BEFORE there was a statue of Sherlock Holmes in Picardy Place – before there was a BBC series about a young Arthur Conan Doyle working as a detective with his Edinburgh mentor – before Sherlock and Elementary and Robert Downey Jr’s bare-knuckled Holmes with his elusive accent – there was a headstrong young boy named Arthur navigating the wynds and closes of Edinburgh. In certain time-eluding spots of the capital, it is still possible to follow the trail of the boy and young man.
But, sadly, let’s begin with where you can no longer walk: inside the house where the future author was born. Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle was born at 11 Picardy Place, an island block of sandstone tenements near the upper end of Leith Walk, on 22 May 1859. Until demolition in 1969–1970, Doyle’s birthplace stood as part of Picardy Triangle, a three-sided building at the juncture of Picardy Place, Broughton Street and Union Place. Nowadays if you stand where Doyle was born, you may get killed; it’s the roundabout.
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A few hundred feet away is a statue portraying not the author but his immortal creation. The figure in deerstalker hat and Inverness cape is immediately recognizable to tourists from around the world – probably the best-known fictional character in modern history.
He holds a calabash, the kind of pipe associated with Sherlock Holmes ever since William Gillette’s stage portrayals more than a century ago, but not a pipe that Holmes actually smokes in Doyle’s stories. But then the hat and cape had been added by the early illustrators, beginning a long history of enhancing Holmes.
The smoker seems lost in thought, gazing into the distance. However, rather than contemplating the web of iniquity woven by that Napoleon of crime, his arch enemy Professor Moriarty, this Holmes is probably thinking of a different villain – more correctly, of an innocent animal callously portrayed as a villain. If you climb up on the statue’s surrounding ledge and look at the base beneath Holmes’s shoes, you will find what Dr Mortimer in The Hound of the Baskervilles describes as “the footprints of a gigantic hound”. It’s a sly touch, not visible to pedestrians.
Further evidence that you are on what a Sherlockian might call sacred ground is the nearby presence of The Conan Doyle, a pub in York Place. A similarly themed pub, Moriarty, can be found in Lothian Road, with a dramatic mural portraying Holmes and Moriarty wrestling like Jacob and the angel at the edge of the Reichenbach Falls. But these are shrines, not artifacts.
Doyle lived in Edinburgh until the age of nine, when he left to attend boarding school in England and Austria. He returned in 1876, the summer he turned 17, and enrolled at Edinburgh University. You could say that Sherlock Holmes was actually born in Portsmouth, England, where the 26-year-old physician and author began writing the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, in early 1886. But he was at least conceived in Edinburgh a decade earlier.
Arthur attended medical classes – in an era best characterised by the tub of blood-absorbing sawdust beneath the operating table – at the university and at the nearby Royal Infirmary. As every Sherlock fan knows, he studied with Dr Joseph Bell, one among several brilliant diagnosticians in Scotland, England, and Europe who attended closely to the visible details of illness, lifestyle, and environment. He was only 40 but already legendary.
In 1879, while Doyle was in school, the overcrowded and under-resourced Royal Infirmary moved from Infirmary Street to grand new quarters in Lauriston Place, and the old site was demolished in 1884. In 2001 the Lauriston Place site was sold, and it has been incorporated into the Quartermile development of housing and offices. In areas open to the public, guides point out surviving Doyle connections. The university campus remains accessible.
DAILY, on his way to classes and the clinic, young Arthur walked past James Thin, Booksellers, at 54 and 55 South Bridge, a den of temptation whose siren call was a window card informing him that for three pence he could purchase any volume in the large tub beneath. Three pence was precisely his daily allowance for a midday meal and beer. Unable to even aspire to fine editions, he would happily sort through sale volumes that had been evicted from more valuable real estate within the shop. You can visit the same building today, which is now a Blackwell’s.
Edinburgh’s love of literature saturated the very air of the city in which Doyle grew up. The 200-foot Scott monument in Princes Street Gardens, the tallest shrine to a writer in the world, had been completed only 13 years before Doyle’s birth. Although his Sherlock Holmes stories were set mostly in England, in his 1889–1890 novel The Firm of Girdlestone, Doyle describes with affectionate detail many spots in Edinburgh, including this favorite walking place when he was not yet known: “The broad stretch of the Prince’s Street Gardens, which occupy the valley between the old town and the new, looked green and spring-like, and their fountains sparkled merrily in the sunshine. Their wide expanse, well-trimmed and bepathed, formed a strange contrast to the rugged piles of grim old houses which bounded them upon the other side and the massive grandeur of the great hill beyond, which lies like a crouching lion keeping watch and ward, day and night, over the ancient capital of the Scottish kings.”
As readers of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes may recall, Doyle dedicated it “To my old teacher, Joseph Bell, M.D., etc., of 2, Melville Crescent, Edinburgh”. Bell’s residence of many years stands today, currently occupied by the Consulate General of Japan. In 2011, the centenary of Bell’s death, the Japan Sherlock Holmes Club installed a plaque commemorating the debt that Sherlock Holmes owed to Joseph Bell and Edinburgh.
Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holmes by Michael Sims is published by Bloomsbury, priced £18.99