Cul­tural Im­mer­sion in Ed­in­burgh

Tour­ing the city of books for vi­sions of lit­er­ary stars past and present

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MO­MENTS af­ter ar­riv­ing in Ed­in­burgh, we have our first Re­bus sight­ing. Amid the cheer­ful Satur­day evening bus­tle out­side Waver­ley Sta­tion, the hang­ing sign for Flesh­mar­ket Close is dark and omi­nous. Named for a long-gone meat mar­ket, it in­spired the ti­tle of Ian Rankin’s 15th John Re­bus novel, in which two skele­tons are found buried in a cel­lar floor in the close (a Scots term for al­ley­way that per­fectly cap­tures its claus­tro­pho­bic di­men­sions). Sur­rounded by selfie-snap­ping hen par­ties and rau­cous fans in the green and white of Ed­in­burgh’s Hiber­nian foot­ball club, my boyfriend and I stop to pho­to­graph the al­ley with its an­cient stone stair­case.

Not far away, at the end of the steep, nar­row val­ley that di­vides Ed­in­burgh’s me­dieval Old Town from its 18th-cen­tury New Town, flood­lights il­lu­mi­nate the Wal­dorf As­to­ria Cale­do­nian, a lux­ury for­mer rail­way ho­tel. Re­bus notes in Rather be the Devil, the lat­est and 21st ap­pear­ance by the de­tec­tive: “Those who’d grown up in Ed­in­burgh knew it as the Cale­do­nian, or ‘The Ca­ley.’” The novel be­gins with a cel­e­bra­tory meal at the ho­tel’s real-life fine-din­ing res­tau­rant Galvin Brasserie de Luxe.

Ed­in­burgh is a city where read­ers stum­ble on con­nec­tions to and set­tings from their favourite books. Fans of clas­sics and genre fic­tion alike have made the city a lit­er­ary pil­grim­age, and its an­nual book fes­ti­val in Au­gust is the largest of its kind. To rec­og­nize and cel­e­brate Ed­in­burgh’s sta­tus as a lit­er­ary pi­o­neer and cap­i­tal, it was des­ig­nated the world’s first UNESCO City of Lit­er­a­ture in 2004.

With so much to take in, we de­cide on an im­mer­sive ex­pe­ri­ence, spend­ing our first full day book­end­ing our Sun­day roast with the Book Lovers’ Tour and the Lit­er­ary Pub Tour. Ed­in­burgh’s in­her­ent du­al­ity in geog­ra­phy and na­ture – and how that is re­flected in its lit­er­a­ture – is a re­cur­rent theme on our tours and is per­fectly ex­em­pli­fied by the con­trast­ing tones of the tours them­selves. The first, led by Al­lan Fos­ter, au­thor of The Lit­er­ary Trav­eller in Ed­in­burgh, is a more tra­di­tional ex­cur­sion and takes visi­tors through the maze-like back streets of Old Town. The lat­ter is an in­ter­ac­tive im­pro­vi­sa­tional per­for­mance, where we watch our “guides,” Clart and McBrain, two mod­ern barstool philoso­pher-type char­ac­ters cre­ated for the tour, de­bate the true na­ture of Ed­in­burgh’s lit­er­ary past, as we fol­low them from pub to pub. With time to spare be­fore our ren­dezvous with Fos­ter at the Writ­ers’ Mu­seum, we aim for cof­fee at The Ele­phant House, the cafe near Greyfri­ars Kirk where J.K. Rowl­ing wrote much of the early Harry Pot­ter books, inspiring writ­ers in cof­fee shops the world over. (It’s said that Rowl­ing found in­spi­ra­tion for many of her char­ac­ters’ names in Greyfri­ars Kirk­yard, the Ed­in­burgh grave­yard.) Our aim is off. Old Town is built on a rocky crag, with the cas­tle perched at the top and the main artery, the Royal Mile, lead­ing away from it. Be­cause of the hilli­ness, streets we read on our map as cross­ing are ac­tu­ally above or be­low one an­other – I blame jet lag. Sud­denly, we’re three storeys above our planned route, look­ing down at the place we need to turn. Af­ter puz­zling our way through stone al­leys and stair­ways, we know we’re get­ting close when we spot a gag­gle of peo­ple in robes wav­ing wands, but by then it is time to get to the tour.

Luck­ily the Writ­ers’ Mu­seum is nearby, just off the Royal Mile in Makars’ Court, where the slabs are in­scribed with quotes from Scot­tish lit­er­a­ture. The mu­seum is ded­i­cat- ed to the works of the poet Robert Burns, Sir Wal­ter Scott and Robert Louis Steven­son. (Both tours spend time in the at­mo­spheric court, though the pub tour starts at the Bee­hive Inn in the Grass­mar­ket, where Robert Burns sup­pos­edly bet on cock­fights.) Along with Burns’ writ­ing desk and a first edition of Scott’s Waver­ley – Ed­in­burgh is pos­si­bly the only city whose train sta­tion is named af­ter a novel – the mu­seum fea­tures a wardrobe made by one Dea­con Brodie and owned by Steven­son. Brodie, a cabi­net maker and city coun­cil­lor, was ex­e­cuted be­fore a crowd of 40,000 af­ter it was dis­cov­ered he was also a pro­lific bur­glar. Pop­u­lar be­lief is that Brodie had a hand in de­sign­ing the gal­lows on which he was hanged. Brodie’s dou­ble life, bour­geois gen­tle­man by day and con­niv­ing crim­i­nal by night, is said to be the in­spi­ra­tion for Steven­son’s novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Brodie lives on in the pop­u­lar Royal Mile pub that bears his name, and what he rep­re­sents con­tin­ues to cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion – dur­ing the pub tour, Clart con­tin­u­ally es­pouses Ed­in­burgh’s mis­be­hav­ing, more in­dul­gent lit­er­ary past, while McBrain praises the aca­demic and lit­er­ary side.

“Steven­son was ex­plor­ing the hypocrisy of the in­di­vid­ual and, as Steven­son said, ‘Man is not truly one but truly two.’ But we are not one or the other – we are both. Ed­in­burgh is both,” Clart says.

This du­al­ity of the city in­spired Rankin to start writ­ing the Re­bus se­ries. “What I wanted to do was up­date the theme of Jekyll and Hyde and show how Ed­in­burgh should have been the

set­ting,” Rankin shared in an ear­lier in­ter­view with Zoomer. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was writ­ten by an Ed­in­burgh nov­el­ist, but he chose to set it in Lon­don. I don’t know why be­cause it’s a very Ed­in­burgh book.”

Rankin fig­ured a cop would be a good way in. “A cop has got ac­cess to all th­ese dif­fer­ent parts of the city,” he says. “The peo­ple with money, the peo­ple with no money, the peo­ple with in­flu­ence and power, and the peo­ple with no in­flu­ence and no power. And it was only when the book was first pub­lished and it was put on the crime shelf in the book­stores that I re­al­ized what I was writ­ing.”

Crime fic­tion does have deep roots in the city. From the mu­seum, Fos­ter leads us to the Univer­sity of Ed­in­burgh, where Steven­son at­tended with an­other fa­mous stu­dent, Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle. Here, Doyle stud­ied to be a doc­tor under the es­teemed Dr. Joseph Bell, an ec­cen­tric pro­fes­sor and pi­o­neer of foren­sic medicine who em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of close ob­ser­va­tions when mak­ing med­i­cal di­ag­noses. Bell was known to wear a long coat and a deer­stalker cap. Sound fa­mil­iar? While Doyle never achieved the same ac­claim in the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion as his cel­e­brated teacher, he did leave a rather sig­nif­i­cant mark in the writ­ing world. “You prob­a­bly have the fact that Co­nan Doyle was a crap doc­tor to thank for Sher­lock Holmes,” Fos­ter cracks in his Scot­tish brogue.

Though it is off the tour route, Fos­ter sug­gests any Sher­lock pil­grims take the time to visit the statue of the de­tec­tive at Pi­cardy Place, at Doyle’s birth­place. The house is now de­mol­ished, but The Co­nan Doyle pub nearby is a ver­i­ta­ble shrine to the au­thor.

Fos­ter’s tour takes a me­an­der­ing route to Greyfri­ars, and the walk is ac­com­pa­nied by sto­ries that cover writ­ers from Peter Pan scribe J.M. Bar­rie to the pro­lific Alexan­der McCall Smith, au­thor of the No. 1 Ladies’ De­tec­tive Agency se­ries and neigh­bour to Ian Rankin. It’s Rankin we’re look­ing for when our evening pub tour winds up in New Town, in the warm em­brace of Cafe Royale, an or­nate drink­ing es­tab­lish­ment with a wooden bar, high ceil­ings, globe light­ing and ce­ramic art. Ru­mour has it the au­thor can some­times be spot­ted en­joy­ing a pint. There’s no Rankin sight­ing on this out­ing, so the next day we head to the ul­ti­mate Re­bus des­ti­na­tion: The Ox­ford Bar. Rankin’s “lo­cal,” it’s used as the ba­sis for Re­bus’s pre­ferred haunt. “A pub like the Ox was about so much more than just the hooch. It was ther­apy and refuge, en­ter­tain- ment and art,” says Re­bus in The Hang­ing Gar­den.

We get our pints and re­treat to the back room, where a few framed photos of Rankin are the only nod to the pub’s fame.

“No sign of our man to­day,” shares a grey-haired woman drink­ing a pint as she folds some newly pur­chased baby clothes. The Ox­ford regulars are used to fans pop­ping in for a poke about.

That a dark and gritty se­ries like Re­bus can in­spire fans to visit its lo­cales might seem strange. As Rankin him­self notes in Re­bus’s Scot­land, “In the early days, re­views wrote of my work that it was un­likely to be rec­om­mended by the lo­cal tourist board.” But the cur­mud­geonly de­tec­tive has achieved iconic sta­tus, with the se­ries sell­ing more than 20 million copies and inspiring two tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tions. This year marks 30 years since Knots & Crosses, the first Re­bus book, and Rankin and his pub­lisher have an­nounced plans to mark the an­niver­sary with Re­busFest, a fes­ti­val of lit­er­a­ture, mu­sic, art and film – cu­rated by Rankin – in Ed­in­burgh at the end of the month and into July.

Co­in­ci­den­tally, 2017 is also the Year of Lit­er­ary Heroes, Visit Bri­tain’s cel­e­bra­tion of all things book­ish ( www.vis­itbri­tain.com), with fes­ti­vals around the U.K. to mark milestones such as the 20th an­niver­sary of the first Harry Pot­ter book, the 200th an­niver­sary of Jane Austen’s death and the 125th an­niver­sary of The Ad­ven­tures of Sher­lock Holmes. Of course, it’s all the perfect op­por­tu­nity to cel­e­brate this lit­er­ary hero, the city of Ed­in­burgh it­self.

On our last evening, walk­ing from the cas­tle down the Royal Mile to­ward Waver­ley Sta­tion, we take a short­cut through the stony con­fines of Flesh­mar­ket Close, stop­ping mid­way for our last Scot­tish pints at Half­way House, which bills it­self as the city’s small­est pub. Two lo­cals, eas­ily in their 80s, sit star­ing at the bar. I re­call in Re­bus’s Scot­land, Rankin shares that some of his favourite de­scrip­tions from his books in­volve bars and peo­ple drink­ing, cit­ing a pas­sage from Knots & Crosses. “Old men sat with half-pint glasses, star­ing emp­tily to­wards the front door.”

Ed­in­burgh is a city where read­ers stum­ble on con­nec­tions to and set­tings from their favourite books. Fans of clas­sics and genre fic­tion alike have made the city a lit­er­ary pil­grim­age

Greyfri­ars Kirk­yard . ROBERT LOUIS STEVEN­SON, CASE. AU­THOR OF STRANGE HYDE. OFDRJEKYLLANDMR Cafe Royale Dea­con Brodie Vic­to­ria Street, Old Town

ARTHUR CO­NAN DOYLE, CRE­ATOR OF SHER­LOCK HOLMES

IAN RANKIN

J.K. ROWL­ING

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