Edinburghs Literary Haunts

Edinburgh’s Literary Haunts

By Margaret Deefholts

“Literary Edinburgh is to ‘wurrdaholics’ what Scotch whisky is to alcoholics,” says our guide Angus, his blue eyes twinkling, “T’is intoxicating and addictive!” An observation that would have likely been echoed by the literary giants who lived and worked in Scotland’s most invigorating city.

It has been said that Edinburgh is as much “a character” as it is a city. It looks out at the world with eyes that have seen days of joy and nights of passion. Its face has been weathered with time and experience. It has carried on its shoulders the weight of it’s people’s history and traditions.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, J.M. Barrie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, all lived here and drew their inspiration from the bustle of the streets, the men who drank ale at the taverns, the adventurers who tarried here for a season, the women who inspired them, and the villains who skulked in the dark corners of the city’s byways. It has captured the imagination of contemporary novelists too-Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus hounds criminals who lurk in the murky depths of the city, Alexander McCall’s characters inhabit 44 Scotland Street and the personalities that storm through his Sunday Philosophy Club series are all part of Edinburgh’s city scene. Although J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter tales aren’t set in Edinburgh, this is where she wrote and completed the series that took the world by storm.

So I decide to walk in the footsteps of literary fame for a day while exploring the Royal Mile – a historic street that runs from Hollyrood Palace at one end to Edinburgh Castle on the other; a road whose very stones resonate with tales of romance and intrigue. Small enclosures known as “closes” lead off the main street each with their own stories, their own secrets.

In Anchor Close, I cock my ear trying to catch the clatter of a printer echoing down the centuries as the very first edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica rolls off the presses. At Boswell’s Court Close (now the Witchery Restaurant) I wonder what Dr. Samuel Johnson would have chatted about while dining there with his biographer James Boswell?

Would Robbie Burns who once lived in Baxter’s (Baker’s) Close downed a wee dram or two at nearby Deacon Brodie’s Tavern? And what mission was Daniel Defoe on when he worked as a secret agent for the British in a room at Fishmarket Close?

Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns are literary icons. But what did they actually look like? To find out, I climb the uneven steps to the Writers’ Museum in the 17th century building known as Lady Stair’s House. The young Sir Walter, is soft featured and has a slightly dimpled chin above his high collar; Stevenson has a narrow, clever face, with a droopy moustache, and Robbie B. ever the darling Scottish bard, is a dashing young dude. I can see why his romantic dalliances set the ladies’ hearts a-flutter. The Museum is a treasure house of manuscripts, first editions and letters, and deserving of at least three hours browsing time. A luxury I don’t have, as I’m due at my next destination: The Scottish Story Telling Centre just a short walk away along the Royal Mile.

At the Centre I begin to understand why the Scots have such a vibrant literary heritage. The tradition of oral story telling has endured for centuries, and the Centre has story sessions that entertain everyone-wee bairns, their parents and their grandparents! Anna Burkey, our guide at the Centre, proudly points out that her city was the first ever to be awarded “UNESCO City of Literature” status.

deacon brodies tavern

Among those bizarre, but true, oral tales is the story of Deacon Brodie who lived in Brodie’s Close. Brodie was, by day, a pious, well-respected city counsellor whose skills as cabinet maker and locksmith were in demand by Edinburgh’s wealthiest citizens. By night, however, Brodie was a womanizer, gambler and thief. Having surreptitiously made copies of keys to several mansions, he helped himself to jewellery and money to support his dissolute lifestyle. He was eventually caught, convicted and given what Angus calls “a suspended sentence” – i.e. he was suspended by the neck from a hangman’s noose. Deacon Brodie despite his notoriety – or perhaps because of it – achieved immortality. He was the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s schizophrenic Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

After lunch, with time whizzing by, I pay a quick visit to the Elephant Cafe, unimpressive but for its claim to fame as one of the places where Rowling wrote the early Harry Potter stories. It is filled with student types, tourists and a noisy babble of conversation. Other literary haunts that are on my list: Oxford Bar on Young Street, the favourite pub of Inspector Rebus; 44 Scotland Street, the setting of Alexander McCall-Smith’s novel of the same name and Milne’s Bar on Hanover Street a popular writers’ hang out.

Leaving the world of books aside for the moment I pay a visit to an endearing hero-not a literary icon, but one who has captured the hearts of Edinburgh’s citizens for over a century: Greyfriars Bobby, the little Skye terrier that was inseparable from his master, John Grey. After Grey’s death, the little dog was often seen keeping vigil over his master’s grave at the Greyfriar’s Kirk yard for fourteen years until his own death in 1872. Bobby couldn’t be buried in consecrated ground but he rests just inside the gates of Greyfriar’s Kirk yard, not too far from his beloved master. His extraordinary devotion has been celebrated in books and movies, and as I pause by his grave today, it is strewn with doggie toys and even a little stick – for him to fetch and carry!

Edinburgh’s vitality is like oxygen in the bloodstream, a rush of images, places, lives and dreams. Mesmerizing and compelling. And also just as Angus says, “intoxicating and addictive”.

Where to Stay: Apex Waterloo Place Hotel. A well located, comfortable and friendly 4-star establishment with a long history of hospitality in Edinburgh.

A Bibliophile’s Guide:

The Writers Museum: http://www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/Venues/The-Writers–Museum.aspx

Scottish Storytelling Centre: http://www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk/

National Library of Scotland: http://www.nls.uk/about/index.html


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