LITERARY INTOXICATION IN EDINBURGH
“Literary Edinburgh is to ‘wurrdaholics’ what Scotch 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 populous 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 its 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 adventurers who tarried here for a season, from 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 and 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 along with guide Angus, 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 have 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 we visit the Writers’ Museum in the 17th century building known as Lady Stair’s House. The young Sir Walter, is soft-featured and dimple-chinned; 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.
Among some bizarre, but true, oral tales set along the Royal Mile, is the story of Deacon Brodie who lived in Brodie’s Close. Brodie was, by day, a pious, well-respected citizen and city counsellor; by night, however, he was a womanizer, gambler and thief. “He was eventually caught, and given what you might call a suspended sentence” says Angus. “That is, he was ‘suspended’ from a hangman’s noose on the city’s gallows.” Deacon Brodie has however, achieved immortality. He was the inspiration for R.L. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
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 and tourists and a noisy babble of conversation. Another popular literary haunt is Oxford Bar on Young Street—the favourite pub of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus,
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. Today he rests just inside the gates of Greyfriar’s Kirk yard, not too far from his beloved master, and his grave 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”.
PHOTOS: By Margaret Deefholts
1. A view of the Royal Mile
2. A Close off the Royal Mile
3. Rankin-Rowling flagstone on the Royal Mile
4. Author reflecting on Johnson and Boswell.
5. Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson
6. Deacon Brodie Pub
6a Warning at Haunted Brodie Cafe
7. Deacon Brodie House
8. Harry Potter’s “birthplace” – the Elephant Cafe
9. National Library of Scotland
10. Sign at the Entrance of Bobby’s Bar
11. Author saying hello to Greyfriar’s Bobby
12. Guide Angus at Edinburgh Castle
13. View of Edinburgh from Castle battlements
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