How Edinburgh inspired great literature

Edinburgh Castle and Gardens. Credit: Visit Britain
Edinburgh Castle and Gardens. Credit: Visit Britain

Scotland’s capital was the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature. Read about the locations that inspired Britain’s literary greats

Words: Lee Karen Stow

Arriving by train into Waverley Station, the end of a journey from the south that skirts a coastline of towering cliffs over a broody North Sea, you cannot fail to admire Edinburgh’s drama. On one side are hundreds of windows in towering townhouses, while, on the other, there’s the sheer walls of Edinburgh Castle perched on its pinnacle of extinct volcanic crag. If night is falling, the battlements and their mossy walls are floodlit and people become shadows. Black taxis wait to speed you to hotels beneath streetlamps once burning gas, or to wood-panelled restaurants of salmon from lochs, venison from the Highlands and whisky that tastes of peaty soil and sky.

By day, this greeting is even more spectacular. The castle is naturally lit, and the wail of Amazing Grace might be played by the lone bagpiper who stands at the corner of busy Princes Street, with its shops and galleries, but it is here that Edinburgh proves that, although ancient history lurks around every corner, it is still the most vibrant cultural capital in Scotland.


This is where Hogmanay, one of the biggest New Year celebrations in Europe pulsates for four days, and the musical extravaganza of the Tattoo hums, drums and marches against the floodlit backdrop of Edinburgh Castle. Originally a post-Second-World-War remedy to reunite Europe through culture, the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe are a summertime bonanza of live theatre.

Founding Edinburgh

Set on Britain’s east coast, on the south shore of the Firth of Forth, Edinburgh is built on the volcanic crag of Castle Hill (or Rock), a feature best appreciated from the highest hill of Arthur’s Seat, at 822ft (250m), and which takes in views of a landscape stretching to the mouth of the North Sea. On the Rock is where Edinburgh sprang up as merely a hill fort of the Celtic tribe, Gododdin, but by AD638 when the Northumbrians conquered Scotland, the city grew and was named Edinburgh. In the 11th century, King Malcolm II defeated the Northumbrians and the Rock became Scottish, after which various religious orders began arriving and building churches and abbeys.

The city we recognise today

In 1296, English King Edward I’s forces besieged Edinburgh but Scotland was later recaptured. The Treaty of Edinburgh, signed in 1328, ended wars of independence with England, while the city expanded from Castle Hill down the famous thoroughfare known as the Royal Mile. When the Old Town spilled over with people, dirt and disease, a New Town of smart Georgian townhouses was built to accommodate the learned and the distinguished. A stroll around the New Town is to pass by façades designed by renowned architect Robert Adam and painted doors with polished brass bell pulls. The Georgian House in Charlotte Square (now run by the National Trust for Scotland) is part of Adam’s masterpiece of urban design. It dates from 1796, and its china, silver, exquisite paintings and furniture all reflect the domestic surroundings and social conditions of the times.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Look out for Number 8 Howard Place, where Robert Louis Stevenson was born and 17 Heriot Row where he lived from the age of six, opposite a garden which some say was his inspiration for Treasure Island.

Sir Walter Scott & J K Rowling

But it is in the Old Town where, centuries before, the great literati of Scotland frequented the taverns and clashed tankards of whisky and wit, amid the aroma of eel pie, tripe, ham and peas. From writers such as Sir Walter Scott to Harry Potter creator, J K Rowling, Edinburgh has long been home to literary greats.

UNESCO City of Literature

So important is this legacy that Edinburgh became the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature, a title awarded in 2004 in recognition of the city’s literary heritage, vibrant contemporary scene and aspirations for the future. In the growing Literature Quarter on the Royal Mile nestles the Scottish Storytelling Centre, home to a brand new theatre and bright cafe as well as creative exhibitions and events. Farther down the hill sits the Scottish Poetry Library, the light and welcoming home to a vast selection of poetry books and pamphlets.

Writer’s Museum

There’s also the long-standing Writer’s Museum which traces the life of Burns and co, and from where you can join a guided literary tour through the wynds (dark alleys) and over the thresholds of aged inns like the Jolly Judge Pub, its ceilings patched with planks from a 300-year-old ship. Or take a wee dram in Burns’ old haunt the Beehive Inn in Grassmarket, an original 16th-century coaching inn, with a door from the condemned cell of the local jail. Outside, around a marketplace where public hangings took place at the gallows up until 1688, are pubs and restaurants including a Frenchstyle cafe and seafood bar serving steaming buckets of Scottish mussels.

Edinburgh Castle

Sightseeing is best done on foot, provided you can manage the odd steep cobbled hill or two. A must is Edinburgh Castle, a former residence of the kings and queens and retainer of the crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny, which seated early kings of Scotland. The oldest part, St Margaret’s Chapel, dates from the 12th century.

Palace of Holyrood

From the Castle, the Old Town rambles along the Royal Mile until it reaches the Palace of Holyrood, home of Mary Queen of Scots whose bedchamber is one of the most famous rooms in the world.

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

Across the street is an outlook tower that houses Camera Obscura and World of Illusions, Edinburgh’s oldest visitor attraction, built in 1853 and showing live images of the scenes around. It’s an ideal point to get your bearings. Nearby is the Old Town Weaving Co, its looms rattling out tartan of every colour and plaid, an atmospheric prelude to the scores of shops selling kilts, salmon, take-away haggis, shortbread and cashmere.