delays meant the library opened a year later than planned.

Pilkington Jackson was also responsible for the panels on the library’s exterior. They feature papyrus reeds, from which the paper on which books are printed is made, as well as a god of knowledge. The largest panels feature a working man (signified by his flat cap) reading whilst a librarian hands books to a mother and child. All of them wear contemporary clothes, showing that this building was – and remains – a place of learning for everyone .

Interior of Fountainbridge Library  with tables layed out

Unknown Photographer, The Nelson Hall at Fountainbridge Library looking towards the back of the building, 1940

The ground floor consisted of the Nelson Hall, now the main Library Reading Room and the Newspaper Room, now the Banfield Room for computer and community use.
The Nelson Hall was named after the publisher Thomas Nelson Junior, whose bequest funded the original and new buildings. It was used for concerts and lectures, held on the stage at the far end, under which 350 chairs could be stored. The last door on the left was an ante-room for performers and speakers and is currently used as a staff room. The nearby lavatories were only for gentlemen!

Interior of Fountainbridge Library

Unknown Photographer, The Nelson Hall at Fountainbridge Library looking towards Murdoch Terrace, 1940

During the day, the space was set up as a Games Room, with thirty tables at which draughts, chess and dominoes could be played.

Interior of Fountainbridge Library with tables and chairs

Unknown Photographer, The Newspaper Room at Fountainbridge Library, with the right-hand windows looking on to Dundee Street, 1940

The adjoining Newspaper Room was through a glazed internal wall. It contained fourteen adjustable, sloping reading stands, to suit the reader’s height and sight. Racks for twenty newspapers were provided, as was table space for twenty-four periodicals. Rumour has it that the librarians stamped out the day’s horse racing information to discourage gambling.

Interior of Fountainbridge Library with tables and chairs

Unknown Photographer, The Newspaper Room at Fountainbridge Library, with windows looking onto Dundee Street, 1940

The room has since been divided and a lift has been installed, where the double doors can be seen in this photograph. The internal window at the back right gave into the caretaker’s kiosk in the entrance hall.

Interior of Fountainbridge Library with book shelves

Unknown Photographer, The Home Lending Department at Fountainbridge Library, with the right-hand windows looking towards Murdoch Terrace, 1940

The entire first floor was given over to a vast Home Lending department, with lay lights (areas of glazed ceiling) to admit extra daylight.

Interior of Fountainbridge Library with book shelves

Unknown Photographer, a display case in the Lending Library dedicated to the ‘ABC of Psychology’, 1940

State-of-the-art open access bookshelves meant it was possible to browse and choose books for yourself, ran than the usual procedure of consulting a catalogue and requesting a title from a librarian. Cutting-edge illuminated display cases were also installed.

Interior of Fountainbridge Library with bookshelves

Unknown Photographer, the trolley park in the Lending Library, 1940

A trolley park in the corner beside the Librarians’ Office meant extra stock could be efficiently stored and administered. This floor is now home to an NHS clinic and offices.

Interior of Fountainbridge Library with book shelves and tables

Unknown Photographer, The Junior Library at Fountainbridge Library, with the right-hand windows looking on to Dundee Street, 1940

The top floor is one room deep. It housed a Reference Library running along Murdoch Terrace with accommodation for thirty readers. A dedicated Children’s Library, which looked on to Dundee Street, was a novel feature. The walls were fitted with bookshelves, above which windows were evenly spaced; they plus lay lights meant that even these more modest spaces were brightly lit. A curved, glazed Librarian’s station between the two wings made supervision of both possible at the same time, with a glazed entrance to the Children’s Library providing a buffer from its users’ noise. Library records reveal that the children had to wash their hands before they were allowed to enter! This floor is now a Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

Surprisingly, the library’s stunning stairwell does not appear in the 1940 series of photographs. It allowed access to the whole building and is topped with an octagonal skylight. At its heart is the caretaker’s kiosk. This control hub had a counter on to the entrance hall, internal windows with an openable panel into the Nelson Hall and Newspaper Room, switches for all the building’s electric lights and a tube system to send dockets to and from the first and second floors. The basement accommodated staff rooms, a boilerhouse and a fuel bin. The renowned Moir Library of the Scottish Beekeeper’s Association can now be found there.

Fountainbridge Library opened in 1940 with a stock of 25,656 volumes. It cost just over £25,252 to build and was referred to as the ‘Dundee Street Library’ within the library service for decades. It had to be closed at dusk as it was impossible to black out the windows; the blackout also meant that it could not be flood lit as planned. In February 1941 the council agreed to use the tower as a watchtower, with its almost 360 degrees views over the city. At the height of enemy action, the Reference and Junior Libraries moved in with Home Lending and never returned to their original locations. Following its closure earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Fountainbridge Library will re-open on Tuesday 13 October.

More photographs and information about the building can be found in the Capital Collections exhibition.

Doors Open Day goes digital at Central Library

Doors Open Day takes place in Edinburgh over the weekend of 26 and 27 September and this year goes digital. Previously on Doors Open Day in Central Library we’ve organised tours and displays of our Special collections but this year we’ll be taking you on a virtual visit tracing the history of our magnificent library building with some historical photographs and other images.

Starting with the opening of the Central Library building in 1890…

“We trust that this Library is to grow in usefulness year after year, and prove one of the most potent agencies for the good of the people for all time to come”, so said the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie from a telegraph read out at the Central Library’s opening.

In 1886 Andrew Carnegie offered £50,000 to establish a public library in Edinburgh and less than a year later, laid the foundation stone. The site selected for the library was the former home of Sir Thomas Hope, 1st Baronet Hope of Craighall, advocate for King Charles I. The structure, built in 1616, was demolished in March 1887 to make way for the library. You can still see the lintel from Hope’s home, bearing the carved inscription TECUM HABITA 1616 from the fourth satire of Persius, above an inner doorway of the library adjacent to the Reference Library. Roughly this translates to keep your own counsel.

Central Library opened on 9 June 1890 with 30 staff including a caretaker and fireman although only one member of staff was a woman. Library regulars will know that there are many more women working today and a few more staff. On opening there were three main departments: Lending, Reference and the Newsroom. Lending and Reference occupy the same spaces as they did on opening and the Newsroom now houses our current Edinburgh and Scottish Collection. Specialist local studies, music, art and design and children’s libraries were introduced during the 1930s.

Central Library by City Librarian, Charles Sinclair Minto, 1935

Selected from thirty seven competition entries, Central Library was built to a design by the Scottish architect George Washington Browne. As a young architect Browne had won a travel scholarship in 1878, travelling to France and Belgium. Browne’s architecture was greatly influenced by this period of study abroad: visiting Paris he was inspired by the city’s fairy tale gothic design and used the buildings of this romantic city as his model for Edinburgh Central Library, his design inspired by French renaissance architecture. Central Library is a magnificent stone building, standing three levels tall above George IV Bridge and reaching down to the Cowgate below.

Architectural Drawing of Central Library by George Washington Browne, 1888

Above the entrance are written the words in relief, ‘Let there be light’, which Carnegie insisted be placed above the entrance to every library he funded. Then higher up three large roundels, the coat of arms of City of Edinburgh, the coat of arms of Scotland and the Royal Arms. The iron gates are original to the building and comprise organic forms of thistles. There are also nine small square reliefs all relating to printers.

Inside the Central Library as you enter to the right is a grand and expansive central staircase leading up to the Reference Library which has a magnificent domed ceiling and gallery of book shelves accessed through spiral staircases hidden in the pillars.

Sketch of the proposed interior of the Reference Library by George Washington Browne, 1887

Another notable internal feature is the beautiful red and cream tiled text outside the entrance to the Mezzanine floor; this text originally formed a frieze round the News Room when it opened in 1890. These tiles were specially made for this building by Burmantofts of Leeds, an outstanding Arts and Crafts firm of the time.

Tiles on the stairs outside the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection

The tiles read:

`The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the Knowledge of the Holy is understanding. Take fast hold of instruction, let her not go, keep her for she is thy life. Wisdom is the principal; therefore get wisdom and with all thy Getting, get understanding and….’ (Proverbs).

The Mezzanine is now home to the Music Library, a Teenage area, the George Washington Browne room, an exhibition area, an acoustic pod and a public seating area. This Mezzanine was not part of the original plan of the library but was installed between 1957 and 1961.

Central Library has been adapted and expanded many times over the years. Only a year after opening the library was already running out of space and a book store was added in 1903. By 1928, the library was short of space again. Proposals were made for a better use of the space and a public lift was installed. In 1930, the adjacent building known as the Henderson building at no.3 George IV Bridge was acquired allowing the library to expand again. Designed by architect John Henderson in 1836, this building is basically a rectangular block with large windows and ornamentation inspired by the Renaissance. The Art & Design Library, housed in the Henderson building, opened to the public in 1936 occupying its top floor, and is much admired today in its original location for its magnificent views and light filled room of particular appeal to artists in the city.

Fine Art Library (now called the Art and Design Library), by City Librarian, Charles Minto Sinclair, 1949

Come for a virtual tour of the Central Library with Susan from our Digital Team. This film was made in 2010 – you might notice a few changes. Can you tell us what they are?

Feast your eyes on this wonderful collection of photographs of mainly Central Library: most are recent but you’ll also find some historic items included too.

Look back over 125 years of the history of Edinburgh City Libraries in our 125th  anniversary exhibition celebrated in 2015.

Read from our collections about the people who actually built the original library in the handwritten ledgers kept by the then Clerk of Works, William Bruce, which record in detail the building works as they progressed. Read more about the work of the tradesmen that built Central Library.

Edinburgh Libraries phased re-opening

While we all want to see our libraries up and running again, our top priority is the health of residents and colleagues.

How we safely manage the reopening of any of our services is directed by Scottish Government guidance and Safer Workplace Guidance for Public Libraries. The planning also considers that each library building has its own specific considerations.

In planning the re-opening of Edinburgh’s libraries, we have considered different approaches adopted by our colleagues in many services across Scotland and more widely afield in England, Northern Ireland and Europe.

We are confident that opening our buildings in this phased approach follows the Scottish Government guidelines and maintains health, safety and comfort for our staff and customers.

The first phase of opening will see a selection of library buildings across the city reopening on Tuesday 13 October.

We envisage that, initially at least, services will be limited to browsing and borrowing, returning items, free access to computers, internet and WiFi, support with National Entitlement card online applications, Hey Girls free sanitary provision, hearing aid batteries, printing and photocopying.

As you might expect, numbers within buildings will be limited, social distancing measures will be in place and some services will only be available by booking in advance.

The 6 libraries are Central, Kirkliston, McDonald Road, Fountainbridge, Stockbridge and Newington.

Further information will be advertised in the coming weeks.

We will of course continue to closely monitor developments and government guidance as the situation can change rapidly as you’ll have seen from other areas of Scotland and the UK.

Our Home Delivery service continues to deliver library books to our most vulnerable and housebound customers, and our digital and online services have remained active throughout – you can use your card to access resources.

We appreciate your support and look forward to welcoming you back.

Six degrees of separation

In the week that marks the anniversary of legendary French horn player, Dennis Brain’s untimely death, Douglas from the Music Library remembers a celebrated musician and shares his remote connection.

“Many years ago I was a French Horn player, I still love to listen to horn music, concertos, concert pieces, sonatas, great orchestral works which feature French Horn sections.

I have favourite horn players as well, players, soloists whose recording I might seek out first. The finest of those, English horn player, Dennis Brain, a player whose ability, assuredness and virtuosity on the French horn had not been achieved before, eclipsing his family forebears and raising the standard for those that followed him.

Dennis Brain was born in 1921 to a line of French Horn players and musicians. His grandfather Alfred Brain was a well-known horn player and soloist. Dennis’ father Aubrey and Uncle Alfred were also horn players. Aubrey Brain remained in London leading the horn section of The BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Busch Chamber Players. Dennis’ mother was Marion Brain, a composer and teacher who wrote works for her husband. His uncle, Alfred Brain made his way mostly in America, his first job as a player was with the Scottish Orchestra the forerunner of the RSNO. He later emigrated to America, where he played with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and for the orchestra of 20th Century Fox, so he can be heard on the soundtracks of many of the movies from the 40s and 50s.

For a few short years just before the Second World War, Dennis quickly made a name for himself and became sought after as a chamber player, an orchestral musician and a soloist. War interrupted this rise but only for a short time, with Dennis managing to continue to play and record during his career with the Central band of the RAF and the RAF Symphony Orchestra. Towards the end of the war he came to prominence with an effortless recording of the Beethoven Horn Sonata, then Benjamin Britten wrote his Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings for Dennis Brain and Peter Pears, the tenor. They gave the first performance of that work in 1943.

His fame continued to go before him and stories abound about the effortlessness of his ability. Whilst recording the Mozart Concertos with Herbert Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic, Karajan stopped the orchestra and went to discuss a musical point with Dennis Brain. Karajan found that rather than having the score of the Mozart concertos on his music stand, Dennis Brain had a copy of Autocar, cars being his great love. Famously frosty, Karajan, also being a car lover found this very funny and gave the men another bond over and above their music.

Unfortunately, fast cars cost Dennis Brain his life when returning to London from a concert at the Edinburgh Festival on the morning of 1 September 1957. His Triumph TR2 aquaplaned off the wet road and hit a tree. Dennis Brain died at the age of 36.

Front cover of the Edinburgh International Festival programme, 1957

Now for the six degrees of separation, which is just one degree. Many years ago, I taught French horn and Brass in a few schools. Whilst returning to Edinburgh I was travelling in a car with the Headmistress of one of those schools. She being a musician, we were talking about music and musicians and out of the blue she said that she had been at Dennis Brain’s final concert in Edinburgh on 31 August 1957. She had chatted to him outside the Usher Hall and held the door of his car open as he climbed in. She did say, with that perfect hindsight which people acquire, that she and others had warned him about the weather and encouraged him to stay or take the train, but he loved to drive and that was what he wanted to do.”

Discover Dennis Brain’s timeless musical genius on Naxos, our free streaming and download service for classical music.


A fool’s errand – a story by Harry from Fountainbridge young writers group

Today we hand the blog over to Harry Kitchener, a young writer from Fountainbridge Library’s Teen Writing Group, but first, Simon from Fountainbridge Library tells us a little about the group:
The Fountainbridge Writing Club has been running for a few years now and it’s been wonderful watching their work – which was already good to begin with – get better and better. We couldn’t care less about spelling and grammar. What really counts are the stories themselves, which we come up with there and then in the session and share afterwards.
We’re always open to new people, so if you know anyone of high school age who gets a kick out of writing, get in touch with me at
Simon contacted us to tell us how the group have been continuing to meet online, and how one member of the group, Harry, has been particularly busy throughout lockdown continuing his creative writing.

We’re delighted to share the first chapter from Harry’ story, ‘A Fool’s Errand’ here. Humorous, sophisticated, original, intriguing – we love it and can’t wait for further instalments! Read on and enjoy:

A Fool’s Errand: Chapter 1

Harold sat, drooping slightly over the edges of his chair at the top of the Ministry of Astronomy. His squidgy eye was pressed airtight over a telescope lens. His hand, which was grasping a trusty pen from his breast pocket, was hovering loosely over a small note pad. He sat and gazed into the sprawling galaxy before him. Most people, not Harold, would be totally encapsulated by the sight. To think that so much beauty could exist just out of reach. Most people could stare into the galaxy for hours at a time and lose themselves in its silky smooth nebulas and clockwork solar systems. It was the sort of job that kept you from feeling you’d worked a day in your life. This is why most people lost Harold’s job very quickly and why he was one of the very few able to keep it. Each day, he did his usual routine of covering vast swathes of universe for anything his bosses described as fishy. Harold always appreciated how his bosses could put things in a way he could easily understand. As he passed each quadrant he wrote down the name and, to his delight, ‘nothing of interest’ next to it. Harold did not have any tolerance for such spectacular concepts as excitement or wonder. He then popped his ‘report’ (as his bosses so kindly called them) into a plastic capsule and slid it into an outgoing tube. It seemed that Harold always had a capsule at hand. He’d probably deposited thousands in his time but hadn’t the faintest idea of where they came from. If he paid the slightest bit of attention, he would have found out very quickly and discover that the answer was very dull. However Harold occupied himself entirely in his work, which he foolishly deemed extremely important. He was never much of a multi-tasker.

The tube worked its magic and sucked up his parcel with a cheerful whoosh. Most people would have been blown away at the fun, mysterious inner workings of this tube. Harold grunted. This particular tube lead directly up to corporate. They would respond by chucking most of his capsules on a big fire without checking them and sending him a thank you note in return. If Harold took the time to open these notes, he would find a large sum of money ‘hidden’ inside but he always chucked them in the bin behind him, much to corporate’s amusement. The bin would suck up the parcel and send it back into position for his next report. Harold never found out that he got paid for his job and corporate never felt much compulsion to enlighten him on the matter.

There were many things that corporate didn’t feel the need to correct Harold about. For example, he had decided very early on that, being a man who respected hierarchy, his bosses worked on a made-up floor just above his own. He had this very peculiar notion that any serious corporate office should at least be at the top of their place of work. This notion came about because his outgoing tube, rather falsely, shot his parcels up through his ceiling. However, unbeknownst to Harold, this pipe then hastily curved back down, with a gasp of relief, and went in a direction that Harold had always thought of as down. You may assume that all of these scraps of lies and deception are cruel but Harold could unravel them all in an afternoon if he so wished. If Harold had the attention span he would be able to see his capsules rattling along with him as he went down in the elevator. Of course he was always too busy not being busy to notice. Having never met anyone else in the Ministry of Astronomy as of yet, Harold had to create his own social embarrassment. There was nothing to keep him from noticing that the button on the elevator for his floor read ‘0000’, which would imply he is in the basement. Nothing to stop him relaxing on an expensive yacht somewhere enjoying the vast wealth his bosses put in his thank you notes. Not a single shred of resistance to keep him from realising that the thousand member workforce (the one the ministry billboard boasted about on his way in) probably didn’t exist. Little did Harold realise but Earth had been deserted for a little over a decade. In fact Harold was the only human left. All the rest (and I do mean every single other person) went on to explore the galaxies and claim new stars. Of course, none of it was new to anyone else however humans have quite a talent for discovering things that have already been discovered. There was a certain quality in humanity that Harold was not cursed with. Something everyone else had that Harold didn’t. This quality was the difference between travelling the stars and peering at them through a telescope lens. It was the reason Harold had such a great relationship with his employers despite never having met them.

The reason corporate loved Harold so much, and I should stress that they adored him, was that he never truly opened his eyes. Instead he was on a rail. He walked directly in the direction he went and never expelled any extra effort looking around or (to the dread of a corporate office who valued efficiency) taking one extra step just to see what it would feel like. Such notions of fun or adventure simply didn’t fit in with the busy, formal atmosphere of the Ministry of Astronomy. Harold, of course, knew that he was a good fit for the ministry and was very happy to fill out reports mindlessly as the work day ticked by, ignoring as much nonsense as he could at the same time.

One day however something happened that he simply couldn’t ignore: his job. Whilst squeezed once again into his telescope (which had changed several times throughout his career without him noticing) he spotted an imperfection. This originally referred to something that took him by surprise or at least that’s what his bosses told him. However Harold had left a number of things out under this faulty definition. Several alien sightings, a pair of life threatening black holes and confirmation of God’s existence, to name a few. So they had changed it to fishy. Corporate wasn’t concerned with aliens or religious empiricism but they’d have quite liked to have seen them and were a little bummed when the subject came up five years later having thoroughly missed the boat.

Harold watched, a little too vacantly, as a thin, white line splintered slowly through the dark of space. The line got thicker and longer until there was a gaping hole with cracks zig-zagging out of it like the legs of a tarantula, spanning multiple quadrants each, pouring pale light into the universe. After much deliberation, Harold decided that this was rather fishy and reported it to corporate immediately. He tore a piece of paper hastily from his pad and wrote “QUADRANT 1384 – V” in large, rigid letters, then added “Really very fishy.“ Corporate always seemed to value his descriptions of the general fishiness. The moment he posted the capsule, Harold squished his eye back into the lens to check in on the scene. At this very moment, the hole, now closer resembling a bottomless crater exploded, leaving the sky almost completely white aside from a couple of writhing patches which continued to fight against it. The planets remained, orbiting their suns. Comets continued to fleet by, only a little harder to make out on the new colour. The universe kept going as if nothing had happened. The only thing that had changed was that space, the very cosmos itself, had now turned completely white.

A harsh, thick-sounding buzzer went off above Harold’s head, making him jerk away from the telescope lens. Sweat now trickling lightly in his armpits, he got up out of his chair and staggered into the dingy, metal elevator. He panted slightly as the mesh doors shut around him. He simply couldn’t help but feel like a cornered rhinoceros as the elevator began to descend. For the first time Harold noticed that the only two buttons available to him were ‘Entrance’ and ‘0000’. A very effectively positioned fan blew heavy sheets of air and confusion directly into his face. Those who insist on the constant and ruthless application of fans will be very glad to know that no matter where Harold stood the fan was constantly shooting him with a jet of cool air. Whilst he waited, albeit bedazzled, to reach the ground floor he wondered what was waiting for him. His skin jiggled with fear as he trundled past the ground floor and sank even deeper into the Earth. He heard the echo of the pulleys through vast caverns. The odd leathery flutter or knocking rocks would give him a most terrible flinch. An hour went by but Harold stayed vigilant. He was beginning to think (yes, Harold was thinking) that he was plummeting to the centre of the Earth. Sentenced to the hellish fires deep beneath the surface. Corporate must have decided he wasn’t useful to them any longer. However he couldn’t fathom what he had done wrong. Harold couldn’t say he had known his bosses particularly well. They exchanged a long string of stiff correspondence when he first began working there however this had died down rather limply after a month or two and they had hardly communicated since. Maybe he should have made more of an effort. Harold was quite terrible for taking fault for things that had nothing to do with him. Despite having one thousand invisible colleagues on which to blame so many of the strange happenings he observed through his telescope, he always found a way to blame himself. It was quite sweet really. He was still under the delusion that whatever he did had profound, long-lasting consequences. As if Harold could be responsible for anything as interesting as the whitening of the universe.

Then, somehow, without Harold knowing exactly when or in what manner, he was going up again, picking up speed. His elevator was suddenly inverted from pitch dark to searing bright. It became clear, even to Harold, that he was taking an arduous trip to corporate. However this was not the corporate Harold imagined. Harold always assumed he would one day log his one millionth quadrant report at which point a mysterious suited man would stride into his office and offer him a ride on the elevator to the one floor above himself. His assumption was that corporate would be kitted out with all the latest technology. Teeming with men (Harold unfortunately wasn’t one to challenge stereotypes) who wore tailored suits (proper ones) and sunglasses and discussed finances and spreadsheets. Harold was wrong on many counts. Corporate was not a technological hub just one floor above his office. There were no male (or female for that matter) suit models talking about vague businessy terms. And he certainly would never be invited to corporate on the grounds of a promotion because, if he were, the Ministry of Astronomy would become a pair of corporate bosses aimlessly trying to order each other about. The hard truth of the ministry of Astronomy would soon be revealed.

“You can stop screaming if you like.” Came a posh English voice that gave one the instant compulsion to throttle whoever owned it.

Harold realised for the first time that he was screaming and most likely had been for the past hour. After a short internal, he debate decided to continue. He was standing in the motionless elevator, doors open. Everything was unbearably still.

“I really must insist that you stop screaming.” The voice came again, with a hint of frustration.

Harold decided it was time to stop screaming. He looked around, at the white expanse above him the last few splinters of darkness shrinking away, leaving the sky completely uninterrupted. After taking the time to really internalise the sight, he stared at the charcoal black ground, completely flat, and stretching on for miles in every direction. Once he had decided that this too was acceptable, he looked at the matching dark silhouette standing before him.

“Welcome,” began the voice, ”with you here we have finally assembled the entire Ministry of Astronomy.” Harold looked around sheepishly. No one else.

“You can leave the cabin.” The silhouette seemed to expect an awful lot of initiative on Harold’s part. Harold stepped out of the elevator with a loud squelch. His cheap shoes were soaked.

“Do you? Need to dry off?” the puzzled silhouette asked, looking rather disgustedly at Harold’s dripping body. He was drenched in sweat after the last hour of screaming and confusion. Harold decided not to answer the question. The silhouette decided to ignore the matter entirely, leaving Harold dripping indefinitely. He was now beginning to wish he had spoken up when given the chance but the moment had definitely passed.

Finally, Harold found his frail, little voice and asked, “so what’s… wrong?” Given the gravity of the situation, Harold felt a bit silly using the word ‘wrong’. Did ‘wrong’ really encapsulate the entire issue? ‘Issue’ didn’t feel right either.

The silhouette shuffled slightly on the spot, which Harold mistook for dramatic tension, before mumbling, “I don’t really want to say.”

“Oh, please do. I’d love to hear”, croaked Harold after a nasty pause. He had meant to sound warm, perhaps even comforting but it reflected his current emotions far too accurately to be considered at all comforting.

The silhouette continued to shuffle from side to side, “You’d laugh.”

Harold couldn’t believe his ears. Some strange urge to whack the silhouette over the head was welling up inside him.

“Go on”, breathed Harold, his anger surprisingly well hidden, “I won’t laugh”, Harold had always considered himself a stupid person, and rightly so, but even he was starting to find this tedious.

“Fine”, chimed the silhouette after another infuriatingly long pause “The universe is…”

What? What was the universe? In danger? Peril? Mortal peril?

“The wrong colour.”

Harold felt his left eye twitch violently as he stared fixedly at the silhouette. He was now sweating out of pure, unfiltered rage. In his great swell of emotion, he could only manage a curt, “oh”.

The silhouette looking at him searchingly. Feeling obliged to say more, Harold then added an, “I see,” for good measure. Not that it contributed anything to the conversation at hand.

There was yet another pause. “See, you’re not taking this seriously at all are you?”

“Yes I am”, trailed Harold, he was aiming for dismissive sincerity but everything he said was still rigid from a mixture of exhaustion, confusion and his severe effort to suppress his fury.

“No, you’re not,” said the silhouette in a supremely patronising fashion, “I knew it, I just knew you wouldn’t appreciate it.” The silhouette started to prowl from side to side. Harold was just now realising that this wasn’t a silhouette. It really was a pitch black figure shimmering slightly at the edges as if a shadow had popped off the wall. However Harold, not being one for adaptability, still decided to think of it as a silhouette.

“It just doesn’t seem very… important”, murmured Harold,

“Well, it’s important to me”, cried the silhouette, “Do you realise how annoying this is for me?”

Harold’s hundred billion tiny cells couldn’t afford to take on any more thinking at the moment and this development had put a rather obnoxious spanner in the works.

“So you brought me down here-”

“Up.” Insisted the silhouette shortly.

Harold began again. “You brought me down here”, each syllable was a terrific effort, “because the colour of the sky is annoying you. Shall I alphabetise the capsules while I’m at it.” he said, pointing at the massive pile of his own burning reports just a few feet behind where the silhouette stood. Quite unhelpfully, another couple of capsules slid out of the shoot above, landing right on top of the inferno. Another hour of Harold’s time burned quietly beside them.

“No”, corrected the silhouette, as if Harold had just said something silly, “it’s not just that!”

“Oh. I see”, spoke Harold trying to figure out whether this was a satisfactory explanation, “so what else is the issue?”

The silhouette decided to start on something that seemed entirely unrelated. “You see, I haven’t been especially truthful about your job description.”

Harold tilted his head at the silhouette in complete incomprehension.

“You think you’re an astronomer, right?”

“I am an astronomer”, insisted Harold though his voice was starting to trail hopelessly.

The silhouette got all apprehensive again but didn’t answer, “but your job”, Harold didn’t appreciate where this was going, “is in fact to look for…”

Alien civilisations? Supernovas? Stars, even stars would be something.

“My shoes.”

“Your… shoes”, grunted Harold, his fury had subsided into dread.

“Yes. Well actually just the left one”, he indicated politely to a white trainer lying on the charcoal ground, “I lost the other a few years ago -”

“Seventeen years ago”, Harold growled angrily.

“Oh goodness had it been that long? Anyway, it seemed a waste to buy a whole new pair so I thought…” The silhouette stopped there as if this explanation was perfectly adequate on its own.

“Thought?” prompted Harold slowly.

“That it would just be easier to have a look for the other one”, said the silhouette, “just instead of running off and getting a new pair so hastily. I hate wasting things.”

He didn’t seem to notice the irony of having wasted the better part of twenty years of Harold’s life.

“As you can see, they’re white. And so you can see the problem of a white universe”, the silhouette laughed awkwardly after another one of these terrible pauses they kept running into.

Harold didn’t answer. Being dim-witted and rather upset, he decided not to bother trying to work out the silhouette’s problem.

“White on white”, gasped the silhouette finally, “Doesn’t show up very well, does it.”

“You want me to turn the universe dark again so that you can find your trainers more easily?”

“No no. So you can find my trainers more easily.” Corrected the silhouette sheepishly.


Harold strode out of the Ministry of Astronomy feeling rather proud of himself. He had turned down the Silhouette, clearly thinking himself above all the bother of restoring the sky’s original colour only to go back to looking for trainers. He beamed up at the pleasant, exciting, intense, slightly eye-straining white of the night sky. Then, for no particularly grand reason, Harold stopped walking away from the ministry. He continued staring into the sky. It was, he supposed, a bit too white. He fought to keep taking steps further on but after two more shuffles he had quite given up. The sky was just annoying. It would look a lot more handsome if it were black. A nice silky black on which the constellations and solar systems had originally been plotted. As much as Harold utterly hated to admit it, that really would be a lot nicer. Another hard truth is that Harold wasn’t a talented person. His defining skill was in his lack of ability, or perhaps just interest, to question or understand anything put in front of him. A quality not particularly sought after in the world of astronomy. Regretfully, Harold really was more suited to searching for shoes hidden somewhere among the vast sheets of space than any of the other jobs in his field of study. This is why it is a relief to say that, with a heavy grumble, Harold stomped back into the Ministry of Astronomy.


Edinburgh at play, 1910-1930

As we’re able to enjoy getting out and about more, we’re looking back to the beginning of the last century in our latest exhibition on Capital Collections, ‘Edinburgh at play’, to see how people enjoyed their leisure time.

The images come from a set of glass negatives which were kindly donated to Edinburgh Libraries for digitisation for our digital collections. The glass negatives are dated approximately between 1910 and 1930.

Scenes at Portobello show girls in their best clothes waiting patiently for the Carousel to start. In others, we can see children on the beach building sandcastles, all suitably wrapped up for a Scottish summer!

Image of children in their Sunday best clothes and hats sitting on carousel horses.

Portobello – c1920

Edinburgh Zoo features too, although images taken of visitors and animals at Edinburgh Zoo show a very different view of the zoo than what you would see today.

A zookeeper leads a group of four children on a camel ride.

Camel ride, Edinburgh Zoo – c1920

Two images from the 1930s show the Royal Company of Archers, The Queen’s Bodyguards in Scotland, practising on the Meadows.

A group of uniformed archers practice archery in a park.

Royal Company of Archers, the Meadows – c1930

To enjoy more of these wonderful images, visit the complete exhibition on Capital Collections.

Lockdown Edinburgh – short films by Jim Sheach

When we put out a call for contributions to our coronavirus scrapbook on Edinburgh Collected, we were contacted by Jim Sheach, who had been making short films as he cycled around Edinburgh capturing the atmosphere of the city during lockdown.

A view of Princes Street on a sunny day but deserted of people and traffic.

A film grab from Edinburgh Princes Street, 1 June 2020, deserted

He’s kindly contributed them to Capital Collections so that we could use them to create an online exhibition. As life returns to something more like normal already these scenes, from only a few weeks ago, seem extraordinarily quiet and alien.

Jim’s short films covering a wide geographical area of the city will be a valuable historic record in years to come and we’re tremendously grateful to him for getting in touch and sharing them with us. View the full collection of short films in our Capital Collections exhibition.

You can view pictures and memories from our coronavirus collecting project on the Edinburgh Collected website, where we still welcome your contributions recording this unusual summer in Edinburgh.

You can view more of Jim’s videos on his YouTube channel.

The joy of rereading

Today’s blogpost is by Central Library’s Hope Whitmore, where she explores the joys and need to re-read beloved books.

“When I was a child, led into Kendal Library, holding my father’s hand, I looked up from my three foot something height at the shelves around me, and declared, grandly, ‘I will read all the books and then I will know everything in the world!’ 

Working in Edinburgh Central Library I would remember this, the wonder of so many books, and the way it seemed possible, to a five-year-old me, that these could be devoured. As a librarian I would see new books every day, not only the New new books, which went on the red trolley (unpacking and receipting these was one of my favourite tasks) but also new-to-me-books, the ones which had somehow (how?) remained hidden, even as I shelved trolleys and book checked. The main library was full of new discoveries to be made, slim little paperbacks, not previously noted, or huge tomes, somehow previously overlooked.

But, however much excitement I feel on discovering a new book, however thrilling it is to go down to the basement, cut open the boxes, remove the padding and reveal a box of gorgeous just published hardbacks, I am not staying true to my five-year-old self, rather, I have found myself lately going back to old familiar books, those I loved as a child, or in my early twenties, or even more recently than that.

Before lockdown I took out several books, and throughout lockdown have bought many others, but most of them remain unread, put to one side, in favour of the familiar novels I know and love, the rhythms of which I can follow, the beats of the story like the next note in a well-loved song.

Why, when surrounded by choice, do I do this? What happened to the child, who wanted to know all the things? And why do others reread books, particularly at times when things are hard. I set out to find out.

I put out a call on Social Media asking people why do you reread. Many cited familiarity as a reason to return to old books – the comfort of a story you know, the control of knowing what will happen, the pleasure of anticipation, the joy of remembering something suddenly, or pre-empting what is on the next page, with all the uncertainty and fallibility which comes with human memory (which way did this chapter lead, is this path how I remember it?) One friend, said ‘rereading gives comfort akin to rosary beads.’ Another friend wrote, ‘there is reassurance in knowing how something will end.’

There is also, however, the element of having changed, and therefore the book – seemingly once so beautiful, so strange, so romantic – having a different texture. ‘I first read Lolita when I was Lolita’s age,’ said one friend, ‘it reads totally differently reading it at the age of the character Humbert Humbert.’ 

At different ages, our life experience gives us different lenses. My favourite series of all time, The Cazalet Chronicles, follows a family with characters of all ages. You get to be so many different people, from the stubborn Louise who longs to play Hamlet, the beautiful but unhappy Zoe, to the lonely, lovely, dowdy Miss Milliment with stains on her clothes, and her glasses always hazy from the food she drops on them. Whichever stage of life you are at, you can ‘get’ the characters. 

In one of The Cazalet Books, I believe it is marking time, Clary, the imaginative little girl with always bitten nails begins to grow up, and speaks about reading for the sake of ‘meeting old friends again.’ This comes at a time when Clary feels lost. Her father, Rupert, is lost in France following the Normandy landings, presumed dead. She therefore seeks refuge in books, and the familiar friendship of these characters whose stories she knows, and who she can turn to again and again. These people are flawed, complex, human, and beloved, but on the page they don’t change, even as we do.

Perhaps this is what leads us to reread. Many people cite familiarity, in a world where things are looking far from familiar, with a lens, which is coloured by current events and different than any lens through which we have read before. Maybe, when we are so altered, so unsure, so lost, even, we need to reach for these old friends, to open their books, and greet them once again, ready to run the familiar, wild, overgrown paths, and hear their stories told anew.”

Join in with the Big Library Read

Join millions of others around the world in reading a historical fiction thriller during the Big Library Read, the world’s largest digital book club. From 3-17 August, readers can borrow and read Tim Mason’s “intellectually stimulating and viscerally exciting” ebook or audiobook The Darwin Affair from our OverDrive service. Solve the mystery from home – with your library card and no waiting lists, with the Libby app or by visiting our OverDrive website. You can even discuss the book online.

Historical fiction novel The Darwin Affair takes place in London during June 1860. When an assassination attempt is made on Queen Victoria, and a petty thief is gruesomely murdered moments later, Detective Inspector Charles Field quickly surmises that these crimes are connected to an even more sinister plot. Soon, Field’s investigation exposes a shocking conspiracy in which the publication of Charles Darwin’s controversial On the Origin of Species sets off a string of murders, arson, kidnapping, and the pursuit of a madman named the Chorister. As he edges closer to the Chorister, Field uncovers dark secrets that were meant to remain forever hidden. Tim Mason has created a rousing page-turner that both Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would relish!

The book will be available on the home page of the Libby/OverDrive apps and the OverDrive website from the 3 August and with unlimited downloads is perfect for discussing with your friends and family. If you use #biglibraryread on social media you’ll be entered into a draw to win a Samsung Galaxy Tablet!  Full instructions for using OverDrive can be found on our Your Library website.

Found in Translation Book Group

Found in Translation is a book group which has been meeting every month at Central Library for the past 5 years. They are a diverse group spanning many nationalities, backgrounds and careers. They come from different parts of the world: USA, Bulgaria, Italy, Poland and Scotland. They read and discuss English translations of fiction from around the world. Every book takes them on a literary and cultural journey to a different country.

Since libraries closed in March, the group wasn’t able to meet for their monthly discussions. They decided to move their meetings into the virtual world and discuss their books via a video conferencing app. So far they have read and discussed ‘Year of the Hare’ by Arto Paasilinna, a Finnish classic, ‘This Little Art’ by Kate Briggs (book on the practice of literary translation) and the Man Booker International Prize winner ‘Celestial Bodies’ by Jokha Alharthi. They were able to listen to ‘Celestial Bodies’ as an audio book available to any Edinburgh Libraries member on RBdigital through the Edinburgh Libraries website.

Since last year they have been in touch with a Finnish book group in Iisalmi as part of a new partnership between Edinburgh and Iisalmi Libraries in Finland,  part of the NAPLE Sister Libraries Programme. They were planning to have a Skype discussion with the book group in Finland and talk about ‘Year of the Hare’. Unfortunately, due to lockdown that had to be postponed. Found in Translation decided to have a chat about the book during their first virtual meet up in May. 

Photos of members of the Found in Translation Book Group

Members of the Found in Translation Book Group

Here are some of their thoughts on ‘Year of the Hare’:

“I thought the idea behind this book was really interesting and intriguing but some of the actual incidents were barely credible though I did get a feel of both the countryside and the Finnish rather dark humour.” Agnes

“This 1975 picaresque novel by the Finnish author Arto Paasilinna, translated into English by Herber Lomas in 1995, feels very pertinent in 2020. It almost anticipates the moment of multiple crises we find ourselves today. The novel calls for repositioning of our values, of readressing of our work and life balance, of challenging authorities and systemic discriminations. The hare emerges as the symbol of our environmental hope.” Iliyana

“I really enjoyed reading “A Year with a Hare” and found it a great romp through the backwoods of Finland. It turned out to be a book version of the Tardis from Dr. Who, containing multitudes and providing endless adventures within a pretty small volume.” Ana

It was National Reading Group Day on Saturday 20 June, promoted by the Reading Agency. The Found in Translation book group joined in the online discussion and shared what they love about their group.  Sam, one of the members said:

“What I like about the group the most is being exposed to texts that I never would have read otherwise, and exploring new cultures through the translations we read. It’s the only way to travel right now.”