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A New Chapter in an Old Building: The Storytelling Project at Edinburgh’s Former Royal Infirmary

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Edinburgh locals and those with a connection to the city are being invited to share stories and memories of the former Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, now redeveloped as the University of Edinburgh’s Edinburgh Futures Institute, as part of a new mass-participatory writing project at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.

Celebrating the Book Festival’s move to its new home at EFI, Words from the Wards will see collected stories from both Edinburgh residents and those from further afield, shared as part of a programme of multi-artform events that will take place in the iconic Category A-listed building during the Festival in August.

The Old Royal Infirmary was central to the city’s life, with generations of Edinburgh residents and visitors passing through its doors, corridors and wards. With the 20,000m² space now transformed into a world-leading venue for collaboration, conversation, and creativity, Words from the Wards will allow the memories already created in the building – from new births and mourned passings to the careers of the doctors and nurses who worked there – to be celebrated.

Alongside the public submissions, Words from the Wards will also feature contributions from leading Edinburgh writers and artists, including Dr Gavin Francis, Michael Pederson, Hannah Lavery, Sara Sheridan, Lisa Williams and Kirstin Innes.

Submitted stories from the public will be published at the Book Festival’s ‘On the Road’ blog at www.ontheroad.edbookfest.co.uk, creating a time capsule of memories about the Old infirmary through the eyes of those who worked and visited there throughout the years. A selection of the submitted stories will be read by their authors, alongside the professional writers, at special events on-site at EFI on one of the former hospital wards during the Festival.

During the Book Festival there will also be a tie-in with Edinburgh Futures Institute Culture and Community team’s ongoing Recycling a Hospital project, which will see a new object created from materials preserved from the building’s original interiors (floorboards and slates), and poetry written by community members, installed within the space. The object, called ‘The Spirit Case’, will become a hub for gathering further stories, with Book Festival visitors invited to engage with the existing stories and contribute their own reflections and memories of the building.

“We’re incredibly excited that the Book Festival’s new home is the Edinburgh Futures Institute – not just because of the visionary ideas and projects at its heart, but because of its building’s rich and meaningful history. The Old Royal Infirmary is where many local residents – and those now further afield – took their first breaths, and its walls have witnessed uncountable moments of hope, fear, joy, and grief. We want to capture and honour the experiences, relationships and memories that people connect with the building’s previous life, as the Book Festival becomes part of its future. We hope that as many people as possible will share their stories with us, as our fantastic associated writers will also do, and can’t wait to discover the hidden, personal histories which make this place so special.”

Noëlle Cobden, Communities Programme Director at Edinburgh International Book Festival

“Like many, many people born in Edinburgh, I began in this building. Of course, I don’t remember that but I do remember being 19 and going back there, visiting my grandfather in the early stages of dementia, after he’d had a stroke. Thinking about this commission has already started conjuring scents and sounds – hospital bleach, my footsteps on the stone staircase, the scrape of a chair on aged linoleum. This place means so much to so many of us – it’s an honour to be asked to write something about it.”

Writer Kirstin Innes

Working with architecture firm Bennetts Associates, the University of Edinburgh has been transforming the iconic, category-A listed Old Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh into Edinburgh Futures Institute to develop a space for multidisciplinary collaboration, data-led innovation, education, research, and partnership.

The Edinburgh Futures Institute includes state-of-the-art teaching facilities, rooms for co-working with industry partners, incubation areas for businesses, labs for innovation and prototyping, and exhibition and performance spaces. The revitalised building is transforming the local area, creating a major public piazza, new garden spaces, and several new points of access from Lauriston Place, Middle Meadow Walk and Quartermile – opening this historic site once again to the public and welcoming Edinburgh communities, residents and visitors, as well as University of Edinburgh staff and students. 

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