For such a famously reserved city, Edinburgh has no qualms when it comes to boasting about its impact upon literature. And rightly so. A library consisting only of books associated with the Scottish capital could keep even the most demanding of minds satisfied for a lifetime. For a modest metropolis of only half a million souls, its drizzle-stained streets have given the world a boy wizard who conquered a generation, the greatest detective of them all, and the axis-shifting theories of capitalism and evolution. Like a sentimental skinhead with oedipal issues, the city loves literature so much it has tattooed its very fabric with it. From its major infrastructure to the very paving stones, everything hums with the same bookish tune: it is home to the world’s biggest monument to a writer (the gothic rocketship that is the Scott Monument, in honour of Sir Walter Scott); the main train station, Waverley, is named after a novel; even the bricks that make up the Scottish Parliament proclaim literary quotes.
So how does a book lover even begin to tackle Edinburgh, a place so knee-deep in words that it was declared UNESCO’s first World City of Literature in 2004? Why, eat, drink and be merry of course. In Edinburgh you’re never far from a landmark with a story to tell.
The Elephant House/Spoon
For many visitors Harry Potter is the main literary draw. Umpteen cafes claim to have sheltered JK Rowling while she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. If you fancy following in her footsteps the two establishments with the most genuine claims are The Elephant House and Spoon. Grab a scone and sit in the back room in the former. From here Rowling would have looked onto the spooky Greyfriar’s Kirkyard (Scottish for graveyard) where the grave of a mere muggle, Thomas Riddell, can be found. Some Potter fans believe this is where Rowling got the name Tom Riddle from, the true identity of muggle-hater Lord Voldemort. Equally apocryphally, The Elephant House also overlooks the majestic George Heriot’s School, which some believe to have inspired Hogwarts.
The Conan Doyle
Okay, while the food in The Conan Doyle is above-average pub grub, the main reason to come here is because of its namesake. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was born adjacent at Picardy Place on 22nd May 1859. The site is marked by a magnificent statue of his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle grew up in Edinburgh and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. It was here he met Dr Joseph Bell, a famed physician whose uncanny powers of observation and deduction directly inspired Holmes’ forensic attention to detail.
Deacon Brodies Tavern
Nestled on the corner of the Royal Mile and George IV Bridge is Deacon Brodies, as reassuringly a touristy boozer as you’d expect to find on The Old Town’s main drag. But behind the real ale taps and commendable selection of whisky lies a far more interesting history. The antics of the pub’s namesake, William Brodie (Deacon is an honorific title), is said to have been the main inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Growing up in Edinburgh in the 1850s, Stevenson would have heard tales of Brodie, a city councillor from the previous century who was a respectable Edinburgh politician by day but a rampant burglar and philanderer by night. Brodie personified Edinburgh’s stark duality, between the light and air of the majestic Georgian New Town and the dark, clotted atmosphere of its adjacent medieval Old Town. Edinburgh is most definitely a Jekyll and Hyde city.
The Oxford Bar
For a bit of literary celebrity spotting, pop into the Oxford Bar on Young Street. Chances are one of crime writing’s leading lights will be propping up the stark, small bar supping a Deuchar’s IPA. This is Ian Rankin’s local (in fact, it’s where Book Riot interviewed him last year). It is also the favoured haunt of his most famous creation, Edinburgh detective John Rebus.
Traipse your way along Rose Street – the pedestrianized alley that runs between Princes Street and George Street, where every other building seems to be a pub. In the 1950s and 1960s poets and writers such as Sorley MacLean, Hugh MacDiarmid, George Mackay Brown, and Hamish Henderson held court in the many pubs along the street. They became known as the Rose Street Poets. And now their words can be found on the street’s flower boxes and on the walls. At the west end, local artist Astrid Jaekel has illustrated Mackay Brown’s poem, Beachcomber, to startling effect. Head to Milnes Bar, on the corner of Hanover Street, and grab a pint in the poets’ favoured haunt.
Walks and Excursions
The Royal Mile and Holyrood Park
Running from Edinburgh Castle at the top of the hill to Holyrood Palace at the bottom, The Royal Mile cuts through the Old Town like a cobbled stream. It’s well worth spending an hour meandering your way down it. It is watermarked with literature and books.
Dive through the dark doorways that pockmark its decent towards the palace and you might find yourself in anything from a gloomy alley, a vertiginous staircase, a sudden garden, or a hidden medieval square. Catch it late at night or when the dense, chilly sea fog rolls in (called the haar – pronounced as if you are doing a pirate impression), and you can see why James Hogg set much of his unnerving Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner here.
Downhill from St Giles’ Cathedral is a statue of one of Scotland’s most influential sons, Adam Smith. In 1776 he published The Wealth of Nations and gave birth to modern free market economics. His ‘invisible hand’ has guided much of the world since. Smith is buried several hundred metres further along the Royal Mile, in the Canongate Kirkyard, which is also notable for the striding statue of the poet Robert Fergusson at its gates.
Anyone who loves facts should stop by Anchor Close, one of the winding lanes off the Royal Mile, and pay their respects. It was here in 1768 that the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the oldest of its kind still in circulation, was first published. In a pre-Google world, it was the driving force behind many a pub quiz victory.
Once at the bottom of the Royal Mile, you’ll be in Holyrood Park, dominated by Arthur’s Seat. This extinct volcano surrounded by hectares of shrub land brings a slice of the Highlands into downtown Edinburgh. It has inspired writers from Jules Verne, who set part of his story The Underground City here, to David Nichols, whose One Day is bookended by visits to its summit. Make the hike yourself at sunset and you’ll see why.
Leave the trim neatness of the New Town and the knotted beauty of the Old Town behind and head north along Leith Walk. It’s Edinburgh’s equivalent of the rabbit hole waiting for all willing Alices to tumble down. As you approach Leith, Edinburgh’s port, the tourist throngs thin out and things start to get a bit more unhinged and interesting. There are shops that has managed to survive by selling nothing but TVs and dartboards, a pub where a karaoke party can break out on a Tuesday lunchtime, and locals have declared an independent people’s republic. It’s no surprise then that Leith’s manic, occasionally deranged energy gave birth to a modern literary classic, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. Read it while quaffing down some Michelin-starred food (Leith is home to the biggest concentration of starred restaurants outside London), before passing possibly the world’s finest Robert Burns statue on Constitution Street.
On the northern edge of the city lies Newhaven. What once was a separate fishing village has now been subsumed into Edinburgh. It was at Newhaven harbour in 1826 that a 16 year-old medical student from the University of Edinburgh begged local fishermen to take him out onto the Firth of Forth. He was bored of studying humans. He wanted to hunt for mussels and begin to study animals. His name was Charles Darwin. He went on to write a little book called On the Origin of the Species.
There’s loads of book-tinged events happening in Edinburgh all year round, not just during the brilliant Edinburgh International Book Festival – the world’s biggest – which consumes Charlotte Square in August. Here’s a few to look out for.
The Electric Bookshop
If you’re lucky enough to be in town when it’s on, and even luckier to get a ticket, pop along to this gathering of local literary, techy types and find out what the future of the book might look like. Basically The Electric Bookshop is Steve Jobs snogging Margaret Atwood in the form of social gathering.
The Scottish Storytelling Centre
Yep, it’s a place dedicated to the fine art of telling stories. And it is fabulous. Check out its eclectic programme and pop in to hear a yarn or two being spun.
The Scottish Poetry Library
Just off the Royal Mile lives the small but beautifully formed Scottish Poetry Library, a beacon for that most perfect of art forms. Peruse their listings and get along to one of their many happenings.
Starting in 2011 a series of mysterious, beautiful book sculptures started appearing across Edinburgh. Trees, rampaging theatre performances, and a dragon egg have been made out of the written word. To date there have been 20, all left in quiet corners of libraries and bookshops, waiting to be discovered. All come with a message that includes a line we can all get behind: “In support of libraries, books, words, ideas…”. The artist’s identity still remains a mystery. The sculptures are dotted all over town, with a handful kept on display in the Central Library.
The National Library of Scotland
The Art Deco exterior is impressive, the reading rooms are suitably grand, but the main reason for a book loving visitor to go here is for the John Murray Archive. Edinburgh-born Murray set up his publishing house in 1768, which went on to introduce the world to Jane Austen, Lord Byron and Charles Darwin. Letters and manuscripts from all these authors and more can be found on display here.
Continuing Edinburgh’s love of dualities, the main concentration of second-hand book stores is also amidst the city’s main concentration of strip bars. Go figure. Prime among West Port’s finest book shops are the water buffalo-friendly Edinburgh Books and the Tardis-esque Armchair Books.
Looking Glass Books
A relative newcomer into Edinburgh, Looking Glass Books is located among the gleaming new spires of the Quatermile development, but is doing a fine job of creating a niche for itself as purveyors of fine coffees and even tastier new books. It also hosts regular author readings and even the occasional Cajun cook off.
Sign up for our newsletter to have the best of Book Riot delivered straight to your inbox every week. No spam. We promise.