Time Out - Exhilarating Edinburgh

A city that has inspired some of the world's greatest wordsmiths, fittingly hailed as the first UNESCO City of Literature, and where, you're as likely to bump into an author or his/her muse round every bend… welcome to Edinburgh.

September 03, 2011 04:59 pm | Updated 07:28 pm IST

Poetic: R.L. Stevenson lived here.

Poetic: R.L. Stevenson lived here.

I had never met a real character before, until, that is, I met the lovely Dilly Emslie. Immortalised in Alexander McCall Smith's novels (the 44 Scotland Street series), Dilly commented — just as she does in the books, over a cup of coffee, in Edinburgh's gorgeous New Town — that people assumed her character was entirely fictional because of her unusual name!

And therein, I thought to my-mighty-chuffed-self, walking back home with an all-too wide grin, lies the charm of Edinburgh. This strikingly beautiful city, home to world-famous authors and poets, is simply teeming with references to people and places.

Walk up any mound — which, on a city built on seven hills, is aplenty — and the sight (actually the stiff climb, but never mind) simply takes your breath away. Well, it certainly did ours, the day we set out to explore Calton Hill, recommended by Robert Louis Stevenson, in Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes : “Of all places for a view, this Calton Hill is perhaps the best.”

Barely minutes from the commercial heart of Edinburgh, this pudgy little hill is generously sprinkled with monuments, the sky-line dominated by, famously, a folly, (unfinished model of the Greek Parthenon), and another commemorating Robert Burns, the celebrated Scottish Poet. Downhill, in the middle-distance, as if to offset Princes Street's unexceptional string of chain-stores, the magnificent Scott Monument soars into the sky, much like the works of Sir Walter Scott himself. With a crisp, cold wind flirting with the silvery-white clouds, and mellow sunshine gilding the fortress-like Edinburgh castle, we were, that day, rewarded with rare, sweeping views of Old and New Town Edinburgh. Slashed by narrow, dark, claustrophobic closes, and “spires that puncture the air” (McCall Smith) the Old-town's Gothic starkness was considerably softened by the cheerful New-town, with its airy squares and stately Georgian residences. And it is this shocking dichotomy that is supposed to have, in some ways, inspired R.L. Stevenson to pen his especially macabre tale the Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde .

Stevenson himself was born and educated in Edinburgh, and he lived here, off and on, until he was 29. One of the houses he lived, a majestic Georgian town-house at 17, Heriot Row (now a private residence) still carries a plaque in his memory, on the handsome cast-iron lamp by the red-door. Inscribed with a few lines from the talented poet/ author's The Lamplighter , the words easily invoke an aura of the days when the world functioned by the shaky puddles of light cast by hand-lit street-lamps.

(“And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,

O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!”)

And not very far, was the genteel Scotland Street — with its non-existent door-number 44, peopled by characters that anybody who's visited Edinburgh can identify with — which becomes, almost a minor character in several Alexander McCall Smith books!

Café's and Museums

Marching up the Old-town, after that idyllic romp through the New-town, however, invoked mixed feelings. There was, of course, the million goose-bumps racing up the spine, thrilling at the thought of walking in the footsteps of so very many men and women of letters. But some of the shine was somewhat rubbed off by forbidding place names ( Fleshmarket Close , the setting and title of Ian Rankin's crime thriller, featuring his extremely popular detective, Inspector Rebus) and pubs named after seedy characters ( Deacon Brodie's Tavern ).

And so we hurried to a cheery red café near-by, where the picture window was obscured by dozens of tourists, all pointing the sharp end of the camera at the words “Birthplace of Harry Potter” emblazoned in gold. A visibly star-struck daughter, by then saucer-eyed with excitement, mooned over the sign, even as we walked into “The Elephant House Café”, now, clearly, a shrine to the whole Harry Potter phenomenon. Rowling, we're told, wrote the books in the backroom, and the atmosphere and splendid views (a particularly photogenic view of the castle is directly in the line of vision) invites aspiring writers. People-watching, we discovered, was a popular past-time here, and we too sat and watched a chap writing the old-fashioned way, chewing his pen and frequently glancing up at the castle, as if for inspiration!

Writer's Museum

From there — braced with delightfully fragrant coffee and cakes — it was but a short walk to the Writer's Museum. A tribute to three of Scotland's most famous sons, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and R.L. Stevenson, this wonderfully laid-out museum tells interesting tales of the storytellers themselves. But it was in the basement that the exhibits came alive, thanks to two enthusiastic and highly knowledgeable volunteers — Ian Gardiner and Mitchell Manson, committee members of the R.L.S. Club. Starting with a picture of little Stevenson dressed as a girl (in 1850's, upper classes of Scotland always dressed up little boys as girls to prevent them from being kidnapped, to be chimney-sweeps), and moving on to his life and times in the glorious city, they made me feel, at the end of the tour, that Stevenson was a dear old friend!

I came away, that evening, my head buzzing with words and names, and I couldn't help recalling Alexander McCall Smith's comment (in an essay in The Sunday Times , UK) “If you find yourself in exhilarating surroundings, you work accordingly.” And Edinburgh certainly provided that exhilarating backdrop, didn't she?

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