Edinburgh City of Literature

Edinburgh is famous for its International Art Festival in August but this is just one of many festivals that occur in the city annually.  The Edinburgh International Book festival is set to begin on August 9th 2014.  This literary extravaganza claims to be the largest public celebration of the written word in the world.  The 2013 programme showcased over 800 authors at 700 events during its 16 day run.

The festival features all forms of prose from fact to fiction; philosophy to poetry, economics to biography and much, much more.  The festival began in 1983 and ran every two years until becoming an annual event in 1997.  Located in Charlotte Square Gardens the festival offers a unique opportunity for readers to interact with writers, poets and illustrators.

It is very fitting that Edinburgh should be host such a gathering as the city is home to writers such as Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and J K Rowling.  The city can also lay claim to such literary luminaries as Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Walter Scott, J M Barrie, Ian Banks (or Ian M Banks) and Irvine Welsh.  The city’s great literary legacy was recognised by UNESCO in 2004 gaining the title Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature.

The City of Edinburgh has been a source of inspiration for many writer’s and often it is the darker aspects of the city which have caught their imagination.  Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works reference the dark alleys, grave-robbing and menace of the the 19th century city.  More recently the darker side of the city has been exposed in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus crime novels.  Indeed, where Inspector Rebus is the (curmudgeonly) light in the dark, Irvine Welsh has shown the world the city’s modern underbelly with his depictions of addiction, football violence and night clubbing.

In an effort to embrace this history (both real and imagined) a number of literary walks are available in and around the city.  The Rebus Walking Tour takes clients round key locations from the novels giving visitors the chance to see into the novels and take a step away from the obvious tourist locations.  Highlights of the tour are Inspector Rebus’ local pub The Oxford Bar and a jaunt up to Salisbury Crags.  Other more general walks are available which encompass over 500 years of writers and writing from before Robert Burns right up to Irvine Welsh.  Being Scotland, there is of course a Literary Pub walk available for those who like to accompany the experience with an appropriate tipple.

Please, dear reader, do not think that all the inspiration offered by Edinburgh is dark. Alexander McCall Smith’s work “44 Scotland Street” offers a lighter side to Edinburgh life. With is cast drawn from the residents of the titular residence. In a nod to his literary predecessor, Sir Walter Scott the novel was printed in serial form in The Scotsman newspaper.

Of course one cannot talk about writing from Edinburgh without mentioning J K Rowling.  Her first novel was famously written in the back room Elephant House Cafe looking out to Edinburgh castle.

On a trip to the cafe with my Potter mad Mother I was surprised to find a book of Saints on the back room window ledge. Upon leafing through said book I discovered a St Hedwig listed and remembered that the boy wizard’s Owl is so named! I must admit that I did not check if the book was a genuine inspiration for the author or a later addition.

Finally, mention must be given to one of the city’s favourite sons.  Greyfriars Bobby is the eponymous canine hero of Eleanor Stackhouse Atkinson’s 1912 novel.  It tells of the Skye Terrier’s loyalty and love for his master as he spends 14 years guarding his grave.  This shaggy dog story has been often disputed but the tail (sorry tale) is borne out by a statue of Bobby on the corner of Candlemaker’s Row and George IV Bridge.  The statue was originally a drinking fountain for humans and their four legged friends and is Edinburgh’s smallest listed building.

This is a very brief look at Edinburgh’s literary history and legacy. Indeed, It is embarrassing to have come so far without mentioning Dame Muriel Spark or any of the great poets to have graced the city.

For a more general overview of Edinburgh’s history please visit here.

One thought on “Edinburgh City of Literature

  1. Jane

    Nice post. Sir Walter Scott was a big influence in Edinburgh. Heart of Midlothian on the Royal Mile features in his novel of the same name. Locals spit on it for luck! What a weird attraction!


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