The creative writing class that I go to every Friday occasionally ventures outside its room in the Southside Community Centre. Among other excursions, we have: visited the Early Peoples Gallery in the National Museum of Scotland; walked the Edinburgh Labyrinth in George Square Gardens; sat on benches in the Meadows; looked at the buildings in the streets around the Centre; and watched tapestry being made at the Dovecote Studios.
We have also been to Surgeons' Hall Museum with its fascinating, gory collections. These include various items connected with the notorious 19th-century grave robbers William Burke and William Hare.
After digging up newly buried bodies and selling them to the Edinburgh University anatomist Dr Robert Knox, Burke and Hare progressed to murder and are thought to have had at least sixteen victims. They invented a murder method, still known as ‘burking’, a kind of suffocation, and they picked on unlikely-to-be-missed people, on the margins of society.
Mary Haldane was a prostitute around the dark streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town. She must have had a bleak existence – and she came to a very bleak end at the hands of Burke and Hare.
I’ve never done this before or since, but when I came home from that visit I quickly wrote, in prose, how I imagined Mary’s life and death, while what I had learned in Surgeon’s Hall was fresh in my mind. Then I turned it into a poem called For Mary Haldane, a victim of Burke and Hare, 1828.
Now … tada … the poem has won a competition run by Grey Hen Press and is on their website here; I am gratified to learn there were 500 entries. It’s not cheery – you’ve been warned – but I see from the judges’ report (not that they mentioned my poem specifically) that any poem with an interesting title or an unusual subject was most likely to catch their eye which I thought good advice for next time …