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Exploring the Dundee & Orkney Origins of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – Sàr-sgeòil: Frankenstein 

A new BBC ALBA documentary explores how the roots of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – and its monster – can be traced to Scotland. It airs on BBC ALBA on Thursday, June 9 at 9pm

Cathy MacDonald on the Frankenstein Steps

Sàr-sgeòil: Frankenstein
 – produced by Caledonia TV for BBC ALBA’s literary series – explores the origins of Shelley’s iconic book.

First published anonymously in 1818, Frankenstein is believed to have been heavily influenced by Shelley’s time in Dundee and includes a journey to Orkney.

While the connection to the Northern Isles is undeniable, as Victor Frankenstein creates a new monster on a remote, isolated island in an attempt to right the wrongs of his first creature; the ties to the City of Discovery are more cryptic.

Broadcaster Cathy MacDonald travels to Dundee to meet local experts on and fans of Shelley’s finest work – believed to be one of the earliest examples of science fiction, written at a time when science was advancing at a rapid rate.

In Dundee, Cathy finds tales that run as deep as the Tay – the river the city is set on and where the young Shelley spent some of her formative years living with one of Dundee’s wealthy 19th century barons, The Baxter family.

It was mused that Shelley, born into an academic and influential family to mother Mary Wollstonecraft and father William Godwin, went to Dundee for reasons of education and health. However, it is also suggested a teenage Shelley – whose mother died shortly after childbirth – was sent north from London to put distance between her and love interest, poet Percy Shelley, whom she would later marry.

The Dundee of the early 1800s, that Shelley observed, was a growing industrial settlement.

In the introduction to the 1831 edition, Shelley wrote:

“I lived principally in the country as a girl, and passed a considerable time in Scotland.

“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.”

Jute barons, The Baxter family were at the forefront of this, but whaling and the city’s docks, too, played a huge role in the local economy and life in Dundee at the time.

It is even suggested Shelley, who is believed to have lived in a house near what is now Dundee’s South Baffin Street, took her inspiration from the whalers and the ships coming back into port.

It wasn’t just the industry of Dundee that had an impact on Mary, but the morbid, darker side of the city, too.

Arriving in Dundee shortly after plague and the Battle of Culloden scarred a generation, Shelley also heard stories of witch-burning and grave-robbing in Scotland.

In Orkney, Cathy discovers why Shelley chose the islands to play out a crucial part of the Frankenstein story.

Dr Peter Mackay suggests that Shelley chose the isolation of the Orkney Islands to reflect the feelings both Frankenstein and the creature had as they became increasingly lonely in a society they didn’t feel a part of.

Cathy MacDonald with Dr Peter Mackay

BBC ALBA is available on the following platforms:

  • Sky 141 (Scotland) / Sky 169 (rest of UK)
  • Freeview / You View 7 (Scotland only)
  • Virgin Media 120 (Scotland), Virgin Media 161 (rest of UK)
  • Freesat 109
  • BBC iPlayer

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