J.K. Rowling. Irvine Welsh. Muriel Spark. There’s certainly no shortage of famous writers associated with Edinburgh, and the city itself is also home to many wonderful institutions, tours and organisations dedicated to literature. After the success of our literary guides to Glasgow – Top 10 Literary Glasgow and Top 10 Literary Glasgow Continued – the SWC has decided to branch out to the literary heritage of Scotland’s wonderful capital. Compiled by SWC Director Rachel Walker, read on to find some of our recommendations for exploring Edinburgh’s love affair with literature…
One of the most exciting and innovative of British independent publishers, Canongate – whose gorgeously designed books epitomise the phrase ‘cover buy’ – has been going from strength to strength since their publication of Yann Martel’s Booker-winning Life of Pi catapulted them onto the mainstream literary scene in the early 2000s. Now publishing such eclectic treats as Rebecca Solnit, Matt Haig and Margaret Drabble, us here at the SWC can’t wait to see what they release next.
Although the biggest of the lot, Canongate is by no means the only successful Edinburgh publisher. Edinburgh currently possess around 50 publishers working within its limits, and more of SWC’s favourites include Luath Press, Black & White Publishing, Birlinn and Edinburgh University Press. All have seen achievements in 2017, and we look forward to their output in 2018!
Off the Lawnmarket and up Lady Stair’s Close, the lover of classic Scottish literature will be met with a rare treat. In this museum devoted to Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, you can find a wealth of rare books, manuscripts, portraits, historic artefacts and personal objects that have made their stamp upon Scottish literary history. The printing press that first launched Scott’s Waverley novels into the world? An (eerie) plaster cast of Burns’s skull? It’s all here, in a beautiful little monument to some of Scotland’s literary greats.
Scottish Poetry Library
Founded in 1984 by poet Tessa Ransford, what started off as a small poetry library has now expanded to boast over 30,000 volumes of Scottish and international poetry. It’s a unique, and undoubtedly special, national resource, and aims to bring what it describes as ‘the pleasures and benefits’ of poetry to the Scottish nation. Perfect for newbies, connoisseurs and poets alike, this brilliant institution is free to use – and can even answer any and all poetry queries that you might have.
As with any old, winding, labyrinthine city, excellent bookshops are certain to lurk in corners and along lanes, and Edinburgh (thankfully) is no exception. Ranging from the beautifully cosy Armchair Books to the hidden antiquarian McNaughtan’s Bookshop & Gallery, from the sumptuously curated Golden Hare Books to the delightfully messy Southside Books, there is plenty to keep any bookworm occupied.
Edinburgh literary tours
There’s a myriad of literary tours to choose from in Edinburgh, from the aptly-named Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour (the first of Edinburgh’s literature-based tours, it’s been introducing tourists to Edinburgh’s pubs, books and history since 1996) to the Edinburgh Book Lover’s Tour, a whirlwind trip through 500 years of Scottish literary history. You can also tailor your trip to your favourite Edinburgh novels; there’s more than enough to satisfy even the keenest of readers. Loved David Nicholls’ One Day? Follow in Emma and Dex’s footsteps and hike to the top of Arthur’s Seat. A fan of Trainspotting? Head to Leith for a dedicated tour. A Harry Potter devotee? Check out The Elephant House cafe where Rowling famously wrote parts of the bestselling novels. With its enthusiasm for literature, Edinburgh never disappoints.
Scottish Storytelling Centre
For anyone who loves a really good story (which, if you’re reading this, I’m assuming is all of you!), the Scottish Storytelling Centre is a must-visit. Not only is it an important venue that intends to preserve the lyrical art of storytelling, it’s also a hub of literary activity, filled with workshops, events, exhibitions and theatre all year round. Ideal for adults and families alike – and don’t forget to check out the story wall!
National Library of Scotland
The National Library of Scotland is an absolute treasure: there’s simply no other way of putting it. With over seven million books, two million maps, a plethora of rare manuscripts, a family history service and, of course, the largest collection of Gaelic writings in the world, it’s an unparalleled hub of Scottish writing. Be sure to visit before the 13th of May to attend ‘The International Style of Muriel Spark’, a wonderful exhibition celebrating all things Muriel Spark.
Although we’ve already mentioned Sir Walter Scott above, he’s a pretty difficult figure to avoid when exploring Edinburgh’s literary heritage. (Even the main station is named after his fiction, after all…) Even if you’re not keen on his mammoth historical fiction – which enjoyed a widespread popularity and mania upon their first publication in the early nineteenth century – it’s still worth experiencing the world’s largest monument dedicated to a writer. Plus, what about those views?
And last but not least, Edinburgh International Book Festival!
Could we manage to get through an entire list of Edinburgh’s literary highlights without mentioning Edinburgh International Book Festival? Definitely not. With a staggering programme full of bestsellers, rising stars and prizewinners galore, there literally is something for everyone in this two-week-long bookish extravaganza. Step into Charlotte Square come August, and let yourself be transported…
Words by Rachel Walker
Image credit: Golden Hare Books, Greater Grassmarket, The Elephant House