The Edinburgh weather forecast said 16C and sunny. As it was anything but that in central Lanarkshire last Saturday, and I was in no mood to hibernate, I thought it’s now or never. And so I made my way to The Mercat Cross on the Royal Mile to join Eva from Mercat Tours to wander/loiter around sites associated with Muriel Spark and her most famous creations.
Now I must apologise on behalf of the weather man. Remember, 16C and sunny, he said. Well, I didn’t see the sun, and I needed my layered-up gear because the autumnal wind was determined to have its way at times, but at least it stayed dry (for most of the tour). The Royal Mile was surprisingly busy, with street buskers, bagpipers, lay preachers, and magicians all doing what they do best on the High Street just outside St. Giles’ Cathedral. Nowhere near as busy as during the Fringe (when you can barely move), but still busy enough.
So Eva had plenty of competition to contend with. She coped admirably. Pitching her voice to overcome the background noise, or moving us to quieter spots as necessary. I had no difficulty hearing her highly-informed commentary on Spark’s life, work and influences at any time. Packed with some of Spark’s waspish quotations, it was also highly entertaining. Eva took us past famous sites (St Giles Cathedral, The Writer’s Museum, the view over the Balmoral Hotel, where Spark was staying at the time of her father’s death, Deacon Brodie’s bar) but also to less well-known places (James Gillespie’s tobacconist shop, Riddle’s Court with links to Dame Maggie Smith). For half-an-hour or so, we became the Brodie Set recreating Miss Jean Brodie’s walk with her girls, as we wandered down West Bow, through the Grassmarket, up Cowgate to Greyfriar’s Kirkyard. Then we passed Greyfriar’s Bobby, to cross into Chambers Street, where Spark attended secretarial college and learned to express herself with the precision that is so apparent in her literary style. The tour ended at the National Library of Scotland, the home of Spark’s archive.
I have, of course, visited most of these sites many times over the years, but it did feel new and fresh seeing them through a Sparkian filter. There was only one piece of information I didn’t need to know, and that was the location of James Thin’s, the stationers which supplied the Bothwell spiral-bound notebooks Spark insisted upon. It is now the home of Blackwell’s, the bookshop on South Bridge I can find with my eyes shut, only 5 minutes from the tour’s ending point. Well, you know what happened next …. Thank you, Eva. 😉
The Spark 100 tour will be running again this coming Saturday (27.10.2018 at 13.30) as part of the Scottish Storytelling Festival. Further details here.