In the 19th century, people told him he would be famous forever. Sadly, though, the life and legend of the man known as Bobby Awl was to be virtually wiped from history.
Fast-forward to 2019, and the debut play by acclaimed artist Brian Catling will attempt to spread that story once again, aiming to re-establish the identity and humanity of one of Scotland’s lesser sons.
Living in the gritty poverty of Edinburgh’s streets in the 1820s, Bobby – real name Robert Kirkwood- was born with multiple disabilities and deformities.
He was given away by his parents straight after his birth, with them finding him “too disturbing” to keep and raise.
He would live to the age of 22 and became a popular character on the city’s streets before he met a gruesome death – being kicked in the groin by a mule.
Back then everyone knew Bobby, and he was something of a local celebrity.
But also lurking around the capital murky streets at the time were the infamous murderers by the name of Burke and Hare.
It was the killing of Bobby’s friend, who is known to this day as Daft Jamie, that would lead to the deadly duo’s eventual capture.
That meant poor Bobby became forgotten about, consigned to being less than a footnote in Edinburgh folklore.
Not any longer though, if Brian has anything to do with it.
“I’m a cockney so I have no right to come up to Edinburgh and tell them they forgot a story,” the Royal Academy sculptor, writer and film maker says. “It’s about being a reminder of the story that I’ve just stumbled on and no-one else seems to know about.”
His discovery of Bobby stems from a fascination with the ancient and long dead science of phrenology, where the shape of the brain is measured.
Upon calling in to the Edinburgh Phrenological Collection on a trip north of the border, he was shown by a curator to a curious locked attic room which housed an old anatomical theatre.
“It was astonishing,” Brian recalls. “A room full of glass cases, and in each were about 25 white plaster casts of heads.
“When anyone famous came by, they asked if they could make a cast of their head. This museum has all kinds, Sir Walter Scott, famous poets, American visitors, Burke and Hare, everybody.
“In one case was this little twisted head which kind of drew my attention. The label said it was Bobby Awl.
“There it was, a post mortem cast of his head living alongside the famous, the infamous, the talented and the abnormal.”
That was the beginning of Brian’s fascination with Bobby. He did a performance at a talk about the building of the Scottish Parliament where he spoke to the character of Bobby, and went on to research his life in the capital’s libraries.
“I talked to some wonderful people,” he says. “There was a lot of stuff about Daft Jamie, his friend, but nothing on Bobby.
“About six months later they found this chap book of which there are only three copies left in the world. It’s a little 1820s story of the streets sold for a few pennies – and what a terrifying life it was for Bobby.
“He was deformed and disabled but he was tough. He was such a character in the Grassmarket at the time that everyone around told him he’d be famous. Everyone would remember him.
“But what happened, his friend Daft Jamie was murdered by Burke and Hare. He stole Bobby’s thunder and Bobby was forgotten, so I dug him up!”
In 2007, Brian rewrote the tales of Bobby’s sad and fierce life and created a solo exhibition in 2008 of small egg tempera portraits of cyclopses, with the Bobby plaster cast at the Ingleby Gallery Edinburgh.
And having written a book of poetry about Bobby and told the story of finding him in publications across the country, Brian knew there was only one thing he could do a play on when asked if he’d do one for the Edinburgh Fringe.
“It’s a total Edinburgh story,” he says. “Bobby never went anywhere else, it’s all about those streets, survival and the history, how tough it was.
“My version of it, there are some stories you just can’t tell as they’re so grim. He was a tough little guy. After he was born, one of the cleaners took him home and put him in a boot hanging by the fireplace. It’s another world, so far away from us.”
While it is a piece based in the 1820s, there are plenty of things the life of Bobby Awl and his subsequent non-appearance in the history books can teach us.
“I’ve written it into a contemporary thing, the whole thing of disability and how people see it,” Brian says. “I work with disabled people and I have a small thing myself, it’s about the attitude towards disability and how attitudes keep it in its place. Those are things I’m looking at. Who is the observer, what is their stance.
“What I’ve done is very much give the story to the audience. They’re here to watch this but they’ve got a job, they’ve got to go away and talk about this and retell the tale. It was forgotten but shouldn’t be.”
Fittingly, the production will be staged at the Summer Hall, an old anatomy teaching room.
“Everything came together in a way and it felt like it was supposed to happen, so I supposed it was my job to bring him back,” Brian says.
“It’s going to be a very small space, focused to the centre of the room. It will make the reaction between the audience and the story much closer.
“This is a story we’re going to tell them, but they’re also part of it.”
Resurrecting Bobby Awl, Summerhall Anatomy Lecture Theatre, July 31 – Aug 25 (exl. 1,12,19), www.festival19.summerhall.co.uk