10 Scotland Street: Q & A with Leslie Hills


‘My research started really by chance, and became an ongoing pleasure, not to say, obsession.’

What goes on behind closed doors? Well, writer Leslie Hills has given us a glimpse of the lives behind one door in particular in Scotland Street in Edinburgh. With so many fascinating life stories to discover, BfS spoke to Leslie to find out more.


10 Scotland Street
By Leslie Hills
Published by Scotland Street Press


Hi Leslie, congratulations on the publication of 10 Scotland Street. Can you tell us a little bit about what can readers expect from the book? 

10 Scotland Street is the story of one Edinburgh home and its inhabitants and widespread connections over two centuries, tracing this city and the nation’s history and its global connections – to the Caribbean, Irkutsk, Calcutta, Sydney through the people who have lived in and passed through the doors of 10 Scotland Street. There are booksellers, missionaries, silk merchants, sailors, preachers, politicians, cholera – and, sometimes bizarre, coincidence. It’s in places personal and I am told fast-paced and funny.


This book is a true labour of love decades in the making, one which, in your introduction, you rightly note ‘won’t ever be finished’. What made you want to turn it into a book now? 

My research started really by chance, and became an ongoing pleasure, not to say, obsession. One morning, looking over the North Sea, I told by my old friend Val McDermid about the stories I had unearthed, and she said I should write a book. This was a long time ago. I have a life, work and family. But then came the Covid19 lockdown. There were a series of blank afternoons in my diary, and so I approached the boxes of papers and the innumerable computer files marked Whytt.  With some trepidation.


By studying the lives of those who previously lived at 10 Scotland Street, you are taken from Edinburgh to the Caribbean to India and beyond, even into the world of publishing. If you could meet one former owner today, who would it be and why? 

As you say, there are many fascinating characters – Admirals, missionaries, a notorious beauty, politicians and men of affairs to name a few, who take us into sundry backrooms and across the globe. Their lives are recorded through their professions and trades and in the official records. In newspapers, petitions, proclamations etc they are named and praised or excoriated. In the case of most women, they appear only in the birth, marriage, death and census records. I discovered so much about the men of the family Whytt who owned the house, from its first occupation, for one hundred years. I know much less of the women and their lives. I should like to meet Ann Henderson, wife to David Kedie Whytt, who was the first woman to measure with her eyes my windows for curtains and to hold the key I use to close my cupboard door. I should like to hear her tell of her concerns as she steered her family through war, economic depression, the death of children, civil disruption in her town – and all the other, no doubt surprising, events and preoccupations she would undoubtedly reveal to me.


The domestic world as a microcosm of a society in transition is an idea with a rich tradition in English literature, stretching back to Jane Austen, whose work was published around the time the Edinburgh New Town was first built. Did you draw influence from any particular authors during the writing process?  

Jane Austen of course.  I read Medieval People by Eileen Power a long time ago and several times since. It’s extraordinary, as is Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. I read it on publication and immediately went out and bought copies for my offspring. I have a grandson named Camille. And of course, Virginia Woolf. I have always admired Cecil Woodham Smith’s The Reason Why which follows two officers into the charge of the Light Brigade to eviscerate the Victorian Class system. It’s flawed and biased and brilliant. I recently read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos which uses the personal to explore the momentous events in Berlin, in the years spanning the end of the German Democratic Republic. I lived in West Berlin for much of that time and her perspective from the East was fascinating.


Your book comes at a time when people are taking a keen interest in the human histories of houses, with Diarmid Mogg’s Tenement Town project especially coming to mind. Do we as a country take a particular fascination in older buildings, and if so, why do you think that is? 

I think it’s more about the people than the buildings. There has been a decided shift from history as royalty, generals and ‘heroes’, towards the lives of the people who lived below the radar. Perhaps this is because so many of the former have been found to have at least one foot of clay. I’d also cite the greater ease with which we may now discover, through resources such as newspaper and other archives, the lives of ‘ordinary‘ people. So many were anything but. And then of course there is the enormous ubiquitous interest in family history – which has the potential of aiding receptive professional historians in many ways.


Were there any discoveries during your research that shocked you? 

Yes. There is a whole chapter about David’s brother, William Whyte, born 1772, who lived a long, philanthropic, generous, sometimes surprising life. He was personally involved in the care of the poor and destitute, and active in various anti-slavery organisations. I had decided, after being in his company for several decades, that he was a good man. And then I found him on the lists of owners who had received compensation when people who had been enslaved were emancipated. Yes, I was shocked. And then I discovered that it was in fact as a result of his care for family. His sister, Grace and her husband, Admiral Gourley, had five daughters, three of whom married perhaps unwisely. William helped them and their families financially. Two sisters married plantation owners on the island of Nevis. They struck hard times when the price of sugar plummeted. William took over their debts and in so doing became a mortgagee of their plantation. But, despite his reasons, I’m still shocked. The story of 10 Scotland Street, Edinburgh and Scotland stretches round the world and is sewn through with such tales and the spirit of Empire.


Lastly, if you ever did have to move, where would you go and why? 

Glasgow. I grew up there and came to Edinburgh when I was twenty-one for two years which have stretched to more than five decades.  Glasgow has changed enormously but is such a lively, complicated city where I am immediately at home. And access is considerably easier to the western Highlands and Islands, and in particular to the island of Bute, with which I have had ties since before I was born.


10 Scotland Street by Leslie Hills is published by Scotland Street Press, priced £24.99.

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