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Sunday, 21 February 2016

Museum Visit with a Macabre Twist

Membership of the SOA (Society of Authors) brings many perks, one of which is the events and talks they arrange throughout the year. The English events are a tad too far for me to travel, but the SOAiS (Society of Authors in Scotland) is equally energetic in creating events.

A recent one was our visit to the Anatomical Museum which is part of Edinburgh University’s School of Biomedical Science which has a history of 300 years of anatomical teaching.

This was preceded by an excellent lunch at a local restaurant for those who wished to partake. And, of course, there was no way I was going to miss a lovely lunch, and the chance to chat with other writers while we worked our way through the menu.
Waiting to meet the rest of the group at the university after the lunch
We emerged from the restaurant to a sunny, but chilly day, and after negotiating the Edinburgh traffic we arrived at the University to meet up with the rest of our group.
The bodies for dissection were brought in through this gate
Our guide, Malcolm Maccallum, escorted us up multiple sets of stairs to the museum, sidetracking on the way to show us the courtyard outside, and the gate through which the bodies for dissection were brought, then onward and upward to the lecture room where today’s medical students gather to listen to lectures, but where, in the past dissections took place in front of a past generation of students. And upwards again to the museum itself.
The lecture theatre where medical students have been taught for over 300 years
The Grand Entrance Hall
I can only describe this part of the visit because photography was forbidden in this area which was a pity because this was the most informative and interesting part of the tour. It was here we were able to see William Burke’s skeleton. He was the infamous body snatcher who was hanged on 28th January, 1829. Another skeleton of a notorious criminal was that of John Howison, The Cramond murderer, who was the last person to be sentenced to be hanged and dissected, and was therefore the last body to be given to surgeons for dissection.

Malcolm Maccallum, our guide, informed us that the museum had 350 life and death masks, many of which were on display. The collection contained too many masks of famous people to list here, but among them I noticed William Hare, of Burke and Hare notoriety; and Robert Knox, who purchased his cadavers from Burke and Hare. Other masks of a less macabre nature included Sir Walter Scott, Napoleon, Cromwell, Wordsworth, and Shakespeare.

A display that caught our attention was that of Alexander Tardy, the pirate and poisoner from the early 1830s. His skull and facial reconstruction is on display alongside a wealth of information about his less than successful career. I also spotted the skull of Robert the Bruce.

This museum is a working one and medical students have access to it for educational purposes. The museum numbers 15,000 items in its collection, not all of which were on view, but there was ample of interest to keep our group occupied for some considerable time.

The tour gave us all a lot to think about, and maybe provided the seed for a future crime novel. It would certainly be a great setting for one of my murders.

Chris Longmuir

1 comment:

Rosemary Gemmell said...

What a fascinating visit, Chris - wish I'd been there!