Best books about Edinburgh

Illustration: Dan Woodger

While everyone else is Instagramming themselves sipping Negronis on a unicorn float in Majorca, you’re spending your August walking about the cobbled streets of Edinburgh – and with good reason. The festival is one of the greatest theatre and art events in the world.

Scotland's capital also happens to be a book lover's paradise. Designated UNESCO’s first City of Literature in 2004, it boasts the Scott Monument (the second largest memorial to a writer on Earth, fact fans) and an entire museum dedicated to the lives of Scotland’s three most famous authors: Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson (called, funnily enough, the Writers’ Museum).

It’s the city of 'to see her was to love her' and 'the sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy', the place Alexander McCall Smith called a 'so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again' and Ian Rankin simply considers 'a way of life'. 

It's one of the greatest literary destinations on earth, and so with that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of books to make your trip to Auld Reekie that little bit more enchanting.

The Prime of Mrs Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)

Jean Brodie is one of the few post-war fictional characters to have achieved household status, despite – or maybe thanks to – her penchant for fascism and illicit sex.

And if you’ve never actually read Muriel Spark’s 1961 masterpiece, a trip to Edinburgh is less an excuse to do so, than an obligation. It follows a free-thinking schoolteacher who devotes her middle years to her 'gerrils', Mussolini and sexual liberation as she charms her pupils with her radical extra-curricular methods.

'We of Edinburgh owe a lot to the French,' she tells her girls on a visit to the city's Grassmarket, where 'the gay French queen' Mary, Queen of Scots had seditionists executed. 'We are Europeans.'

One can only imagine what she’d have thought of Brexit.

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh (1993)

The 'worst toilet in Scotland' – into which protagonist Renton dives to retrieve the heroin suppository he's just evacuated from his guts – may have involved a little artistic license from Irvine Welsh. But the bookies in which it rotted was very real, and many of the other locations described in Welsh's cult novel are still visitable too, if a little less watch-your-back bleak nowadays (Leith, the suburb where most of the book is set, now boasts two Michelin-starred restaurants).

Written in the late Thatcher era, Trainspotting is a ferocious, poetic portrayal of junkies, hookers, psychos, bigots and social security scam artists living on what's left of their wits. Welsh pulls no punches in exposing the high levels of unemployment, urban decay and drug abuse that plagued the Scottish capital in the 80s.

It reads as fresh today as it did when it became the most iconic British novel of the 90s, shining a corner in Scotland the rest of the country tried to ignore with dark humour and dialectic panache. It's widely considered to be one of the best Scottish novels of the 20th century, and probably the funniest.

Ghostly Tales and Sinister Stories of Old Edinburgh by Alan J. Wilson, Des Brogan and Frank McGrail (1991)

Before you go, Edinburgh would just like to make it clear that it has a lot of experience with ghosts. They haunt its churches and its graveyards, its playhouses, pubs and underground vaults. Ghosts like the Death Coach of the Royal Mile, which glows around the Old Town collecting fresh souls of the departed. Or the Mackenzie Poltergeist who presides over the souls of plague victims buried at Greyfriars Kirkyard.

Or, if you’re very lucky, pop to the loo at the legendary Edinburgh Playhouse where the ghost of Albert the Stagehand might just place a deathly hand upon your shoulder right as you begin to pee.

These are the kind of stories fleshed out in this terrifying book by the three historians who operate Mercat Tours, which has sold goosebumps around Edinburgh since 1984. It also covers the grisly exploits of the city's most infamous villains - Deacon Brodie, Burke and Hare, Major Weir and Agnes Fynnie, among others.

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson (2006)

If you are in town for the Edinburgh Festival, why not enjoy a multi-threaded crime thriller set during the extravaganza itself. One Good Turn, the sequel to Atkinson’s debut thriller Case Histories, features a jostling cast of strangers brought together by an Edinburgh road-rage incident which sets off a wave of murders.

As a crowd of Fringe-goers queue for a show, a Honda driver leaps out and batters a Peugeot driver with a bat. The theatregoers gawp. Is it a 'faux impromptu' immersive experience set to lampoon the media-fed anaesthesia that makes us 'passive voyeurs of violence'? Not likely.

A spaghetti bowl of fraud, lies, adultery and murder ensues, as well as a disturbing journey through the fractures of the human mind. Plus, Atkinson’s observations about Edinburgh are hilarious, if not always completely benign.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1824)

This is the book that gave birth to the psychological novel. And it was a messy birth – all blood and guts and no towel to mop up the outrage (Hogg knew it’d be controversial, so he published it anonymously). It is both a tale of demonic possession and an acid-tongued satire of the religious bigotry that drove the Scottish Reformers of the time.

Their silliest doctrine, Hogg believed, was 'predestination' – the idea that God, when building humans, coded a luck-of-the-draw bug into us to pre-decide who would be saved and who would be damned. It follows Robert Wringhim as he, upon learning he’s one of the saved, sets out to murder as many of the pre-damned as he can, with the help of a shape-shifting evil sidekick (basically Fight Club’s Tyler Durden in breeches).

What follows is murder, mind control and a descent into madness – a rollercoaster with the devil through the streets of 1820s Edinburgh.

Greyfriars Bobby by Eleanor Atkinson (1912)

If you think dogs are no more than little furry thought-vacuums with sad eyes and tickly tummies, then you’ve never read Greyfriars Bobby. It’s a true story about the most faithful dog in the world.

Told from the eponymous pooch’s point of view, it follows the legendary mutt who became a national hero after he stood watch for 14 years over his master's grave in 19th-century Edinburgh.  Atkinson’s classic is rich with luscious descriptions of local landscape as well as the Scottish dialect ('Eh, laddie, I dinna ken what to do wi' ye. We maun juist hae to sleep oot'). By day, Bobby becomes a mascot to the downtrodden have-nots of Edinburgh’s Old Town in their battle against the rapacious landlords and public officials who exploit them. But by night, he returns unfailingly to his master’s grave.

It is a beautiful, original, big-hearted love story that’ll reassert your belief in the canine capacity to make everything OK, no matter how hard it rains in Edinburgh.

The Heart of Mid-Lothian by Walter Scott (1818)

The title of Scott’s magisterial 1818 novel refers to the Old Tolbooth Prison in the city – a place known across Britain as somewhere to avoid at all costs on account of its vile, dehumanising conditions. It’s about a young dairymaid called Jeanie Deans, who walks from Edinburgh to London in a desperate bid to persuade Scotland’s distant Queen to help her sister, who’s been accused of infanticide.

Opening with the Edinburgh riots of 1736, which broke out over the execution of two smugglers and ended with the public lynching of the captain of the City Guard, it is in part a damning social commentary of Scotland’s awkward relationship with English rule in the 1730s and an important slice of Edinburgh history.

But it is also a warm tale of sisterly love, sacrifice and sticking two fingers to The Man in 18th-century Britain. A classic of Edinburgh (and world) literature, The Heart of Mid-Lothian is widely considered to be the finest novel by one of Scotland’s most treasured writers. 

A Life Of Walter Scott by A. N. Wilson (2002)

Poet, historian, scholar, novelist, biographer, anthologist and party planner, Sir Walter Scott remains one of the most important Scotsmen in the country’s history. He was so romantic and well-liked during his lifetime that Lord Byron himself once said he 'longed to get drunk' with him, which is a bit like The Rolling Stones saying that today.

Scott is credited with effectively inventing Scotland’s national image when organising a tartan pageant for the visit of George IV in 1822 – a moment which, more than any other, is thought to have cemented the tradition of Scots wearing Highland dress for big occasions. More than that, he was, according to Wilson, 'the greatest single imaginative genius of the nineteenth century', renowned as the founder of the genre of the historical novel.

This is one of the few biographies of the man that addresses not only his triumphant life (though it foundered on the end into bankruptcy and sadness), but also his phenomenal intellectual output, with contagious enthusiasm. Few books will give you a deeper insight into the life and works of the man who 'invented' modern Scotland. 

And here’s where to read them…

The Scott Monument, Princes Street Gardens

Bill Bryson once described it as like a 'gothic rocket ship', and the nickname has stuck with locals ever since. The 200-foot Victorian masterpiece is the perfect place to read the work of any Edinburgh author, not least Walter himself whose writing changed not just the way the world thought of Scotland, but also what it thought of literature. Climb the 287 steps to the top and look up from your book for the most breathtaking, panoramic views across the city.

The Elephant House, George IV Bridge

The Harry Potter books may not exactly have been set in Edinburgh, but this is the main café in which J. K. Rowling wrote them when surviving on state benefits in the 1990s. As Rowling once said, 'The best writing café is crowded enough to allow you to blend in, but not too crowded that you have to share a table with someone else.' The same could be said for a magical reading experience.

Greyfriars Kirkyard, Greyfriars Place

This is not only a chance to meet the dead of Old Edinburgh, but also Greyfriars Bobby himself, whose statue (actually a fountain, near the main entrance) is the city’s smallest listed building. The dog’s grave is there too, as well as that of many of the city’s most notable figures. Some of the gravestones are said to have inspired one or two of Rowling’s most famous character names, too.

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