Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature

10 Jan 2010
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Few people realise that, outside of London, Edinburgh has more literary associations than any other part of Britain.

Almost every well-known literary figure has visited and three of Britain's most successful writers, J.K. Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin, presently live within a mile of each other.

Few people realise that, outside of London, Edinburgh has more literary associations than any other part of Britain. Almost every well-known literary figure has visited and three of Britain's most successful writers, J.K. Rowling, Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin, presently live within a mile of each other.

In October 2004 Edinburgh became the very first UNESCO City of Literature, a well deserved accoloade. The city has inspired over 500 novels, ranging from R.L. Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. Parts of Frankenstein and The Pickwick Papers are also set there. Charles Dickens had strong Edinburgh connections. Kenneth Graham, author of The Wind in the Willows and Arthur Conan Doyle were born in the capital but sought fame and fortune in the south. Compton Mackenzie and Thomas de Quincey spent their last years there though they had no prior connection with the city. Percy Bysshe Shelley came to Edinburgh to be married and William Hazlitt came to be divorced. John Buchan worked for the Edinburgh publishers Thomas Nelson while Walter Scott was for many years an Edinburgh lawyer.

R.M. Ballantyne, who wrote the children's classic Coral Island, was at Edinburgh Academy just before R.L. Stevenson. Rebecca West was educated at George Watson's Ladies College while Ian Fleming's character James Bond was sent to the public school Fettes after an indiscretion with a ladies maid at Eton. 'St Trinians', immortalised in Ronald Searle's cartoons, was based on an Edinburgh school of the same name while, perhaps, the best known Edinburgh novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, was inspired by Muriel Spark's time at James Gillespie's School for Girls. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon were sent to convalesce in Edinburgh during the First World War (the inspiration for Pat Barker's novel Regeneration) where they were visited by Robert Graves.

Other literary visitors to Edinburgh have included W.H. Auden, John Betjeman, Robert Burns, Daniel Defoe, George Eliot, Washington Irving, Henry James, Tobias Smollett, William Thackeray, Oscar Wilde, Evelyn Waugh and William Wordsworth.

Two writers associated with the city, perhaps surprisingly, are Hans Christian Andersen and Jules Verne. Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) visited the city in 1847 where he was entertained widely by, amongst others, James Simpson who discovered chloroform. A plaque marks his stay at 73 East Trinity Road. Verne (1828-1905) is best remembered for Journey to the Centre of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days but he knew Edinburgh well and both Backwards to Britain and The Underground City have numerous Edinburgh scenes.

That sense of the literary past is always present as the city has changed comparatively little during the last two hundred years. The buildings lived in or frequented by writers are therefore still very much as they were.

Many visitors' first experience of the city is when they arrive by rail at Waverley Station (named after Sir Walter Scott's novel) and emerge onto Princes Street. Ahead of them is the Scott Monument and in the distance lies the emotive Edinburgh Castle. The city hosts the world's largest International Book Festival each August and offers several literary walking and bus tours.

Test your knowledge with Scottish Book Character quiz

Find out more about Edinburgh's literary connections:

Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature

Edinburgh International Book Festival

The Writer's Museum, Edinburgh

VisitScotland: Edinburgh's literary history

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