The West

A novel trip to Edinburgh
A statue of Greyfriars Bobby stands in front of a pub named in honour of the loyal dog. Picture: William Yeoman

I've never read any of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. Nor have I seen the films. They just don't interest me. But I did read and enjoy Rowling's adult novel The Casual Vacancy. So on my first visit to Edinburgh I thought I should at least pay homage to the bestselling author by visiting the Elephant House, the tea-and-coffee house where Rowling wrote much of the early Potter books. It helped to know that one of my favourite Scottish authors, Ian Rankin, had also enjoyed the odd cuppa there.

So yes, I did the tourist thing and got my wife Deborah to take a snap of me standing outside the cafe. Posting it on Facebook didn't earn me any brownie points from literary types, one of whom left this sarcastic comment: "REALLY?" But what the hell.

As it turned out, and despite not being there during the city's acclaimed literary festival, literature was to be a key theme of our short stay in Edinburgh.

After a pleasant and increasingly scenic five-hour train ride from London - the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed was especially pretty - we pulled in at Edinburgh's Waverley Station, named after Sir Walter Scott's 1814 historical novel.

As we made our way to our hotel in Waterloo Place, we looked behind us to see the Scott Monument in Princes Street dominating the New Town skyline.

Having been shown to our spacious suite in the Apex Waterloo Place Hotel, we discovered through reading the hotel's brochure that not only was it Edinburgh's first purpose-built hotel (it opened in 1819), it also housed many famous literary guests through the years, including another favourite of mine, Charles Dickens.

We also discovered that just across the road was the Old Calton Burial Ground, last home to Walter Scott's publisher William Blackwood. A late afternoon stroll through this beautiful cemetery revealed further treasures such as the philosopher David Hume's mausoleum and the Political Martyrs' Monument.

The next day we visited Waterstones in George Street and discovered a section devoted to Scottish authors as well as those who live in Edinburgh, such as York-born Kate Atkinson, one of Deborah's favourites. Many of the books were signed copies; needless to say we didn't leave the store empty-handed.

Crossing North Bridge into the Old Town, we dropped into John Knox House at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. The former home of James Mossman, jeweller, goldsmith and keeper of the Royal Mint and later the religious reformer John Knox, parts of the house date back to 1470, with the bulk of it being built in the 1500s.

I was able to appreciate the beauty of this hidden gem of a building, especially the Oak Room on the top floor, but the main thing I took away from my visit was a bruised forehead from walking into low-hanging beams.

Of course, not all our activities were centred on books and literature. In the two days allotted us we wanted to explore as much as we could of this multifaceted city, with its medieval Old Town and 18th century New Town, its spectacular surrounding countryside enclosing architecture from different centuries that all seems hewn out of a single rock.

In the Old Town there was the Royal Mile and a visit to St Giles Cathedral and the famous castle which overlooks the city. There was the National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street, its architecture as fascinating as its exhibits. There was the Grassmarket, where public executions used to take place. There was Greyfriars Kirkyard, final resting place of many poets but forever linked to the sad tale of Greyfriars Bobby, a dog that guarded the grave of its deceased owner for 14 years before dying in 1872.

In the New Town, designed in the 18th century to relieve overcrowding in the Old Town but also to provide the wealthy with a healthy alternative abode and to put Edinburgh on the map as a modern cultural and economic capital, there was also much to see.

The elegant John Adams- designed buildings of Charlotte Square. The pubs, restaurants, cafes and shops of the pedestrianised Rose Street which runs between Princes Street and George Street. The superb collection in the Scottish National Gallery, which includes masterworks by Van Dyck, Botticelli, Cezanne, Constable, Degas, Goya and Monet as well as paintings by significant Scottish artists such as Sir Henry Raeburn and Alexander Nasmyth.

But the best fun we had did involve literature. OK, and copious amounts of alcohol. Established in 1996, The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour is somewhat of an Edinburgh institution, and we could see why.

We sat in the meeting place for the evening tour, the Grassmarket's Beehive Inn, together with a number of other tourists. Suddenly our tour leaders appeared: two crazy characters (played by Scottish actors) in the form of hard-drinking literary bohemian Clart and snooty literary academic McBrain.

The ensuing vigorous debate got the tour off to a hilarious start before we all stepped out into the light rain to drink our way from the Old Town to the New, stopping in at some of the favourite watering holes, such as the Jolly Judge, of the likes of Robbie Burns, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Boswell, Irvine Welsh and Ian Rankin.

Along the way, Clart and McBrain argued, recited obscene poetry and re-enacted scenes from works such as Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde. And naturally, Deborah and I could not resist the urge to ask one of the actors whether he had appeared in any of the TV adaptations of Rankin's Rebus novels.

"No, but I've been in Taggart a couple of times," he replied. "It was a sad day for Scottish actors when that series was pulled. It kept most of us in work." Priceless.


For more information on the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour, visit

Railbookers offers tailor-made rail holidays throughout the UK. Explore two of the UK's vibrant and diverse capital cities with a six-night holiday to London and Edinburgh; prices start at $995 per person, including accommodation in central hotels with breakfast daily, all train connections and seat reservations. Phone 1300 971 578 or for more details. If you are travelling in 2014 and pay by September 30, 2013, you will receive a 15 per cent discount on the cost of your trip.

William Yeoman was a guest of Singapore Airlines and Railbookers.

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