Edinburgh Festival: Unsolved murder of Capital sex worker inspires new play set to premiere at Edinburgh Fringe

The way in which the unsolved murder of Capital sex worker Sheila Anderson in 1983 changed the face of policing the sex trade in Edinburgh is to come under the spotlight in a new play premiering at the Fringe, this August.

By Liam Rudden
Tuesday, 10th May 2022, 2:45 pm
Updated Tuesday, 10th May 2022, 4:18 pm

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Salamander by Cal Ferguson is set in 1980's Leith and based on the events that transpired after the murder of Sheila Anderson, focusing on meetings between the then newly appointed Lothian and Borders’ Prostitute Liaison Officer, a member of the Women's Guild and the sex workers of Leith.

Sheila Anderson was discovered dying at Gypsy Brae in April, 1983, badly mutilated, she was found by Citizens' Band radio enthusiasts driving along the Granton foreshore; the couple​ ​swerved to avoid what they thought was a​ bag​ of rubbish​ only to spot ​a pair of ​feet​. Stopping, they​​ ​realised ​it was young woman, described by former Lothian and Borders Deputy Chief Constable Tom Wood in the popular crime podcast, Small Town Dicks, as​ ‘flattened, apparently run over a number of times​​’.

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Salamander, a new play by Cal Ferguson and Mhairi McCall, to premiere at Edinburgh Fringe

It was that podcast that first introduced Ferguson and co-writer Mhairi McCall to the case.

The 27-year-old explains, “We first came across Sheila's story listening to the podcast. Living in Leith it felt relevant to us and was a story we hadn't come across before. What really struck home was how tragic her death was and what also interested us was the change it sparked in the attitude to sex work in Leith.

“We started trying to think what the conversations between the police, Prostitute Liaison Officer and the women that worked the streets might look like. From there we built a play centred around those meetings.”

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Murder victim Sheila Anderson - body found at the Sea Wall in Granton 1983

While writing, the pair worked closely with Wood and the city’s first Prostitute Liaison Officer, Pat Ellis, to ensure their exploration of events was as accurate as possible.

“The meetings in the play are completely imagined but we did speak to Pat Ellis who opened our eyes and brought the sex workers to life for us. She made it very clear we should not portray them as victims. That was not what they were. They were funny, charismatic, cheeky and ordinary people.”

He continues, “It was Tom Wood that told us about the range of different women who worked on the street at the time.

"Some were there because it was a career choice. A hugely flawed care system lead a lot of women to sex work, and he revealed some were as young as 15 and 16 and that while the bobbies on the beat were aware of how out of control it was, those higher up were not.”

Playwright Cal Ferguson

Produced by Leith-based Pretty Knickers Productions, a theatre company founded by six women who met at Napier University in 2017 as an advocate for female led theatre, Salamander will run from 22-27 August at Greenside, Riddles Court, on the Royal Mile.

It has a simple message, says Ferguson, “These women were real, they existed. These women were ordinary people with real lives and in this particular case, although there is no good outcome in any murder because there is a victim and family who have lost a loved one, Sheila’s death led to the streets becoming potentially safer for the women working them.”

Tickets for Salamander are available here.

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Playwright Mhairi McCall

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Salamander, a new play by Cal Ferguson and Mhairi McCall