Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust champions Edinburgh’s writers and is pleased to announce that seven authors will be honoured with a commemorative plaque in 2016. The scheme, run by Historic Environment Scotland, celebrates significant historic figures by awarding plaques to be erected on the buildings where they lived or worked.
In 2016 the City of Literature Trust nominated three women writers from Edinburgh to be celebrated in this way: Sarah Siddons Mair, campaigner for women’s education and suffrage, Susan Ferrier, a novelist widely recognised as ‘the Scottish Jane Austen’, and Dorothy Emily Stevenson, author of the Mrs Tim books and cousin of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Other recipients of the Commemorative Plaque Scheme include luminaries and pioneers in the fields of engineering, architecture, literature, science, and politics. In total there are 12 recipients of plaques in this round, including the author Neil Munro; Scottish lawyer, biographer and diarist James Boswell; Scottish poet, playwright, publisher, and librarian Allan Ramsay; and MP and journalist Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham.
Abigail Carney, Chair of the Board of Trustees for Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust, says
‘We are delighted that so many writers are being honoured through Historic Environment Scotland’s scheme, and in particular that three of Edinburgh’s most prominent women writers of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries are being lauded.’
Edinburgh was awarded the world’s first City of Literature designation in 2004 by UNESCO in recognition of its unparalleled literary heritage. Part of the city’s on-going responsibility for this permanent designation is to celebrate and champion writers of Edinburgh. Women writers have been hugely under-represented in the city’s public plaques and statues, and commemorating the life, works and achievements of these writers are part of Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust’s mission to bring important women writers to the streets of Edinburgh, so that people living in and visiting the city are aware of the literary heritage that surrounds them.
Stevenson, Siddons Mair and Ferrier: Literary Triumvirate
Dorothy Emily Stevenson (1892–1973)
Born on 18 November 1892 into a family of well-kent engineers and writers, Dorothy Emily Stevenson authored more than 40 books selling in excess of seven million copies. After penning two books of poetry, her first published novel was Peter West, which originally appeared as a serial in Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal. She then went on to write the popular Mrs. Tim books: Mrs. Tim of the Regiment (1932), Mrs. Tim Carries On (1941), Mrs. Tim gets a Job (1947), and Mrs. Tim Flies Home (1952).
Her work has recently been reprinted by Persephone Books, and by Bloomsbury, who reprinted Mrs Tim of the Regiment in 2009. D.E. Stevenson will be celebrated with a plaque at her former home, 14 Eglinton Crescent, which today is The Victorian Town House Bed and Breakfast. To find out more about this popular author and to read her work visit Persephone Books and Bloomsbury.
Sarah Siddons Mair (1846 – 1941)
Granddaughter of the actress Sarah Siddons, Sarah Siddons Mair was born at 29 Abercromby Place in Edinburgh and made her name as a writer, reviewer and founding editor of the Ladies’ Edinburgh Magazine. In 1865 she established the women-only Edinburgh Essay Society, the first formalised society in Scotland to debate the right for women to have the vote. Siddons Mair became president of the Edinburgh National Society of Women’s suffrage in 1906, and she received an honorary LLD from Edinburgh University in 1920 and was made a Dame of the British Empire in 193. She died at the age of 94 in 1941 and her funeral was held at Edinburgh’s St Mary’s Cathedral.
The plaque will be placed at 29 Abercromby Place, where Mair was born and where the Edinburgh Essay Society was formed. Today the building houses The Royal Scots Club, founded in 1919 as a tribute to those who fell in the First World War. To find out more about this inspiring women take a look at David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery’s The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland: Professionalism and diversity 1880–2000.
Susan Edmonstone Ferrier (1782–1854)
Susan Edmonstone Ferrier (1782 – 1854) holds an important place in the history of Scottish literature, standing alongside her contemporaries Mary Brunton and Christian Isobel Johnstone in developing a tradition of national domestic fiction in post-Enlightenment Scotland. She is widely considered to be Scotland’s Jane Austen. Ferrier wrote and published three hugely popular novels in her life: Marriage (1818), The Inheritance (1824), and Destiny (1831). Ferrier’s novels are known for the satirical way in which they observe society, and she was a close friend and long-time correspondent of Sir Walter Scott.
The plaque to Ferrier will be placed at East Morningside House, where Ferrier lived with her father and wrote much of her novel The Inheritance. Many of her novels are still in print and available at Book Depository, and you can find out more about her at the National Library of Scotland.
Literary Edinburgh also has two of its sons on this year’s list
James Boswell (1740-1795)
Scottish lawyer, biographer and diarist, Boswell was born in Edinburgh and is best known for the biography he wrote of one of his contemporaries, the English literary figure Samuel Johnson. Boswell’s Life of Johnson has been famously described by literary critic Harold Bloom as ‘the greatest biography written in the English language’.
Allan Ramsay (1686-1758)
Scottish poet (or makar), playwright, publisher, librarian, impresario of early Enlightenment Edinburgh, and wig-maker, Ramsay’s first efforts in verse-making were inspired by the meetings of the Easy Club (founded in 1712), of which he was an original member; and in 1715 he became the Club Laureate. By 1718 he had made some reputation as a writer of occasional verse, which he published in broadsheets, and then (or a year earlier) he turned bookseller in the premises where he had hitherto plied his craft of wig-making. In 1716 he had published a rough transcript of Christ’s Kirk on the Green from the Bannatyne Manuscript, with some additions of his own. In 1718 he republished the piece with more supplementary verses. In the following year he printed a collection of Scots Songs. The success of these ventures prompted him to collect his poems in 1722. The volume was issued by subscription, and brought in the sum of four hundred guineas. Four years later he removed to another shop, in the neighbouring Luckenbooths, where he opened a circulating library and extended his business as a bookseller. Ramsay is considered to have created the first circulating library in Britain when he rented books from his shop in 1725.
Oher Scottish Literary plaques
Neil Munro (1863-1930)
Scottish journalist, newspaper editor, author and literary critic, Munro is best-known for his humorous short stories, especially about the fictional Clyde puffer the Vital Spark and her captain Para Handy, originally written under the pen name Hugh Foulis. They were published in the Glasgow Evening News, but collections later appeared as books and are currently available from Edinburgh’s Birlinn. A key figure in literary circles, Munro was a friend of the writers J. M. Barrie, John Buchan, Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham and Joseph Conrad, and the artists Edward A. Hornel, George Houston, Pittendrigh MacGillivray and Robert Macaulay Stevenson. He was an early promoter of the works of both Conrad and Rudyard Kipling.
Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham (1852-1936)
Scottish politician, writer, journalist & adventurer, Cunninghame Graham was a Liberal Party Member of Parliament (MP); the first ever socialist Member of Parliament of the United Kingdom; a founder, and the first president, of the Scottish Labour Party; a founder of the National Party of Scotland in 1928; and the first president of the Scottish National Party in 1934.
The remaining plaques are commemorating
Max Born (1882-1970)
German physicist and mathematician Max Born was instrumental in the development of quantum mechanics. Born won the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physics for his research in quantum mechanics, and in October 1936 became the Tait Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Born became a naturalised British subject on 31 August 1939 and continued to live in Edinburgh until 1952.
Stan Laurel (1890–1965)
Comic actor, writer and film director, Stan Laurel is most famous for his role in the comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. Born in Ulverston, he moved with his parents to Glasgow, Scotland, where he completed his education at Rutherglen Academy and his father managed Glasgow’s Metropole Theatre. At the age of 16 Laurel gave his first professional performance on stage at Glasgow’s Panopticon, where he polished his skills at pantomime and music hall sketches which went on to make him famous the world over.
Dr Flora Murray (1869-1923)
Medical pioneer and a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union suffragettes, Dumfries-born Murray founded the Women’s Hospital for Children with Louisa Garrett Anderson in 1912. It provided health care for working-class children, and gave women doctors their only opportunity to gain clinical experience in paediatrics in London; the hospital’s motto was” Deeds not Words”.
Sir Nigel Gresley (1876-1941)
One of Britain’s most famous steam locomotive engineers, Edinburgh-born Gresley rose to become Chief Mechanical Engineer (CME) of the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER). He was the designer of some of the most famous steam locomotives in Britain, including Flying Scotsman, the first steam locomotive officially recorded over 100 mph in passenger service, and Mallard, which still holds the record for being the fastest steam locomotive in the world. There is already a memorial plaque to Gresley’s achievements displayed in the main hall of Edinburgh’s Waverley railway station.
John James Burnet (1857–1938)
John James Burnet was Scottish Edwardian architect noted for his designs of a number of prominent buildings in Glasgow and London, including the Edward VII Galleries at the British Museum. He received the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1923 died at home in Colinton, Edinburgh, in 1938.