How Mrs Doubtfire was based on a Stockbridge shopkeeper

Madame Doubtfire outside her shop in 1973. Picture: Jane Glover

Madame Doubtfire outside her shop in 1973. Picture: Jane Glover

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GROWING up in the 1990s, I was well acquainted with the Hollywood box office hit about a cross-dressing, half-Scottish nanny played by the sorely-missed Robin Williams.

Little did I know at the time, however, that the film could trace its origins all the way back to the city I was born in.

Madame Doubtfire's premises at South East Circus Place in the 1960s. Picture: TSPL

Madame Doubtfire's premises at South East Circus Place in the 1960s. Picture: TSPL

And, as is often the case, the facts are considerably more interesting than the fiction.

The real Mrs Doubtfire was one Annabella Coutts, a shop owner in Edinburgh. Mrs Coutts had ‘Madame Doubtfire’ daubed across the exterior of her premises at South East Circus Place. and it quickly became the name by which most locals referred to her.

Located at the foot of a flight of typical New Town basement steps, Madame Doubtfire’s was a dimly-lit second-hand store crammed with bric-a-brac, clothes, antiques and the distinct aroma of pipe smoke and cats. Her slogan “Madame Doubtfire, cast-off clothing of all description, invites inspection” used to amuse the local kids.

Madame Doubtfire was awfully fond of her felines. She kept several, as former local resident Olivia McAdam recalls: “I remember her sitting outside her shop in the early 1970s with her numerous cats. I think she had about half a dozen. Some were less than friendly and would snarl and hiss if you got too close!

Only down side was you had to hold your nose the whole time, because it stank to high heavens of cat pee!

Olivia McAdam

“There were plenty well-off residents in the area able to supply her with a never-ending supply of the very best second hand goods. Only down side was you had to hold your nose the whole time, because it stank to high heavens of cat pee!”

Madame Doubtfire became a local legend, and the epitome of the classic New Town eccentric - but she wasn’t actually from the district at all. Nowhere near it, in fact.

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Early life

Madame Doubtfire with one of her many cats in the late 1970s. Picture: Copyright Douglas Corrance

Madame Doubtfire with one of her many cats in the late 1970s. Picture: Copyright Douglas Corrance

Annabella Cruikshank Adams, as she was known in her formative years, hailed from the northern lights of old Aberdeen, where she was born in 1886.

In her twenties she moved down south to exchange vows with a Bermondsey man, Arthur Cyril Doubtfire. Sadly, Arthur, who served in France as a Company Sargeant with the Cameronians, was killed in action.

Annabella returned to Scotland during the war, before remarrying aged 34 in 1921 to a car mechanic named James Davie Coutts.

Fast forward to the 1970s, and widowed Mrs Coutts was running her own little shop named in honour of her first husband who she had lost half a century prior. Within a couple of decades the surname would become famous the world over, and it all happened by pure chance.

Madame Doubtfire's shop in Stockbridge in 1982. Picture: TSPL

Madame Doubtfire's shop in Stockbridge in 1982. Picture: TSPL

The novel

Sometime in the early Seventies, young mother and aspiring writer Anne Fine had just relocated to Edinburgh from England. She lived at nearby Dundas Street and would pass Mrs Coutts’ little shop of curiosity often. In keeping with the second-hand nature of the store, Anne Fine chose to later ‘recycle’ the intriguing name above the doorway.

In 1986, Anne had written the book which would make her famous. She returned to Edinburgh to seek permission to retain the name of her novel’s lead character. ‘Madame Doubtfire’ had passed away 7 years earlier, but Anne did manage to track down one of her nephews who said his aunt “would have been chuffed to bits” for the name to be used.

Despite being a little upset with the Mrs Doubtfire screenwriters for turning a serious novel about divorce and the impact it has on children, into a light-hearted comedy, Anne Fine had no gripes with Robin Williams. As reported in the Evening News in August 2014 at the time of the actor’s sudden death, Fine said: “It was terribly sad and I was as sorry as everyone else to hear the news.

“He brought enormous joy to so many people.”

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The Doubtfire Gallery at South East Circus Place. Picture: Google Streetview

The Doubtfire Gallery at South East Circus Place. Picture: Google Streetview

Award-winning photographer Douglas Corrance snapped an image of Mrs Coutts in the late Seventies. He had this to say at the time: “While I was photographing her, she was having good-natured banter with a local constable: ‘I’ve known him since he was a bairn’. He obviously had respect and affection for her while using great diplomacy to persuade her to tidy the disorderly exterior of her shop.

“The lady is a legend. So are her cats - never fewer than a dozen, say her neighbours. She is Madame Doubtfire, seller of old clothes for half a century from her shop near Stockbridge. The hat is rakish. The face is strong with a leathery tan. The eyes have seen and measured most things. The cat has probably seen more.”

Mrs Annabella Coutts died in 1979 at the age of 92. Her shop later became the offices of an estate agent, but is now the appropriately-named Doubtfire Gallery.

It’s nice to know the name lives on in Edinburgh.

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