Horror and Weirdness at the Edinburgh International Book Festival


Not as negative as you might be led to believe! This is the aforementioned discussion on ‘the Scottish Peculiarity’ that D and I went to see along with his mother and step-father who are visiting us at the moment.


Margaret Atwood chaired the event beautifully, with an understated hand and a wry sense of humour. My biggest regret after the show was that I only went to one of her events – clearly, I should have gone to more. Next year!


The other speakers were Ian Rankin Valerie Martin, a writer from New Orleans previously unknown to me. She wrote a novel called Mary Reilly, which is a retelling of the Jekyll and Hyde story from the maid’s point of view. Martin added a quiet thoughtfulness to the proceedings. I was particularly interested in the too-brief chat about the Mary Celeste, which she has also written a novel about, and that mystery’s ties to Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote an anonymous ‘account’ of the ship’s abandonment.


Ian Rankin had a great stock of knowledge of the Scottish weird and macabre in his head, and a great wit to boot. I was particularly interested in the clootie well he mentioned being somewhere outside of the city – I hadn’t known about it. A clootie well is similar to a fairy tree (schietree as I’m calling it here) in that it’s used to try to address problems through interaction with the natural world as a conduit to the spirit world. In Scots ‘clootie’ means cloth – folk go to trees and wells and tie small cloths to branches or by the well in order to seek remedy for some bad fortune. Rankin said he went by the well once and saw a full quilt tied up, and written on it was ‘BIG PROBLEM, BIG CLOOTIE’. This story I had to later explain to my in-laws as they, as Doug is, are American. It got me wondering if there mightn’t be a site in North America where people have made a clootie tree. Anyone know of this?


Some of the books and writers discussed included:


Robert Louis Stevenson, for his Jekyll and Hyde for the most part – with some great revelations about a story of his childhood home containing a wardrobe built by Deacon Brodie, the respectable citizen by day, housebreaker by night who some people say inspired the famous novella.


Arthur Conan Doyle and his rationalism tempered by an obsession in spiritualism.


James Hogg, author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner – as Rankin rightly said, a difficult and important book and one that more people should read. I hadn’t thought of this before, but it made sense that as he said this book had been quite influential on Scottish crime fiction writers, given that it’s perhaps the first book about a serial killer. Read it!


Some smatterings on Poe and Macbeth too – and a sprinkling of names of Scottish writers male and female who served to whet the appetite but sadly were not addressed. Scottish ballads were brought up, and now I’d like to get myself a wee look at a collection of them, given how rich and grim their stories are. Other highlights included the story of Half-Hanged Mary of Massachusetts, apparently a relation of Margaret Atwood, and the famous anecdote about a drunken David Hume falling in the Nor’ Loch, Edinburgh’s former heavily polluted water supply, and only being rescued after he, a firm atheist, recited the Lord’s Prayer. Which he did, atheists in particular not being overly fond of death.


The discussion was baggy, wide-ranging and utterly engrossing. I really did not take notes because I was too caught up in it. It could have been a little more scholarly – but I say that as someone who has delved into the Supernatural in Scottish fiction as a casual interest since I was about ten, so. I might be a little more prepped and keen than those who got themselves an intriguing introduction to the topic. The question of whether Scotland is more into its fictive horrors and weirdness was moot and addressed, as I’ve thought before, as a by-product of the Northern Dark. If anything my criticism would be that it was all far too short. I’d have happily listened to the three speak for hours on the subject. In fact they mentioned talking in the writer’s yurt at the festival beforehand, and as my step-father-in-law said, ‘to be a fly on that wall!’.



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4 responses to “Horror and Weirdness at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

  1. Thank you sooo much for the rundown! I wish I could have been in attendance. Upon you suggestion, I immediately got the James Hogg novel, which I hope to start tomorrow on a morning flight. When you get a chance, could you organize a few more recs? Scotland is a favorite place of mine and the uncanny/weirdness/strange are favorite subjects but I feel terribly naive of most literature from the country.

    • Glad you liked this – so, my immediate suggestion since you’ve bought the Hogg is to go for ‘The Testament of Gideon Mack’ by James Robertson. It’s a modern retelling of Hogg’s story, and full of the uncanny and the liminal. Robertson also wrote what I believe is one of the finest ‘state of the nation’ novels about Scotland called And The Land Lay Still, which concerns itself with the social history of Scotland in the 20th century. It’s a big brick of a novel but a breezy book to read, in my opinion. Perfect for a long flight the next time you go.

      I’ll go and ponder what other weird books I can think of – sad to say, I haven’t read all that much in the way of contemporary Scottish fiction!

  2. Pingback: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg | Acid Free Pulp

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