Beatrice Groves: Edinburgh’s Dark Side

This is the second in a series of ‘Back to Hogwarts’ posts by Trinity College, Oxford University Research Fellow and Lecturer Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. Enjoy!

In yesterday’s blogpost ‘Rowling and Scotland’ we looked at how some of the world’s most enduring children’s classics – Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island and, now, of course Harry Potter – have been written by Edinburgh authors. And we looked briefly at the way Edinburgh’s literal, as well as literary, landscape may have influenced Rowling. Many people, for example, have suggested that Rowling was influenced by some of the ‘gothic’ looking schools in the city – a suggestion Rowling has rebutted in interview.

But it is the case that one of Britain’s most fêted ‘school’ stories (though hardly a children’s book) was influenced by an Edinburgh school. Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh and attended James Gillespie’s High School – the model for the Marcia Blaine School in her most famous novel: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But the titular character’s name points to a more interesting way in which Spark (and, I think, Rowling too) have been influenced by Edinburgh.

In this blogpost I will consider the literary legacy of three of the city’s most famous (and least salubrious) sons – Deacon Brodie, William Burke and William Hare – and suggest the influence their histories may have had the darker side of Rowling’s literary world.

Deacon Brodie

Deacon Brodie – outwardly the height of respectability – was a cabinet-maker and city councillor in eighteenth century Edinburgh. However, he was secretly using his lock-smithing trade to enable a lucrative side-line in house-breaking and bank robbing. His life of deceit and double-crossing lead to wealth, and (it has been suggested) a piquant pleasure in playing his acquaintances for fools but – inevitably – things did not end well. The surname of Miss Jean Brodie is not a chance parallel; indeed, the character claims to be descended from Deacon Brodie himself. Miss Jean Brodie’s cratylic name imbues her with some of the dichotomy of both the historical Deacon Brodie and his most famous fictionalisation by Robert Louis Stevenson as both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Stevenson immortalised Brodie’s split personality in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and a number of Edinburgh writers have followed in Stevenson’s footsteps. In addition to Spark’s Jean Brodie, we have Kate Atkinson’s (often) Edinburgh-based detective series which features a detective called Jackson Brodie.1 Ian Rankin’s first Rebus novel Knots & Crosses was explicitly based on Deacon Brodie and its sequel Hide & Seek was originally entitled Hyde & Seek in an even more explicit hat-tip to Stevenson’s version of Deacon Brodie’s history.

Has Brodie also left his traces in Hogwarts? His fame in Edinburgh (he even has his own Deacon Brodie Tavern) is certain, as is his literary legacy. Stevenson’s tale might draw Edinburgh authors particularly to characters who keep only one facet of their nature in the light, and it is noticeable that Snape is an inverted version of Deacon Brodie – with a good side that hardly anyone suspects is there. John’s chapter ‘Gothic Romance’ (in Harry Potter’s Bookshelf) is the best treatment of the way in which Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde is traceable within the gothic doppelgängers of Rowling’s story. The Horcrux is a new way of imagining this internalised dichotomy – and it is an idea to which Rowling is returning with the Obscurus/Obscurial.

The gothic externalisation of psychological phenomena is germane to Harry Potter: the Mirror of Erised, Howlers, Boggarts and the Sorting Hat, all render complex emotions in a readily comprehensible, physical form – and the Obscurus is the most recent example of Rowling’s gift at creating these eloquent objects. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them the gentle Obscurial Credence is the Jekyll to his Obscurus’s ‘Hyde’ – the destructive force which ‘he tries to stop… from rising up within him.’ For most of the first movie Credence fights the darkness within him, although at the end he embraces its destructive power (just as Jekyll becomes progressively more and more identified with Hyde). When Graves tells Credence he can control the Obscurus, he replies: ‘but I don’t think I want to, Mr Graves.’ In Crimes of Grindelwald Rowling goes even further down this gothic-Obscurus route when Dumbledore describes it as the Obscurial’s ‘dark twin:’ ‘an Obscurus grows in the absence of love as a dark twin.’

Greyfriars Kirkyard

It is well-known that Rowling took Voldemort’s birth name from Edinburgh’s famous Greyfriars Kirkyard, which stands opposite the Elephant House café where she often wrote. (More charmingly, it is possible that the famous story of Greyfriars Bobby – a superlatively loyal and faithful dog, whose statue stands in this Kirkyard – made Dobby sound particularly ‘right’ in Rowling’s ears for superlatively loyal and faithful character?)

In this Kirkyard – not far from the grave of William McGonagall – is the tombstone of Thomas Riddell. Tom Riddle (Snr)’s tombstone turns up in Goblet – underlining the connection with this real tombstone – as does the fact that the historical Thomas Riddell, like Rowling’s Tom Riddle, also had a son named after him. But I’m not sure if anyone has previously made the connection between another object in Greyfriars Kirkyard and Tom Riddle’s more famous name? For there is a startling physical reminder of one of Edinburgh’s least savoury historical interludes in this Kirkyard: mortsafes

Body Snatchers: Burke and Hare

Mortsafes are locked cages, or large stones, which are placed over graves in order to deter those who might attempt to illegally disinter the corpse. Mortsafes are particularly common in Edinburgh because, in the early 19th century, the city was a leading centre of anatomical study. As very few corpses could legally be used for medical research demand soon outstripped supply, which lead to ‘body-snatching:’ a euphemism for the illegal exhumation of cadavers.

And the most infamous body-snatchers in Britain were, indeed, Edinburgh men. William Burke and William Hare sold bodies for anatomy lectures and when the supply ran out, turned to murder to help supply keep up with demand (murdering at least sixteen people in the early 19th century). Burke was executed for the murders and his truly gruesome remnants remain a feature of the more ghoulish parts of the Edinburgh tourist trail –they can still be found in Edinburgh at the Anatomical Museum and Surgeon’s Hall Museum. There are, indeed, a truly startling number of ghost-n-gore tours of the cityand this by-product of Edinburgh’s cutting edge reputation in anatomical science (the presence of mortsafes, and the grisly celebration of the history of Burke and Hare) mean that body-snatching exists in the general consciousness far more prominently in Edinburgh than perhaps anywhere else in Britain.

Two of Edinburgh’s most famous writers have been drawn to Burke and Hare’s legacy – Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a short story entitled ‘The Body Snatcher’ while Ian Rankin wrote novel Resurrection Men (2002) around their infamous history. Rowling herself, of course, has also name-checked Burke and Hare (though this reference may well have been missed by most non-British readers). The shop on Knockturn Alley which disturbingly thinks nothing of displaying part of a corpse – the Hand of Glory – is, of course, called Borgin and Burkes.


‘Resurrectionists:’ a new source for Voldemort’s name?

Rankin has described bumping into Rowling around Edinburgh and due to Evan Willis’s excellent detective skills we now know she owns at least Tooth and Nail. As John has discussed it looks like the music-based epigraphs, and title, of Career of Evil may be a hat-tip to Rankin. Certainly Rowling has made it clear that she is an admirer of Rankin’s work when explaining why Strike is not set in her home city: ‘Edinburgh’s too small to support two fictional detectives, and Ian Rankin got there ahead of me. Rebus reigns supreme in Edinburgh and that’s as it should be;’at the Robert Galbraith web site the prosaic answer is that London is big enough to give Strike a lot of cases without tripping over Rebus, who I think has made Edinburgh his own.’ 

In both these interviews Rowling name-checks Rankin’s superbly cratylically named detective John ‘Rebus.’ John has mentioned the alchemical aspects of the name (fully present in Rubeus) but it is also a clever puzzle name which in the disarming ordinariness of the first name, slips the outlandishly neat clue of the surname (‘I solve puzzles so my surname means puzzle!’) past the reader. (Rankin has noted, slightly self-deprecatingly, that he was studying literary theory when he came up with the name). Rebus’s world feels sufficiently gritty and realist that it is such a perfect place to hide such a daringly cratylic name that I suspect the vast majority of Rankin’s readers have never noticed it. It is a perfect prefiguring of Tom Riddle (‘my name means riddle so riddle out what my name means!’)

The title of Rankin’s Resurrection Men points to how influential living in the city of Burke and Hare has been on him. It references the traditional, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, euphemism for body-snatchers as ‘resurrection men’ or ‘resurrectionists.’ Readers recall it, of course, from Dickens’ use of it in Tale of Two Cities, in which Jerry Cruncher, Sr, much to the dismay of his flopping wife, supplements his income via this nocturnal trade (see both Harry Potter’s Bookshelf and Literary Allusion in Harry Potter for the importance of Tale — and all those in it who rise from a living death — to Rowling). Rankin’s use of Resurrection Men as a novel title is evidence for the way in which, in Burke and Hare’s city, the city with the dubious honour of once being the body-snatching capital of Britain, the grim practice of grave-robbing gets under its resident’s skin.

Voldemort, of course, is a grave-robber. He desecrates his father’s grave so that he may use his father’s bones for his own purposes. And Voldemort’s name – in which ‘vol’ puns on ‘flight’/ ‘theft’ in French – carries some of the same equivocation as ‘resurrectionist’ (a theft of a dead body that makes it ‘rise’ again). And, it turns out, that a something that sounds very much like Voldemort is a French term for grave robbers.

Rowling is a fluent French-speaker (she studied French as an undergraduate and was once a French teacher) and she pronounces Voldemort’s name as a French word (without the ‘t’ [Twitter, Sept 9 2015]). I have written about the fact that Rowling took the inspiration for Voldemort’s name from her mother’s maiden name because Volant (‘flying’) was the first French word she knew [see, once more, Literary Allusion in Harry Potter]. This link senses the potentiality of Voldemort’s name – ‘flight of death’ – has a sound that might almost be hopeful, while ‘theft of death’ roots it in negativity: like the deeply mordant hope in the blackly comic name of ‘Resurrection men.’

‘Voleurs de corps’ is the usual French word for body-snatcher. But there is a term which is much more resonant for Voldemort: ‘voleurs de morts’ (‘thieves of death’).

I suspect that this parallel has not been noticed (by English speakers at least – I’d love to hear from any French-speaking readers of HogPro!) because while ‘voleurs de corps’ is the French equivalent of ‘body-snatcher,’ ‘voleurs de morts’ is the equivalent of ‘resurrection men:’ a much less widely known, more metaphorical, more evocative euphemism to cover to true gruesomeness of the act.

Like ‘resurrection men,’ it does not seem to be a phrase that is very well known – but, just like ‘resurrection men’ it has been used as the title of novels about body-snatching. Tess Gerritsen’s The Bone Garden, for example, a novel about a 1830s ‘resurrectionist’ Norris Marshall, appears under the French title Le Voleur de Morts. And, in a novel where Rowling could have found the phrase prior to 1997, it had also been used for the title of a much earlier novel about body-snatchers: Christine Garnier’s Les Voleurs de Morts (1951). (In a neat swap for Robert Galbraith, incidentally, Christine Garnier is a female pseudonym taken by the French novelist and journalist Raymonde Germaine Cagin).

So, a new source for Voldemort’s name? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.

Tomorrow I’ll look at another aspect of the Murray badge. Rowling’s choice of heraldry to display her new name is an illustration of her enduring interest in this arcane and pictorial language of the past.

Read ‘Rowling and Heraldry’ Here!

1 Kate Atkinson is – just like Rowling – not a native of the city, but someone who has ‘spent most of her writing life in Edinburgh:’


  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Very interesting! (I wonder if smart-alecky use of French by Tom – as by the titular character in Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae – may be part of the picture?)

    You also have me suddenly wondering what is known or thought about ‘Borgin’ – an actual, but not (my first quick search suggests) very common surname… Any play with old English ‘beorgan’ and related forms in senses of ‘refuge’ (gebeorg) and, reflexively ‘avoid’ – or cognates (Dutch ‘verborgen’ “hidden” as in set phrase “hidden treasure”)?

  2. Beatrice Groves says

    Thanks David! I like the idea of another Stevenson link for Rowling.

  3. I checked the Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames because it is on Rowling’s website home page and Prof Groves demonstrated its value in her post yesterday vis a vis ‘Galbraith.’

    There is no entry for Borgin as such.

    If, though, you look up Burke, the entry immediately before it is Burgoin — and its variations include Burgin.

    We might assume that Rowling began with the name of Burke via ‘Burke and Hare’ and their elicit trade when she searched for names with which to tag the Nocturn Alley shop in Dark Magic items and found the alliterative name she wanted in Burgin, a short assonance jump from Borgin.

  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Wow – what a potentially rich and resonant name ‘Borgin’ as ‘Burgoin’ variant is! All sorts of historical and legendary riches of ‘Burgundy’ start bubbling in my (mulling?) imagination… and some searching about online surprised me with – “Mons Meg”, “built in 1449 on the orders of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy and sent by him as a gift to James II, King of Scots in 1454”, in Edinburgh Castle till 1754, whereafter “Sir Walter Scott and others campaigned for its return, which was effected in 1829” (so Wikipedia) – ! (?)

  5. Beatrice Groves says

    That is a great find, John. (And I didn’t know Scott was part of the return of Mons Meg to the Castle – more evidence of his stamp on Edinburgh’s landscape!)

  6. Wayne Stauffer says

    And interestingly enough, a younger Maggie Smith portrayed Ms. Jean Brodie in the film made back in the day.

  7. Beatrice Groves says

    Indeed! (There is also a coincidence along these lines in Alan Rickman’s brilliant portrayal of Slope on the TV long before be got the call to play Snape….)

    I have also been wondering if the double-double-crossing Agent Brody in the ‘is he? isn’t he?’ TV series Homeland may also be a nod to the two faces of Deacon Brodie.

  8. I wrote to Cory Faniel of La Gazette du Sorcier, my go to person for all things Harry Potter in France or in French, about Prof Groves’ Voldemort as Resurrectionist theory and received the following response (with permission to post):

    That’s an interesting take!

    As far as we are aware, neither “Voleur de morts”, nor “voleur de corps”,are much used expressions for Resurrectionists; and there has been no parallel made between Voldemort and this practice in the French speaking fandom.

    Note that “Voleur de morts” can also be used in a very literal sense : someone who steals from the dead or their family (after finding their necrology and burrial date in a newspaper to know when there won’t be anyone at their place) >

    Beyond the literary examples you mention, there are almost no occurences of this phrase that we can find.

    Voldemort, among French fans, as (still as far as I am aware) always been understand as :
    – “Flight of death”: a menacing, looming presence that brings death and destruction.
    – “Death-stealer”: as Voldemort “steals” death of a soul by not dying when he should.


  9. Justin Bordeau-Delaney says

    I know this is a rather old post at this point but I stumbled upon it after I heard a name in a podcast (Generally Spooky History) that got me thinking about Borgin and Burke’s. William Burke had a cousin named John Brogan who was known to be an accomplice to Burke and Hare. It made me begin to wonder if Borgin could just be a modified version of his surname.

  10. Hi Justin – blogposts are the perfect way to carry on long term conversations! As you’ll see from the comments above there has been some pondering about about the Borgin part of the name and I think your suggestion is the best!

    And talking of names, did you know that Rowling’s latest book – The Running Grave – has characters called the Delaunays? I have wondered if your own near namesake Shelagh Delaney might have sparked that one!

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