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Issue 24 - Family day out in a city of literature

Scotland Magazine Issue 24
January 2006


This article is 12 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Family day out in a city of literature

Edinburgh is awash with literary references. Kate Patrick planned a family day out

On the day Harry Potter hysteria hit Edinburgh, I took my 13-year-old son Jamie to browse among the city’s antiquarian bookshops, searching for thumbed, mildewed editions of John Buchan’s 39 Steps, Robert Louis Stephenson’s Kidnapped and Conan Doyle’s Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, all of which appeared on a recommended reading list from his Scottish school.

Don’t let me give you the wrong impression: he’s as big a fan of Harry Potter as the next million kids; but the choice of Edinburgh for launch of the latest instalment served to underline the city’s longtime status as a stewpot for writers.

Last October it was even named the world’s first City of Literature by Unesco. Our children perhaps need to know that long before JK Rowling started brewing up her magical stories in a coffee shop, other wordsmiths – Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Conan Doyle and Stephenson among them – had written masterly work here, and that the city itself has played a role in the work of more contemporary authors too.

Take The Da Vinci Code, for example, a book that has sparked new interest in Rosslyn Chapel, which perches at the head of a steep, wooded glen just outside the Edinburgh bypass.

Built in 1446 by William St Clair, descendant of a family of Knights Templar, Rosslyn has long been on the visiting agenda of symbologists, freemasons, grailhunters, pagans, mystics and anyone who’s considering a career in stone-carving. You can also attend an Episcopalian Sunday service or get married here.

But its star part in Dan Brown’s book has now also made it an object for literary tourists. Most years, around 38,000 people visit; but this year, the chapel expects to welcome more than 100,000, all breathing CO2 over its frail stone frame.

To beat the coach parties, and have a hope of getting an uninterrupted photograph, you need to get there when it opens at 9.30. Jamie and I joined a half-day tour run by Timberbush Tours, one of several operators now doing variations on a theme of myth, mystery and why The Da Vinci Code doesn’t quite stack up, although if you go alone, the guidebook written by the Earl of Rosslyn himself is really enough of a guide.

The chapel, currently near-obscured by hefty scaffolding, was enchanting: much smaller and less spooky and weird than I’d imagined; more like stepping into a wedding cake.

Thoughts of whether the caves and crypts under the chapel, or even its exquisite pillars, might one day yield up a holy chalice or cross were superseded by pure astonishment at the skill of the 15th-century stonemasons. Tableaux depicting vice and virtue; Robert the Bruce’s death mask; biblical imagery; battle imagery... William St Clair’s chapel may guard secrets that not even Dan Brown knows for sure, but far more real is the sense that the fruit of his philanthropic patronage is still tangible 600 years later.

Still, Jamie thought he might have a go at Da Vinci, just to see what all the fuss was about.

We returned to Edinburgh via the tiny village of Temple (the fulcrum for Knights Templar lands in Scotland) and headed for the Scotsman Hotel’s North Bridge Brasserie, which occupies what used to be the grand entrance to the building when it housed The Scotsman newspaper.

It was built in 1901 by The Scotsman’s then proprietors, during the ‘Titanic’ era when using the best possible materials and craftsmen was a matter of pride and principle.

In this splendid space, graphic images of Robert Burns decorate the rich wood panelling and columns of green-veined Sicilian Pavonazza marble soar from floor to ceiling: most of the building’s interior was in fact clad in marble, for the simple reason that it would be easier to clean.

After a delicious blueberry and crème fraiche ice cream, we walked to the Scott Monument, the Victorian Gothic memorial to Walter Scott that dominates Princes Street (not least because, despite numerous attempts, it can’t be cleaned, and is therefore blackly reminiscent of the days when Edinburgh really was ‘auld reekie’).

Children tend to be more interested in statistics relating to the monument – 61m high, 287 steps to the top, spectacular, vertiginous, 360 degree views from the top – than in the study of how Scott’s poems and novels revived interest in Scottish history and helped to develop the historical novel as a literary form in the early 19th century.

Ivanhoe and Rob Roy, or the poetry that inspired Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, is a bit beyond the average 13-year-old.

But Jamie did pause from his headlong rush up and down, and up and down the stairs, long enough to listen to some Scott-made-easy facts delivered through headphones in a small chamber.

And it transpired that the memorial’s architect, George Meikle Kemp, was inspired by the buttresses and gargoyles that he had seen at Rosslyn. So if we weren’t much further on with literary appreciation, Jamie was at least taking in some architectural themes.

From there, we climbed up the Mound to Lady Stair’s Close, a typical, narrow passage of the Old Town, in which a restored townhouse of 1622 has been turned into the very civilised Writers’ Museum. Artefacts relating to the life and works of Burns, Scott and Stephenson make up most of the collection here, although the top floor is currently carrying an exhibition of portraits of contemporaries – among them Alexander McCall Smith, Edinburgh-based author of the No1 Ladies Detective Agency series – along with samples of their writing.

More could be made of these, I couldn’t help thinking. Still, if you are even a little bit familiar with some of the work of the main subjects, you will find something of interest here.

Personally I adore the bawdy romanticism of Burns, and could happily have gazed into the eyes of his oil portrait for hours, especially when the soundtrack to Ae Fond Kiss came wafting through the room.

Jamie was more taken with the Stephenson rooms, which told the story of how this great traveller came to leave Edinburgh in his latter years, and become a ‘tusitala,’ or storyteller, in the South Pacific.

Here it was that he wrote Kidnapped: lucky, then, that Jamie and I had snapped up a vintage paperback for £2 earlier in the day.

There was one final pilgrimage to make before we could pass judgement on the United Nations’ City of Literature. It was the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour – which does prefer its younger customers to be at least 14.

However, it was a warm summer’s evening and much of the action was to take place outdoors. A kindly American woman agreed that I needn’t feel too much of a bad mother.

The tour turned out to be a couthy two-hander between two actors, a man and a woman, debating whether some of Edinburgh’s great writers were pub-going, wench-grabbing dissolutes, or civilised pillars of society and propriety.

We started at the old Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket – a haunt of Burns – and worked our way through three others before ending at the Abbotsford in Rose Street, on the edge of the New Town. (Jamie, it’s true, had given up and taken a taxi home by then, possibly sensing that the adults in the party were making less sense than usual.)

The spiel from the actors was most engaging – but again very focused on literary heroes of earlier centuries. If we had taken in the Oxford Bar, for example, we’d have been able to buy Ian Rankin himself a pint.

A day of immersing ourselves in things literary was a day well spent for both mother and son.

I think it’s possible that Jamie took more from it than he would have done sitting behind a desk, albeit at the school that Stephenson went to. But if Edinburgh’s cultural establishment is serious about making the most of being a Unesco City of Literature, it needs to come up with a proper tour, and not expect eager visitors to cobble it together themselves.

Next day, we returned to some of the antiquarian bookshops.

“How do you source your books?” Jamie asked at the Old Town Bookshop.

“From auctions, house sales, sometimes even from the public,” came the reply.

“So I could bring in some of my own?” he suggested. At which point another customer interjected, “You’ll have a collection of JK Rowling first editions, I shouldn’t wonder.” Now there’s a thought.


Scott Monument:
Tel: +44 (0)131 529 4068; .
Open Mon-Sat, 9am-6pm, Sun 10am-6pm.
Admission £3

Rosslyn Chapel:
Open Mon-Sat 9.30am-6pm; Sun noon-4.45.
Adult £6, concs £5, children free

Timberbush Tours:
Tel: +44 (0)131 226 6066;
Half-day Monks, Massacres, Murders, Myths & Mysteries tour £18

Antiquarian bookshops include:
Andrew Pringle Booksellers, 62 West Port,
Tel: +44 (0)131-228 8880);
Peter Bell,
68 West Port,
Tel: +44 (0)131 556 2198;
West Port Books, 145-147 West Port,
Tel: +44 (0)131 229 4431;
The Old Town Bookshop, 8 Victoria Street,
Tel: +44 (0)131 225 9237

North Bridge Brasserie:
Tel: +44 (0)131 622 2900,
set lunch menu £12 for two courses

The Writers’ Museum:
Tel: +44 (0)131 529 4901,,
In Lady Stair’s Close, just off the Royal Mile, is open Mon-Sat 10am-5pm, Sun in August noon-5pm.
Admission free

Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour:
Tel: +44 (0)131 226 6665;
£8 per person

Further information:


Thomas Carlyle:
19th-century historian and essayist was Scots-born, educated at Edinburgh University, but spent most of his life in London. There’s a statue of him in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

JM Barrie:
The author of Peter Pan was born in Scotland and educated at Edinburgh University

James Boswell:
Studied law at Edinburgh, then moved to London, where he met Dr Johnson

Robert Burns:
Scotland’s national poet was popular with Edinburgh society

Arthur Conan Doyle:
Born in Edinburgh, studied medicine, later moved to England. There’s a statue of Sherock Holmes in Picardy Place, Edinburgh

Alexander McCall Smith:
Professor of medical law at Edinburgh University, best known for his detective stories set in Botswana. Most recent novels, 44 Scotland Street and The Sunday Philosophy Club, are set in the New Town

Naomi Mitchison:
Edinburgh-born novelist, known for progressive political views

Thomas de Quincey:
19th-century English writer, who is buried in the graveyard of St Cuthbert’s

Ian Rankin:
The creator of Inspector Rebus

JK Rowling:
The creator of Harry Potter

Sir Walter Scott:
Prolific, Edinburgh born author

Muriel Spark:
Eminent Catholic novelist, wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Robert Louis Stevenson:
Author of Treasure Island and other classics spent most of his early life in Edinburgh

Irvine Welsh:
The author of Trainspotting and other low-life novels. Once described Edinburgh as ‘Shortbread Disneyland.’