Scots links to creation of Frankenstein explored in new documentary

Cathy MacDonald at Frankensteins steps. A new documentary explores the role Scotland played in moulding an English horror classic. Presented by broadcaster Cathy MacDonald, the BBC Alba documentary Sàr-sgeòil: Frankenstein (Classic Tales: Frankenstein)
Cathy MacDonald at Frankensteins steps. A new documentary explores the role Scotland played in moulding an English horror classic. Presented by broadcaster Cathy MacDonald, the BBC Alba documentary Sàr-sgeòil: Frankenstein (Classic Tales: Frankenstein)

A NEW documentary explores the role Scotland played in moulding an English horror classic.

Tortured, monstrous and misunderstood; for generations Frankenstein’s grotesque monster has sent chills down the spines of readers, movie fans and comic book enthusiasts.

Pieced together in the laboratory and brought to life only to terrify, Mary Shelley’s ghastly creation became embedded in popular culture and influenced countless Gothic horror literary works.

Now a new documentary will explore how one of literature’s most enduring monstrous creations was forged in Scotland, and the important role Dundee had on firing Shelley’s remarkable imagination.

Epitomised by the chilling portrayal on grainy black and white film by horror movie legend Boris Karloff, scientist Victor Frankenstein’s monster turns out to be a tormented soul.

Pieced together using body parts, spurned by its creator and thwarted in its quest for companionship, it becomes increasingly violent.

As its anger mounts, the novel takes readers on a voyage to Orkney, where in a lonely cottage battered by the elements Frankenstein strives and fails to build a companion to appease his ghastly creation.

The story reaches a grisly and exciting climax amid icebergs and crashing seas in the frozen north.

It was written when Shelley was just 18 years old as part of a challenge set by poet Lord Byron to see who among his circle could pen the most chilling story.

Presented by broadcaster Cathy MacDonald, the BBC Alba documentary Sàr-sgeòil: Frankenstein (Classic Tales: Frankenstein) revisits the classic novel and looks at how the Scottish landscape and history, the vibrant sights, sounds and smells of whaling vessels and crews in Dundee’s bustling harbour and the wild weather of the Orkneys, played supporting roles in shaping the gripping Gothic tale.

Although the novel’s links to Orkney are obvious, the influences of the City of Discovery are more cryptic yet, according to experts taking part in the programme, appear to have strongly influenced the young writer.

Mary was born into an academic and influential family in London, but lost her mother, Mary Wollstoncraft, when she was less than a month old.

She was raised by her father and, aged 15, was sent to Dundee to stay with the wealthy Baxter family, apparently for education and health reasons.

However, the programme hears that the teenager had forged a close relationship with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, later her husband, and the move was possibly her father’s attempt to put distance between them.

Dundee at the time was a city of intense industrial activity, with a busy harbour packed with whaling vessels, a thriving jute industry and turbulent recent history that would have been hard for her not to have been aware of.

Shelley noted its impact in the introduction to the 1831 edition of her novel: “I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed a considerable time in Scotland,” she wrote.

“I made occasional visits to the more picturesque parts; but my habitual residence was on the blank and dreary northern shores of the Tay near Dundee.

“It was beneath the trees of the grounds belonging to our house or on the bleak sides of the woodless mountains near that my true compositions, the airy flights of my imagination were born and fostered.”

The documentary says the Baxter family were at the forefront of the city’s industrial growth while the morbid, darker side of the city, with its links to grave-robbing, plague and witch-burning were part of its recent history.

According to Dundee-based arts enthusiast John Morrison suggests it would have been difficult for the young Mary not to have felt some impact of all those elements.

“The Battle of Culloden had taken place recently and there were people living in Dundee who had fought in the battle,” he adds.

“Fifty or 60 years earlier, there was a plague in Dundee. Near where Mary Shelley lived was Roodyards Cemetery where those who died of the plague are buried, covered in lime to prevent the plague escaping.

“A short while before that period, that last witch to be killed in Dundee was strangled and burned.

“All these things would have been part of her life with the Baxter family.”

The harbour would have been a pungent hive of activity from the constant stream of whaling vessels and their hardened crews.

“When they returned, they would be dirty and smelly. They would come into port in stinking ships with the carcasses of whales and seals on board,” he adds. “They would take the whale blubber and render it in the harbour, the resulting oil was then used in the jute industry to coat the strands.

“She would be aware of the smells and the sounds and the commotion that was involved, so I’m sure those experiences were incorporated and were woven skilfully throughout the book.”

Her novel was written while she stayed at Lake Geneva, but the documentary suggests Scotland in the early 19th century, when science was developing at a rapid rate at the country’s medical schools, played a part.

Although her story does not elaborate on where her fictional scientist sourced the body parts for his monstruous creation, Dundee was among the Scottish cities where grave robbers operated under cover of night to meet demand from anatomists and surgeons.

She may also have been influenced by experiments in which scientists at the time used electricity to stimulate dead frogs’ legs, apparently bringing them back to ‘life’.

One experiment carried out shortly after her novel was published fuelled the public’s imagination further and may have stimulated interest in her work.

Thomas Elliott, of Surgeons’ Hall Museum in Edinburgh, tells how Glasgow physician Andrew Ure used the cadaver of a convicted murderer, jolting the body with electricity in such a way that the dead man’s chest rose and fell as if he was breathing.

“There was genuine scientific enquiry happening there,” he adds. “We now know that the body is conducting electricity from one place to the next and it’s a physical reaction to that.

“It would add to the reaction of this novel coming out, that this mad scientist was taking that to its full potential and reactivating bodies.”

The documentary finds the 200-year-old work remains relevant, inspiring comics and graphic novels, and with modern messages around the impact of science on nature, social media’s judgement on looks and behaviour, and human cravings for acceptance and affection.

Chartered psychologist Dr Rachel Allan concludes: “This book remains relevant today, where it is common for us to comment on our own appearance and other people’s, and wanting to improve what we think needs to be improved, regardless of how others perceive us.

“It’s as if Mary Shelley has by chance taken a time far removed from her own and woven it into her story our ideas about how we should look, and the dangers that some would say are inherent in the incessant pursuit of rejuvenation.”

Sàr-sgeòil: Frankenstein (Classic Tales: Frankenstein) airs on BBC ALBA on Thursday 9 June at 9pm and is available on BBC iPlayer for 30 days afterwards.