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The Literary History of Edinburgh Scotland

Scotland is famed for its rich artistic heritage, and the capital city of Edinburgh is teeming with literary legends. Harry Potter was “born” here, as were Sherlock Holmes, Peter Pan, Miss Jean Brodie, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and, of course, the whole dodgy gang from Trainspotting.

Nobody has a rags to riches tale quite like JK Rowling’s. A lone parent, she started off spending hours writing in the Elephant House Cafe in the Old Town. Buying a single cup of coffee was cheaper than heating her own damp flat for the day, and it gave her a warm place to work! By the end of the series, however, her success had been so astronomical that for her ‘office’, she rented a penthouse suite in the prestigious Balmoral Hotel by Waverley Station. Still visible in the room today is a marble bust she signed to celebrate writing the book’s final words. But in those early days, when she was first creating Potter’s world, the surroundings of the Old Town were critical. That twisty, winding, cobbled, towering environment influenced much of her work; close by to the Elephant House is Greyfriars Kirkyard, where she took the name Tom Riddle from a tombstone for her main antagonist. Also nearby is the grand George Heriot’s School, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the description of Hogwarts. It’s also said that curvy, colourful, two-tiered Victoria Street was the inspiration for Diagon Alley.

Poet and novelist Sir Walter Scott, whose works include Lady of the Lake, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy and Waverley (after which the city’s main train station is named) was born on College Wynd in Old Town. From his beginnings in this cramped side alley in the poorest part of town, he also soon went onto grander things. He studied at the Royal High School and then in 1801, once he had a family of his own, moved to North Castle Street in the just-developed New Town. He is remembered today through the grandeur of the Scott Monument, a magnificent monolith looming over Princes Street. In fact, it’s the tallest monument for any writer in the whole world. Standing at over 61 metres, it incorporates viewing platforms and 288 extremely narrow steps that the public can climb for a small entry price (rumour has it that a large Welsh rugby player once had to be un-wedged from the cramped staircase by the fire service!)

When it comes to Scottish poetry, though, no writer is better known or loved than Robert Burns. Still celebrated by Scots every year on Burns Night, he has also been commemorated with a life-size marble statue in his likeness. It stood first at Calton Hill, but was moved in 1839 due to smoke damage. Now you can meet the marble Rabbie in the National Portrait Gallery on Queen Street, where you can also see the original Nasmyth painting that it’s based upon. Although originally from Ayrshire, Burns lived in Edinburgh for a year beginning in 1786, and even had a son here. Lovers of his work will enjoy poring over his writing desk, manuscripts and personal letters in the Writers’ Museum on Lawnmarket, which has free entry to the public.

But there’s more! The gothic novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) would not exist if it were not for Edinburgh. The dark, smoky setting filled with narrow alleyways is based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s hometown of ‘Auld Reekie’. But even more significantly than that, the creepy character of two halves is based on a real villain from the city. Deacon Brodie led a secret double life in the day and night, and Stevenson’s father owned a cabinet built by this publicly revered carpenter. Initially believed to be an upholding citizen, people eventually became aware of Brodie’s dark doings, in which he regularly burgled the very people whose locks he had fitted, racked up debts from a gambling addiction, and fathered numerous children outside of his marriage. Locals were so shocked by the dual nature of this scoundrel that they turned out in their tens of thousands for Brodie’s public hanging, and Stevenson’s fascination with the man led to the creation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Today, you can explore his works, photos and personal items in the Writers Museum Edinburgh, and you can pass by his family home on Heriot Row.

And speaking of inspiration from real-life characters, Sherlock Holmes also owes his existence to an Edinburgh chap (albeit a much nicer one!) Arthur Conan Doyle was born on Picardy Place, and studied at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. Here, he became aquatinted with Dr. Joseph Bell, a brilliant and idiosyncratic doctor who became the blueprint for the famous Baker Street savant. Sherlock fans can visit the detective’s statue at Picardy Place, and could even book onto a short course at the Royal Botanical Gardens of Edinburgh, where Conan Doyle also once studied botany.

Other local literary giants include Ian Rankin, whose Inspector Rebus novels are set in Edinburgh. Born in Fife, he now lives in Edinburgh, and often attends local events such as the Book Festival.

Trainspotting, a collection of short stories made into a box office smash, is set in Leith, Edinburgh, and written by local Irvine Welsh. Sprint down Princes Street to recreate the iconic scene from the film version.

Ranked by Time magazine in the top 100 contemporary English-language novels, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is written by Muriel Spark. Spark based the titular character on Christina Kay, who taught her at local high school James Gillespie’s School For Girls. The novel is also set in Edinburgh.

JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan, studied at the University of Edinburgh in the late 19th century and worked as a theatre critic for a local newspaper. You might find a performance of Peter Pan at any one of the myriad theatres in the city.

Alexander McCall Smith, hailing from the area, is best known for his The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series; why not check out a few of the books from the National Library of Scotland, based in the Edinburgh Old Town?

Top authentically bookish places to visit in Edinburgh:

  • Climb the Scott Monument
  • Sink into a sofa at the Poetry Library (off Canongate)
  • Get your reading on at the National Library of Scotland
  • Dive into the past at the Writers Museum Edinburgh
  • Grab a coffee at The Elephant House Cafe
  • Fill your boots in all the independent bookshops (The Edinburgh Bookshop, The Golden Hare, Armchair Books…)

See the city that inspired the worlds of Harry Potter, Sherlock Holmes, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by visiting Edinburgh on one of our Scotland vacations.