Sherlock Holmes may reside on London’s Baker Street – but Edinburgh, Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthplace, played an important part in the detective’s creation.
Emerging into the early morning light from one of the narrow closes off Edinburgh’s deserted Royal Mile, a Victorian gentleman in an Inverness cape, deerstalker and tweed trousers stops to peer into a tobacconist shop window.
You’d be forgiven for thinking he was one of the Old Town’s many apparitions, but Toby Virgo, dressed in Sherlock Holmes apparel, is very much of the living.
I am joining him on one of his walking tours 125 years to the day since the publication of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
“A collection of short stories that was not just to change the course of literature but in some ways to change the world as well,” as Toby intones.
A cornerstone of the crime fiction genre, the impact of this first anthology of Sherlock Holmes stories has been incalculable, which would have mystified its author, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
“I think Arthur Conan Doyle in particular would have actually laughed at the notion that people would still be reading these stories 125 years later, never mind devouring them, poring over them and studying them almost like academic texts which people do today,” Toby says.
“To Arthur, they were just coffee table stories; throwaway stories to make a little bit of money whilst he concentrated on what he considered to be more serious literature.”
And yet the feted super-sleuth was to bring his creator lasting notoriety, with Conan Doyle going on to pen 60 stories in total, inspiring modern spin-off novels and scores of adaptations for the stage, film and television.
The BBC’s Sherlock, for instance, is broadcast in 180 countries worldwide, making it one of the Beeb’s most watched programmes ever. Ninety-eight million people in China alone watch it illegally.
“We live in a world where Sherlock Holmes is arguably better known and more popular than he has ever been,” Toby notes.
Yet many millions of fans through the decades have presumed that Conan Doyle was writing about the streets where he lived, worked and walked. In truth, the Scot had barely visited London when he wrote his first Holmes escapade. And if it weren’t for Edinburgh, Sherlock Holmes may never have existed at all.
Born at 11 Picardy Place on 22 May 1859, Arthur Conan Doyle was the eldest child of a large working class Catholic family. His father was from a prosperous, creative family but his downward spiral into alcoholism pushed the family to breaking point financially.
Sent away for years by his wealthy uncles to a Jesuit school in Lancashire, Conan Doyle was terribly homesick.
“Arthur was a Scotsman, Edinburgh born and bred,” Toby explains. “He was born here, he went to school here, or at least to start off with, he grew up here and returned to go to university here. This was very much his own city. He used to refer to the people of Edinburgh as ‘my ain folk’ – his own people.”
The Edinburgh influence
A Janus-like city of both wealth and extreme poverty, life in Edinburgh in the late 1800s would have had a profound effect on the young Conan Doyle as he grew up.
For all its architectural beauty, the city had a dark side and was riven by crime. Public executions would have still been a common sight on the Royal Mile, the last one carried out in 1864. It had of course also become infamous for its body snatchers – or the Resurrection Men, as they became known.
It was against this backdrop that the young Conan Doyle took the entrance exams to the world-leading medical school at the University of Edinburgh, successfully gaining a place and changing the course of his life completely.
A fateful meeting
As a young doctor, Conan Doyle paid four guineas to enrol on a clinical surgery course. It was the best money he ever spent. The professor leading the course saw potential in him and offered him a clerking job at his clinic at the Old Surgical Hospital on Infirmary Street.
Standing outside the new building on the spot where it would have been, Toby sketches in great detail the man who was to have such a profound influence on the young Conan Doyle – and the penny drops.
Dr Joseph Bell could give a full diagnosis of a patient in 30 seconds without them having said a word, sweeping 360 degrees around them and simply looking at them intently and smelling them.
“Dr Joseph Bell had trained himself to use 101 different tell-tale signs or clues,” says Toby.
“And like a high-powered computer, he was processing all of this information and putting it together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to build up a bigger, more coherent picture of the stranger in front of him.”
The enigmatic Bell would be the inspiration for what would ultimately become of the most recognisable literary characters in history.
“It is most certainly to you that I owe Sherlock Holmes,” Conan Doyle later wrote.
Hatred for Holmes
“In the end, he almost came to hate Sherlock Holmes. It’s quite ironic that even in death, Sherlock Holmes is looking over the spot where he was born,” says Toby, on reaching our last stop at Picardy Place.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s birthplace was demolished in the 1970s to make way for the roundabout that currently sits here. All that remains to mark the spot is a plaque and a statue of his most illustrious creation.
Having led a full and accomplished life – standing for parliament twice, sailing on an Arctic whaling ship, becoming a qualified doctor who later volunteered as a medic in the Boer War and travelling around the world evangelising about spiritualism – Conan Doyle grew weary of being known only as the man who wrote the Sherlock Holmes series.
It’s perhaps telling, suggests Toby, that the statue to commemorate the author is not of his own likeness but the character he gave life to.
“It reminds us, if we needed reminding, that Sherlock Holmes is one of these few characters who are loved the world over, and he really does belong to everybody.”
This article fist appeared on our sister site, iNews.