As a schoolboy, Arthur Conan Doyle would sit in the branches of the sprawling sycamore tree in his garden and dream of the stories he would write. Beneath its leaves, in an Edinburgh suburb, the seeds were planted of what were to become the world’s most famous detective novels.
Now, more than 170 years on and rotting at the roots, the tree has finally had to be cut down. But its famous links are to be preserved, with the wood being used to fashion a violin in tribute to Conan Doyle and his most famous literary creation, Sherlock Holmes. The great detective solved many of his cases while playig the violin in his Baker Street drawing-room.
The house in Liberton, on Edinburgh’s South Side, in which Conan Doyle was brought up, is now a special school and the teachers and pupils, upset at the need for the tree to be felled, have decided to use the money raised by volunteers for an instrument to be created by Steve Burnett, a self-taught craftsman living in the City. He plans to fashion a violin based on a design which the great violin-maker, Giuseppe Guarneri, provided for Nicolo Paganini in about 1740.
Although the finished instrument will be priceless, Dunedin School has no intention of allowing it to gather dust in a glass box. Instead, it may be used by pupils in music lessons. The school, which now occupies Liberton Bank House, also hopes to transform the remaining tree stump into a sculpture, designed by the pupils and honouring Holmes.
Mr Burnett, whose workshop is in the Scottish capital, said: “I feel personally that it is a great honour – to think Conan Doyle probably played in the tree as a boy. It will be a unique instrument with its connections.”
Mr Burnett taught himself his craft after becoming frustrated with the tone of the existing violins. He described Guarneri as one of the last great masters of the trade, which he said died out in the 1780s.
“It has been like detective work in itself,” he said. “Trying to re-establish the techniques which died out hundreds of years ago.”
He hopes to complete the violin by May, which is the 150th anniversary of Conan Doyle’s birth. Mr Burnett was contacted by the school after staff learnt of another project he was involved in with the National Trust for Scotland. They had been looking for a use for the tree.
Roger Johnston, editor of the Sherlock Holmes Journal, said he thought the project was “marvellous”. He said the violin was very important to Holmes, “both as relaxation and inspiration”.
“It features in quite a lot of the stories,” he said. “He not only played but he knew about violins and violinists. His own playing could be wild, fantastical improvisation or some of Mendelssohn’s songs.”
Conan Doyle lived in Liberton Bank House, owned by a family friend, when he attended school in Edinburgh in the 1860s. He had been sent there by his mother who was keen to protect him from the influence of his depressive, alcoholic father.
Eight years ago McDonald’s, the fast food chain, submitted plans to build a restaurant at the site of Liberton Bank House. The company originally wanted to knock down the house, but it was given historic building status owing to its links with the author.