Sipping a latté in Elephant House, the coffee shop where a destitute J.K. Rowling penned her first Harry Potter novel, I realized I had gone astray. Scotch whisky had lured me to Edinburgh, but instead I found myself immersed in literature. I was moved by Rowling's perseverance, and while wiping away a moustache of cream, silently vowed to tackle my secret goal of writing a book.
Meandering through Old Town along the Royal Mile that joins Edinburgh Castle with the Palace of Holyrood, I stumbled upon the Writers Museum, a rambling old house accessed via a medieval close, aka a laneway.
The Museum celebrates three internationally renowned Scottish writers: Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe, Lady of the Lake), Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Robbie Burns (Auld Lang Syne, Scots Wha Hae), who is widely regarded as Scotland's national poet. Portraits of the authors gazed down from the walls and dusty original manuscripts peered up from glass cases. I could feel their talent permeating the room, and hoped some would rub off.
Back on the Royal Mile, I couldn't help but notice an ornate Victorian Gothic statue piercing the skyline to the north. "Aye, tis the Edinburgh's Rocket, the world's tallest statue to honour an author," a passerby told me. A constant reminder of Edinburgh's literary heritage, it commemorates Sir Walter Scott.
Farther down the street I came upon the Scottish Storytelling Centre, where the curator explained "the story is told eye to eye, mind to mind and heart to heart." The Centre celebrates Scotland's strong oral tradition by hosting and encouraging storytelling shows throughout the city. The evening before, I had attended Tall Tales Oscar and listened to the silliest yarns, told with deadpan conviction and invariably ending with an unexpected but hilarious punch line.
For lunch, I sought out the Oxford Bar, the pub of choice for the gruff Inspector Rebus in Ian Rankin's internationally acclaimed murder mysteries. Savouring an ale and a wee dram, I wondered if Rebus had sat on my stool while pondering a crime. I scribbled some notes for my book on a napkin.
At the Scottish National Library, the world centre for the study of Scots and Scotland and custodian of more than 7 million books, I was led into the stacks. Amazingly, only books of the same height are placed on the same shelf! I gazed in wonder at titles on butterfly collecting, the engineering of bridges and atmospheric pollution sitting side by side. A Library official explained, "We reorganized and saved five kilometres of shelving. Our computers track the locations."
Back on the streets, I passed numerous bookstores, far more than I'm accustomed to back in the land of giant box stores. Some specialized in second-hand and antiquarian books, others in maps and architecture, yet others in travel or murder and mayhem. Blackwell Bookshop, which has been in operation for 150 years and sprawled over three storeys, lured me in. It was wonderful: a labyrinth of rooms and books, books, books. A staff member directed me to a large shelf dedicated solely to novels set in Edinburgh. Captivated, I spent the next hour thumbing through the titles, finally, settling on Complicity by Iain Banks and The Italian Secretary (a Sherlock Holmes mystery) by Caleb Carr.
At checkout, the saleslady said, "We Scots are obsessive bibliophiles; we love stories. In fact, in 2004, Edinburgh was selected as the first UNESCO City of Literature." I learned that only three other cities (Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin) have gained this distinction, which recognizes publishing, writing, festivals and encouragement of the written word.
That evening, while enjoying a peaty single-malt, I day-dreamed about receiving an invitation to read at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the biggest celebration of books and the written word in the world. I looked forward to joining authors ranging from up-and-comers to Nobel-prize winners, including Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Al Gore, John Irving, Salman Rushdie and more.
Perhaps it was the quality (or quantity?) of whisky, but I pictured a mesmerized audience listening to me read and then storming my table to get signed copies of my book.
Previously, I had thought that Scottish literature consisted of quoting Robbie Burns to the screech of bagpipes. But now I realized literature is part of the very soul of Scotland - and nowhere more than in Edinburgh. I was inspired.
IF YOU GO
Scotland info: www.cometoscotland.com Edinburgh info: www.edinburgh.org Edinburgh International book Festival: www.edbookfest.co.uk Blackwell's Bookshop: www.bookshop.blackwell.co.uk Scotch Whisky Experience: www.scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk/
Photos by Hans Tammemagi
1. Literary Pub Crawl in Old Town
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