Edit Magazine

Literature with latitude

A walk through Edinburgh’s streets can now be enriched with a wealth of literary references as a result of a unique collaboration between informatics and literature researchers.

Edinburgh Royal Mile transitional photograph
Transitional photograph by Bing Liu (MSc Design & Digital Media 2012)

“Hurra for Auld Reekie! Our lads, when they do a thing, never make a fool o’t.” Can you identify this quote? The affectionate name “Auld Reekie” for Edinburgh will be familiar to alumni, but this is one of many thousands of literary references to Scotland’s capital. Can you guess who wrote it and when?

Edinburgh has a unique literary heritage, its streets echoing with the voices of countless authors and their characters. Now, thanks to an innovative collaboration between experts in data mining and literature at the University, writers’ references to locations throughout the city can be found at the tap of a screen or click of a mouse.

Lit Long: Edinburgh is an interactive tool that links more than 47,000 literary excerpts to more than 1,600 locations.

Explore Lit Long: Edinburgh

A new voice

At the launch of Lit Long: Edinburgh, Jane Alexander (BA Illustration 1996) was announced as the winner of a writing competition connected to the project. Her short story, Candlemaker Row, is set in Edinburgh and its locations have been included in Lit Long, adding a new voice to the ever-growing chorus echoing through the Scottish capital.

Candlemaker Row

A vast range of writing about Edinburgh, or set in Edinburgh, both historical and modern, can be explored through the online map-based interface – and apps for smartphone and tablet will be available later in the summer.

Through the use of dispassionate computer software to read thousands of texts, the project aimed to bring less-familiar works to the surface alongside the more well-known canon of Edinburgh literature, and to show geographical and other connections between literary works both old and new.

Project Director James Loxley, Professor of Early Modern Literature, says: “Lit Long: Edinburgh offers readers a genuinely new way to get inside literary Edinburgh. It has the potential to shape the experience and understanding of critics and editors, residents and visitors, readers and writers.

“We believe the Lit Long concept is a fantastic resource for literary tourism, which could readily be adopted by other cities around the world with a rich literary heritage.”

Transitional photographs

Bing Liu (MSc Design & Digital Media 2012) chose to work on the Palimpsest project as part of his postgraduate masters degree, and produced the transitional photographs seen on this page. He aimed to visually capture the essence of the project, linking historical and modern scenes with specific sites.

Literary references to a particular location are plotted on the map and individual, fully referenced excerpts can be selected and read. The database of text extracts can be filtered by keyword, location and author.

For example, Lit Long reveals more than 500 references to the Calton Hill area, and by either zooming in on the map or refining search criteria, Lit Long pinpoints the following quotes:

Do you mind the youth in Highland garb and the tableful of coppers? Do you mind the signal of Waterloo Place? Hey, how the blood stands to the heart at such a memory!

From a letter written by Robert Louis Stevenson to his friend Charles Baxter in 1892

The toon seems sinister and alien as ah pad it doon fae the Waverley. Two guys are screaming at each other under the archway in Calton Road, by the Post Office depot.

From Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel Trainspotting.

As for the lads of Auld Reekie, they were the work of Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897) in her novel The Laird of Norlaw, a Scottish Story. You can find more of her work in Lit Long: Edinburgh, of course.

Palimpsest project

Lit Long is the result of a research project named Palimpsest, a collaboration between the School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures; the School of Informatics; the University of St Andrews’ SACHI research group; and EDINA, the University-owned geospatial data service.

Researchers used data-mining technology to search nearly 500,000 digitised texts for the use of place names that indicated Edinburgh as a setting.

Texts were made available by organisations including the British Library, the National Library of Scotland and the Hathi Trust. A number of well-known authors also gave permission to include their work in

the database, including Ron Butlin (MA Arts 1975, Dip Ed 1977), Alexander McCall Smith (PhD Law 1971) and James Robertson (MA History 1980, PhD History 1989), as did publishers including Faber & Faber, Penguin and Random House.

The Palimpsest team manually checked thousands of computer-retrieved text extracts to help refine the text-mining process, which eventually resulted in a selection of more than 500 works that use Edinburgh as a setting. The Edinburgh place names in these works were then mapped to locations in the city using a bespoke gazetteer created to take account of the different ways placed are used in writing.