Touring Edinburgh For Visions of Literary Stars
Victoria Street is a popular tourist destination in Edinburgh's Old Town containing a mix of independent shops and restaurants. Photo: John Lawson Belhaven/Getty Images
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.
Luckily the Writers’ Museum is nearby, just off the Royal Mile in Makars’ Court, where the slabs are inscribed with quotes from Scottish literature. The museum is dedicated to the works of the poet Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. (Both tours spend time in the atmospheric court, though the pub tour starts at the Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket, where Robert Burns supposedly bet on cockfights.)
Along with Burns’ writing desk and a first edition of Scott’s Waverley—Edinburgh is possibly the only city whose train station is named after a novel—the museum features a wardrobe made by one Deacon Brodie and owned by Stevenson. Brodie, a cabinet maker and city councillor, was executed before a crowd of 40,000 after it was discovered he was also a prolific burglar. Popular belief is that Brodie had a hand in designing the gallows on which he was hanged. Brodie’s double life, bourgeois gentleman by day and conniving criminal by night, is said to be the inspiration for Stevenson’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Brodie lives on in the popular Royal Mile pub that bears his name, and what he represents continues to capture the imagination – during the pub tour, Clart continually espouses Edinburgh’s misbehaving, more indulgent literary past, while McBrain praises the academic and literary side.
“Stevenson was exploring the hypocrisy of the individual and, as Stevenson said, ‘Man is not truly one but truly two.’ But we are not one or the other—we are both. Edinburgh is both,” Clart says.
This duality of the city inspired Rankin to start writing the Rebus series. “What I wanted to do was update the theme of Jekyll and Hyde and show how Edinburgh should have been the setting,” Rankin shared in an earlier interview with Zoomer. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was written by an Edinburgh novelist, but he chose to set it in London. I don’t know why because it’s a very Edinburgh book.”
Rankin figured a cop would be a good way in. “A cop has got access to all these different parts of the city,” he says. “The people with money, the people with no money, the people with influence and power, and the people with no influence and no power. And it was only when the book was first published and it was put on the crime shelf in the bookstores that I realized what I was writing.”
Crime fiction does have deep roots in the city. From the museum, Foster leads us to the University of Edinburgh, where Stevenson attended with another famous student, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Here, Doyle studied to be a doctor under the esteemed Dr. Joseph Bell, an eccentric professor and pioneer of forensic medicine who emphasized the importance of close observations when making medical diagnoses. Bell was known to wear a long coat and a deerstalker cap. Sound familiar? While Doyle never achieved the same acclaim in the medical profession as his celebrated teacher, he did leave a rather significant mark in the writing world. “You probably have the fact that Conan Doyle was a crap doctor to thank for Sherlock Holmes,” Foster cracks in his Scottish brogue.
Though it is off the tour route, Foster suggests any Sherlock pilgrims take the time to visit the statue of the detective at Picardy Place, at Doyle’s birthplace. The house is now demolished, but The Conan Doyle pub nearby is a veritable shrine to the author.
Foster’s tour takes a meandering route to Greyfriars, and the walk is accompanied by stories that cover writers from Peter Pan scribe J.M. Barrie to the prolific Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and neighbour to Ian Rankin.
It’s Rankin we’re looking for when our evening pub tour winds up in New Town, in the warm embrace of Cafe Royale, an ornate drinking establishment with a wooden bar, high ceilings, globe lighting and ceramic art. Rumour has it the author can sometimes be spotted enjoying a pint.