Highlighting Edinburgh’s Literary History

by Keith Savage · 22 comments

Edinburgh, Scotland

There must be something magical in the air of Great Britain. Some atmospheric spark finds home in the bellies of its artists; their works of music, art, architecture, and literature emanate a genius glow. I can’t explain how many of my favorite musicians and authors hail from this small isle, people like Boards of Canada, Radiohead, and Bernard Cornwell. The creative streak appears to be especially powerful in Scotland, and, as hinted at by my trusty Kindle, Edinburgh in particular.

The Kindle is just another in a long line of overt threats to my bank account, but Amazon also makes available a huge selection of free classics. Naturally, I started downloading book after free book with a kind of sickening glee, and the first book I started reading was Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

I was blown away. The prose was tight, the story was gripping, and this was the genesis of so many pirate memes. It’s possible I might’ve stomped around the house while spitting piratical epithets and “Yarrr!”-ing for a few weeks (the beard helps). How had I not read this before? Curse my backwater primary school’s limp English lit department!

Yes, Robert Louis Stevenson was a Scot, but he was also from Edinburgh, and this knowledge triggered a memory of the enormous Sir Walter Scott (himself a famous author) monument towering over Princes Street (also in Edinburgh). Within minutes I was 18 tabs deep in Firefox reading about Edinburgh’s impressive literary history. Check out these interesting facts:

  • Edinburgh was named the first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004. This is a permanent, non-competitive designation. The Edinburgh City of Literature site is loaded with news, events, and media surrounding its authors and their works.
  • Speaking of authors, Edinburgh was the home of luminaries like Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, J.M. Barrie, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Muriel Spark, Adam Smith, David Hume, and Kenneth Grahame among many others. Today, Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, and J.K. Rowling call the city home.
  • Collectively, these authors wrote classics like Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Rob Roy, Ivanhoe, Waverly, Peter Pan, the Sherlock Holmes novels, The Wind in the Willows, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Wealth of Nations, the Inspector Rebus novels, and the Harry Potter novels. And this is just a sample.
  • Not only that, Sir Walter Scott is generally credited with inventing (or least making popular) the genre of historical fiction. As fans of Bernard Cornwell and Diana Gabaldon, my wife and I rejoice. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is also credited with redefining the genre of crime fiction with his Sherlock Holmes series.
  • Every August, Edinburgh is home to the world’s largest international book festival. The city is also home to some 80 publishing houses, 45 bookshops, and 140 libraries. The Encyclopedia Britannica (remember that?) was first published in Edinburgh.
  • There are book fairs in hotels in Edinburgh year-round. In fact, there’s a massive book fair during the weekend of March 12 & 13 that I plan to canvas.
  • A horde of literature-related buildings litter the city, including the Writer’s Museum, Scottish Poetry Library, Scottish Storytelling Centre, National Library of Scotland, Scottish Book Trust, Makars’ Court, and Canongate Books.
  • Finally, there are many literary tours offered throughout the city, my favorite being the Literary Pub Tour, which manages to produce a pleasant cocktail of humor, information, and drunkenness.

Getting Bookish

There is some secret in the wynds and closes of Edinburgh’s Old Town, in the geometric lanes of the New Town, waiting to be discovered. There must be, for I can find no evidence to explain this volume of important literary antecedents.

In these five weeks before I travel to Edinburgh, I’ve got a digital stack of novels to read that will, perhaps, shed some light on this magic city. I’m on a mission to comb the streets and neighborhoods of Edinburgh with an eye toward its literary heritage. But I won’t shed a tear if the magic escapes me. After all, isn’t the “magic” of something derived from our inability to comprehend and explain it?

I’ll be happy if some tiny spark manages to find a home in my belly.

Original photos by _Tawcan and chakchouka, respectively, via Flickr under Creative Commons

Spencer SpellmanNo Gravatar February 2, 2011 at 11:08 AM

I had forgotten until I read this how many great authors are tied to Edinburgh. I’m especially excited about a visit to Oxford this summer. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are two of my faves, so that alone is reason to visit. Thanks for this Keith!


Keith SavageNo Gravatar February 2, 2011 at 11:49 AM

I still have a hard time fathoming all of the seminal works coming from the British Isles’ artists.


Michael HodsonNo Gravatar January 26, 2011 at 5:18 PM

I am jealous of just how much fun you are going to have exploring every nook and cranny over there.


Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 27, 2011 at 9:33 AM

Don’t you think it’s about time to wrap up your stay in the Caribbean? πŸ™‚


EricaNo Gravatar January 24, 2011 at 2:08 AM

Sounds like literary nerd heaven! <3


WanderingTraderNo Gravatar January 22, 2011 at 9:24 PM

You know I think there is something magical about all of Europe. Each place has its distinct aura.. starting with Paris at the top there is so much history and things to see in Europe you could spend an entire lifetime trying to discover it all


Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 22, 2011 at 9:37 PM

You’re right – it’s why my wife and I always think of Europe when we plan vacations. I cannot get enough of the place.


AndiNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 7:39 AM

I celebrated Xmas once there and yes it was a magical city!


Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 11:21 AM

How was the weather then? πŸ˜‰ Doesn’t sound like your style, Andi.


AnthonyNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 5:06 AM

Haha Erin makes a very valid point! Also Alexander Graham Bell, the dude who invented the telephone was from Edinburgh. Not an author but still pretty good clout!

I’m looking forward to your Edinburgh travels and I can sense the enthusiasm in your writing mate.


Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 11:04 AM

Thanks, Anthony. The list of famous people from Edinburgh is quite long, if I recall some earlier research correctly. I mean, the Scots invented the modern world (apparently). πŸ™‚


AnthonyNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 12:15 PM

I’d find it pretty hard to disagree it was a bloody big contribution. I discovered in my last Edinburgh trip that my paternal name ‘Gibson’ is indeed Scottish :O Might need to look in to that some more.

Remember to just shoot me a mail if you have any Edinburgh queries, I think I was there more than England last year!


KenNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 2:34 PM

‘Tis a widely known fact!


AnthonyNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 3:32 PM

I’m not disputing it! Peace πŸ˜›


Edinburgh City LibrariesNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 3:17 AM

hi Keith. Edinburgh is indeed a fantasic literary city with loads going on. Make sure you pop in to the Central Library on George IV Bridge, whose Edinburgh Room has an amazing collection of material relating to Edinburgh’s rich literary history.


Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Thanks for the recommendation – I will definitely stop in!


JoAnnaNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 2:31 AM

I’ve always wanted to take a literary-based trip! Edinburgh sounds like the place to do it …


Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 10:48 AM

Edinburgh would be perfect then. I might just go on that literary pub tour again in March – lots of fun and a good way to meet people.


ErinNo Gravatar January 20, 2011 at 6:17 PM

Britain’s creative streak is because of the weather – it’s too cold and rainy to go outside! Edinburgh’s book festival is fantastic -yet another thing to attend in August, seriously it’s exhausting (in a fun way).

You’ve inspired me to get Treasure Island for my Kindle!


Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 9:31 AM

Hey Erin, maybe that’s it! Must it sound weird for an American to characterize Britain in such a way? I’m tentatively planning a third trip to Scotland (this year!) in August.

You’ll have to let me know what you think of Treasure Island – I loved it!


KenNo Gravatar January 20, 2011 at 3:20 PM

Great post, Keith. There does seem to be something magically creative about Scotland, and not only in literature. One comes to appreciate this in a multitude of ways but How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman is a great read, granted that the title is a little bit of an overstatement.


Keith SavageNo Gravatar January 21, 2011 at 9:27 AM

I started reading that book but never finished it. I should check it out again.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: