Literary Giants in Edinburgh

Scott Monument From The Gardens

From romantic novelists to budding sleuths, Edinburgh has been home to a number of legendary scribblers for centuries. So, join us as we take a walk through Edinburgh’s historic streets as we get to know some of these famous faces:

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

Renowned for his historical novels, plays and poetry, Scott is one of the most successful authors of all time and is the second-most quoted writer in the Oxford English Dictionary after William Shakespeare. Blending fictional dialogue with historical fact, he is regarded as having created the historical novel on the publication of Waverley in 1814, the only book in the world to have a train station named after it.

The Scott Monument was erected in his honour in 1846 and dominates the Princes Street skyline.  A climb up its 287 steps is well worth the effort to view the stunning views stretching across the city.

Scott Monument Old And New

Discover more about The Scott Monument>

 

Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir (Duncan Ban MacIntyre) (1724 - 1812)

Plaque To Duncan Ban Macintyre Roxburgh Close Edinburgh

Born in Glen Orchy, Duncan Ban MacIntyre had no formal education, could neither read nor write, yet he became one of Scotland’s most renowned Gaelic poets.

He moved to Edinburgh in 1768 where he joined the City Guard (the police). During his time in the city he composed several prize winning poems and attempted to win the place of Bard to the Highland and Agricultural Society, but narrowly missed out, despite receiving much praise for his poetry.

He was buried in Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Kirkyard and a memorial was erected to his memory several years later. A plaque (pictured) can also be found in Roxburgh Close, where he lived for several years.

 

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

Robert Louis Stevenson

(Image Credit: City of Edinburgh Council - Libraries - Capital Collection)

Robert Louis Stevenson spent nearly 30 years in Edinburgh, living in New Town’s Heriot Row as a child. His father Thomas belonged to a family of engineers who had built many of the deep-sea lighthouses around the rocky coast of Scotland.

Edinburgh featured extensively in his works, including locations such as Parliament Square, Calton Hill and the Mound. It is thought that William Brodie, a respectable Edinburgh tradesman and councillor by day, but housebreaker and thief by night, was the inspiration for Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886)

 

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930)

Sherlock Montage Capital Collection

(Image Credit: City of Edinburgh Council - Libraries - Capital Collection)

It was whilst studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh that Arthur Conan Doyle met surgeon and lecturer Dr Joseph Bell – a master of observation, logic, deduction, and diagnosis, he is thought to be the inspiration for the author’s famous character, Sherlock Holmes.

 

Dame Muriel Spark (1918-2006)

Muriel Spark

(Image Credit: City of Edinburgh Council - Libraries - Capital Collection)

Muriel Spark grew up in Edinburgh’s Bruntsfield Place, attending James Gillespie’s High School for Girls, which inspired the Marcia Blaine School attended by the Brodie set in her famous work, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961).

In 2018, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the author’s birth, the Vennel Steps, a flight of steps off the Grassmarket were re-named The Jean Brodie Steps, in honour of the novel’s title character. The site is one of several prominent Edinburgh locations used for the 1969 Oscar-winning film, which featured Dame Maggie Smith.  Offering unobstructed views of the castle, the steps are today a popular photo location for both local and tourists.

 

Iain Banks (1954-2013)

Edinburgh-based writer, Iain Banks is best known for his debut novel, The Wasp Factory (1984), set on an isolated Scottish island, which became a mainstream success almost overnight.

Many of his novels are set in Scotland, including his 1986 novel The Bridge, which drew inspiration from the Forth Bridge.

 

Irvine Welsh (1958)

Irvine Welsh Collage

With many of his works are written entirely in the Edinburgh Scots dialect, and feature gritty storylines, it’s no surprise that Welsh’s books have taken on a cult-like following.

His most famous book, Trainspotting is set in Edinburgh and was made into a film in 1996.

 

Ian Rankin OBE (1960)

Ianrankin Capital Collection

(Image Credit: City of Edinburgh Council - Libraries - Capital Collection)

We were first introduced to the character Detective Inspector John Rebus in Rankin’s Knots & Crosses in 1987. Since then, we have been captivated by stories of the unorthodox policeman, as he solves murders in Scotland’s capital.  The Rebus series is now translated into twenty-two languages and the books are bestsellers on several continents.

Recipient of numerous literary awards, Rankin received an OBE for services to literature, opting to receive the prize in his home city of Edinburgh. In 2019, he donated his archive of over 50 boxes of manuscripts, letters and paperwork to the National Library of Scotland.

Follow in the footsteps of Ian Rankin's famous detective on the streets of Edinburgh in our Guide to Rebus Film Locations in Edinburgh> 

 

JK Rowling (1965)

Harry P Books

The idea of Harry Potter was conceived by JK Rowling in 1990 while sitting on a delayed train from Manchester to London King’s Cross. Over the next five years, the ideas built up and when she moved to Edinburgh in 1993, she brought with her the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The book was published in June 1997 and the rest was history - the world was captivated by the wizarding world of Hogwarts.

As well as penning some of the world's favourite wizarding stories right here in Edinburgh, several places in Edinburgh are thought to have inspired the tales, from the names on tombs in Greyfriar's Kirkyard to the castle-like George Heriot’s School.

J.K. Rowling has received many honours and awards, including The Edinburgh Award in 2008.

In a lasting legacy to the city, in 2010 she founded the University of Edinburgh’s Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic in memory of her mother, Anne.

Discover more about the Boy Wizard in our Ultimate Harry Potter Guide to Edinburgh> 

 

Alexander McCall Smith CBE (1948)

Alexander Mccall Smith

A prolific writer, Alexander McCall Smith has written and contributed to more than 100 books including specialist academic titles, short story collections, and several children’s books.

His various series of books have been translated into forty-six languages and become bestsellers worldwide. These include the popular 44 Scotland Street novels, which delve into the lives of a quiet Edinburgh neighbourhood and the extraordinary lives of its residents. First published as a serial novel in the Scotsman newspaper, it is now the longest-running serial novel in the world.

 

So, the next time you feel the urge to put pen to paper, remember, in Edinburgh you’re in good company!