The Unbearable Lightness of Scones - By Alexander McCall Smith

This book is for

Jan Rutherford and Lesley Winton


For many years I wanted to capture the very particular romance of living in Edinburgh, one of the most beautiful and entrancing cities in the world. The offer to write a novel in a daily newspaper gave me just such an opportunity – and I seized it with enthusiasm. That resulted in 44 Scotland Street, a novel written in short chapters that were then published in The Scotsman and subsequently in book form. This book and the four volumes that followed it represent a revival of an old-fashioned literary form that had more or less died out in the twentieth century: the serial novel.

I found the serial form to be a most agreeable one. The story has numerous plots; characters drift in and out; some matters are unresolved; strange things happen. In short, a serial novel is particularly well-suited to the depiction of the shape of real life, which does not unfold in a strictly linear way. But even if there is a concern with real life and real locales, that does not prevent, of course, the introduction of flights of fantasy. The arrival of a contemporary Jacobite pretender is fanciful stuff, although, lest anybody doubt the credibility of that theme, there are still Jacobites in Edinburgh, pursuing a cause that was lost long ago. And that is one of the things that make Scotland such fertile ground for fiction: it is still a romantic country, and in spite of the best efforts of some to over-govern it, it is still fun.

And finally, this book is entirely true, or almost. There really is a Scotland Street in Edinburgh, even if it does not quite reach 44. Bertie exists – I have seen him, and his mother, on numerous occasions, just as Cyril, and Angus Lordie, and all the rest can be observed if one walks the streets of the Edinburgh New Town and looks about one. This all happened, and continues to happen, perhaps.

Alexander McCall Smith

1. Love, Marriage and Other Surprises

The wedding took place underneath the Castle, beneath that towering, formidable rock, in a quiet church that was reached from King’s Stables Road. Matthew and Elspeth Harmony had made their way there together, in a marked departure from the normal routine in which the groom arrives first, to be followed by the bride, but only after a carefully timed delay, enough to make the more anxious members of her family look furtively at their watches – and wonder.

Customs exist to be departed from, declared Matthew. He had pointedly declined to have a stag party with his friends but had nonetheless asked to be included in the hen party that had been organised for Elspeth.

“Stag parties are dreadful,” he pronounced. “Everybody has too much to drink and the groom is subjected to all sorts of insults. Left without his trousers by the side of the canal and so on. I’ve seen it.”

“Not always,” said Elspeth. “But it’s up to you, Matthew.”

She was pleased that he was revealing himself not to be the type to enjoy a raucous male-only party. But this did not mean that Matthew should be allowed to come to her hen party, which was to consist of a dinner at Howie’s restaurant in Bruntsfield, a sober do by comparison with the Bacchanalian scenes which some groups of young women seemed to go in for.

No, new men might be new men, but they were still men, trapped in that role by simple biology. “I’m sorry, Matthew,” she said. “I don’t think that it’s a good idea at all. The whole point about a hen party is that it’s just for women. If a man were there it would change everything. The conversation would be different, for a start.”

Matthew wondered what it was that women talked about on such occasions. “Different in what way?” He did not intend to sound peevish, but he did.

“Just different,” said Elspeth airily. She looked at him with curiosity. “You do realise, Matthew, that men and women talk about rather different things? You do realise that, don’t you?”

Matthew thought of the conversations he had with his male friends. “I don’t know if there’s all that much difference,” he said. “I talk about the same things with my male and female friends. I don’t make a distinction.”

“Well, I’m sorry,” said Elspeth. “But the presence of a man would somehow interrupt the current. It’s hard to say why, but it would.”

So the subject had been left there and Elspeth in due