Trainspotting at 20

This is Tim Bell. For the last ten years Tim has conducted Trainspotting tours of Leith, sharing insights on the book and the film with visitors from around the world.

TimTim probably knows more about Trainspotting than anyone (with the possible exception of Irvine Welsh!) and yesterday he came along to Central Library to talk about the film adaptation of the book, which premiered 20 years ago this month.

Tim began by putting Trainspotting in  a social and historical context, explaining the circumstances that led to the Sunday Telegraph describing Edinburgh in 1986 as “the AIDS capital of Europe”.

Then Tim moved on to the book itself and the ‘cultural fireball’ that it became.

Perhaps a film of the book was inevitable, although as Tim explained filmmakers Danny Boyle, John Hodge and Andrew MacDonald had previously forsworn adaptations, wanting instead to create original cinema.

We really enjoyed hearing Tim’s thoughts on the film’s plot, characters and particularly its music. Tim also took time to remind us on the impact the film had: how Trainspotting became a brand, and what that brand represented.

It was interesting to read contemporary reviews of the film as well: from Will Self’s description of it as ‘an extended pop video’ to Shelia Johnston’s feeling that ‘for all its brilliance, the film finally feels sour and hollow’.

Tim believes that Trainspotting ‘educates as effortlessly as it entertains’ – we could say the same about him.

Tim is in the late stages of writing his own book, provisionally titled Love Life, Love Leith: a Trainspotter’s Guide. To find out more visit 

Could this be the first ever panoramic view?

Sometime in the mid-1780s, Robert Barker was out for a walk on Calton Hill when it occurred to him how it might be possible to record the cityscape – the entire 360 degree view from one spot. The idea was to use a fixed square frame, and to draw the view seen through it, rotate the frame and draw the next section and so on until returned to the starting point. And so, he instructed his 12 year old son, Henry Aston to draw the scenes.

Panoramic view from Calton Hill (section 6)

Barker discovered that the viewing experience was to be as important as the picture itself. He devised a circular viewing space which would display a large-scale painting made from Henry’s drawings. The space would be lit from above, with a fixed viewing platform in the middle accessed from below. He took a patent out on this ‘entire new Contrivance’.  At the second attempt, he secured financial backing for the project and a larger version of the image was painted on canvas measuring 25 feet in diameter. It first went on display in 1788 and was exhibited in different locations in Edinburgh and Glasgow. The principal established and patent acquired, this new way of seeing the world had arrived!

Barker turned his sights on London, where he hoped to establish a long-term enterprise. He sent Henry to draw the view of the city from a roof on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge. This time the depiction was to be bigger and better.

The London viewings were very successful and it was only then that friends of Barker coined the word panorama to mean ‘all embracing view’ and the invention was fully fledged.  In 1792, Barker built a rotunda according to his patent design, named the Panorama. It was able to exhibit two panorama paintings, one 90 feet in diameter on the ground floor and another 50 feet in diameter on the upper level. Spectators were charged one shilling per panorama. To a general populace unfamiliar with visual imagery or travel impact of the all-encompassing view must have been spellbinding.

The business thrived and Henry Aston, who was the chief artist for the panoramas made several trips abroad to record panoramic views of cities and depictions of battle scenes.  When Barker’s patent expired in 1801, other businesses were able to spring up and panoramas were exhibited in London, and other large towns and cities and toured to the United States. Henry Aston took over the business when his father died in 1806. He focused when possible, on topical scenes and his depiction of the Battle of Waterloo was so successful that it contributed to his early retirement at the age of 48.
Zoom into Panorama The version we have of the panorama from Calton Hill is a six part reproduction of the painting aquatinted by J. Wells dating from 1790. With the aid of 21st century technology our photographer has stitched the panorama sections together so that you can traverse the city scene from over 200 years ago! Zoom into the detail (by clicking on the picture with Capital Collections) and see if you can spot the women drying their washing on Calton Hill, the Botanic Cottage on Leith Walk, the pottery kilns at Leith and the strangely Modernist structures and neatly kept garden of the City Observatory.

Browse the sections and the complete panorama on Capital Collections.

Discover more about Barker’s Panorama phenomenon at The Regency Redingote blog.

The Father of Scottish Democracy

I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause – It shall ultimately prevail – It shall finally triumph. Thomas Muir

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The large obelisk in the foreground of this picture stands as a monument to those radical reformers, including Thomas Muir, who were tried, convicted and deported for sedition in 1793.

In the wake of the French and American Revolutions Muir and his associates had been active in a widespread movement for political and social reform in Britain. The movement attracted alarm and extreme sanction from both the political establishment and conservative elements in society.

As we heard at a recent Edinburgh Reads event, Muir is not the household name he should be, something that is being addressed throughout this year, the 250th anniversary of his birth.

As part of the commemorations the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection in Central Library is currently hosting an exhibition entitled Thomas Muir: Father of Scottish Democracy consisting of seven large illustrated panels telling the story of Muir’s life, struggle and legacy.

The exhibition, which has been put together by The Friends of Thomas Muir, will be on display until the end of October.

Revealing our hidden collections

thomson scrapbookYou may have seen the big splash in Friday’s Evening News about the Thomson family scrapbooks and our successful quest to track down the living relatives of their creators.

The scrapbooks were compiled during World War One by the Thomson family who lived at Glengyle Terrace. Most of the items pasted into the scrapbooks are press cuttings, leaflets, scraps and adverts but there are some personal ephemera, such as letters and a ration book, which give personal details and an indication of the impact of war on the family.

We’ve digitized the scrapbooks so they can be viewed online but you can see the actual scrapbooks for yourself in the first of a series ‘show and tell’ sessions featuring these and other hidden treasures from our collections.

The Thomson family scrapbooks will be on show at the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection in Central Library this Wednesday (12th August) 10.30 – 11.00am.

Other ‘show and tell’ sessions are listed below:

grassmarketDiscovering Thomas Keith’s photographs

Thomas Keith was an amateur photographer whose wonderful photos of Edinburgh and other areas of Scotland were all taken between 1853 and 1856, making them some of the earliest photographs in our collection.

Wednesday 19th August, 11am – 12 noon, Central Library Boardroom


theatre programmesExplore 1950’s Edinburgh theatre programmes

Did you know that Sir Lawrence Olivier played at the Lyceum in 1952? Other big names included Michael Redgrave, Googie Withers, Sam Wanamaker and Joyce Grenfell. Come and have a browse for yourselves and share with us your own memories

Friday 21st August, 2.30 – 3.00pm, Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, Central Library


Whaur did yer Granny bide? Exploring the streets of old Edinburgh

Search out the street she lived in and actual historic O.S. Maps of Edinburgh from 70 years go. How did the Street name come about? What did Edinburgh look like then? Come and find out.

Friday 28th August, 2.30 – 3.00pm, Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, Central Library


ccEdinburgh’s sinister past: in the footsteps of Burke and Hare

Discover images and documents relating to Edinburgh’s most notorious murderers. Uncover the facts behind this macabre tale. As to the victims:

‘They were all destroyed by the same process, and almost in every case stupefied with liquor’ in The Official Confessions of  William Burke: executed in Edinburgh for murder …published in 1829.

Friday 4th September, 2.30 – 3.00pm, Edinburgh and Scottish Collection, Central Library

Two WW1 scrapbooks, some dogged determination and a phone call from the Netherlands

A little while ago we stumbled over two uncatalogued scrapbooks which had been donated to the library and dated from World War One.

Front cover from World War One scrapbook (vol 1)

They were compiled by a Thomson Family living at Glengyle Terrace in Edinburgh and give a remarkable insight into Edinburgh’s WW1 home front. This was all we knew about the family’s donation.

The scrapbooks are jam-packed with all kinds of ephemera – newspaper cuttings, leaflets, photographs, tokens. There are also personal articles, such as letters and a ration book, which give clues to the family who made them. Many of the letters are sent to a Thomas Thomson. At first, we assumed that Thomas must have been primary school age to have been interested in maintaining the scrapbooks for the duration of the long war, but the 1911 census confirmed he would only have been 3 years old at the outbreak. We deduced that Thomas’ mother and father must have collated the scrapbooks on his behalf.

Scrapbook page: unknown soldier, stickers & scraps

But who were the Thomson family? And what happened to Thomas? Thomas’ father was an investment secretary and actuary married to Barbara who was born in South Africa. (This explained why so many articles and news clippings in the scrapbook related to South Africa.) With the help of family historian and volunteer John, we tried various searches to try and find out if young Thomas ever had any descendants. We found out that Thomas had married Jean in 1938 but we couldn’t find a birth record for any offspring. John doggedly searched passenger lists online and amazingly found records for a Thomas Thomson, colonial administrative officer of the right age travelling with his wife and a young son to Nyasaland (now Malawi) in the 1950s. But the wife wasn’t Jean. We couldn’t be sure we’d found our man.

Thomas D Thomson, photograph reproduced by kind permisson of Thomson family.

Thomas D Thomson, photograph reproduced by kind permisson of the Thomson family.

The only way to piece the puzzle together was to pay a visit to the ScotlandsPeople Centre on Princes Street. Here we were able to view full records of entries we’d found only as indexed versions online. Over the course of a morning, everything started to fall into place. Thomas Thomson had married three times, first to Jean, then to Margaret and finally to Kathleen. However, we still couldn’t find a birth or marriage certificate for Thomas’s son, Master ‘D’ who had appeared in the passenger lists. We found Thomas’ death certificate, giving his residence in the borders, but there was no mention of any descendents. ‘D’ had disappeared.

It seemed as though we’d hit a dead end. After months of searching and having come this far, there was nothing more we could do. Except well, we could try one of those google search things…

…and bingo, buried a couple of webpages down was a link to a discussion forum. And within it – an email address for a D Thomson, who spoke about his late father’s connection to the Borders. However, it was a Dutch email address. Could it possibly be the person we were looking for?

Within hours of sending an email, we received a phone call from Dave Thomson in the Netherlands! Understandably more than a little surprised, Dave was also curious about the scrapbooks and the family history trail that had led us to him. He had been completely unaware of the family scrapbooks lying on the shelves of Central Library in Edinburgh. We’re indebted to Dave for kindly giving us permission to publish volume 1 and volume 2 of the WW1 scrapbooks on Capital Collections so that this remarkable piece of social history is now available to all.

Do you have a story lurking in the family closet? Go online and find all the local and family history resources that Your Library has to help. And if you discover something worth talking about, why not share it on Edinburgh Collected?

Post script
Dave and John are due to meet in the Netherlands later this month. Inspired by our scrapbook mystery, further family history investigation is on the agenda…


Forth Rail Bridge

March 2015 marks the 125th anniversary of the Forth Rail Bridge. Currently awaiting the outcome of a UNESCO World Heritage site nomination, there is little doubt that the Forth Rail Bridge’s iconic status extends far beyond Scotland.

However, the Forth Rail Bridge may have looked very different.


In 1879 during a dreadful storm, the navigation spans collapsed on the Tay Bridge. A train had been crossing the bridge at the time and over 70 lives were lost. The Tay Bridge had been designed by Thomas Bouch, the engineer employed on the new Forth Rail Bridge and so, a decision was made to halt construction on the Bridge only shortly after it had begun.

To allay the fears of the public in the wake of the Tay disaster the revised structure of the Forth Bridge was designed to be both visually impressive and enormously strong. Work restarted on a new cantilever design by Sir John Fowler and Sir Benjamin Baker.


The creation of the monumental structure came at a heavy price. In addition to the high economic cost of roughly £2.5 million, more than 60 men lost their lives whilst working on the bridge. Our latest Capital Collections exhibition includes material from our Libraries’ collections and also from the Queensferry Museum. Browse awe-inspiring pictures of the Bridge in mid-construction, views from high amongst the girders and photos of some of the men who risked their lives to realise this feat of Victorian engineering.



How archives can help YOU

archiveAre you interested in finding out more about the history of your family, area or business?

Well you’re in luck. We’re hosting a series of drop-in sessions where you can pick the brains of a city archivist.

Learn how archives can help you find out more about the history of your family, business, neighbourhood or whatever it is you want to investigate.

The sessions take place in the Edinburgh and Scottish Collection within Central Library on the last Mondays of February, March, April and May from  10.30am – 12.30pm.

There’s no need to book, just turn up on the day. If this time is not suitable, email us on or call 0131 529 4616.

Portobello Baths