Alexander McCall Smith on the global appeal of 44 Scotland Street as it returns in The Scotsman
It started life in the pages of The Scotsman 17 years ago and has gone to become the longest-running serial novel in the world.
Alexander McCall, the creator of 44 Scotland, has admitted he did not think his tales of life in Edinburgh’s New Town would have much appeal beyond the boundaries of the city.
Instead, the quirky characters who reside in the real-life street have gone on to secure a dedicated following as far afield as India, Australia and America.
Fans of the series – which has been turned into a stage show and a radio series, as well as inspired musical compositions – are said to travel to Edinburgh specifically to visit Scotland Street, although they are left to search for No 44 in vain as the block of flats at the centre of the stories does not exist.
Ahead of the next series, the 15th so far, starting in The Scotsman on Monday, McCall Smith says he is so attached to Bertie, Irene, Domenica, Bruce, Angus and Big Lou that he cannot imagine giving up writing about them.
Part of the appeal for the author is that so much is told through the eyes of seven-year-old schoolboy Bertie, who has only aged by around two years since the first series appeared and was turned into a novel in 2004.
He said: “Of the six series of novels I am writing at the moment, it’s the one that I get a particular pleasure from writing.
"I’m obviously writing about Edinburgh, which I really enjoy, but it's also about the range of characters. When you spend a lot of time with literary characters they become very familiar and they almost become your friends, as if you are sitting having a coffee with them.
"I love writing about Bertie and his terrible mother and looking at the adult world through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy. There are all different types of characters that I can have fun with.
"The whole thing is just wonderfully absurd, but there’s also an element of reality to the stories. The characters have to be people who one might recognise as being possible. It’s a a fanciful world, but it’s set in a real place, with recognisable characters and issues in it.”
Part of the inspiration for 44 Scotland Street was Tales of the City, a series of novels by American author Armistead Maupin, which appeared as installments in the San Francisco Chronicle.
McCall Smith, who ignored advice from the writer to avoid writing a serial novel, said: “When I started Scotland Street, I really thought it would just be for readers in Edinburgh and the east of Scotland, but now the vast majority of its readership is outside Scotland. When I go to festivals in India and Malaysia I’m very often asked about Scotland Street.
“I think Edinburgh is a perfect place for a story of this sort. What people want in this world is a safe, self-contained world where people know one another. Edinburgh’s just like that.
“One of the reasons I chose Scotland Street is that it hadn’t been gentrified in the same way some of the other New Town streets had. They’d been taken over by offices or very expensive flats.
"It seemed to me that Scotland Street had a more charming community and felt lived in. I occasionally wander down Scotland Street. I still get the feeling that it’s a properly lived-in street and there’s still a proper community there."
McCall Smith, one of the city’s most successful modern-day authors, who is in demand at literary events around the world, admits he views Edinburgh differently following his experiences of lockdown.
He said: “It was a psychologically shocking moment.
“People started greeting each other in the street and talking to strangers for the first time. One of the lessons which I think we have learned is how important community is and how we rely on other people. We realised we rely on a lot of people who we may otherwise have taken for granted.
“Edinburgh is a very liveable city. Over the last year and a half I think we’ve come to appreciate it more, to look about us and be more conscious of the importance of that.
"I think we all sat up and looked around us, looked at what we were doing with our lives and looked at sustainability, which was quite an important and sometimes rather sobering process."
McCall Smith believes the pre-Covid growth of Edinburgh’s tourism industry was changing the nature of the city centre, and that it was struggling to cope with the impact of year-round cultural events.
The author, who will be appearing at the revived Edinburgh International Book Festival this month, said: “I think Edinburgh was over-heating a bit in terms of the number of festivals it had.
"It was reaching saturation point when it had one festival after another. I think people have taken a bit of a step back from that now.
“Tourism is a double-edged sword. You don’t want to wreck the city by uncontrolled growth. You’d make it into a Disneyworld, which is obviously not what people want. They want to look at Edinburgh because as a real working city, with an artistic, intellectual and business life.
"Having back to back festivals is a bad idea. We had the established festival season in the summer and then they said ‘we must have a winter festival as well’ and it’s off we go again. One does need to have a fallow period.
"We have to be very careful about the impact of tourism on the infrastructure of the city. We don’t want to make it uninhabitable for people, particularly with young families. Airbnb has been the big problem – life just becomes impossible for many people if it is one big party in their stair. Sterilising the centre of the city is the real danger.”