It’s no secret that the city of Edinburgh is the eternal and unconditional love of my life.
I fell in love from the moment I arrived at Waverley Station during the summer following my graduation from high school. My family emerged from the train just after midnight, and suddenly Edinburgh Castle was rising up just beyond the station, bordered by the misty green hill that makes up Arthur’s Seat. A woman who had taken the train with us looked over at me and smiled.
“Edinburgh Castle is special,” she said.
The feeling I had then is something I’ve only experienced a few times in my life. There was no going back from that moment.
I returned for a weekend the next summer, when I won a scholarship to study literature in Ireland. And I went on to do my junior year abroad at the University of St Andrews, where I was able to return to Auld Reekie every other weekend, to mill around on the Royal Mile and scribble stories in cafés that looked out at imposing Gothic architecture and blithe buskers in tourist’s tartan. At this point in my life, it’s my city, despite my American passport. I know where things are (as much as I ever know where things are), and I’ve been off the beaten path. There are so many places I love, from Wellington’s Café to the Water of Leith to Mum’s to the beautifully corny Ghost Bus tour (which I took with co-writer Dana in what was a truly memorable experience.)
What I didn’t realize at first is that Edinburgh is arguably the most literary city in the world. Everyone knows about the J.K. Rowling connection, but the other authorial denizens of the city are often overlooked. There’s Sir Walter Scott, whose Waverley stories were so beloved by the American public that countless US towns have been named after it. There’s Muriel Spark, whose Jean Brodie is one of the most fascinating character studies I’ve ever read. There’s Robert Burns, whose birthday is celebrated yearly as “Burns Night,” when fans share haggis and read his poetry aloud. There’s Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the famous classics Kidnapped, Treasure Island , and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There’s Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid…
Naturally the first stop in a tour of literary Edinburgh is the Writer’s Museum, accessible through a narrow alleyway off the Royal Mile. In general, the Writer’s Museum features Scott, Burns, and Stevenson, although there are sometimes other, lesser-known writers with relics on display as well. My favorite thing during visits to the Museum has always been how passionate the people who work there are. They’re always willing to answer questions, point out their favorite books at the gift shop, and geek out with you about your favorite Burns poem. When you’re done, you can walk outside and have a look at the tiles on Makars’ Court. They’re inscribed with iconic quotations, all from revered Scottish writers.
Next up is a proper walking tour of the city – but which tour should you choose? There are many possibilities, and there’s sure to be one that suits you, regardless of your literary preference. If you’re into detective novels, you can see the landmarks of Ian Rankin’s novels with a Rebus tour. If you’re more into witchcraft and wizardry, Harry Potter tours are some of the city’s most popular. There are literary pub tours for the city’s drinkers, guiding them through their favorite authors’ most frequented watering holes. And there are traditional walking tours, allowing visitors to explore the daily haunts of Spark, Scott, and Stevenson.
When you’re finished hiking up and down Edinburgh’s hilly, cobbled streets, you’ll probably want to find somewhere to get a beer or a cup of coffee. Harry Potter fans have the greatest advantage here – The Elephant House Café, where Jo Row has not only written but been interviewed, has a truly magical menu, particularly at dinnertime, when their alcoholic hot chocolates become available. If you’re an HP devotee, you can’t miss the opportunity to use the café’s bathrooms, which are covered in messages that their writers hope JKR will someday see. It’s a strangely emotional experience, seeing how many visitors around the world have been affected by the series. Make sure to bring a pen, so that you can inscribe your own message if you wish.
Just beyond The Elephant House is Greyfriars Kirkyard, which is as typically Gothic Edinburgh as you can get. A number of Scottish wordsmiths have been buried here, including Robert Kerr, Duncan Ban MacIntyre, Allan Ramsay, Henry Mackenzie, and William McGonagall (who is considered by many to be the worst poet the world has ever seen). The Harry Potter association is alive and well here, too – Professor McGonagall’s name, as well as Tom Riddle’s and Rufus Scrimgeour’s, were taken off gravestones at the cemetery. When you’ve finished paying your respects, you can stop at the Creepy Wee Shop in the Graveyard. It’s not literary in the slightest, but it’s charmingly quirky and makes a great backdrop for a selfie.
Edinburgh is also known for literary events that are constantly happening around the city, so if you happen to be around when one of them is taking place, don’t miss the opportunity to go. Most notable is the Edinburgh Literary Festival, which happens every August and hosts international guests as varied as Karl Ove Knausgaard, Leila Aboulela, Joanne Harris, Elif Shafak, Leigh Bardugo, and George the Poet. There’s also the acclaimed Scottish Storytelling Centre, which has events year-round and doesn’t limit itself to literature: its website boasts “live storytelling, theatre, music, exhibitions, family events and workshops.”
Essentially, if you’re a reader, writer, or otherwise story-inclined human being, Edinburgh is a place of magic. Aside from the literary references and the prestigious events, there’s just something about the city itself – the heavy, cloudy sky; the dark, ancient stone buildings; the flowers in the Prince’s Street Gardens; the bagpipe music drifting down the Meadows; the spire of the Sir Walter Scott memorial – that puts you in a story of your own making within seconds of stepping off your train. Edinburgh is both unreal in its scope, and the realest place I’ve ever been. It’s certainly the place I’ve felt most myself.
If you can go, you must, and make sure you bring a good book with you.