Burke and Hare-themed events
As a slew of Burke and Hare-themed events pop up around Edinburgh, Kirstin Innes discovers why body-snatching will be big in 2008
‘Up the close and down the stair/But and ben wi’ Burke and Hare/Burke’s the butcher, Hare’s the thief/Knox the boy who buys the beef . . .’
Everyone gets a bit rueful round about this time of year, don’t they? A lot of poring over old mistakes, a lot of regretful reminiscing. Edinburgh, in particular, is being very hard on itself at the moment, with a succession of ghoulish events and exhibitions focussing on the less savoury aspects of the city’s past. And as every local schoolchild knows, there are some murky old skeletons in the capital’s cupboards and closes.
Celebrity graverobbers Burke and Hare are certainly flavour of the month, amid rumours that Colin Firth and Robert Carlyle might be teaming up for an Irvine Welsh-scripted bodysnatching biopic. A quick recap for those unfamiliar with the story: in 1827 Grassmarket-dwellers Williams Burke and Hare discovered a novel way to make a quick buck, selling corpses dug up from graves to the unscrupulous Dr Knox at the medical school, so his students could practise anatomy. The trouble began when they decided to start generating their own bodies, and accidentally became Edinburgh’s most famous serial killers.
The misleadingly-cosy sounding Burke and Hare, Rebus and Friends event at the National Library of Scotland (run in conjunction with the Ian Rankin-themed Crime Scene Edinburgh exhibition covered in these pages a few months ago), charts the influence the devious double act have had on Scottish literature’s tendency to the Gothic, from Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark, twisty fantasies to Ian Rankin’s outbursts of tartan noir. Owen Dudley Edwards of the University of Edinburgh takes the lecture.
Merely talking about Burke and Hare might be a bit too tame for you, of course. Any utter and absolute ghouls out there who like to get up close and personal with their historical research may be interested to know that the Royal College of Surgeons is running a tour of the more gruesome aspects of their museum this fortnight. They’re keen to let everyone know that hidden in amongst the selection of pickled freaks is William Burke’s death mask and, charmingly enough, a wallet made out of his skin. Mmm. Crime really didn’t pay in the early 19th century, eh?
Finally, if all this talk of murder and mayhem in old Embra town has got your juices flowing (creatively, rather than nauseously), the National Library of Scotland is also running a writing workshop called Gothic in the City, allowing budding novelists to follow the gore-spattered footsteps of writers like James Hogg and Rankin round Edinburgh, looking at the way the city’s history and architecture influences the darker aspects of their writing. After that, there’s the chance to workshop your own crime novel with poet and author Ken Cockburn. Victorian serial killers might be a profitable line of enquiry this year.
Burke and Hare, Rebus and Friends, National Library of Scotland, Tue 8 Jan; Royal College of Surgeons Tour, Surgeons Museum, Wed 9 Jan; Gothic in the City, National Library of Scotland, Thu 10 Jan.