Michael Portillo concludes his journey from London to Edinburgh, discovering the history of body snatchers and murderers who contributed to science.
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For Victorian Britons, George Bradshaw was a household name.
At a time when railways were new,
Bradshaw's guidebook inspired them to take to the tracks.
I'm using a Bradshaw's guide
to understand how trains transformed Britain -
its landscape, its industries, society and leisure time.
As I crisscross the country, 150 years later,
it helps me to discover the Britain of today.
I've arrived in Scotland
to conclude my journey along the old route of the Flying Scotsman.
Today, I'll seek self-improvement
and women with muscles before pursuing
serial killers in Edinburgh.
I'll navigate new tracks across the city and scale the heights in memory
of a romantic novelist.
My journey has brought me up the East Coast Main Line from
London's King's Cross,
through the counties of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire,
via Peterborough to Newark in Nottinghamshire.
I visited the former port of Stockton-on-Tees and the seaside
towns of Alnmouth and Dunbar. I will finish in Edinburgh.
The last leg of my trip takes me to the coastal village of Longniddry in
East Lothian and seven miles west to the old fishing town of Musselburgh,
before I arrive at my final destination, the Scottish capital.
On this journey, I'll need plenty of brawn...
-It's quite heavy, isn't it?
-It's very heavy.
..a strong stomach...
Here we have a book made from the skin of a murderer.
..and a musical ear.
Here goes, everybody.
I'm alighting at the seaside village of Longniddry and travelling inland,
but I can't proceed by train as the line closed almost 50 years ago.
Bradshaw's has brought me to the charming town of Haddington,
which, it tells me, has two churches, five chapels,
a school of art, a museum,
Gray's Public Library and a grammar school.
Notice the emphasis on religion and on knowledge.
In the Victorian world, the two ingredients for self-improvement.
That philosophy was developed by one of Haddington's most notable sons,
Samuel Smiles, who would write a bestseller.
I'm meeting the local council's archive manager - Alex Fitzgerald.
Samuel Smiles has gone down in history as the great advocate of self-help.
-Who was he?
-He was born in Haddington in 1812,
the son of a local merchant.
His father died in 1832 in a cholera outbreak, which helped Smiles see he
had to help himself because help was removed from him at an early age.
You have got Self Help there, the book.
What is the essence of the message?
I think we can let him speak with his own words, to start off with.
" 'Heaven helps those who help themselves' - is a well-tried maxim embodying in
"a small compass the result of vast human experience.
"The spirit of self-help is the root of all genuine growth in the individual."
As a journalist, Smiles campaigned for Parliamentary reform,
before deciding that the individual's self-improvement was
the key to social progress. When Self Help was published in 1859,
he became a respected thinker and, as time went by, a celebrity.
20,000 copies were sold in the first year and, by the time of Smiles's
death in 1904, sales had reached a quarter of a million.
This message about getting ahead in life, was it materialist or moral?
I would say it was very moral.
Religion was the centrepiece to Smiles's life.
He referred to how God was pivotal in methods for self-improvement.
That is part of the Victorian experience,
religion being one of the cornerstones
upon which they built their society.
To illustrate his thesis,
Smiles wrote inspirational life stories
of famous industrial figures.
George Stephenson, I think, would be one of his prime examples of how an
individual had bettered themselves.
Stevenson was illiterate until the age of 18 and actually taught
himself the arithmetic and calculations required to go on to
become the engineer which made him the father of the railways.
In helping us to understand the Victorian, how important is Samuel Smiles?
He's very significant.
He provides a template from which you can look at how society was
changing. For him, only by people improving themselves
would society improve.
Today's global self-help movement is a multi-million-pound industry,
which probably doesn't recognise its debt to Samuel Smiles.
He might be pleased
that the citizens of Haddington are still striving to improve themselves
with new skills.
In this former railway storehouse, today's class,
open to anyone, has learned to play the ukulele.
What a charming class.
How long have you been playing the ukulele?
Oh, for about three years now.
-About two and a half.
-What made you take it up?
I've always loved music but I didn't learn to play an instrument when I
was younger. So when I happened upon Lamp House Music,
it was just too good an opportunity to miss.
So it's been great fun.
That's lovely. What about you?
I love the idea of being in a group and not just playing, but singing.
And a lot of the activities I used to do were solitary,
so this is a complete culture change for me.
Samuel Smiles was born in Haddington and he believed in self-improvement
and self-help. Is he an inspiration?
Do you know? He wasn't until I looked him up online
and then I found out more about him.
I can't believe that a man of that time was such a thinker,
such a deep thinker,
and he actually altered the course of people's lives.
When you try different things, it improves your whole self-esteem.
When you gain mastery over something as simple as the ukulele,
it's fantastic for you.
I tell everybody that they should get into music
and they should come to a place like this, where you are accepted as a
right duffer, because I'm a right duffer...
You are allowed to develop.
As far as I know, I have no musical gift, but I want to improve myself.
That last chord you played, can you show me how you did that?
-That's a C.
-That's a C, that's right.
-Now what do I do?
-Third finger on the third fret.
-Pressing on the fret.
-And then go bing, bing, bing, bing, bing.
-Here goes, everybody.
-Ready, steady, go.
Definitely more self-improvement needed!
My next stop will be Musselburgh.
Bradshaw's points me to Fishwives' Causeway.
They were also known as fish lassies or fish fags
and were allegedly notorious for foul-mouthed gossip.
It should be an interesting visit.
Just six miles east of Edinburgh, Musselburgh,
named after the extensive mussel beds that lie along its shores,
enjoys fantastic views across the Firth of Forth.
In the 19th century, men here relied on fishing for a living.
But I'm here to learn about the community of women.
Simon Fairnie is a historian.
Simon, what part did the fishwives play in the fishing industry here?
They were the partners, the working partners, for their husbands.
They would go to the mussel beds and they would gather mussels,
bring them home, shell the mussels, put the bait onto the hooks.
A man would have up to 1,000 hooks per line
and this would be a daily occurrence.
As well as preparing the lines,
the fisherwomen were responsible for selling the catch.
They would travel by train or tram to Edinburgh, and other local towns,
carrying the fish on their backs in baskets known as creels and skulls.
They must have been popular getting onto the train, the tram,
the bus with their fish?
Well, they were able to put their creels into the front of the trams
with the driver and also onto the special mixer onto the train.
But the women were well-known and they were well-liked,
and therefore they knew that they were industrious women
carrying out their jobs,
so they were accepted as part of the scene, in the city particularly.
Now, this was going on in your family, too, Simon?
Yes, my two aunts, my grandmother,
my great-grandmother, were all fishwives.
Now, fishwives have this reputation for being foul-mouthed and gossips,
is that fair?
I don't think that's fair.
They were shrewd women who may well have spoken their mind.
Remember, Michael, they used to sell the fish in big houses to many of
the gentry of the town and they were well-known, well-respected.
What role did these women play in their society?
An extremely important role -
simply because they were the breadwinners of the family.
The husbands would go away,
sometimes come back with no earnings at all after some long time,
so it would be them who would have to make the money for the family.
They were, I would say, emancipated before emancipation.
Sadly, there are no surviving Musselburgh fishwives or fish lassies today,
but their descendants ensure that their story lives on.
-Margaret. You are beautifully attired.
What are you wearing?
These are our gala costumes.
We had a Fisherman's Walk on the first Friday of September every year,
that was the end of the fishermen's summer fishing,
and we had just a gala.
Pipe bands and dancing.
You are wearing your costumes slightly differently, why is that?
-This is a kilted coat.
-This is a kilted coat.
There is one underneath and one that's kilted up,
and that makes it fancy, just a wee bit different.
Mine is plainer and I've got what we call a pooch underneath.
-What are you showing me now?
-Where we kept our money and, in later days...
I've worn my grandmother's working pooch.
When she died, we found it under the mattress.
Obviously where she kept her money because they didn't use bags.
Generations of women in Christine's and Margaret's families were fishwives.
That's my grandmother selling her fish,
and this is her creel and skull and the fish is all inside the skull.
Very, very good.
This is my mother here.
She left school at 13 and became a fishwife.
She just loved the job, loved it.
She went to Fife with her fish, across the Forth Bridge in the train.
And this is my great-grandmother.
She looks weighed under, doesn't she?
It was a huge weight they carried on their head and the band went right
-across their brow.
-And this one is interesting to me
because here we see the ladies, I think, getting off the tram.
-The conductor helping her on with her creel and skull.
Yes, tram drivers were wonderful.
Of course, they'd always get maybe a pair of kippers or a piece of fish
-at the end of the day.
-I see that you have a creel and skull here.
-Do you want to try it on?
Well, OK. Are you going to help me, then?
Yes, we'll help you.
'Whilst it's not full of fish,
'Christine and Margaret have helpfully added some weight to it,
'to give me some idea of what it would have been like.'
-There you go.
Oh. I've got it.
It's quite heavy, isn't it?
-It's very heavy.
-Let's have a little go with this, then.
Oh! I'm carrying probably a fraction of the weight that a fishwife would
have carried and I am bent double,
and it seems incredibly heavy.
One career I'm not going to take up is being a fishwife.
It's a diabolical contraption, this thing.
-Isn't it awful?
-What kind of weight did they carry?
And the women often had a bald patch on their head...with the band.
-A bald patch?!
I must get it off at once!
There we are.
Those fishwives were clearly made of far tougher stuff than I am.
This train will take me to my final destination on this
East Coast Main Line - made famous by the Flying Scotsman.
I'll soon be arriving in Edinburgh,
mentioned in Bradshaw's as the "Modern Athens".
"Its schools for the acquirements of useful knowledge have long held a
"high rank amongst the universities of Europe
"and have supplied some of the most distinguished statesman, warriors,
"poets and divines who have graced our annals."
With some Scottish blood coursing through my veins,
I'll certainly second that.
I used to arrive here as a child with my family,
headed for my grandparents' in Kirkcaldy.
We were not on the Flying Scotsman, we came on the night train,
but still this station evokes for me the smell of locomotive,
smoke and steam and smuts.
I always enjoy exploring this elegant capital,
with its impressive architecture, on foot.
But as the day's almost over,
my Bradshaw's recommends a visit to the oldest pub on the city's
In 1773, that great English intellectual Samuel Johnson
stopped here at The White Horse in Edinburgh.
Now, he once wrote that, "Scotland is a vile country, though God made it,
"but God also made hell."
It's a wonder that he made it out of the Royal Mile alive.
And in his famous dictionary he wrote, "Oats,
"the grain which in England is given to a horse but in Scotland
"it supports the people."
Now, that I think is particularly unfair.
I believe that porridge is one of Scotland's great gifts to the world,
along with whisky, of course.
Edinburgh is waking up.
The population of half a million people has more than doubled since
the time of my Bradshaw's.
And, as in most cities, rush-hour traffic is a problem.
To ease the congestion,
the council turned to a popular Victorian mode of transport.
Having arrived here in the 1870s and disappeared by the mid-1950s,
now the tram is back.
-Excuse me a moment.
Are you regulars on the tram?
-Very much so, yes.
-What do you use it for?
Just going to work and back.
And do some shopping. It's very clean and smooth and...very warm.
Very warm, that's important in Edinburgh, isn't it?
Once, Britain's major cities had trams,
but only one of the original systems still survives - in Blackpool.
Edinburgh's service is one of just a handful that's running today.
Do you find it odd that in British cities for many years
we didn't have trams and now we seem to have them again?
Yeah, but I think it's good to bring that back
and a lot of people do use it.
During rush-hour, it's a lot faster because obviously the traffic...
The creation of this new tram service has been anything but smooth,
with huge delays and budget overshoots,
but Edinburgh's commuters seem to be on board with the idea.
I've come out to the services depot, where manager Dean Anderson
will allow me to take one of these vehicles for a drive.
Oh, Dean, thank you very much.
This feels wonderful.
Although pretty much a novice, I've had a quick lesson.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
Welcome to this special Bradshaw's nostalgia tram ride around the
stabling yard of Edinburgh.
Stand clear of the doors, please.
So, let's select slow speed.
And...let's give it a go.
Horses hauled the city's earliest trams along the tracks,
until cable-hauled carriages replaced them.
In 1905, electric trams appeared in the busy city centre streets,
including striking double-deckers.
Today's sleek models are 140-foot long.
They're made up of seven articulated sections with room for 250 passengers.
So, the trams are now here in Edinburgh,
do you think people are enjoying them?
Absolutely. We've been in service for over two years now
and last year we recorded almost 5.4 million journeys.
Are there plans to extend it at all?
Next year, there is a proposal to extend the tram line down to Leith
and across to the waterfront...
so we're very much hoping that that will be approved.
With 27 trams,
they run a service along a nine-mile route from the airport
into the city centre.
-And a smooth stop.
Edinburgh is famous for its 12th-century castle
and for its festivals.
And it's also distinguished by its academic tradition.
"The University of Edinburgh," says Bradshaw's,
"was founded in 1582 by a charter from King James VI.
"It's divided into four faculties - law, theology, arts and medicine."
And the guidebook recommends the Royal College of Surgeons Museum -
admittance by member's order.
I'd like to understand how the medical faculty developed an
important body of work by working on bodies.
The Royal College of Surgeons,
established at the start of the 16th century,
now boasts 20,000 members from across the world.
Its museum, opened to the public in 1832, houses one of the oldest and
largest collections of medical specimens.
The college's director of heritage, Chris Henry,
has agreed to give me a tour.
Why do you think people in the 19th century were coming to the museum?
What you have to remember is that Edinburgh was really the
pre-eminent centre of medical teaching in the world
and, in order to teach,
you had to have a collection to show the conditions that were prevalent
at the time. You can only really do that by preserving them in a jar.
Who were some of the great figures
who helped to establish Edinburgh's reputation?
The first person that springs to mind is James Syme,
who was a towering surgeon.
He did most of his work before the introduction of anaesthetics.
And then we have James Young Simpson,
who was the person that really discovered the anaesthetic
properties of chloroform. And then, finally,
Joseph Lister, who discovered the antiseptic properties of various
chemicals that could reduce infection post-surgery,
so he managed to effectively reduce the percentage of deaths
after surgery from 50% to 15%.
So, from all this amazing array,
give me an example of the sort of thing that was used to teach.
Well, we've got a perfect example here of a gangrenous foot from the
19th century. What's happened is
the whole of the foot's been amputated in order to preserve the
rest of the limb and what you can see is these blackened areas of
tissue that have died off.
And this would have been used as a teaching aid for people to come in
to lectures and understand what the physical effects were.
Didn't the flesh give off the most appalling stink?
Yeah, it did, and a lot of doctors and surgeons really wore that,
and the mess and the smell, as a badge of honour,
certainly in the pre-antiseptic era.
And the collection includes even more shocking exhibits.
Here we have a book made from the skin of a murderer.
My goodness! Human skin?
-Who is it?
That's the skin of William Burke, one of a pair of murderers.
William Burke and William Hare, who carried out 16 murders
to supply bodies to the anatomy trade, as it were,
in the 19th century.
With tight legal restrictions on the supply of bodies for dissection,
grave-robbers, known as body snatchers,
dug up paupers' corpses for sale.
Now Burke and Hare began to kill to satisfy demand.
To go around snatching bodies out of graves is one thing,
but to kill them in the first place is really going that extra mile,
isn't it? And, from the label, I take it this is Burke?
That is Burke. Hare turned king's evidence against Burke and he was
executed in 1829.
And, as you can see from this,
there is a mark around his neck where the hangman's noose
finished him off.
The Anatomy Act of 1832 put an end to this darkest of black markets by
regulating but increasing the supply of bodies for teaching.
Edinburgh University's Medical School, founded in 1726,
was one of the most prestigious in the world.
I'm meeting James Garden,
professor of clinical surgery and surgeon to the Queen in Scotland,
at the spot where dissections once took place.
So here we are, the anatomy lecture theatre.
It is magnificent and huge.
The design of this lecture theatre was so that the teacher or the
professor could perform to the students,
looking directly to the centre stage
as the body lay there to be dissected.
Who was the audience, who were the theatregoers?
We would have had 250 or so medical students, all paying customers.
They wanted to see the body,
they wanted to see the detail, so there may have been a scramble to
sit here in the front rows so that
they could appreciate what was being taught to them.
But, of course, in those days,
the bodies were never quite preserved as well as they are
nowadays and so you were also, I think,
at risk, sitting in these front rows, from the smell and perhaps the
occasional bit of tissue flying into the air.
I hate to say it, but it looks as though someone's left a body here today.
Yes, we have prepared something for you.
Hello, old chap.
So I think we've got something a bit more exciting underneath.
Huh! So what on earth is this?
So, this is modern anatomy teaching.
So here we have the body for dissection.
Well, I'll be darned.
What sort of things can you do with that?
We can explore the inside of the body,
so we can then cut.
-Oh, my goodness.
-And then I can take you here, into my area of interest,
into the abdomen.
Here we can see the liver on the right-hand side
and this allows us to explore
the anatomical relationships of the organ.
We can get a better understanding of the inside of the liver and the
anatomy of the blood vessels and bile ducts.
So this tool is fundamentally useful?
It is. It's at the heart of the modern teaching of anatomy.
Besides its huge contribution to medicine,
this historic city has a proud literary tradition.
It was the birthplace of Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
and another of its great authors is remembered here.
This is the world's largest monument to a writer.
It celebrates Sir Walter Scott
and the railway station here is named after
his historical novel, Waverley.
For decades, beneath its glass roof,
clouds of smoke celebrated the arrival of the Flying Scotsman from
the British capital.
Bradshaw's compared the might of London to classical Rome
and the finesse of Edinburgh's architecture to ancient Athens.
The Victorians could be arrogant, but as they spread literature,
technology, science and ideas across a vast empire,
they could perhaps be forgiven.
..there's terror on the tracks.
Only a skeleton staff today.
I play a small part in a monumental engineering project.
Looks like you're a natural at this, Michael.
Do you think it's weld-done?
And pay tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
It is perhaps understandable, when the call came in 1914,
that railwaymen were so prominent and so numerous in stepping forward.
Michael Portillo concludes his journey from London to Edinburgh. Steered by his Bradshaw's Handbook, Michael helps himself to a ukulele lesson in Haddington, birthplace of Victorian self-improvement guru Samuel Smiles. In Musselburgh, he gets a taste of life as a fishwife before exploring the Scottish capital Edinburgh, where a popular 19th-century mode of transport is making a comeback. The city's proud medical heritage, highlighted in his guide book, takes Michael to the Royal College of Surgeons, where he discovers the macabre history of body snatchers and murderers who contributed to the science of anatomy. At the University of Edinburgh Medical School, Michael learns from the Queen's surgeon in Scotland how students use sophisticated technology to study anatomy today.