Of Rowling, Conan Doyle and more: A literary trail in Edinburgh

Wear a literary lens and discover the Edinburgh that's inspired the likes of RL Stevenson, JK Rowling, Arthur Conan Doyle and many others

Published: Apr 26, 2016
Of Rowling, Conan Doyle and more: A literary trail in Edinburgh
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The Scott Monument on Princes Street in Edinburgh is the largest monument to a writer in the world

It was in the yellow, slightly tattered pages of The Statesman’s literary pullout, Miscellany, that I had my first encounter with Muriel Spark. Back then, in the conservative all-girls’ Kolkata school run by Catholic nuns where I studied, we imagined life as the Brodie set. So when the opportunity to visit Edinburgh, the setting for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, presented itself, with a couple of Scottish friends, it was a personal bildungsroman—a coming-of-age experience.

Edinburgh, or Auld Reekie (meaning Old Smokey, referring to the time when buildings were heated by coal fire and plumes of smoke would rise from the chimneys), is famous for its castles, bagpipes, whiskey, and festivals and artisanal food. But over an extended weekend last fall, I realised this city is also a storehouse of treasures and secrets for bibliophiles. It was designated the world’s first ‘City of Literature’ by Unesco in 2004 (and also hosts one of the world’s largest book festivals).

Trying to piece together literary links in and around Edinburgh can be labyrinthine. Threads converge and diverge constantly. This city has influenced writers such as Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, JM Barrie of Peter Pan fame and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. In recent times, JK Rowling, Muriel Spark and Ian Rankin have found inspiration here and called it their part-time home.

Our literary trail begins when we arrive in Edinburgh at the Waverley railway station , which takes its name from Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels . In a taxi heading to the hotel, it is impossible to miss a tall Gothic structure on Princes Street. It’s the Scott Monument, the largest monument in the world for a writer. If you fancy an expansive view of the city, try climbing 287 steps to the top.

Inevitably, the links to Scott don’t end here, as we discover on a guided tour of the city the next morning. The Heart of Midlothian, one of Sir Walter’s Waverley Novels again, is set in the Old Tolbooth Prison in Edinburgh. Even the local football team, the ‘Hearts’, gets its name from this novel.

The prison, meanwhile, has its own stories to tell, having housed several famous inmates, William “Deacon” Brodie being the most well-known. A local tradesman, councillor and cabinet-maker, Brodie maintained a double life—as a burglar by night—to fund his excesses and partly because it thrilled him. Robert Louis Stevenson, whose father owned furniture crafted by Brodie, was said to be fascinated by the man who went on to become the inspiration of his The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.  

Brodie’s stamp on popular culture is visible on one of the most prominent thoroughfares in the heart of the city that connects Edinburgh Castle with Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. Named after him is Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, a pub on the Royal Mile, where you must stop for a swig. If you are unenthused by his historical footprint, stop by anyway for haggis, neeps and tatties; even the vegetarian version here merits a try.

Also worth noting is the house where Stevenson is said to have once resided—17 Heriot Row—with his family; it is still a well-maintained, privately-owned Georgian townhouse and has become one of Edinburgh’s most unusual hospitality venues, with the current owners letting it out for conferences, receptions, lunches and so on.

Due to ill health, Stevenson was compelled to move to more weather-appropriate locations, eventually the Samoan island in the Pacific Ocean, where he breathed his last in 1894, at 44. But Edinburgh never quite left him. His romantic novel, Catriona, a sequel to the more famous Kidnapped, was set here and starts outside the British Linen Bank. The bank’s imposing former head office on St Andrew Square now houses the offices of the Bank of Scotland.

Stevenson also created his chilling short story, The Body Snatcher, based on events in the city surrounding anatomist Dr Robert Knox, whose supply of bodies for dissection came through a series of murders allegedly committed by William Burke and William Hare.  

Edinburgh has, in fact, shaped the morbid imaginations of many, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The Sherlock Holmes series by Doyle was influenced by the medical education he received here, and provided a template for every mystery written since. It was as a medical student that Conan Doyle met famous forensic surgeon Joseph Bell in 1877, and served as his clerk at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh. Bell became the model for Conan Doyle’s most famous creation. Edinburgh raises a toast to the super sleuth with a bronze statue at Picardy Place, where the author was born in 1859, and at The Conan Doyle, a nearby pub.

PHOTO GALLERY: Edinburgh's treasure trove of literary trivia

If grisly murder is not your glass of ale, the city offers other literary destinations as well. Some of the popular stops include The Elephant House, a gourmet tea and coffee house overlooking Edinburgh Castle, where JK Rowling wrote many of her early novels in the backroom. Others such as Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith are said to frequent this charming establishment.

For a more old-fashioned and grand ambience, head to the Scotsman Hotel. For over 90 years, it was the beating heart of Edinburgh as the headquarters of The Scotsman newspaper. Today, this iconic landmark exists as the five-star Scotsman Hotel; it resides as an appendage to the famous North Bridge, right next to the Royal Mile and at the base of Arthur’s Seat. Just look for the elegant structure by the bridge with a grand flagpole atop it. At the hotel, clues abound about the building’s past. The famous marble staircase, once pounded up and down by editors in a rush, is the centrepiece. Note the names of famous Scottish patriots, inventors, scientists, authors and intellectuals inscribed on the stairs, while sipping an Earl Grey martini in the brasserie.

And then, move from the past to the present, like we did, and spot McCall Smith’s house, not far from that of Rowling and Rankin. The Zimbabwe-born, Edinburgh resident has so far written eight books in the 44 Scotland Street series, each painting a delightful and witty portrait of Edinburgh society. First published as a serial in The Scotsman, 44 Scotland Street follows the lives of some of Edinburgh’s most colourful characters. The Sunday Philosophy Club is another series of novels by McCall Smith set, once again, in Edinburgh.

Our next halt is Bobby’s Bar on Candlemaker Row. Opposite this is the statue (built, incidentally, by William Brodie) of Greyfriars Bobby, the famous Skye Terrier, who kept guard at his master’s grave for 14 years. The story became the subject of many books, including the eponymous 1912 novel by Eleanor Atkinson.

PHOTO GALLERY: Edinburgh's treasure trove of literary trivia

The historic churchyards in Edinburgh proved to be an inspiration for more than just Scottish writers. When Charles Dickens visited the city in 1841, he spied the gravestone of one Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie in the Canongate Kirkyard (Scottish for churchyard) which described him as a “meal man”. Dickens misread it as ‘mean man’ and, after a slight change from Scroggie to Scrooge, the rest is history. A Christmas Carol became part of Dickens’s live performances, with which he toured extensively, including to Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms (now protected with a category A listing).

No literary tour in Edinburgh is complete without Robert Burns, regarded as Scotland’s national poet and lyricist. His sway is felt worldwide, particularly with Auld Lang Syne, sung every year around the world on New Year’s Eve. You can see him in statues around the city and in a bust at the Scottish Portrait Gallery; a part of his poem To a Louse is inscribed on the wall of the Scottish Parliament building: “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us/To see oursels as ithers see us!”

The Grassmarket, in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, used to be the scene of public hangings. It is now one of the city’s busiest drinking areas. We stopped at White Hart Inn; with parts of the building and cellar dating back to 1516, it is listed as one of Edinburgh’s oldest public houses. Burns is rumoured to have stayed there, as are William and Dorothy Wordsworth.

Statues of other intellectuals pepper the main thoroughfares of the city. Be it David Hume, who wrote the famous Treatise of Human Nature, or Adam Smith, considered the father of modern economics; there is Burns on Calton Hill, poet Robert Fergusson in the Canongate, a grove of trees in tribute to Stevenson in Princes Street Gardens and plaques commemorating literary heroes plastering countless buildings. Literature groupies can sit in the very cafés where Harry Potter was written (Nicolson’s Café, now Spoon, and The Elephant House) or sip a pint in the poets’ pub (Milnes Of Rose Street).

PHOTO GALLERY: Edinburgh's treasure trove of literary trivia

There are plenty of guided tours to choose from, including the award-winning Literary Pub Tour where the drinks and words just keep flowing. Some of the tours take you to Rosslyn Chapel, which was prominently featured in the 2003 Dan Brown bestseller The Da Vinci Code and its 2006 film adaptation. It is located in the village of Roslin in Midlothian, just outside Edinburgh.

Literary trivia junkies can also head to the famed Balmoral Hotel, known earlier as the North British Station hotel. Inaugurated on October 15, 1902, it is described by the architects as “a free rendering of the Renaissance period”, linking the Scottish architecture of the Old Town with the classical architecture of the New Town.
The hotel’s roots are quite literally in the railway, with a dedicated entrance from Waverley Station. The iconic clock tower is famously set three minutes fast to allow travellers to catch their trains— except on Hogmanay (Scot for the last day of the year), for the city’s New Year street party.

PHOTO GALLERY: Edinburgh's treasure trove of literary trivia

The hotel suite at the Balmoral, where Rowling found sanctuary to complete the Harry Potter series, has been renamed in her honour. Our tour guide reminded us that while Rowling and Potter, her famous boy detective, are both English, much of her inspiration was found here. For instance, Hogwarts is said to have been based on George Heriot’s School here. The documentary J.K. Rowling: A Year In The Life focuses on this with impressions of Rowling returning to her old Edinburgh flat.

We head back into the Old Town, where the city is dotted with staircases, secret courtyards, 18th century cul-de-sacs and winding lanes. My local friend M pointed out that anybody living in the centre of Edinburgh quickly learns to navigate the shortcuts and ‘closes’ (alleyways). Some of these result in magical little openings. Makars’ Court, located close to the Scottish Writers’ Museum, was one such surprise. (Makar is the Scot word for poet or skilled writer.)

The courtyard, outside the museum, celebrates the literary history of Edinburgh. The pavement has slabs inscribed with quotes from great Scottish writers. My favourite: “There are no stars so lovely as Edinburgh street-lamps”, by Robert Louis Stevenson. As one of the city’s resident stars, he should know.

(This story appears in the Mar-Apr 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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