Valvona & Crolla is many people’s favourite Edinburgh shop, an old-fashioned Italian deli which has been at the top of Leith Walk since pre-war times. It also has a pleasant 'caffè bar' and a very small theatre space on its top floor, so you can guess where my only Edinburgh Festival visit took place this year (I was busy teaching in Glasgow, which is one excuse for spending so little time in The Athens of the North). I was there to see Frances Lynch perform her one-woman show Scottish Superwomen of Science, part of the Minerva Scientifica project.
Occasionally in the past I used to visit Sir Peter Maxwell Davies when he lived around the corner from here, and I seem to recall that he did most of his food shopping in V&C, as a fervent Italian-speaking Italophile. So with him in mind, the only equivalent I can think of to Fran’s extraordinary one-hour recitation in song and speech is Max’s equally demanding solo soprano work The Medium. ‘Superwomen’ however is very much more full of tunes (by historical Scotswomen, in lovely multivocal arrangements by Frances herself) and paints a rather more encouraging picture of extraordinary women who were pioneers of science against all the odds. The historical background was researched by the performer, who has been working for several years now with professional women scientists, one of her aims being to raise consciousness about gender imbalances hitherto in the fields of science and music.
At the end of Fran’s shows she always hands out to each audience member an individual luggage label on which is neatly typed the name of a historical woman scientist, exhorting us all to find out something about ‘our’ scientist. After this year’s show I found to my embarrassment that I already had two or three of these labels, still unresearched, nestling in my handbag. So, time for some homework: “Olga Stewart, botanist 1920-98”. After a minimal amount of Googling I started to read about this fascinating Edinburgh-born woman who studied engineering in Canada and worked during wartime in a Naval Dockyard before beginning to sketch flowers out of interest during Scottish hill walks, later creating a superb and influential watercolour survey of over 3000 British plants. If journeys like this appeal to you, don’t miss ‘Scottish Superwomen’, which will continue to tour in the autumn.