Thursday, September 23, 2010

Literary-Soaked Edinburgh

Sipping a latté in Elephant House, the coffee shop where a destitute J.K. Rowling penned her first Harry Potter novel, I realized I had gone astray. Scotch whisky had lured me to Edinburgh, but instead I found myself immersed in literature.

Everywhere I found reminders that Scots love stories, and began to understand why, in 2004, Edinburgh was selected as the first UNESCO City of Literature. Only three other cities (Melbourne, Iowa City, Dublin) have gained this distinction, which recognizes publishing, writing, festivals and encouragement of the written word.

Meandering through Old Town along the Royal Mile that joins Edinburgh Castle with the Palace of Holyroodhouse, I stumbled upon the Writers Museum, a cozy rambling old house accessed via a medieval close or laneway. The Museum celebrates Adam Scott (The Wealth of Nations), Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Robbie Burns (Auld Lang Syne, Scots Wha Hae), who is widely regarded as Scotland’s national poet. Portraits of the authors gazed down from the walls, dusty original manuscripts peered up from glass cases as I learned how these gentlemen lived and wrote. I hoped that some of their talent would rub off on me.

Piercing the skyline to the north, and a constant reminder of Edinburgh’s literary heritage, is an ornate Victorian Gothic statue commemorating Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe, Lady of the Lake). Known affectionately as Edinburgh’s Rocket, it is the world’s tallest statue to honour an author.

Farther down the street I came upon the Scottish Storytelling Centre, where “the story is told eye to eye, mind to mind and heart to heart.” The Centre celebrates Scotland’s strong oral tradition. The curator described the long list of events they host and how the Centre is integrated with other story-telling venues and events throughout the city. My favorite event was Tall Tales Oscar, where the silliest yarns are told with deadpan or surrealistic conviction.

For lunch, I savoured an ale and a dram at the Oxford Bar, the pub of choice for the gruff Inspector Rebus in Ian Rankin’s internationally acclaimed murder mysteries.

At the Scottish National Library I was led into the stacks. Amazingly, the international Dewey Decimal System of organizing books is shunned. Instead, books are shelved by size! A Library official explained, “We reorganized and saved five kilometres of shelving.”

That evening, nursing a nip of smooth, peaty single-malt, I day-dreamed about returning in August for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the biggest celebration of books and the written word in the world. Authors range from up-and-comers to Nobel-prize winners and have included Margaret Atwood, J.K. Rowling, Al Gore, John Irving, Salman Rushdie and more. Perhaps it was the quality (or quantity?) of whisky, but I pictured myself at the Festival reading to a mesmerized audience from one of my books.

Previously, I had thought that Scottish literature consisted of quoting Robbie Burns in a dusky pub. But now I realize literature permeates the very soul of Scotland — and nowhere more than in Edinburgh.

If You go
Scotland info:
Edinburgh info:
Edinburgh International book Festival:
Scotch Whisky Experience:

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