Comfort reads, while we’re away

This blog post is written by Hope who works in our Central Lending Library.

“I miss the library. I miss asking you whether you liked your book when you bring it back and being told it was great. I miss the people who tell me it was a load of rubbish. I miss seeing you pick up that reservation you’ve been waiting weeks for. I miss the ordinariness, the comforting familiarity of life as we knew it, before this.

In The Cazalet Chronicles, Polly – one of three girl cousins – describes the Second World War as boring and frightening at once. I struggled to get my head round this. If you are frightened, how can you be bored, I thought.

I get it now.

Yet even when we’re closed, there are still books, and while it’s always exciting to encounter a new voice, a new author, but during the worst times in my own life, I find myself reaching for well-thumbed old Penguins which I have read several times before, the stories which are old friends, familiar – when nothing else is, books which will hold your hand, and get you through.

Everyone has their own, the stories which you can escape into, knowing they will provide comfort, while not remembering every little detail, so you still find things to surprise you – doorways and alleys you didn’t see when first you visited the book.

For me, these are my comfort reads. The books I choose to get lost in, time and again.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The Mortmaim family live in a beautiful old castle, which is falling down around them. Told in diary form by fifteen year old Cassandra, the novel is at once cosy and whimsical. A love story and a coming of age novel, with hints of the Jane Austen novels, which Cassandra and her sister Rose are so obsessed with, only truer somehow.

Written during World War Two, when Dodie Smith was living in America, it is a nostalgic book, a glimpse back at an idealised time, but not too idealised. The Mortmains have no money, and have experienced their share of loss, and the girls make terrible mistakes in their tentative, enthusiastic forays into love.

I came late to I Capture the Castle, after hearing it cited for years as a comfort read. Now, I feel unable to keep away. The world of Cassandra and Rose, and their ramshackle castle with the moat, is endlessly compelling, funny, sad, and true to how girls feel on the brink of growing up. 

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
Recently I saw a post on Twitter suggesting that Black Swan Green should replace Catcher in the Rye, as the coming of age novel. While lots of people love Catcher, I found it didn’t speak to me, while I found Black Swan Green – the story of a thirteen year old with a stammer, growing up in a normal, but possibly haunted, English backwater – immensely compelling and true to the things we all think and feel when we’re kids. The story has a ghost, a bully, a dangerous older cousin, and a fascinating old lady who once knew a young composer who wrote an opus called Cloud Atlas.

David Mitchell fans will know how his novels overlap, tantalising readers who know what happens in earlier and later novels. 

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Linda Radlett, is young, giddy, and obsessed by the idea of love. Narrated by her cousin, Fanny, daughter of ‘The Bolter,’ this novel is a biting satire of a world of debutantes and aristocrats, but also a tender, sweet portrait of a girl lost in the midst on the twentieth century. Travelling through the Spanish Civil War, Occupied France and a long-gone England, this book is beautifully romantic, terribly sad and weirdly comforting.

I first read this aged twelve, and didn’t understand a lot of it. Revisiting it in my late teens, and then in my thirties, I realised how I love this novel, and the catty wonderful author who wrote it, herself one of six girls whose lives were all touched by the events of the twentieth century, some more tragically than others.
This title is available as an ebook and audiobook

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
When my Dad first read me this, I cowered under the covers, terrified by the chained convict who jumps out at Pip in the lonely graveyard. As an adult I know that there were far worse monsters in the book than the convict Magwitch.

This novel contains the fabled Miss Havisham, and her ward Estella, shut away in the cobwebby Satis House. It’s a book which will break your heart – especially when Pip turns his back on Old Joe, who bought him up (this scene always gets me) – but it’s also an excellent gothic adventure through late Georgian and early Victorian London.

Published in 1861, during the age of industrialisation and scientific progress, the novel looks back on the early 1800s, a time of superstition, ghosts glimpsed through the mists of the fens, convict ships with loud fog horns, and that sense of life and adventure which comes from being on the brink of something about to happen.
This title is available as an ebook and audiobook.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
It might seem weird to recommend a novel about a plague, and call it a comfort read, especially now, but Station Eleven in which 99.9% of us die of flu, is weirdly hopeful. While Mandel doesn’t shy away from darkness and horror, the cutting between before and after the pandemic is incredible in the way it introduces us to characters, making us love them, hate them, root for them, curse at them, and hope they make it from the before into the after.

Twenty years after the plague a theatre group and orchestra tour the wastes of Canada in a caravan pulled by horses. Their slogan, taken from Star Trek is ‘Survival is Insufficient.’ On the way, they encounter a sinister prophet, and his cult.

It’s a book about what survives, and how art, and love and music matter, perhaps more so, even when everything is bleak. It’s catty, and clever and kind, and offers an excellent take down of people who say ‘Everything Happens for a Reason,’ showing the full poison of this point of view.”
This title is available as an ebook and audiobook.

Thank you Hope.


Read together online

We are all finding innovative ways to communicate and keep in touch at the moment. Why not consider forming a virtual book group with your friends and family? Edinburgh Libraries provides a range of multi-access ebooks and audiobooks that you can all read or listen to together. Then you can use Facetime, What’s App, Skype or the phone etc to chat to each about the book!

OverDrive – Big Library Read
Running till the 13 April, OverDrive’s latest Big Library Read allows unlimited users to download the ebook or audiobook version of Funny, You Don’t Look Autistic by Michael McCreary. Like many others on the autism spectrum, stand-up comic Michael McCreary has been told by more than a few well-meaning folks that he doesn’t “look” autistic. But, as he’s quick to point out in this memoir, autism “looks” different for just about everyone.

OverDrive – always available ebook titles
A small, but perfectly formed collection of unlimited access ebooks from Canongate publishers is available on the homepage of OverDrive and Libby, Featuring fiction and non-fiction titles from authors such as Matt Haig, Caro Ramsay, Jess Kidd, Ambrose Parry, Scarlett Thomas and Patricia MacDonald theres something for everyone.

RBdigital – always available audiobook titles
Hundreds of the audiobooks available through our RBdigital service are multi-access – so no queues. Enjoy instant access to authors such as Val McDermid, Santa Montefiore, Tony Parsons, Jeffery Deaver, Marian Keyes, Ian Rankin and Jane Fallon. RBdigital can be played on your  phone, tablet or computer.


uLIBRARY – Talking Books Book Club
Listen to the fantastic Holding by Graham Norton on our uLIBRARY audiobook service from 1 April. Norton’s masterful debut is an intelligently crafted story of love, secrets and loss set in an idyllic Irish village, where a bumbling investigator has to sort through decades of gossip and secrets to solve a mysterious crime.


BorrowBox – Campaign titles
A new feature to BorrowBox audiobooks is the addition of campaign titles – so a cracking audiobook that everyone wants to read, available to everyone to download. We’ve got two brilliant campaign titles starting on the 1 April – The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo (the perfect book to listen to when we are stuck indoors – you will transform your house!) and from Alexander McCall Smith, The Quiet Side of Passion (one of the immensely popular Isabel Dalhousie series).

Information about using our fantastic suite of Library2go downloadable services can be found on our Your Library website.

Access library services from home

Many of us will be staying indoors over the coming months due to the current health crisis. Edinburgh Libraries provide a range of online services that you can access from home that can help keep you occupied and entertained during these difficult times.

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.

Please pass on this information to anyone you think might benefit from these services who maybe aren’t already members of the library. Or consider helping a relative or friend get started.

There are clear instructions on how to use all these services available from Any further questions please contact or phone 0131 242 8047.

The house that Jack built

Capital Collections provides a window into Edinburgh Libraries’ Special Collections and gives the public opportunity to view photographs, illustrations and books in a manner that makes them much more accessible to a wider audience. The latest Capital Collections exhibition displays a digitised view of one such special book, ‘The house that Jack built’ brimming with gorgeous, colourful images by the celebrated artist Randolph Caldecott (1846-1886). This book, along with several others by the artist, was created with children in mind and its style became synonymous with Victorian children’s literature, a period considered the ‘golden age’ for this genre of books.

The House that Jack Built, front cover

Despite his relatively short life time, Caldecott’s work is considered to have been transformative in the nature of children’s books and illustration in the Victorian era with his influence still resonating today. Caldecott is considered part of the influential ‘nursery triumvirate’, along with Walter Crane and Kate Greenway. Following the popularity of these authors it became the norm for children’s books to be dominated by image over text.

The work showcased in this exhibition is the first in a collection of books originally published in 1878. The book tells the story of the goings on in and around a country house built by Jack with a myriad of delightful characters making appearances. His illustrations were exercised with a manner of humour and full of life, reflecting his own personality. His images, although often not predominantly meant to make a person laugh, are extremely entertaining and good fun. Stylistically, ‘The house that Jack built’ is written in the form of a cumulative tale. This is when a tale is told by repeating dialogue that builds up to allow the story to progress. As a cumulative tale it does not tell the story of Jack’s house, or even of Jack who built the house, but instead shows how the house is indirectly linked to other things and people, and through this method tells the story of “The man all tattered and torn” and the “Maiden all forlorn” as well as other smaller events, showing how these are interlinked. ‘The house that Jack built’ became a world renowned piece of work, referenced in both political satire and popular culture.

“This is the Cat,
That killed the Rat”
from ‘The house that Jack built’

The Capital Collections exhibition attempts to highlight the brilliance and vibrancy of Caldecott’s work. His ability to express true meaning and subtleties of thought through primarily image and minimal text is something of great admiration and ‘The house that Jack built’ is a perfect example of this. The delightful style and bright colourful images in this book are full of life and can be enjoyed by young and old alike, those with an interest in the history of children’s illustration and those who simply appreciate Caldecott’s artistic style. The exhibition’s accompanying text provides a little more detail into the message of the image and the artist in question, although the images are so detailed and charming that they can be enjoyed and admired just as they are.

Browse all the pages from this delightful Victorian illustrated children’s book on Capital Collections.

Celebrating Fernando Sor, the ‘Beethoven of the guitar’ with Stephen Morrison

Central Library is delighted to welcome back Stephen Morrison, who will perform another excellent programme of classical guitar music in the George Washington Browne Room. This programme is dedicated to the music of Fernando Sor, a 19th  century Spanish guitarist and composer. Sor’s work encompassed various forms, including ballets, waltzes, studies and, perhaps his most famous work, Variations on a Theme of Mozart. Sor was dubbed the ‘Beethoven of the guitar’ by François-Joseph Fétis, a highly influential music critic from the time. The compositions that will feature in this recital will be performed on Stephen’s beautifully restored 19th century guitar.

Stephen was born in Ohio, U.S.A, and has been a resident of Scotland since 1989. After extensive study with the eminent guitar teacher Ray Chester, Stephen taught guitar in various settings in the United States – including the Peabody Conservatory of Music of the Johns Hopkins University and the Levin School of Music in Washington D.C. – before teaching in Fife and now in Edinburgh, where he has lived since 2015. Growing up listening to George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra helped to prompt Stephen’s strong resonance with the music of the 19th century.

Celebrating Fernando Sor: the ‘Beethoven of the guitar’ will take place on Tuesday 24 March, 6.30 – 7.30pm in the George Washington Browne Room at Central Library. To book your free ticket, please contact the Music Library or visit Edinburgh Reads on Eventbrite

Quines Exhibition

Launching next Saturday 7 March on the eve of International Women’s Day is the exciting new exhibition `Quines: poems and textiles in tribute to women of Scotland’ on display across Central Library.

Taking inspiration from Gerda Stevenson’s poetry collection Quines: poems in tribute to women of Scotland celebrating and exploring the richly diverse contribution women have made to Scottish history and society, edge textile artists Scotland members have each selected varied poems from the collection, interpreting them in diverse and inspiring personal ways.

Come to the launch afternoon running 2-4pm Saturday 7 March. Book on Edinburgh Reads to hear Gerda Stevenson reading poems from her collection Quines and take a guided tour led by edge members around the exhibition. Enjoy a cuppa and chat to edge members.

The exhibition is on display on the Mezzanine, on the Staircase and in the Art & Design Library running until Monday 30 March.




History of the house: North British Hotel

Standing at the East End of Princes Street is the imposing building known today as The Balmoral Hotel. Owned by Sir Rocco Forte since 1997, the building has been completely refurbished and now enjoys a worldwide reputation as a luxury hotel.

But this has come at end of a long and interesting journey. Let us go back in time to explore the history and development of the building.

Edinburgh New Town development took place from 1760 until 1830 with the Nor Loch being largely drained in the 1760s and the remaining West Gardens by the 1820s. The Mound formed from the earth and rubble of the New Town construction work was started in 1781 and hard surfaced and landscaped by 1830.

Princes Street looking east, probably taken from Scott Monument, c1858. Image from Edinburgh Museums and Galleries collections.

In the 1840s three stations were built on the site of the hotel and the present Waverley Station. The first was the terminus for the North British railway from England; the second, the Edinburgh Perth and Dundee Railway was routed via a tunnel under Princes Street and the New Town to meet the ferry at Granton to cross the Forth and then on to Perth and Dundee; the third and last, was the Edinburgh to Glasgow Railway which after much debate ran through the Gardens via a tunnel under the Mound and on to Glasgow. In 1854 the name Waverley, after Sir Walter Scott’s novel applied to all three stations. The North British Railway Company took over the other two and from 1868 gradually transformed the structure of the site as demand for travel and accommodation increased.

Waverley Station and Princes Street, c1882

The building and improvement of the North and Waverley Bridges between 1892 and 1902 made for easier access from the Old to the New Town and contributed to the East End growth, as did the significant railway developments.

Waterloo Place looking towards North Bridge, showing the buildings on the site where the Balmoral Hotel now stands, c1885

The drainage of the Nor Loch encouraged the building of properties at the junction of  North Bridge and Princes Street, i.e. the current site of the Balmoral. There were early disputes as owners who had built on the North side protested that their view was being spoiled which was only settled after many court cases. The agreement allowed for properties already built or nearing completion to remain but any others further West had to be below street level to protect the view across to the Old Town. To gain some insight into the previous occupants of the Balmoral site, we’ve turned again to the old Edinburgh Post office Directories which show a history of hotels and travel companies on the site:

No 1  Steam Packet and Coach Office and Kerr, Wine and Spirit Merchant
No 2 Morrison City Tavern and Jas Campbell Coach Office
No 3 A Murray Turf Hotel
No 4 Croalls Coach Office (also at No 10)

No 1 W Kerr Wine and Spirit Merchant
No 2 John McLaren Refreshment Room
No 3 John Donald Hotel
No 4 Croalls Coach Office

No 1 Thomas Johnston and Alex Mctavish Bridge Hotel
No 2 A John McLaren Refreshment Rooms No 2 Wm Crawford and Sons, Bakers
No 3 Gladstone Hotel Thos Jardine
No 4 North British Railway Office

No 1 Thomas Johnston Bridge Hotel
No 2 Refreshment Room
No 4 NB railway Office and NB Steam Packet

No 1 Thos Cook and Son Waverley Station Hotel buildings
No 2 Waverley Station Hotel

A photograph in our collections, dated 1895, shows the former buildings where the Hotel now stands and shows the offices of Thomas Cook Travel Agents.

In 1889 to raise finance, The North British Railway Bill came before a committee in the House of Lords. There were objections to part of the capital raised being used to build a hotel. The main opposition to the scheme came from those who already owned or had some interest in existing hotels on Princes Street and some of the exchanges are reported to have become very personal. When all sides had presented their case the Lordships after a few minutes deliberation announced that they had decided to allow the Bill to proceed.

In 1895, an open competition to design the new North British Station Hotel was won by W. Hamilton Beattie and A.R. Scott. William Hamilton Beattie specialised in designing hotels. The son of George Beattie an architect and builder in Edinburgh. William designed the Clarendon Hotel Edinburgh (1875), the Braid Hills Hotel (1876), and in 1893, was commissioned by Charles Jenner to design a replacement for Jenners Department Store on Princes Street which had been destroyed by fire. This was opened in 1895 and is modelled on the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.  He did not live to see the new North British Hotel as he died in 1898.

North Bridge showing North British Hotel under construction, 1901

Following William Beattie’s death the task of completing his North British Hotel design fell to his assistant Andrew Robb Scott.

North British Station Hotel, Princes Street, 1937

The new hotel opened in October 1902 as the North British Railway Hotel and started a tradition of setting their clock three minutes fast so that people would not miss their train.

Over the years the Railway Company changed structure and name but The North British Railway Hotel remained unchanged. However, in 1983, Gleneagles Hotel Company acquired the famous hotel and in 1988 closed it for major refurbishment. In 1990, it was acquired by Balmoral International Hotels who completed the refurbishment and in 1991 reopened as The Balmoral Hotel.

In 1997 the building was bought by the present owner Sir Rocco Forte to start his Rocco Forte Collection and there have been changes and refurbishments to the building since.

Large Dining Hall in North British Station Hotel, 1902

Over the years the hotel has played host to many important and famous visitors.

In 1918 the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, was a guest at the hotel whilst in Edinburgh to receive the Freedom of the City and an honorary LL.D from the University.

On 24 July 1919, HRH The Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor) came to Edinburgh to receive the Freedom of the City. The Scotsman newspaper reported that he used the Hotel as his base until his departure the following morning.

In July 1932, Hollywood legends Laurel and Hardy stayed at the Hotel whilst on a promotional tour and their movie ‘The Music Box’ sceened at the Playhouse.

King Haakon of Norway was in residence for a few days in 1942 during which he opened Norway House, a residential club for Norwegians.

During the 1960s, glamorous celebrities such as Sophia Loren,  Elizabeth Taylor and Paul McCartney stayed at the hotel.

The Queen Mother was a regular visitor during the 1970s. Prime Ministers Edward Heath and Harold Wilson also visited.

And in 2007, J K Rowling completed the final novel in the Harry Potter series while residing at the hotel for a few months. This was a well kept secret and the author signed an antique bust in her room.

View from the Scott Monument of the Balmoral Hotel, Waverley Market and Calton Hill, 2010

Are you interested in discovering the history of your home? The Edinburgh and Scottish Collection at Central Library has a vast collection of material which can help you.

Read more articles in this ‘History of the house’ series:
History of the house: King’s Wark
History of the house: Bowhead house
History of the house: Nicolson Square and Marshall Street
History of the house: White Horse Close
History of the house: 94 and 96 Grassmarket
History of the house: Stockbridge Colonies
History of the house: Milne’s Court
History of the house: Melbourne Place
History of the house: Falcon Hall