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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: A Study in Edinburgh

Perhaps it was good for me that the times were hard, for I was wild, full-blooded, and a trifle reckless, but the situation called for energy and application, so that one was bound to try to meet it.

-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

(On his early life in Edinburgh, Scotland and as described in his autobiography, Memories and Adventures.)

I've always been a fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's work ever since I first read The Hound of the Baskervilles as a child. My admiration has grown over the years and I appreciate the man and his writings even more as an adult. He had that 'larger-than-life' persona- literally and figuratively. He stood at 1.85m (6ft.) and was quite athletic and active in his younger years- almost reminds me of Ernest Hemingway. What is amazing about Doyle is that he created one of the most famous characters of all time- Sherlock Holmes- but has become overshadowed by his own creation. In fact, over the decades, some people have come to think that Holmes was a real person and have forgotten his creator. Therefore, for this article, I want to focus on Arthur Conan Doyle, the person, as well as a little bit of his formative years in Edinburgh.

Living in the city of Doyle's birth is quite special. In fact, living in a literary city such as Edinburgh is a privilege and an endless source of inspiration. Thinking along that same line, I wonder what it was like for Arthur Conan Doyle during his time in Edinburgh? What inspired him in his younger years? Sounds like we have an explore and discover mission dear readers. This calls for an exploration of the past and present. So, let's step into our time machine and set the date to the year 1859....

A Difficult Childhood

It's the 22nd of May 1859 and Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle is the second child born to Mary Josephine Foley (who was Irish) and Charles Altamount Doyle (of Irish descent) at 11 Picardy Place, Edinburgh (unfortunately the building no longer exists but we'll come back to that a little later). Arthur is baptised at St Mary’s (Roman Catholic) Cathedral (pictures of the exterior and interior are below).

The city is described by Charles in letters as, “rough, hard-drinking and kindly”. Keep in mind that in 1859, the city was only 31 years from the Burke and Hare murders (you can read more about that macabre tale in our article on the Anatomical Museum). Edinburgh is expanding and many are living in poverty. This was certainly the case for Mary and Charles.

Charles is a Civil Servant for the city but is also an artist and tries to supplement his income through drawings he does on the side (to no avail). Notably, in his role as civil servant, he designs the statues for the forecourt fountain of the Palace of Holyrood house seen below (you can read more on the Palace here).

However, the family is struggling a great deal because of Charles' alcoholism. He lacks ambition and flounders due to the disease (Arthur later writes in autobiography that, “my father's life was full of the tragedy of unfulfilled powers and of undeveloped gifts”). Skip ahead a few years to 1864, and things take a turn for the worse. The Doyle children are taken from the home and sent to live in foster-style housing throughout the city. If you are looking to find out a little more about this, please read our post on Liberton as it briefly describes Arthur’s experiences during this time.

Fortunately, the family are reunited in 1867, and the next year proves to be a turning point in Arthur’s life. In 1868, thanks to some wealthy family members, Arthur is sent to boarding school in England to study with the Jesuits. In 1875, he spends his final year abroad studying German in Austria at another Jesuit school. But we must head to the time machine as Arthur prepares for his journey back to Edinburgh (via a quick stopover in Paris to visit his great-uncle/godfather).


Edinburgh, Medical School, and a Sherlock Inspiration

It is 1876 and Arthur Conan Doyle is fresh from studying abroad and back in Edinburgh. Unfortunately, he returns to similar strained family circumstances as when he left. His mother, Mary, is still struggling to keep the family afloat as his father’s alcoholism has not changed. Eventually Charles' mental health declines so much, Arthur has to sign the papers to have him committed to a convalescent home.

It is decided that Arthur is to study medicine. And so, he enters the prestigious Medical School at the University of Edinburgh (see below). By this time, Edinburgh is already well-known for its pioneering work in the field of medicine. Doyle describes his experience at university in the following way, “there was no attempt at friendship, or even acquaintance, between professors and students at Edinburgh. It was a strictly business arrangement by which you paid”. However, there were professors at the University who left a strong mark on Arthur, most notably- Joseph Bell. Arthur describes him as “a very remarkable man in body and mind. He was thin, wiry, dark, with a high-nosed acute face, penetrating grey eyes, angular shoulders, and a jerky way of walking...he was a very skilful surgeon, but his strong point was diagnosis, not only of disease, but of occupation and character".

Sound familiar? Well, as many of us now know, Bell was the later inspiration for Doyle’s most famous character- Sherlock Holmes. His distinctive characteristics didn’t miss the attention of Arthur's former University of Edinburgh classmate- Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS is a friend of the blog and you can read more about him here, here, and here). Stevenson even writes to Doyle and asks if Sherlock is their former professor, Joseph Bell. Bell’s Edinburgh home is pictured below (it is now the Japanese Consulate in Edinburgh).

Arthur Conan Doyle studies many scientific subjects while at university including the study of botany at the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh. Later on, Doyle’s scientific and medical studies clearly contributed to his Sherlock Holmes crime stories and were used ingeniously in a variety of innovative ways. Doyle graduates from the University of Edinburgh in 1881. This is the point when Doyle undertakes some truly wondrous adventures. But, alas, those stories will have to be saved for another time. We now head back into our time machine and set if for the present year, 2019…

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Present-Day Edinburgh

With our journey into 1800s Edinburgh behind us, let’s continue on and examine modern day Edinburgh and the connections to Arthur Conan Doyle. Of course, all of the places we discussed earlier still exist. However, there is one notable location that is missing- 11 Picardy Place- the building where Arthur was born. Unfortunately, the triangle-shaped tenement building located at the top of Leith Walk was torn down in 1969 and was replaced with a roundabout (you can see a picture of the front of the building below taken in 1949 when a plaque was unveiled by the City to honour Doyle). In fact, that area is under construction once again as the City of Edinburgh is looking to make it more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. Additionally, the City Council recently approved plans to extend the tram line from that area down into Newhaven.

11 Picardy Place, Edinburgh- Birthplace of Arthur Conan Doyle

Normally, there is a statue of Sherlock Holmes in this area at the top of Leith Walk. However, understandably, it has been moved to a storage warehouse for safe keeping while the road work and construction is underway. Fingers crossed Sherlock will return to his rightful place once all the work has completed.

*December 2023 Update: The Sherlock Holmes statue has returned, and is now situated

in a pedestrianised island in the middle of the Picardy Place Roundabout.

There are a couple of other places I would like to mention that honour the memory of Arthur. First off is a restaurant, the Conan Doyle, located at 71-73 York Place. This is also located at the top of Leith Walk, next to St Mary’s Cathedral, and not far from the original 11 Picardy Place. It is an excellent spot for a tasty lunch or dinner while enjoying the cosy atmosphere among Doyle memorabilia. I can vouch for the fish and chips as they were quite delicious when we recently stopped by for lunch.

The last place I would like for us to visit is The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Centre situated at 25 Palmerston Place. The Centre “operates as a Spiritualist Centre for the benefit of the mind, body and spirit”. Many people do not know that Sir Arthur was a committed spiritualist- especially later in his life. Therefore, the Centre states that, “we found it only fitting to commemorate his life and achievements by naming such a beautiful and grand building after him in his home town of Edinburgh”. If this is a topic that interests you, please check out their website for more information.

Well, I hope you have enjoyed our journey (past and present) exploring the connections to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle here in Edinburgh. What is abundantly clear is that despite the fact that Doyle experienced a poverty-stricken childhood, he persevered, drew upon his experiences (good and bad) and became a successful writer, husband, and father. That is something I greatly admire, and I hope you can too.

This has just been a glimpse into Sir Arthur's life during his formative years. If you are looking for more information on Doyle, I have a few recommendations. First, I would like to acknowledge a fantastic source that was used, in part, to inform this article- The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia. It is an absolute treasure trove of Conan Doyle research and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for information on the iconic writer's life. But, a fair warning, don't be surprised when you go to this website and get sucked into a time vortex; what feels like 20 minutes can easily turn into two hours (but it's all in good fun)! Also, if you want to read a very entertaining account of Sir Arthur's life, I recommend his autobiography, Memories and Adventures. This book was a useful source for this article as well.

Finally, if you would like to explore more of the city's fascinating stories and history, be sure to check out our walking tours of Edinburgh. Sami (our human tour guide) and Sawyer (our Golden Retriever tour guide) would love to show you around. However, if you can't make it here in person, you can follow their adventures on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook.

Until next time- Explore & Discover!

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