Alumni Services

Elaine Thomson

Elaine Thomson, a three time graduate, reminisces about her time at the University of Edinburgh and encourages students to get their inspiration from everywhere and anywhere.

Name Elaine Thomson
Degree Course History (MA) Sociology (MsC) Social History of Medicine (PhD)
Year of Graduation 1991, 1992, 1998
Elaine Thomson

Your time at the University

I come from Ormskirk in Lancashire, but my grandparents were from Scotland, so a Scottish university seemed the obvious choice when the time came to decide where to go. I came up to visit the university in 1985 and knew then that it was the place for me. I’d never visited a Scottish city before and the streets of tenements astounded me – they still do. The university was based at George Square, and was a mixture of old and new. I loved it! The fact that it was one of the best universities in the country and asked me for stupidly high grades to get in only made the place more appealing.

I came originally to study English Literature but switched to History after a year, partly because I didn’t want my life as a student at Edinburgh to end. By the time I left the University in 1998 I had spent eleven years as a student there, passing through departments of English, History, Sociology, Law, and back to Sociology for my PhD which I gained from the marvellous Science Studies Unit on Buccleuch Place.

I met so many interesting people, many of whom I still know and meet with regularly. I have especially fond memories of the various student flats I lived in – one at Tollcross which contained six, and sometimes seven of us was a particularly bizarre place – especially after the ceiling fell in. Late night double bills at the Cameo and sunbathing on the roof of the building where we lived are abiding memories. I still visit the Cameo and Filmhouse regularly – chick-pea curry is still on the menu there after thirty years (hopefully not the same batch). We never had any money as students and browsing for a coat in Armstrongs (a far dingier shop than it is now) or the charity shops of Nicholson Street were cheap ways to pass the time. The city is so beautiful that it was, and still is, a pleasure to walk around, especially to someone from a small town in Lancashire. The New Town … Dean Village … Warriston cemetery… Such fabulous and amazing places. So many art galleries and museums – we went to them all. And the Argyll pub in Marchmont, of course. Breakfast at Bannerman’s on a Sunday too. And I think I spent more time in the library coffee shop that anyone else – always someone interesting to talk to down there. I did all manner of jobs – I worked as a chamber maid in a hotel of dubious repute on Forth Street, in cafes on the Royal Mile, and as a char lady in a fancy guest house (I almost gassed the owners’ dogs and burnt the place down by mistake, but that’s another story…). I worked in Thins too, and spent more of my grant there than was wise.

The decade I spent at Edinburgh University was the time of my life. I loved every moment.

Get out there and enjoy it in whatever way you choose – all that awaits you afterwards is death and taxes.

Elaine Thomson

Tell us about your experiences since leaving the University

I work as a lecturer in business ethics at Edinburgh Napier University, and I write fiction. I’d always wanted to be a writer, but never had the confidence to try. When I started work teaching business ethics, mainly because there were no jobs in History of Medicine (my PhD subject area) I decided to give writing a go. With degrees in history, and a love of literature, writing historical fiction was the obvious choice. I’ve consistently drawn on medical history in my novels. The first two written under the name Elaine diRollo drew on the PhD work I’d undertaken at Edinburgh. Subsequent books are written using my real name E.S. Thomson and still draw on medical history themes. My books are not set in Edinburgh but I always mention the place – characters come from the city, or went to the university, or lived there for a while... I like to give minor characters Edinburgh localities or streets as names. Mr Gilmour, for instance is named after a street I used to live on as a student, and the novel I’ve just finished contains a sensation fiction writer called Ravelston Dykes. There’s no doubt that my literary interests and achievements have been shaped by living in Edinburgh, and by my time as a student in the history of medicine there. The city is steeped in medical history, there are medical archives everywhere and I have Surgeons’ Hall Museum on the doorstep. I still know people from my days as a PhD student who specialise in the history of medicine and they are always happy for me to pick their brains. I’ve been shortlisted for three literary awards, including the Saltire First Novel award and Scottish Arts Council First book award, which was exciting and gratifying, but these achievements are to a great extent the product of the inspiring time I spent as a postgraduate student, reading and writing history.

What I learned – how to write, how to research and how to think – have been invaluable in my career as a writer of historical fiction.

Graduate advice

Get out there and enjoy it in whatever way you choose – all that awaits you afterwards is death and taxes.

If, like me, you have a secret desire to be a writer, then my advice would be more detailed. For a start, don’t be shy! Get writing and send your work out now. Edinburgh is full of libraries to work in, and coffee shops – I worked in both.

We are lucky to have the National Library of Scotland too – a place no writer should ignore. Its staff are helpful and well informed and it contains anything and everything a writer might need for research or inspiration. Visit the museums – Surgeons Hall, the National Museum, the Writers Museum – be inspired as this city is truly an inspiring place to live. Mooch around churchyards, visit book shops, go to the cinema.

People always ask me “where do you get your inspiration?” The answer is, of course, “everywhere”. And use your course material too – what are you studying? Why does it interest you? Can you work with the ideas your course gives you to write a creative piece? Finally, there are more opportunities to showcase your writing then ever in Scotland too, and there’s a flourishing publishing world here, not least FREIGHT publishing and GUTTER magazine, both run by Edinburgh University alumnus Adrian Searle.

Above all, write. And read. Every day.