For novelist Ian Rankin and other best-selling authors, Edinburgh proves fertile ground. Athena McKenzie tours the Scottish city for visions of literary stars past and present.
Moments after arriving in Edinburgh, we have our first Rebus sighting. Amid the cheerful Saturday evening bustle outside Waverley Station, the hanging sign for Fleshmarket Close is dark and ominous. Named for a long-gone meat market, it inspired the title of Ian Rankin's 15th John Rebus novel, in which two skeletons are found buried in a cellar floor in the close (a Scots term for alleyway that perfectly captures its claustrophobic dimensions). Surrounded by selfie-snapping hen parties and raucous fans in the green and white of Edinburgh's Hibernian football club, my boyfriend and I stop to photograph the alley with its ancient stone staircase.
Not far away, at the end of the steep, narrow valley that divides Edinburgh's medieval Old Town from its 18th-century New Town, floodlights illuminate the Waldorf Astoria Caledonian, a luxury former railway hotel. Rebus notes in Rather be the Devil, the latest and 21st appearance by the detective: "Those who'd grown up in Edinburgh knew it as the Caledonian, or 'The Caley.'" The novel begins with a celebratory meal at the hotel's real-life fine-dining restaurant Galvin Brasserie de Luxe.
Edinburgh is a city where readers stumble on connections to and settings from their favourite books. Fans of classics and genre fiction alike have made the city a literary pilgrimage, and its annual book festival in August is the largest of its kind. To recognize and celebrate
Edinburgh's status as a literary pioneer and capital, it was designated the world's first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004.
With so much to take in, we decide on an immersive experience, spending our first full day bookending our Sunday roast with the Book Lovers' Tour and the Literary Pub Tour. Edinburgh's inherent duality in geography and nature—and how that is reflected in its literature—is a recurrent theme on our tours and is perfectly exemplified by the contrasting tones of the tours themselves. The first, led by Allan Foster, author of The Literary Traveller in Edinburgh, is a more traditional excursion and takes visitors through the maze-like back streets of Old Town. The latter is an interactive improvisational performance, where we watch our "guides," Clart and McBrain, two modern barstool philosopher-type characters created for the tour, debate the true nature of Edinburgh's literary past, as we follow them from pub to pub.
With time to spare before our rendezvous with Foster at the Writers' Museum, we aim for coffee at The Elephant House, the cafe near Greyfriars Kirk where J.K. Rowling wrote much of the early Harry Potter books, inspiring writers in coffee shops the world over. (It's said that Rowling found inspiration for many of her characters' names in Greyfriars Kirkyard, the Edinburgh graveyard.) Our aim is off. Old Town is built on a rocky crag, with the castle perched at the top and the main artery, the Royal Mile, leading away from it.
Because of the hilliness, streets we read on our map as crossing are actually above or below one another—I blame jet lag. Suddenly, we're three storeys above our planned route, looking down at the place we need to turn. After puzzling our way through stone alleys and stairways, we know we're getting close when we spot a gaggle of people in robes waving wands, but by then it is time to get to the tour.
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