A decade ago Edinburgh became UNESCO’s first City of Literature, and there’s little doubt as to why. Scotland has produced some of literary history’s finest writers, and its capital city’s illustrious past has shown no signs of slowing since Robert Louis Stevenson famously described its inhabitants as travelling “upon dark passages in the town’s adventures” to “chill their marrow with winter’s tales”.
Some writers have already had their words translated across the seven continents – other emerging talents are following their lead. Among the famous names of Rebus, Renton and Rowling below hide some lesser-known literary landmarks, bookish experiences to absorb your weekends, and a whole host of emerging artists not shy of playing with the pen.
1. See the work of the mystery book sculpture artist
A little over three years ago, a mysterious paper sculpture was uncovered in the Scottish Poetry Library. Containing a tree hatching from a book, some poems and a card appreciative of the library’s existence, this became the first of ten unearthed in Edinbrugh’s cultural institutions, including the Filmhouse and the National Museum of Scotland. It’s less paperback and more Paper-Banksy – helping to raise the profile of reading – and much like the incognito graffiti artist, to this day no one has any clue who’s behind it. Use this handy walking tour map to locate all ten.
2. Lose hours in one of Edinburgh’s many bookshops
There are more Edinburgh bookshops than space here allows, though notable mentions include Old Town Bookshop (8 Victoria Street), Analogue Books (39 Candlemaker Row), Word Power Books (West Nicholson Street) and Elvis Shakespeare (347 Leith Walk, pictured above), the latter an amalgamation of music and literature. And it isn’t Narnia which awaits at the back of the cupboard, it’s Armchair Books on West Port Street, a shop akin to Glasgow counterpart Voltaire & Rousseau – it’s a dizzying, winding labyrinth of folded trees.
3. Take in a play at one of the city’s theatres
It’s hard to believe only eight years have passed since Black Watch was first performed at a small temporary festival stage at the University of Edinburgh. Gregory Burke’s piece has gone on to become one of Scotland’s most formidable theatre productions, with countless awards and worldwide tours in its haversack. On the flip side, we bet Liz Lochead can’t believe nearly three decades have flown by since Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off first reared its, erm, head at the Royal Lyceum Theatre on Grindlay Street. All year round, the Traverse is Scotland’s very own new writing theatre, and always worth a visit.
4. Visit the world’s largest monument to a writer
Not many folk master one talent in their lifetime, let alone three. Playwright, novelist and poet Sir Walter Scott became the first author to have an international career during his lifetime. You can find him on Scottish banknotes, in New York’s Central Park, Glasgow’s George Square and on a £25,000 literary prize. In Edinburgh alone, Scott’s commemorations include a stone slab at Makar’s Court, a tower at Corstorphine Hill, and Waverley Station, named after his celebrated novel. Not forgetting, of course, the 61 metre-tall Scott Monument piercing the skyline on Princes Street – the largest memorial dedicated to any writer on the planet. Bill Bryson described it as looking like a “gothic rocket ship” and the nickname has stuck with locals.
5. Become well-versed at the Scottish Poetry Library
Since moving to its hidden but visually arresting home just off the Canongate, the Scottish Poetry Library’s collection now boasts over 40,000 items, not to mention the full published archive of Scotland’s first Makar, Edwin Morgan. Whether you’re looking for literary events, poetry workshops or anthologies of Contemporary Aberdonian Poets Who Once Visited Icelandic Springs, the SPL is likely to have it. It’s a sanctuary where illustrious poets such as Don Paterson, John Burnside, Kathleen Jamie, Edwin Muir and Norman McCaig rub shoulders with the work of Scottish-based new blood, like Jane McKie, Miriam Gamble, William Letford, Niall Campbell, JL Williams and Richie McCaffery.
6. See the foundations of Scottish literature
The Writer’s Museum, tucked away in Lady Stair’s Close off the Royal Mile, is, like the SPL, another literary treasure trove. The museum celebrates the work of Scotland’s trio of writing titans, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, through portraits, rare books and personal objects.
7. Repeat Dorothy Wordsworth’s tour of the city
Just as the name Einstein is now used to sarcastically attribute claims of genius, Wordsworth has become synonymous with anyone fond of scribbling. The English poet journeyed to Scotland with his sister Dorothy in 1803, and from the sounds of her Edinburgh diary entry, you’d be forgiven for thinking literary ability is genetic. Sitting near St Anthony’s Chapel, she wrote: “a pastoral hollow as wild and solitary as any in the heart of the Highland mountains: there, instead of the roaring of torrents, we listened to the noises of the city, which were blended in one loud indistinct buzz”.
8. Walk on wisdom at Makar’s Court
Unfortunately, stone lasts a lot longer than people do. Fortunately, we humans clocked onto this and started painting and inscribing in caves. This tradition persists next to The Writer’s Museum in Makar’s Court, where celebrated literary quotations are settling into rock, the oldest being John Barbour’s epiphany “fredome is a noble thing”. The Scottish Parliament also boasts similar inscriptions on the Canongate
9. Take a Trainspotting-inspired tour
To talk of a writer’s impact on the area they’re from, not acknowledging Irvine Welsh’s portrayal of Leith would be downright snobbery, a reaction the writer’s breakthrough novel Trainspotting received at the 1993 Booker Prize (it was hilariously rejected for “offending the sensibilities of two judges”). The modern masterpiece, and the film it produced, has been so popular that tours are available, courtesy of Leith Walks. In typical dark humour, while Welsh laments being Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh’ for the rest of his life, a huge grin appears on his face “twice a year, when the royalty cheque hits the doormat”.
10. See the Poet’s Pub (or visit the pubs that inspired it)
Sandy Moffat fervently painted many literary figures, including portraits of Muriel Spark, Sorley MacLean, Ian Crichton Smith, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Robert Garioch, Hugh MacDiarmid and Edwin Morgan (they can be viewed here). However, his most famous work is an amalgam of many of the aforementioned writers and their taproom haunts (Milne’s Bar, the Abbotsford and the Café Royal) called the Poet’s Pub (1980), which can be found in the National Gallery. A smaller, print version lingers on Rose Street.
11. See Neu! Reekie! in Auld Reekie
Long making waves in the old city is cadence cabaret Neu! Reekie!, the effervescent brainchild of poets Michael Pedersen and Kevin Williamson. A Neu! Reekie! event is like hitting an arts-filled piñata with a humour-dipped baseball bat – only more colourful, fun and unexplainably satisfying than the Mexican pastime. Shore Poets, Rally & Broad and Illicit Ink are among the many others holding their own in the city’s cultural performance scene.
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12. Have coffee where Harry Potter was written
You’re more likely to find yourself in a straightjacket than a publishing deal if you believe your books will end up selling half-a-billion copies before you hit 50, though J.K. Rowling has achieved this. Written while broke and on state benefits at The Elephant House (it was also penned at the now-defunct Nicholson’s), Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel went on to sell over 100 million copies, led to six successors and the series is only eclipsed in readership by the Bible, Qur’an and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. So statistically, one in every fourteen people on Earth own a Harry Potter book – now that’s magic.
13. Publish or be damned
Quite incredibly, Edinburgh is home to 50 publishing houses, including Canongate Books, Birlinn (an imprint of Polygon Books), Cargo Publishing and Edinburgh University Press. Canongate became the first Scottish publisher to win a Booker Prize in 2002, when Yann Martel’s Life of Pi exploded into the literary world. This helped the Canongate scoop Publisher of the Year and they’ve gone from strength to strength ever since. So if you’re looking to write your first novel, there’s nowhere else to be.
14. Explore poet Robert Robertson’s ‘acropolis of light’
Back in the mid-90s, Scottish poet Robin Robertson produced a series of poems based on Calton Hill and the city’s Camera Obscura, the latter a lengthy but ingenious piece on Edinburgh viewed through the antique lens of the eponymous tourist attraction. ‘Obscura’ surfaced at the end of 1997’s A Painted Field, which took home both the Forward Prize and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award. Robertson went on to produce modern masterpieces in Swithering and The Wrecking Light, all complemented by the city he named the “acropolis of light”.
15. Pay homage to the world’s worst poet
From great poets to erm, well, not-so-great, there’s William McGonagall. Named a doggerel poet, McGonagall sought out a patron so his verse would be taken seriously, and interpreted a relatively pleasant Queen Victoria rejection letter as evidence of his poetic genius. He even walked to Balmoral to perform for Her Majesty as the self-described ‘Queen’s Poet’, but was swiftly turned away with a reminder the UK already had endowed that title on a man named Alfred Tennyson. He’s most commonly associated with Dundee where he lived most of his days, but you can pay homage to the man “so giftedly bad he backed unwittingly into genius” at Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh.
16. Drink in Inspector Rebus’s favourite haunt
While Irvine Welsh has eloped to marry the stateside shore of relative anonymity, you don’t need to be a hard-nosed sleuth to discover that Ian Rankin has not. The latter’s immensely successful Inspector Rebus novels are predominantly set in Edinburgh, and Rebus’ favourite haunt is The Oxford Bar (Young Street).
17. Explore the collection of the National Library of Scotland
If you’re seriously proud of your extra-large bookcase, how’s this for size? With more than seven million books, two million maps and enough letters to give a postman a nervous breakdown, the National Library of Scotland also possess rare manuscripts by writers and poets including Burns, Byron, Austen and Melville. It also holds the largest collection of Gaelic material, the letter submitted with the manuscript of Darwin’s world-changing Origin of Species and the First Folio of Shakespeare. Yikes.
18. Meet an author at the Book Festival
August sees a whole host of bookish brains descend upon Charlotte Square for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, one of the world’s best. Last year saw Paul Muldoon, Haruki Murakami and Martin Amis casually drop by, as well as some bloke who wrote a series of novels that involved games and thrones.
19. Take the kids to the Scottish Storytelling Centre
Housed in an award-winning modern building appended to the 15th-century home of Protestant reformer John Knox, the Scottish Storytelling Centre has been operating now for eight years since its reopening. Very child-friendly, the centre has a book and gift shop, a café, a Storytelling Court, the George Mackay Brown Library (named after the Orchadian poet) and a 99-seat theatre. It also hosts the Scottish Storytelling Festival every year.
Discover more in Edinburgh
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