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Well Readinburgh

Walking around Edinburgh it's easy to see how this atmospheric town would inspire great novels. From spooky castles to backstreet boozers to university lecture rooms, every corner seems to suggest a story or have a history rich enough for a bestseller.

Any tour of the city's should start at the Writer's Museum, which covers Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Downstairs there's a cabinet made by Deacon Brodie, a nefarious character whose life informed Stevenson's work. A mild-mannered cabinetmaker by day, Brodie had a double life that saw him in brothels and gambling dens most nights. To pay off his debts he took on a nocturnal life of crime, robbing around town for two years before being caught plundering the General Excise Office. According to local legend, he ended up being hung on a gallows which ironically he'd designed and built. Stevenson was fascinated with the tale writing a play, Deacon Brodie or the Double Life which was a draft for his novel of dual identities, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Stevenson was just one of a number of graduates of Edinburgh University to pen novels. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, commemorated with a statue of the most famous proponent of the deerstalker, was a classmate of Stevenson. Many believe that Doyle based Sherlock Holmes on a university lecturer, Dr Joseph Bell, who encouraged keen observation as a way of diagnosing patients and may even have muttered "It was elementary" to explain his more brilliant pieces of medicine.
Recently another writer looked to Edinburgh for inspiration. A single mum sat drinking
coffee in the Elephant House cafe and while her
daughter slept wrote a manuscript that must have been inspired by Edinburgh's magical castle. In 2005 JK Rowling would return the favour to the city with packed reading of her Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince from Edinburgh Castle. The fame of this place has become so great that other cafes have apparently put up signs saying "JK Rowling didn’t write anything here".

Less fantastic, the hard-boiled writer Ian Rankin bases his Detective Reebus novels in Edinburgh: the crime-solver has eaten at Fenwick's and usually solves his cases in the grungy grandeur of the Oxford Bar. Rebus has become so popular that Rankin has written a non-fiction book, Rebus's Scotland: A Personal Journey
, in which he follows his own fictional detective around and makes the odd stop at a distillery.

But for real grit-lit, you have to make for Leith to get a peek into Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. A great authentic tour I went on takes you inside film locations, to Welsh's flat and even into Sick Boy's Pub. Not quite your teaspoon of heroin? Then there's always a literary pub crawl of Central Edinburgh with the literary pub crawl hosted by two characters that represent the dual natures of Edinburgh's writing - Professor McBrain and Clart, a Scottish slang word for muck.


  1. Lived there for 6 or 7 years and loved every minute until the thought of another 10 month winter drove us out. Apart from the weather, Edinburgh has everything I require for civilised living.

  2. I adore Edinburgh! It's the only city other than Melbourne I would consider living in

    Don't forget the best historical novelist ever, Dame Dorothy Dunnett, knighted for her contribution to literature. Dead now, unfortunately.

    And what about Alexander McCall Smith?

    Oh, Edinburgh certainly is a City of Literature. (Have to mention a conflict of interest here, my mum was born and grew up on The royal Mile.)

    By the way, how about doing a post on the similarities between Dunedin in NZ and Edinburgh? I couldn't believe the amazing resemblance when I briefly visited Dunedin.

    I aim to re-visit Dunedin soonish, so would love to read about it.

  3. Must get round to doing that tour! Did go to a very fine exhibition at the Edinburgh library a while ago which amongst various impressive insights had a little display pointing out the extensive parallels in schtick and aesthetic between Byron and Prince.Nice!

    FYI - Just around the corner from the Elephant House in Lauriston Place is George Heriot's School, where the posh kids go. Dating from the 17th century, it is surrounded by lovely gardens and stone walls, and the building is full of towers and turrets and otherwise useless curly bits.All the kids pour out at recess and after school and fill the shops surrounding the Elephant buying junk food and ice-creams. I have no evidence for it whatsoever, but I reckon its THE prime candidate for Hogwart's inspiration (images available on web). For a struggling single mum/writer passing by, it would have seemed just as inaccessible, I imagine.

    Also, little known fact: The desk you visit in John Lewis (Department store), Edinburgh for present wrapping and other miscellaneous odds and sods is on level 2 and a half. Don't know whether this is 'homage' or if it predates that famous train platform.

    Keep up the great posts!

    From your faithful correspondent in Edinburgh.

  4. Edinburgh sounds awesome. I love the idea of all those writers, drawing their inspiration from within and without. Also, their cafe-writing legitimises my "writing" trips to my local cafe.

  5. Thanks for the update, Bridge. You get the feeling JKR was finding inspiration wherever she went.


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