“Literary Edinburgh is to ‘wurrdaholics’ what Scotch is to alcoholics,” our guide Angus says, his blue eyes twinkling, ‘tis intoxicating and addictive.”
An observation that would likely have been echoed by the literary giants who lived and worked in Scotland’s most populous city.
It’s been said that Edinburgh is as much a character as it is a city.
It looks out at the world with eyes that have seen days of joy and nights of passion. Its face has been weathered by time and experience. It has carried on its shoulders the weight of its people’s history and traditions.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, J.M. Barrie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, all lived here and drew their inspiration from the adventurers who tarried here for a season, from the women who inspired them and the villains who skulked in dark corners of city byways.
It has captured the imagination of contemporary novelists too — Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus hounds criminals who lurk in the murky depths of the city and although J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter tales aren’t set in Edinburgh, this is where she wrote and completed the series that took the world by storm.
Along with guide Angus, I decide to walk in the footsteps of literary fame for a day, while exploring the Royal Mile — a historic street that runs from Hollyrood Palace to Edinburgh Castle; a road whose very stones resonate with tales of romance and intrigue.
Small enclosures known as “closes” lead off the main street — each with their own stories, their own secrets.
In Anchor Close, I cock my ear trying to catch the clatter of a printer echoing down the centuries as the first edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica rolls off the presses.
At Boswell’s Court Close, (now the Witchery restaurant) I wonder what Dr. Samuel Johnson would have chatted about while dining with his biographer James Boswell.
Would Robbie Burns who once lived in Baxter’s (Baker’s) Close have downed a wee dram or two at nearby Deacon Brodie’s tavern?
And what mission was Daniel Defoe on when he worked as a secret agent for the British, in a room at Fishmarket Close?
Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns are literary icons. But what did they actually look like?
To find out, we visit the Writers’ museum in the 17th century building known as Lady Stair’s House.
The young Sir Walter, is soft-featured and dimple-chinned; Stevenson has a narrow, clever face, with a droopy moustache, and Robbie B. — ever the darling Scottish bard — is a dashing
young dude. I see why his romantic dalliances set the ladies’ hearts a-flutter.
The museum is a treasure house of manuscripts, first editions and letters deserving of at least three hours browsing time.
Among some bizarre, but true, oral tales set along the Royal Mile, is the story of Deacon Brodie who lived in Brodie’s Close. Brodie was, by day, a pious, well-respected citizen and city counsellor; by night, however, he was a womanizer, gambler and thief.
“He was eventually caught, and given what you might call a suspended sentence,” says Angus.
“That is, he was suspended from a hangman’s noose on the city’s gallows.”
Deacon Brodie has however, achieved immortality. He was the inspiration for R.L. Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
With time whizzing by, I pay a quick visit to the Elephant Cafe, unimpressive but for its claim to fame as one of the places where Rowling wrote the early Harry Potter stories.
It is filled with students and tourists and a noisy babble of conversation.
Leaving the world of books aside for the moment, I pay a visit to an endearing hero — not a literary icon, but one who has captured the hearts of Edinburgh’s citizens for over a century — Greyfriars Bobby, the little Skye terrier that was inseparable from his master John Grey.
After Grey’s death, the dog was often seen keeping vigil over his master’s grave at the Greyfriar’s Kirk yard for 14 years until his own death in 1872.
Edinburgh’s vitality is like oxygen in the bloodstream, a rush of images, places, lives and dreams.
It’s mesmerizing and compelling and just as Angus says, intoxicating and addictive.
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