Edinburgh is the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature, as it serves up a delicious array of libraries, bookshops, historic authors, literary monuments, and scenic tours. In the 1700s, Edinburgh was the heart of the Scottish Enlightenment, and it gained the nickname “Athens of the North” for its classical architecture and reputation for producing literary and scientific geniuses. Three hundred years later, the city is still a living monument to its most famous authors.
A few of the most notable sites can be seen in an easy stroll down the Royal Mile. Starting near the top, and tucked into a close (a narrow road) off High Street (be sure to keep a sharp eye out for the sign), the Writer’s Museum, in 17th century Lady Stair’s House, is a quaint display of artifacts dedicated almost exclusively to Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. The rich collection features manuscripts, first edition books, portraits, and a series of personal effects ranging from the sentimental to the bizarre, including locks of hair from women Burns immortalized in poetry, artifacts from Stevenson’s travels in Samoa, Scott’s childhood riding horse (the footholds were built uneven to accommodate the effects of his polio), and a cast of Burns’ skull. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
Outside the museum, Makar’s Court (the Scottish word makar emphasizes the role of the writer as a skillful craftsman) displays flagstones inscribed with quotations from some of the great Scottish authors. New flagstones continue to be added, so dates range from 14th century John Barbour to 2006 Dame Muriel Spark. The Court also serves as an advertising and meeting point for some of the literary walking tours that roam throughout Edinburgh. More flagstone curiosities can be found at the City Chambers, where the handprints of international bestsellers J.K. Rowling and Ian Rankin are pressed in the stone, among others.
Continuing down the Royal Mile, on the corner of Bank Street, is Deacon Brodie’s Pub, named after a man whose upright life as a city councilor during the day and adventures as a burglar at night inspired Stevenson to write his famous book Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Brodie is reported to have designed the gallows upon which he eventually hanged. His complete history is painted on the outside wall of the tavern, and the restaurant inside serves a very decent lamb pie.
St. Giles Cathedral, across the Mile, is renowned for its history, architecture, and for being home to the chivalrous Order of the Thistle. The cathedral also contains memorial windows to Burns and Stevenson, and a plaque to the poet Robert Fergusson, whose poem ‘Auld Reekie’ memorialized the city’s nickname (given for its smelly, smoky air) and had a profound influence on Burns.
Fergusson himself is buried at the far end of the Royal Mile, near Holyrood Palace, in Canongate Kirk graveyard. Robert Burns was so inspired by the young poet that he commissioned Fergusson’s gravestone, and a statue of Fergusson outside the Kirk gate marks the location. Burns’ love interest, Agnes Maclehose (‘Clarinda’ in his poems,) is also buried here. (The graveyard also features several tombs of notable historic figures, including economist Adam Smith.)
Nearby are the Scottish Poetry Library, the Scottish Storytelling Center, home to the October Scottish Storytelling Festival, and the Sandeman House, headquarters of the Scottish Book Trust.
Beyond the Royal Mile, at least two places merit particular attention:
The Walter Scott Monument, in the Princes Street Gardens, stands just over 200 feet tall and is the tallest monument to a writer in the world. For just 4£, you can enjoy its height up close as you climb the 287 increasingly narrow and uneven stone steps to three separate viewing platforms. The highest one puts you almost at the tip of the spire and is not for the faint of heart. If it isn’t too windy, grip the rail, hold onto your hat, and you’ll have a beautiful view of the city from Castle to Calton Hill to Arthur’s Seat.
On the other side of Old Town, West Port is a lively and eclectic stretch of road just off the historic Grassmarket Road (which itself features taverns that have opened their doors to Williams Wordsworth, Robert Burns, and Walter Scott). West Port features a variety of second-hand bookshops that are a book-lover’s dream. Shelves are stacked completely to the ceiling, stuffed to maximize capacity rather than to facilitate organization, but they contain some rare gems for those willing to search. Some stores have entire sections of antique collections at remarkably reasonable prices. West Port is also home to the annual October West Port Book Festival (westportbookfestival.org) and plays a role in the August International Book Festival, the world’s largest book fair.
Written by Anne Siders for EuropeUpClose.com
Anne Siders is a foot-path traveler who delights in the off-beat, the ancient, and the active. She travels for work and for pleasure, and for the opportunity to write and photograph it all.