In 2004, Edinburgh was named the first UNESCO City of Literature, the first in the Creative Cities network, which now spans over 100 cities around the world chosen for various creative pursuits. But it makes sense that Edinburgh was chosen for literature, as the city has been the home and the source of inspiration for many famous authors over the years. Stories are a rich part of Scottish culture and heritage in general, so it was only natural that eventually we’d start writing them down, to form our strong literary heritage. So, when visiting Edinburgh, literature lovers might like to explore some of the notable locations around the city, linked to various writers and their works.
The Writer’s Museum
The Writer’s Museum is one of the most obvious locations to check out, a museum full of artefacts relating to three of Scotland’s most famous writers, Scott, Burns, and Stevenson (more locations for them all are listed below!). The museum has former possessions of theirs, and early editions of their manuscripts and other writings. It’s located in a building in Makar’s Court, a makar being the Scots word for a poet or writer, and there are stones in the ground of the courtyard engraved with quotes from other famous writers. For more about the museum, see my post about it.
Scottish Storytelling Centre
To learn a bit more about Scotland’s oral tradition of storytelling, this is the place to go. The centre hosts various workshops and events throughout the year, with the aim of keeping our storytelling tradition alive. Although not strictly literary, since this isn’t really about the written word, most literature fans will enjoy a visit to the centre, to uncover a different sort of storytelling tradition.
Sir Walter Scott
As well as the Writer’s Museum, there are a few Scott-associated locations around the city. The most iconic is the Scott Monument, the huge Gothic spire that towers over Princes Street. You can climb to the top for views of the city, learn more about Scott’s life and legacy in the Museum Room, and admire the statue of him and his dog in the base.
Edinburgh’s central train station is named Waverley, after one of Scott’s novels, the only train station in the world named after a novel. The Heart of Midlothian, the mosaic inlaid outside St Giles’ Cathedral, also shares its name with one of Scott’s novels, which features the Old Tolbooth prison that the heart now marks.
You can also take a wander around some of the streets that Scott once lived on. His childhood home was in 25 George Square, now part of the Edinburgh University campus, and as an adult he lived for periods of time in homes on Castle Street in the New Town, before moving south to the Borders, to Abbotsford House.
Robert Burns was born and raised in Ayrshire, on the west coast of Scotland, but he lived in Edinburgh as an adult for many years. Like Scott, there is a monument dedicated to him (though not as tall), a small, circular Neo-Classical temple, which you can find on Regent Road, near Calton Hill. He is also memorialised in one of the stained glass windows inside St Giles’ Cathedral.
You can retrace Burns’s footsteps around the city by stopping in at the White Hart Inn, on Grassmarket. This is reportedly the oldest pub in Edinburgh, at over 500 years old, and Burns is recorded as having stayed here for a week on his last visit to the city, after he had moved back west to Dumfries. He was visiting his lover, Clarinda (real name Nancy MacLehose), whose grave you can visit in Canongate Kirkyard. Also in the kirkyard is the grave of the poet Robert Fergusson, whose headstone was commissioned by Burns himself (initially it was an unmarked pauper’s grave), as Fergusson had been a huge inspiration of his, and there is also a statue of him outside the kirkyard gates.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson was another Edinburgh native, born in 8 Howard Place, a simple building which has a carving noting his birth, and his initials inlaid in the garden gate. His most notable Edinburgh home though, where he spent most of his childhood, was 17 Heriot Row, a building now known as The Stevenson House. This is still a private home, but the current owners let out the dining and drawing room as hospitality venues, and two of the bedrooms as B&B rooms.
Stevenson’s book, ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, was famously inspired by another Edinburgh local, Deacon Brodie, and on the Royal Mile you will find Brodie’s Close, named after him, where his home and workshop were once located, and where you will now see a statue of him just outside the close. Across the road is Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, which features illustrations of him on the signs, and a waxwork figure in the back of the pub.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Famous as the author of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle was born and raised in Edinburgh, before going to boarding school in England. He returned to the city to study medicine at the university, so take a look around the stunning Old College building, where he would have attended classes. He famously cited one of his teachers, Joseph Bell, as the inspiration for the character of Sherlock Holmes, and you can see an exhibition about their relationship just across the road in Surgeons’ Hall Museums.
Sherlock Holmes is also memorialised in a statue on Picardy Place, the location where Conan Doyle was born, depicted wearing his iconic outfit of a cape, pipe, and deerstalker hat. Just across the road from the statue, you can pop in for a pint at The Conan Doyle pub!
Spark’s most famous novel is undoubtedly ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, which was also turned into a well-known film starring Dame Maggie Smith. You can visit locations in Edinburgh mentioned in the book, and others used for the filming. Start off with a walk through Morningside, the area where Miss Brodie came from, and continue up through Bruntsfield, where Spark herself came from. She attended James Gillespie’s High School, nearby in Marchmont.
To see some of the filming locations, head to the Edinburgh Academy on Henderson Row, which was used as the exterior of the fictional Marcia Blaine School for Girls. And to visit one of the most scenic locations, you can retrace Miss Brodie and her students’ walk through the Vennel, the Grassmarket, and Greyfriars Kirkyard.
Rankin is one of the more contemporary writers hailing from Edinburgh, well-known for penning the Inspector Rebus novels, which feature several real locations around the city. Both Rankin and his character live in the Marchmont area of the city, just south of the centre – specifically, Rebus’s flat is listed as being 17 Arden Street.
The other most popular location is the Oxford Bar, located on Young Street, which Rebus visits frequently. This is a real pub, which Rankin often goes to himself (he even had his stag party here!), and he chose it for the books because it is a real, simple pub, with no bells or whistles, a side of Edinburgh that many tourists rarely see. Dozens of other Edinburgh locations are mentioned throughout the series, which die-hard fans will be able to track down easily!
Barrie’s name as famous as the creator of Peter Pan, and although Scottish, he wasn’t actually from Edinburgh – he was born in the town of Kirriemuir – but he did move to the city at age 22, to study at the university. Later in life he moved to London, but he served as Chancellor of Edinburgh University from 1930 until his death in 1937. Take a wander through the Bristo Square and George Square campuses to retrace his steps, as well as those of many other authors who studied here.
Author of several novels set in Edinburgh, Welsh’s most famous work is undoubtedly ‘Trainspotting’, which was adapted into a highly successful film. The novel is largely set in Leith, an area to the north of Edinburgh, where Welsh himself was born. Any fans of the novel should check out the area, and you can even take a specialised Trainspotting tour, to learn about specific locations in more detail.
Much of the film was actually shot in Glasgow, rather than Edinburgh, but one of the most iconic scenes that was filmed here is the opening, where Renton and Spud bolt along Princes Street, running from security guards, The chase continues along Hanover Street, ending at Regent Bridge, so you can recreate the route for yourself!
Nicholls himself isn’t Scottish (he’s English), but Edinburgh features prominently in one of his most successful novels, ‘One Day’, and scenes from the film adaptation were shot here. The book is mainly set in London, but the story opens in Edinburgh, on the day the main characters graduate from the University – a ceremony that would have taken place in the iconic McEwan Hall, in Bristo Square.
You can then retrace Emma and Dexter’s walk through the city, as they meet in Parliament Square, then wander by the High Street, Victoria Street, Warriston Close and, most famously, climb up Arthur’s Seat. Rankeillor Street is also featured, as the location of Emma’s flat, and this was the same street Nicholls lived on for a summer, his first time in Edinburgh, when acting in a Fringe play. You can also explore the New Town, where the couple shared their first kiss on Moray Street, before parting ways outside Dexter’s flat on Fettes Row.
Alexander McCall Smith
McCall Smith’s Edinburgh connection comes courtesy of his series ’44 Scotland Street’, originally published as a serial in The Scotsman newspaper, and set on a real street in Edinburgh, although that particular building number doesn’t exist. The series details the lives of the residents of this property, located in the more bohemian area of the New Town, and you can retrace some of their steps throughout the city, including Dundas Street, the Valvona & Crolla cafe, and Holy Corner in Morningside – there’s even an app available now, to guide you around in more detail.