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Edinburgh: Literary Wandering

What do Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, JK Rowling and Matt Masson all have in common? They are all writers who were inspired by the cobbled streets of Edinburgh. A chilly, early-November weekend was all it took to get Matt’s literary juices flowing. 

I fell into journalism; quite literally. A 26-foot fall on a drunken

night-out in 2010 slammed the brakes on my career as a

water sports instructor. I was never a writer, but when a

brain-injury meant I couldn’t continue coaching sport, I started a

sports journalism degree to learn how to write about it. Now, in

the final year of the course, I’ve come to the very first

UNESCO city of literature to give my own writing a little polish.

I am actually writing this article in, the Elephant House,

‘The birth place of Harry Potter’.  My laptop is currently

perched on one of the tables on which JK Rowling actually wrote

the early stories about that little wizard.

Kaya –the manager- informs me that the ‘only difference’ is

Ms Rowling used to have a cup of coffee and a slice of cake, whereas I’m sat here with a green tea and an apple, I’m not sure why she’s laughing. 


I have never read the Harry Potter books or seen the films, but I’m hoping that there is still some magic left in this room.  The clickety-clack of keyboards around me tells me that I’m not the only person with that hope. Kaya understands the attraction for would-be authors: “We get a lot of writers in here. I don’t think they’re trying to be the new JK Rowling, I think its just the spirit and atmosphere, it makes sense to me.”


Even as a rookie-travel-journalist, I know that I cannot write an entire travel article all about one room in a city. But before I leave I am drawn to the only writer in the room who is actually writing –with an actual pencil. The young blonde-haired lady is only too happy to chat. Luisa is a Catalan-native who is studying Occupational Therapy at The University of Edinburgh. She is writing a fantasy novel, that I am assured is not inspired by any wizards. When I ask why she opts for the HB over the HP, she explains —in a thick Catalan accent. 


“When you use a computer, you type faster than you can think. I always hand-write my books. It does take longer but it allows for a much smoother process.” I nod sheepishly as I type my notes —admittedly very slowly—on my own laptop. 


Where do you go to learn about books and authors? Luisa gives me directions to the Central library, where I will find the Edinburgh room, that seemed the obvious starting-point for my literary journey. A short walk past Greyfriars Kirkyard –the cemetery where Rowling took a number of names from the gravestones for characters in the Potter series. Past Greyfriars Bobby, a small statue of a terrier. Bobby became known in the mid-19thcentury as he supposedly spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner in the kirkyard. This is just one, of the many, stories that lie around every corner of the cobbled streets of the old town.


I reach an imposing grey stone building. The Edinburgh Central Library first opened in 1890, it was the first public library building in the city. The grand –almost antique—exterior contrasts with the clean modern rooms and the rows of computers on clean metallic desks, surrounded by hundreds of neatly organised books.


I make my way downstairs into a seemingly by-gone era, There are no computers here, just hundreds of dusty bookshelves. A short, balding man sits behind the desk in the Edinburgh room. I manage to catch his eye –through the thick lens of his glasses—in one of the rare moments that they are not scanning the pages of the book he is reading. He reluctantly pauses to answer some questions.


 Shaun Stit —the Library Advisor— is unsurprisingly knowledgeable about the history of writers in the Scottish capital.  

“Firstly, it’s a centre of publishing, so there are many publishing houses and they need something to publish. Secondly, it’s a centre of learning. For example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr Jekyll  (Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) was actually based on one of his lecturers. So there are lots of medical mysteries. It’s a centre of law so you have lots of murders and crimes reported in the city, so there was a lot of raw material for murder mysteries”


When I told him that I could not see myself writing about crime, “More sports or travel thanks” his eyes lit up as he had a brainwave,  “Of all places for a view, this Calton Hill is perhaps the best”, that’s one of Stevenson’s famous quotes, and for sport; you can see Easter Road (Hibernian’s football stadium) from the top.”


I thanked him for all the information and, armed with a crudely drawn map on a bookmark, I started the ‘short walk’ to Calton Hill. Now for a travel-writer I have an appalling sense of direction, but I see this as a positive, I would rather interact with a local than Google Maps. The average Edinburgh local is full of different facts and suggestions about their city. While I am just checking, for the seventh time, where this ‘massive hill’ is, one particularly grizzly Scotsman tells me that, “As a tourist, you have to try a battered Mars Bar from Café Piccante. The locals don’t eat ‘em, but the tourists seem to think they’re important.”


I make a mental note and commence the final approach to the hill that my new friend tells me is actually an extinct volcano. It is a crisp and crystal-clear day, ideal for this famous view. As I commence the climb up Calton Hill, I spot a lonely busker who is having a cigarette-break as he tunes his guitar. Maybe he uses the Hill for inspiration when he is writing his songs.


                                                                                             After a short trip to the summit I am greeted with ‘nice’ views of the city,                                                                                                the castle, Easter Road stadium and The Water of Leith View, nothing                                                                                                      spectacular but a pleasant view.  


                                                                                             I was not necessarily inspired by the view, nor by any individual thing or                                                                                                    experience in Edinburgh. Kaja, in the Elephant House, had really captured                                                                                              the essence when she said, “it’s just the spirit and atmosphere”, and it now                                                                                              made perfect sense to me.


                                                                                              Just call me JK Masson.

Me and Greyfriars Bobby, both looking a bit worse for wear!

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