Last April my family and I spent 4 days in Scotland. Half of the time split between Glasgow and Edinburgh. It was still very cold at 9 degree Celcius then. The city was shrouded in sea mist and it rained most of the time. Upon reading up, I discovered many famous publishing writers originated from this part of the world and drew their inspiration from the Highlands, the castle and the weather, most notably the Harry Potter series, which I have read them all!
During the late 18th and 19th centuries, Edinburgh’s bookselling and publishing industries rivalled those of London, as the city busily preened itself in the wake of the success of its biggest national export the Scottish Enlightenment. The city is responsible for publishing the first Encyclopaedia Britannica. The most influential literary figure of this period was Sir Walter Scott, who comobined his legal career with a prolific sidelines as a writer. His blockbuster novels The Heart of Midlothian and Rob Roy, communicated the writer’s deep knowledge of and love for his Scottish heritage to the literary world of the early 19th century. Robert Louis Stevenson, another Scottish wrote The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Although the book is set in London, the topography it depicts is undeniably that of Edinburgh.
Arrivals and departures
Like many Edinburghers during the 19th century, Stevenson had a love-hate relationship with the city, finally abandoning its keen winds for the sunnier climes of Western Samoa in the 1890s. National treasure Muriel Spark also left the capital, although not before taking inspiration from James Gillespie’s High School, her alma mater, while devising the setting for her 1961 novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark’s old school sits near the leady surrounds of Morning side, but the book’s shrewd take on Edinburgh’s tempestuous religious history and schism between Calvinism and Catholicism takes its backdrop from Tolbooth, Sit Giles Cathedral and, of course, John Knox’s house on the High Street.
The University of Edinburgh has educated many notable writers. Among them are JM Barrie, best known for his young creation Peter Pan, and Edinburgh-born Sir Arthur Conan Dolye, who took inspiration from his professor, Dr Joseph Bell, as he went about devising the character of Sherlock Holmes. More recently, Alexander Mc Call Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, studied at the university and went on to become a professor in medical law at the institution. I read every book in the series, except this year’s!
The Modern World
Despite McCall Smith’s success, the city’s two most notable contemporary novelists are probably JK Rowling and Ian Rankin, a pair of writers who embrace the city’s taste for the gothic in very different ways. But the novelist who most radically changed the outside world view of contemporary Scots literature has been Leith-born Irvine Welsh, another in a long line of writers keen to expose an urban underbelly that the city fathers would rather conceal. In novels such as the Acid House and Trainspotting, Welsh writes of a town guilty of self-gentrification and pushing its predominantly working-class inhabitants into an outer ring of ‘problem’ housing schemes.
The prose of Scott, Park, Rowling, Rankin and even Welsh earned Edinburgh the title of UNESCO’s first city of Literature in 2004.
It’s interesting to know so many classics authors of yesteryears and today are from the city of Edinburgh.
The Scott Monument
In Princes Street, you will not miss the Scott Monument. Scott Monument is 200 feet high and erected in the memory of prolific author and patriot Sir Walter Scott within a few years of his death. The largest monument in the world to a man of letters, the elaborate Gothic Spire was created by George Mikle Kemp, a carpenter and joiner whose only building this is; while it was still under construction, he stumbled upon into a canal one foggy evening and drowned.
The architecture is closely modelled on Scott’s beloved Melrose Abbey, while the rich sculptural decorations shows 16 Scottish writers and 64 characters from Scott’s famous Waverley novels. On the central plinth at the base of the monument is a status of Scott with his deerhound Maida, carved from a 30-ton block of Carrara marble.
Inside the recently restored memorial, a tightly winding spiral staircase climbs to a narrow platform near the top, where one can enjoy some inspiring, if not vertiginous- vistas of the city below and hills and firths beyond.
I hope you enjoy my little introduction to Scottish Literature greats. Here are pictures of the city’s famous landmarks, the St. Giles Church and Princes Street Park against the Edinburgh Castle as backdrop.
I hope I have the opportunity to visit the city again during the Edinburgh festival or in a better weather, it is indeed a very beautiful and cultured city.
Can you hear the bagpipe playing at the background? 😉