I missed this story earlier today through not listening to the radio, but last night a large fire destroyed a number of buildings on the Cowgate in central Edinburgh, including that part of the Department of Artificial Intelligence where I worked for my MSc from 1996-1997. I can’t explain just how I feel, save to say that I’m in a state of shock; in amongst the pictures published by the BBC is a photograph of what is left of my old office (fourth picture down, captioned “buildings on the city’s South Bridge were burnt out”). In that photograph, my old office window is the one on the first floor, just to the right of the final ‘D’ in LEISURELAND. The footage shown on the Channel 4 news (no stills available) were a little more revealing – only the facade of the building is still standing.
During my masters year, I lived in the Kincaid’s Court residence on Guthrie Street. Unsurprisingly, this was evacuated during the blaze, being only about 80m from the point where fire broke out, but seems to have survived bar the inevitable smoke damage. For a long time, it has been one of my favourite boasts that when living in central Edinburgh, I could look out of either my office window or my bedroom window and see the other – and be within five minutes walk of Waverley and ten of the Castle in either. In short, I’ve got rather a fond attachment to that small area of the Old Town.
My utmost sympathies go to the staff and postgrads, especially the PhD students, who worked in that building. Even with the ink on my doctorate still wet, I can’t begin to imagine how it must feel to have lost your work for the last couple of years. Obviously, there will have been backups of the fileservers (which I hope were made daily and kept offsite) so that you could recover some of your data, but the loss of the collection of papers and handwritten notes that you accumulate during the course of a PhD will be difficult to overcome. I’d hope that the EPSRC would be understanding and extend their funding, but that’s probably a bit too pie-in-the-sky.
The question of what I would have done in that situation has occurred to me several times. The department was evacuated at 8pm on Saturday night. Having been a particularly sad and diligent postgrad, I think that it is quite likely that I would still have been in the office at that time (what with sensible licensing hours, it wasn’t unusual for me to work late in the office until gone 9pm, then go home for dinner before heading out for a drink at about 11pm). Ech. Not something to dwell upon.
(as an aside, the story didn’t appear in the Sunday Herald – one can only assume that this is because the fire was in Edinburgh and not Glasgow)