If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m kind of in love with books. I will be the first person to tell you that you can appreciate the wonderment of stories without leaving your bed, couch, or if you’re lucky, window seat. The worlds of Harry Potter and Wuthering Heights can materialize before your eyes no matter how dull the view outside.
But to see the source of inspiration – to explore the very same streets your favorite author once appreciated – to glimpse up from a table in the Elephant House and watch the Edinburgh Castle fade in and out of sunlight, knowing J.K. Rowling once sat in that exact spot, makes me wonder. The stories I have loved all my life suddenly acquire another dimension – like a color I’ve never seen before, or a spice I haven’t yet tasted.
So when I travel, I try to seek out literary places.
I believe in the power of a place. Different homes, graveyards, pubs, bookstores, all retain their own character – can inspire creativity, peace, excitement, fear. To experience places that are somehow connected to a beloved book can entirely change your perspective of the story.
When I moved to Edinburgh, a city respected for its literary history, I knew the introverted bookworm in me would fall in love.
While there are a few actual literary tours you can take, most were pub crawls, and I struggled to find anything self-guided. Personally, I prefer pacing myself, stopping for coffee whenever I please, and dancing around for no reason. People in groups give me weird looks when I do that, so it’s just better if I’m left to my own devices.
For others who feel compelled to chase stories wherever you go, and for those of you interested in Edinburgh’s fascinating history, let me take you on your very own literary tour of Edinburgh!
1. Elephant House – J.K. Rowling
How could I not begin with Harry Potter? Really.
Once upon a time, before every child in the world knew Harry Potter’s name, J.K. Rowling frequented this bright, lively cafe. Miniature elephants decorate the tables and bright red walls, contrasting the medieval architecture just outside the cafe’s doors.
Surprisingly, the restaurant has very little Harry Potter memorabilia. A secret drawer within the restaurant contains heaps of letters written to the world’s beloved writer, and fans have adorned the bathroom walls with sketches and quotes, but the tribute ends there. You’ll not likely see golden snitches or silvery cloaks.
While J.K. Rowling has described herself as a writer who can write anywhere, Edinburgh’s unique atmosphere did influence her writing. As she said in an interview with Scholastic, “There were some small things that wouldn’t have happened in the book if I hadn’t been living in Edinburgh,” including names and other details. (Watch the full interview here).
2. Greyfriars Kirkyard – J.K. Rowling
Although rumors of the infamous Elephant House had reached me long before arriving in Edinburgh, I had never once heard of the Greyfriars graveyard. The Scottish winds whistled through the gravestones – a faint piece of music accompanying me as I tiptoed around grassy graves.
After a few minutes, I realized that the grave before my feet bore the name “McGonagall.” Not too shocking considering I was in Scotland, but still, I appreciated the familiarity. A few steps later, and I greeted Mr. Lockhart. The pattern continued throughout the site; various characters, some minor, others not, greeted me from the Harry Potter world. Only upon finding the name of You-Know-Who did I finally leave the graveyard.
3. Robert Burns Monument
Robert Burns, fondly known as “Scotland’s favorite son,” is celebrated across the country. Of course, the capital city needed to commemorate his life, but you can also visit Burns’ cottage in Alloway, Scotland. Unlike the Elephant House and kirkyard, I didn’t find the monument inspiring or life-changing, but the hike is worth it for a memorable view of the city.
4. Writer’s Museum
If you’re interested in Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, or Robert Louis Stevenson, visit the Writer’s Museum. When I arrived, I expected a tribute to all of Edinburgh’s former writers (including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), and was mildly surprised by the lack of variety. But what this low-ceilinged, snug house lacks in variety, it makes up for in depth. From their old rocking horses to nearly forgotten pairs of shoes, the Writer’s Museum honors these three literary giants with admirable attention to detail.
5. 17 Heriot Row – Robert Louis Stevenson’s home
A home is an intimate place, a place that has witnessed a thousand moments. And Stevenson’s former bright red door is an echo: a figment of a past scene, of a swishing cloak or the tip of a black hat, seen through slitted eyes – a small piece of the past sifted through time. An image of Robert Louis Stevenson slamming his door, marching out into the night, a Scottish moon low in the sky, appears, if only for a second.
(I imagine that anyone capable of penning Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would likely slam doors in the middle of the night).
For just a moment, it all comes back to life, as if the past is living alongside us.
6. 39 North Castle Street – Sir Walter Scott’s home
Sir Walter Scott specifically built this three-story home for his family, and moved in just after his daughter in 1801. Scott would have stepped outside his door to a prized view of the castle. In fact, Scott’s old home resides just around the corner from Stevenson’s, so you could easily visit both in one outing.
7. Rosslyn Chapel
If ghosts exists, they haunt Rosslyn Chapel. Whether or not you believe in unearthly tales and spirits, the atmosphere around this infamous chapel felt undeniably sinister.
According to legend, the grounds of Rosslyn Chapel create some sort of vortex of energy, where good and evil forces collide. Demonic spirits surround the church, particularly the nearby ruins, whereas inside the stunning building you’ll supposedly feel peace and serenity wash over you. The Chapel allegedly connects back to the Knights Templar and Holy Grail as well, a theory popularized by The Da Vinci Code.
My skeptical mind isn’t likely to believe in most of this, if any of it. However, while clambering over rocks behind the church, twisting and ducking to avoid thick thorny bushes, and standing before the closed gates for my picture, I felt watched. Sick. Uncertain. And irrationally terrified. Chris, my boyfriend, doesn’t believe in anything remotely supernatural, but even he felt uncomfortable, and within minutes, we had fled, like two frightened little rabbits. Chris drove us away more quickly than was entirely necessary, but for whatever reason, the grounds surrounding Rosslyn Chapel made me feel as if…as if someone had poured ice water down my back, and burned a match an inch away from my eyes.
I’m sure many of you don’t believe in ghosts, and I’m not about to claim something without any facts, because I understand how absurd it all sounds. But I can say that for whatever reason, I felt viscerally uncomfortable.
8. Literary Pubs:
What’s a good book without a good drink? Hemingway knew that all writing should be accompanied with alcohol…
Actually, if I’m entirely honest, I think he was nuts; anything I’ve ever written while drunk has been absolute shit. But whatever. It’s a nice idea, and I like pubs, so without further ado, my favorite literary pub in Edinburgh is:
Don’t advertise this classic speakeasy bar too much; it needs to remain somewhat private. Without a sign indicating a bar is anywhere in sight, you should instead keep an eye out for a curious line of people snaking away from a supposed “barber shop” on a Saturday night. With a door disguised as a bookcase, and books adorning the walls inside, this quickly became my favorite spot in the city.
No matter where your travels take you, I hope you have a wonderful time! Just let me know if you have any questions.