A cartoonish illustration of an open book on whose pages stand several famous Scottish landmarks, a bagpipe player, a Scottish terrier and more, all in blues and whites, like the Scottish flag.
Reading lists

The book lover’s guide to Edinburgh

The month-long Edinburgh Festival is back. Here, Matt Blake suggests a reading list fit for UNESCO’s first City of Literature.

By Matt Blake

It happens most summers: while everyone else is Instagramming themselves sipping Negronis on a unicorn float in Majorca, you’re spending August walking about the cobbled streets of Edinburgh – and with good reason. Its annual Fringe 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 "so beautiful it breaks the heart again and again"; and what 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.

What to read

The Adoption Papers by Jackie Kay (1991)

Not just a poet, playwright and novelist but a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a member of both the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Royal Society of Literature, and Scots Makar from 2016 to 2021, Jackie Kay is about as accomplished – and about as thoroughly Edinburgh – as a writer can be.

She’s won so many awards and published so many books it can be difficult to know where to start with her bibliography; may we suggest her 1991 debut, The Adoption Papers? Kay’s first collection, inspired by the experience of having been adopted and by her experience as a mixed race woman, was an immediate success, winning the Scottish First Book of the Year award in 1992. Kay is a must-read for anybody spending a weekend in the Scottish capital.

...and 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.


Illustration above: Dan Woodger

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more