Edinburgh is rich in literary lore

A city that names a soccer team after a novel (The Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott) must be steeped in literary legends, right?

Right — at least for Edinburgh, Scotland.

Scott Monument in Edinburgh
The monument to author Sir Walter Scott. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

Edinburgh has been known as a “City of Letters” since the early 18th century. Quotes by famous Scottish writers are scattered across the city, including on the wall of the Scottish Parliament building. A 200-foot monument to Scott — the world’s largest to a writer — looms over Princes Street across from Jenners department store. A marble statue of Scott (1771-1832) sits at the base and there are 64 other statues of characters from Scott’s historical novels.

It seems impossible that the narrow spires of the 1840s Victorian Gothic Scott Monument contain 287 steps to the top. I climbed up in a narrow, spiral stone stairway made me a bit dizzy. I was rewarded with spectacular 360-degree views of Edinburgh (see photo at top) from the tippity top. If you can’t make it all the way to the top, three platforms along the way also offer incredible vistas.

“I am sorry to report the Scott Monument a failure,” author Charles Dickens said in 1858, according to an information board inside the monument. “It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground.”

The Writers’ Museum on Lady Stair’s Close celebrates Edinburgh’s three best known writers: Scott (Ivanhoe and Rob Roy), Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde). It’s free.

Stairwell  of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh
Slit windows let light inside a stairwell to the top of the Scott Monument. (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

The museum displays their portraits, rare books, letters and other personal items. You’ll see Scott’s pipe and chess set. There’s also Burns’ writing desk and, on the ghoulish side, a plaster cast of his skull. Born of a humble farming family, Burns (1759-96) was called the ‘Heaven-taught ploughman.”

Visitors also will see Stevenson’s snuff boxes, fishing rod, riding boots and the ring given to him by a Samoan chief, engraved with “Tusitala,” or “teller of tales.” Stevenson (1850-94) reportedly was wearing that ring when he died.

Visitors can eat or stay at Stevenson’s former home at 17A Heriot Row. It’s now called Stevenson House. (Note: I did not stay there).

For a more modern literary turn, The Writers’ Museum is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin’s character, Detective Inspector John Rebus. The Rebus30 exhibition, which runs through Jan. 21, 2018, displays some of Rankin’s personal items, such as manuscripts, and explores the relationship between him and Rebus, and both men’s connections with Edinburgh.

“I don’t think the Rebus novels could be set anywhere else – they really are about Edinburgh,” Ian Rankin writes in the exhibition. “I still haven’t got to the bottom of what makes Edinburgh tick or what makes it a unique setting. It just seems to be a place that has influenced writers, and continues to nurture writers.”

The Writers' Museum sign in Edinburgh
Entrance to The Writers’ Museum (Photo by Sheryl Jean)

You can take a Rebus Tours walking tour with readings from Rankin’s books and real Edinburgh locations. Grab a pint at Rebus’s local pub, the Oxford Bar or Milne’s Bar, where a group of poets including Norman MacCaig, Sorley MacLean and George Mackay Brown, used to meet. The Literary Pub Tour is another option.

As you leave town, you might pass through the central train station, which is named for another Scott novel (Waverly).

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