Author unearths some eye-opening facts about Edinburgh streets

Joanne Soroka at Irvine Welsh's birthplace in Canonmills. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Joanne Soroka at Irvine Welsh's birthplace in Canonmills. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Could your car be parked on top of the grave of the leader of the Protestant reformation? Was your house the scene of a secret meeting between future prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown? Are you buying your herbal remedies on the same site as the mental hospital where the poet Robert Fergusson died?

Everyone knows that the streets of the Capital feature historic locations at every turn – but a new book by a Canadian emigré has shown that there’s a lot more to some of Edinburgh’s more anonymous spots than meets the eye.

The Edinburgh Celebrity City Guide provides a tour with a difference, detailing the secret and better-known spots connected with 100 figures from history and the present day who either lived in the Capital or had a strong connection with it, allowing the public to take a tour and visit buildings, museum pieces and monuments connected with a chosen celeb.

Author Joanne Soroka, 64, has spent more than half her life in Edinburgh after moving here in 1972 to study on the now defunct tapestry weaving course at the College of Art. Though she returned home for a while after completing her course, the call of her adopted hometown proved too strong, and she returned to the Capital.

Joanne, who lives in Stockbridge, said: “I really fell in love with the city, and all the stories it has to tell.

“I was fascinated. I’ve written books about tapestry and tapestry itself is a form of story-telling, so writing this book wasn’t a complete departure from my comfort zone.” However, she admits that she did get a little bit more than she bargained for when she decided to take on the project.

She said: “The research felt endless, there was much, much more of it than I had anticipated. I spent weeks in the library checking books and in the records office, looking up birth ­certificates, death certificates, marriage licences . . . I also spoke to lots of knowledgeable people across the city.

“That’s another great thing about Edinburgh – it’s so small and everyone knows everyone, or someone who knows them. I’m very grateful for all the help.”

Joanne’s research uncovered some surprising facts about contemporary figures.

“It’s the general belief that the author Irvine Welsh was born in Leith, but according to his birth certificate he was born at 13 Canonmills in 1957, not 1958. The house there has now been demolished but it was near where the petrol station is now.

“I also discovered that when Tony Blair was running for the leadership of the Labour party he had a secret meeting with his rival Gordon Brown in the city. It took quite a bit of digging but I eventually pinpointed the location – it was at a house on Randolph Cliff beside Dean Bridge which belonged to the parents of his first love, Amanda MacKenzie Stuart, who he met while studying at Fettes.”

The book also contains facts about other living legends such as Sir Sean Connery, Sir Chris Hoy, singer Shirley Manson, JK Rowling, artists John ­Bellany and Dame Elizabeth Blackadder, chef Tom Kitchin, author Alexander McCall Smith and entertainer Ronnie Corbett, plus maps to show where in the city you can connect with your idols.

But no guide to Auld Reekie would be complete without the history of recognisable names from the past – and Joanne’s research has shown that no matter how famous you were in life, your final resting place could prove to be less than salubrious.

“John Knox, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, who died in 1572, is buried under what is now the car park beside St Giles’ Cathedral and William “Deacon” Brodie, the disgraced ­Edinburgh councillor who was hanged in 1778, is buried in an unmarked grave at a disused church.”

The poet Robert Louis Stevenson, who was born in the Capital and liked to ice skate on the now-drained Canonmills Loch within King George V Park, is another historical legend who readers can get to know more about. He is quoted in the guide as saying Edinburgh is “what Paris ought to be”.

The Edinburgh Celebrity City Guide also contains details of the exploits of other famous Scots who have strong connections to the Capital. “The poet Robert Burns came to Edinburgh in 1786 and stayed until early 1788. He made many friends during his time here and there are many historical documents telling of his exploits – practically his every move was recorded.”

But Joanne also researched the lives of some of the Capital’s lesser-known figures from history, including pioneering female doctor Elsie Inglis, and the inspiration for a book that became a major Hollywood movie.

“Lots of people will have seen the film Mrs Doubtfire starring Robin Williams, which was based on the novel Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine.

“Some people may already be aware that Anne Fine got the name for the character while she was living in Edinburgh.

For decades there used to be a second hand clothing shop called Madame Doubtfire’s on the corner of South East Circus Place, and Madame Doubtfire would sit outside in warm weather. Anne Fine used to see her when she passed with her children. She said she never found time to go into the shop, but the name always stuck in her mind.

“It was commonly thought that the real Madame Doubtfire got her name after marrying a French sea captain, but she had actually first been ­married to a man from London who was killed in the Second World War.

After he died she came to Edinburgh, opened the shop and began a romance with a younger married man, who she then married when his wife died. They stayed there until her death in 1979. The Doubtfire Gallery is now where the shop used to be.”

• The Edinburgh Celebrity Guide, designed by Joanne’s ­sister Peggy Issenman, who still lives in Canada, is available to purchase from publishers The Crowood Press

Five significant places for celebrities around the Capital

1: Trainspotting author and Hibernian fan Irvine Welsh was born at 13 Canonmills in 1957.

2: Irish artist Phoebe Traquair, who died in 1936, lived at 8 Dean Park Crescent.

3: The flat of John Rebus, played by Ken Stott, in the TV series was at 97 St Stephen Street.

4: In 1774 the poet Robert Fergusson, who was suffering from depression, was sent to Edinburgh’s Darien House, a mental institution, where he died within weeks aged just 24. Napier’s, 18 Bristo Place, is now on that site.

5: As a child, actor and comedian Ronnie Corbett attended the Glover Turner Robertson School of Drama, which was above 135 George Street.

. . and the rest

EDINBURGH actor Alastair Sim, who died in 1976, acted in The Belles of St Trinian’s, playing both the headmistress and her ne’er-do-well brother. The fictional school was loosely based on St Trinnean’s School for Girls, which was sited at what is now the Pollock Halls of Residence, Edinburgh University, 18 Holyrood Park Road.

• The author Robert Louis Stevenson used to skate on Canonmills Loch, which was eventually drained, within King George V Park, in Eyre Place.

• Murderers Burke and Hare lived in a lodging house at Tanner’s Close, which is now demolished, near the north-east corner of Lady Lawson Street and the West Port.

• Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, was found strangled in a field outside the town wall, in what is now South College Street. He had been staying in the Kirk o’ field estate, which was rocked by an explosion earlier in the evening caused by two barrels of gunpowder planted under his sleeping quarters.

• Deacon Brodie, the city councillor who was hanged after his double life as a burglar was discovered, is buried in an unmarked grave at the disused Buccleuch Parish Church, on the west side of Chapel Street.

• Robert Fergusson’s statue is outside the Canongate Kirk.

• The gates of the Edinburgh Academy were used, with an added over-gate, for the school in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark, at 54 Henderson Row.

• Internationally renowned ballet dancer and actress Moira Shearer, who starred in cinema classic The Red Shoes, and her husband, journalist and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy, lived at 3 Upper Dean Terrace.

• Alexander Graham Bell, the eminent Scottish scientist who is credited with inventing the telephone, attended the Hamilton Place Academy, which is now a shop, at 10-11 Hamilton Place.