Day 6: Meetings, the story of Burke and Hare, Surgeons Hall and Mary King's Close
Monday 20 Jun 2011 - Monday 20 Jun 2011
At 10:00am I had an appointment to meet with Dr Neil Mulholland, the Director of the MFA program at Edinburgh College of Art, so I awoke early in order to make sure I would be on time. I gathered up my notebook, iPad and Grad Packet and headed out early to scope things out.
I arrive nearly an hour early so I decided to grab breakfast while I waited. I managed to down a large coffee and a full Scottish Breakfast consisting of sausage, an egg, bacon, black pudding, a potato scone (which was more like a small, heavy pancake), beans and toast. I lied-I didn't eat the toast. There were two of us with appointments this morning, myself and a young lady named Amy (or possibly Aimee). We talked with Neil separately and then took the tour as a group.
I felt surprisingly at ease talking with Neil, and I am not sure if that's good or bad. We spoke for about half an hour, and it took the form of an interview, him asking me why I wanted to come here, what was my art about, and so forth. I answered as best I could and he seemed favorably impressed. He seemed to like the fact that I have Gallery experience, being the current manager of the Student Union Gallery at UAA. Apparently there is a lot of opportunities to set up shows not only at the school, but I dependently as well. Their version of First Friday tends to be a grassroots effort rather than city sponsored.
While he spoke to Amy, I went back to the cafe for more coffee. When I returned, it was time for the tour. Neil showed us around the school, starting with the library, two floors filled with periodicals, books and videos about art, then took us through the studios, showing us the sculpture labs, metal working room, woodshop, and various student workspaces. They do have a foundry but unfortunately, it was locked and he did not have the keys. The MFA Degree Show was just over, so we were able to meet some of the graduating artists as they were taking down their shows. The work was very intriguing and it was great meeting them. We went through the printmaking and fashion studios and he pointed out the painting and photography studios on the second floor.
It is really a great environment and I am definitely interested in attending.
After the tour, I stopped back at my room before heading out again. This time my destination was Surgeons Hall, the heart of medical learning in Edinburgh since the 1700s. I perused the displays of instruments, specimens, photos and ephemera. There were two displays of particular interest to me. The first related to Dr Bell, the model for Arthur Conan Doyle's creation, Sherlock Holmes. It talked about both Dr Bell, Conan Doyle and Holmes, showing letters and photos as well as items that belonged to both Doyle and Bell. I may try to visit Doyle's birthplace tomorrow.
The other display was on Dr Knox and Burke and Hare. Now, many of you already know who Burke and Hare were, but for those of you who don't, I'll give you a brief history.
In the early 1800s, the medical schools in Edinburgh were the best in the country, but there was a shortage of corpses to dissect. The University medical school was allowed by law the bodies of condemned criminals after their execution. The belief at the time was that on Judgement Day, the dead would physically rise and if they been dissected, they had no chance at obtaining paradise. This made it difficult for not only the University anatomists to teach, but made it virtually impossible for the independent lecturers to do so.
Into this niche, came the grave robber, the resurrection men, the ghouls. They would dig up bodies, the fresher the better and sell them to anatomists, earning up to 8 shillings, a princely sum in those days. William Burke and William Hare were Irish immigrants who had set up shop in Edinburgh, Burke as a cobbler and Hare as a landlord selling beds for pennies a night. It so happened that in one of these beds lay Ol Donal, a former soldier who lay dying, unable to collect his pension and unable to pay Hare. Before Hare can toss him out, he dies. Hare discusses the situation with his friend Burke, and someone has the bright idea of sell g the body to the anatomists. They load him into a tea crate and head for the University. Asking directions from a student of Dr Knox, they are directed away from Dr Monro's, the chief anatomist for the University, and instead are told to see Dr Knox, an independent lecturer. When they deliver the body, they are given more money than they imagined and are told to return if they can get more. Long story short, they got more.
Grave robbing was not for Burke and Hare, though. They decided to become serial killers instead, preying on the poor and destitute. They came up with a way to kill that did not leave obvious marks on the body, by holding a hand over the victims mouth while pinching the nose shut, a practice known as "Burking" to this day.
After a number of successful murders, they became sloppy and first killed a well known prostitute who was so beautiful that Dr Knox had an artist come in and draw her prior to dissection, and then they murdered Daft Jamie, the local idiot, known by all. When Knox bought that body, he cut off Jamie's club foot and his head, making it impossible for his students to recognize the corpse. Eventually, the police were brought in and apprehended Burke and Hare shortly after they had murdered another old woman, but before they could move the body from Hare's lodging house.
Hare turned King's evidence, Burke was hanged and then dissected by Knox's rival, Dr Monro, and Knox lost his reputation.
There is also a nursery rhyme that came out of all this:
Up the close and down the stair,
But and ben with Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
And Knox's the boy who buys the beef.
Anyway, this little bit of morbid history has been an interest of mine, off and on, for many years. I could not go to Edinburgh without visiting some of the spots that featured Burke and Hare, and Surgeons Hall is one of them.
So, although the display was focused on Dr Knox, it was interesting to me. The highlights were A cast of William Burke's head, made after his execution, and a queer little journal. Apparently after dissecting him, they tanned Burke's skin and sold it or presented it as souvenirs to the doctors and others attending the dissection. Some folks made the skin into purses, others into journal covers. Very few survive today. Grim.
I walked back up to the High Street for supper. This time I had chicken stuffed with haggis on a bed of mashed potatoes. I really like the Scottish puddings! Afterwards, I walked over to Mary King's Close, a touristy attraction that takes you on a tour under the city. Back in the 1700s, the council decided it needed to replace some tenements with public works, so rather than just tear them down entirely, the took them down to the level of the High Street and used them as foundations for the new buildings. Eventually, the closes and wynds that were built over were completely blocked off until they were uncovered in the 1990s. The tour was interesting in a historical sense and not at all spooky. I enjoyed it a lot.
Today I head for Dundee to meet with the MFA director for Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design tomorrow.