I had seen this view a million times before. In photos. Using the exercise app BitGym while on the treadmill, I’d virtually run this street several times. But none of it compared to actually standing here now. I’d just stepped off the escalator that had taken me out of the train station and deposited me onto the street for my first view of Edinburgh, Scotland, and in front of me was the Sir Walter Scott Monument, rising into the sky and contrasting sharply against the setting sun behind it.
It was a breathtakingly magnificent view! But why was it here? That’s exactly why I’d come to Edinburgh. To find out why author Sir Walter Scott is not only considered the grandfather of the Historical Fiction genre (my favorite genre!), but why is it that Scotland built the largest monument dedicated to a writer in the world, and why is that writer Sir Walter Scott?
I had so many questions! Including, why was the train station I’d just exited named Waverley, after Sir Walter Scott’s first historical fiction trilogy? And why had the station walls and floor been decorated in quotes from the author? And why was the bridge connected to the station called the Waverley bridge? I was pretty sure it wasn’t just because Edinburgh is the first UNESCO World City of Literature, but I was starting to see why the city had earned that title.
I was also starting to wonder if I hadn’t made a mistake in choosing not to stay at the Old Waverley Hotel, which I now saw is considerably closer to the train station than the one I’d chosen. But all these questions would have to wait until morning when I could properly start my exploration of Scott’s Edinburgh. So I dragged my suitcase along the sidewalk, past the Scott monument, and eventually found my hotel which, funny enough, was right next door to a Waterstones Bookstore! Maybe I hadn’t chosen so poorly after all. I had actually learned via social media before arriving in the city that the upstairs cafe of this Waterstones has one of the best views of the castle, but had somehow failed to realize how close my hotel was to the bookstore!
Opening the curtains in my hotel room in the morning, I discovered that I had a stunning view of the castle out my window, but I didn’t have any breakfast. So I made my way back to the Waterstones in the hopes of picking up a couple books I would need for my time in Edinburgh, then sitting down with a cup of breakfast tea and a pastry in the cafe. Unfortunately, the bookstore did not have the books I was looking for and all the window tables in the cafe were already taken. So I opted for plan B…
Topping & Co.
On the opposite side of my hotel was a Starbucks with an equally amazing view of the castle, so like a basic tourist, I popped in there, breakfasted with a view of the castle, then walked a mile to Topping & Co Books (I love that their online site has a catalog of which books they actually have in-store, and I’d checked the night before so I knew the books I wanted were there!). Also Topping & Co has signature bookshelf ladders in all of their stores so I always feel like Belle when looking for books there! I was not at all sad to be walking this mile since Waterstones hadn’t had what I was looking for.
What I was looking for, of course, was a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, but also a pretty little edition of Greyfriars Bobby by Eleanor Atkinson. Both are historical fiction novels that I would be learning about today, neither of which I had read ahead of time (whoops!).
Get your books ahead of your visit to Edinburgh!
Disclosure: These are affiliate links, meaning if you purchase books through these links, I’ll make a few cents at no extra cost to you! And buying books through Bookshop supports independent bookstores!
- Purchase Waverley via Bookshop or Amazon.
- Purchase Greyfriars Bobby via Bookshop or Amazon.
- Purchase the children’s picture book Greyfriars Bobby: A Puppy’s Tale via Bookshop or Amazon.
The Scott Monument
With my new books acquired and stowed in my bag, I let Google Maps lead me back to the Scott Monument. This seemed like the most obvious place to start my education into the background of Scott and why Edinburgh is so obsessed with him.
The Scott Monument website encourages arriving early because the only way to climb the tower steps is by timed guided tours which are first-come-first-serve and only 12 people to a tour. I had made sure to arrive early for the first tour of the day. I paid my 8 pounds then waited to see if anyone else showed up. I had a feeling the lack of people waiting in line today was less due to the early hour and more due to the decidedly rainy day.
With less than 12 people huddled under umbrellas, at the appointed time, our guide opened the gate and let us into the skinny, circular stairwell to begin our climb. We would climb a total of 221 stairs, but we would have a couple breaks along the way. I lost track of how many stairs we climbed to the first landing, but here there was a small room with some benches and displays about Sir Walter Scott. We were invited to step inside to catch our breath, duck out of the rain, and listen to our guide tell us a little about the author.
We were told that Sir Walter Scott’s book Waverley basically remade the image of Scotland in the global view. He single handedly romanticized the Scottish countryside and its people’s way of life. He revived the traditions of speaking the Scottish language and wearing tartans, which had all but disappeared under British rule. And tourism to Scotland increased. Scotland felt so indebted to Scott for essentially putting it on the map, that this monument was erected in his memory.
“Scotland never owed so much to one man.” -Henry Cockburn, 1832
Now that we’d all caught our breath we continued up another skinny, circular stairwell to another landing. While we stopped again to catch our breath, our guide told us about the tower itself. At 61 meters tall, it’s the largest memorial to a writer in the world. We learned that conservators had looked into cleaning the stones which make up the tower and which to this day are black from the time when soot clouds filled Edinburgh. Unfortunately, the oils from the soot are now ingrained in the stones and trying to clean the stones would endanger the structural integrity of the tower! So part of Edinburgh’s industrial history is forever part of the monument.
Finally, we entered the last, and skinniest circular stairwell and climbed up to the last landing open to the public. The monument has about 287 total stairs, but the final stairwell has been deemed too skinny and dangerous to take the public up to the very top. So at 221 steps above the city streets I looked out at a layer of cloud lying low over a rain sodden Edinburgh.
Looking down, the Princes Street Gardens, in which the Scott Monument sits, stretched out below. Apparently during Scott’s time the gardens were privately owned, but Scott was given a key by the proprietors to use the gardens any time he wanted! On one side of the gardens I saw Edinburgh castle and the old part of the city, which I couldn’t wait to explore later. On the other side of the gardens, Edinburgh looked like a modern city. My hotel sat somewhere over on that side.
After a few moments of photo taking it was time to return down the same dizzying stairwells we’d just climbed up.
Just Buy That Royal Mile Tartan
I made my way over to the old part of town next. Coming to Scotland, the only thing I’d known was that I was certain there would be shops full of tartan scarves and other goods. I only guessed this because I thought shops would be trying to cash in on all the Outlander fans looking to dress like their favorite Scottish hero. I soon discovered that Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile was lined with tourist shops all selling tartan scarves.
And you know what? It was pouring rain and I was freezing, so I marched on into one of the shops and bought myself a scarf! But now I knew it wasn’t Outlander, it was Waverley that had originally revived the interest in tartan wearing! So I justified my purchase as just part of the whole literary adventure.
Interestingly, Waverley, like Outlander, is a historical fiction novel based during the time of the Jacobite Uprising in which the main character fights for the losing side. A quick Google search enquiring into comparing the two novels will come up with articles calling Outlander a “gender swapped” Waverley.
The Writers’ Museum
Having already climbed 221 stairs up and down, I was slightly dismayed to discover how hilly Edinburgh is! It’s certainly not for the out-of-shape! I was getting my leg workout in for the day! As I made my way around the old side of the city I found whole streets and alleyways made of stairs! And the old buildings, like the one that houses The Writers’ Museum, are no more accessible than the streets I took to find it! Although I was following Google Maps, I somehow missed the “close”, Edinburgh’s name for their alley ways, in which The Writers’ Museum is hidden, but eventually found it after some backtracking.
The entryway to Lady Stair’s House, which houses the museum, is really more of an opening into yet another skinny circular stairwell. After a welcome sign indicating I had found the correct place, I saw a sign with the name Robert Louis Stevenson and an arrow pointing down the stairwell and another sign with the names Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott and an arrow pointing up.
The museum is free, though it accepts donations, so there’s no front desk at which to start. I decided to explore the authors chronologically, so I headed up the stairs to start with Burns and Scott.
On this day the museum was nice and quiet with few patrons, so I often had a whole room to myself. It was such a difference from the week before during which I’d been touring England with The Enchanted Book Club group tour and rushing through museums. I reveled in being alone and able to take my time here. And it felt warm and cozy compared to the cold and wet outdoors so I had incentive to spend as much time as I wanted learning all I could about the three Scottish authors The Writers’ Museum commemorates.
Drawn by the sound of a country folk tune into a room dedicated to Robert Burns, I learned that “The Ploughman Poet,” who I’d never heard of before, is considered the world’s most famous poet! I was glad I was currently rectifying this gap in my knowledge! He had grown up in an impoverished farming family and used poetry and songwriting as an outlet during the hard physical farm labor. Sadly, he died at age 37! Despite his early death, his works touched many, including inspiring a young Walter Scott!
Sir Walter Scott
With the understanding that Burns had inspired Scott’s nationalistic writing, I moved onto the Scott wing of the museum. I now found myself staring down into a glass case covering a table on which rested a properly old looking first edition of Waverley! I now learned that the book had originally been published anonymously in 1814! Apparently Scott’s writing was so distinctive and well known by then though that many guessed who had written it. The information plaque with the book contained a similar sentiment to what I’d learned at the tower. It said Waverley had rekindled the public’s interest in Scottish history, culture, and language. So this one book had not only interested the world in Scotland, but managed to revive the Scottish’s interest in themselves!
The room also contained a few personal effects from the writer himself. A wooden rocking horse sat on the floor with an information placard explaining that this childhood toy was custom built for the eventual-author with one footrest higher than the other because Scott had a lame leg due to childhood polio! And nearby was the walking cane he’d used later in life. I lingered here for a bit just to stand in the presence of artifacts the author himself had held and used during his lifetime.
The case with the walking stick also contained the grown author’s pipe. Which I presume he’d used during the copious hours he apparently spent learning languages. I was fascinated by what I was learning here. Scott didn’t just love reading, he LOVED reading. He took German lessons so he could better study German poetry and he used the money from his first publications to take Italian lessons so that he could read his favorite Italian poetry in its original language! I thought perhaps all this studying was due to his being lame, but according to what I read here, Scott also led a very active life! I honestly had not expected to discover such an intriguing story behind the individual I had formerly only associated as the author of Ivanhoe.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Finally I returned to the skinny spiral stairwell and made my way downstairs to learn more about Robert Louis Stevenson. My Dad read Treasure Island to me when I was young, so I was a fan of Stevenson, but hadn’t realized he came from Edinburgh! Cold and wet Edinburgh seemed quite far removed from the pirate-filled Carribean with which I associated this author!
After perusing the displays about Stevenson, I got the feeling Edinburgh was trying to claim Stevenson as its own while Stevenson himself had wanted nothing more than to dream his way out of Edinburgh! Although the famous novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is set in London, the museum claimed “the dark closes of Edinburgh’s Old Town” had inspired the setting. And my mind was blown when I learned Stevenson had never been to the South Pacific before writing Treasure Island! The museum claimed it was Stevenson’s experience with the shipping industry in Scotland that had inspired that book!
It seems that Stevenson was often sickly, but near the end of his life, moved to Western Samoa where his health and mood improved. He became known by the locals as “Tusitala”, “The Storyteller.” This information was posted next to a ring in a display case in which you could just see the word “Tusitala” printed on the inside. The info board went on to say that Stevenson is buried in Western Samoa. I made a mental note to add a pilgrimage to his grave to my bucket list. Even if he didn’t write Treasure Island in the place that made the most sense for it to come from, it sounded like a good excuse for a tropical vacation.
As I was scribbling notes in the notebook I’d carried with me during my whole trip so as not to forget interesting facts, I couldn’t help but laugh when I looked up to find another board that mentioned Stevenson had always carried a notebook with him and called it his “book of original nonsense.” I think I would have gotten on well with this author who preferred warmer climes and carried a notebook everywhere!
Greyfriars Bobby – the Statue in the Kirkyard
I had learned a lot about Edinburgh’s literary history today and was ready for a bite to eat while I mulled over all I’d learned, however I had one more stop to make while in the old part of the city. I punched “Greyfriars Kirkyard” into my phone’s Google Maps. If you’ve followed me for a while, you know I can’t pass up a good dog story, especially if there’s a statue of the good boy. So when I learned about Greyfriars Bobby, I knew I had to visit him, or his gravesite anyway.
The story goes, that a little Scottish terrier named Bobby became a well known occupant of the Greyfriars Churchyard because after his master passed away the dog guarded the grave, when he wasn’t going into town to beg for meals, for 15 years until he too passed away. Bizarrely, an American author, Eleanor Atkinson, saw a news story about the dog, and although never having been to Edinburgh, was so taken with the story that she wrote a historical fiction novel in which she embellished the little dog’s story. Today there are children’s picture books based on her novel and the only original biography of the dog is out of print. And there’s a statue of Greyfriars Bobby in the churchyard commemorating the little dog and his story.
I didn’t have too much searching to do when I arrived at Greyfriars Kirkyard. The statue of Bobby is just inside the gates. It was smaller than I expected. And at the base of his tombstone, visitors have left sticks for the little dog! Despite the cold and rainy day, I was warming up to Edinburgh. I love how much literary historical fiction and facts seemed to run together in this city so you’re never quite sure what the real history was but it never seems to matter much.
And speaking of fiction and facts, before leaving the cemetery, I tagged along at the back of a tour group that had just entered the churchyard because I had a feeling they were headed for the other grave I intended to visit. This, of course, was a Harry Potter location tour who had appeared here to visit the grave with the name Tom Riddle on it, which may just possibly have inspired a certain J. K. Rowling.
Greyfriars Bobby – the Pub
Finally, wet, cold, and hungry, I exited the churchyard and headed for a pub I’d seen on the way in, the Greyfriars Bobby pub seemed like an appropriate place for dinner. I secured a table, shrugged out of my soaked coat, ordered and pulled the Greyfriars Bobby book out of my bag. One should always have a book handy when having to eat alone. I briefly wondered what people might think of a girl reading Greyfriars Bobby while eating in Greyfriars Bobby, but was soon lost in Old Edinburgh following a small dog’s antics.
By the time I’d finished eating, my coat was sufficiently dry enough to comfortably put back on and my legs were ready to walk back to my hotel. At the start of the day I’d been debating if I wanted to spend the next day making a day trip out of the city to Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s castle home and now museum. After what I’d learned about him today, I had decided I definitely had to go to Abbotsford! So I headed back to my hotel so I could purchase train and museum tickets for the next day before calling it an early night.
Plan Your Own Visit to Edinburgh
Hotel & Restaurant Suggestions
In planning my visit to Edinburgh, I found the Instagram account @rhona_the_unicorn and her Ultimate Edinburgh Mobile Travel Guide extremely helpful. The guide contains a list of hotels with castle views which is how I chose my hotel, and I also found her restaurant suggestsions helpful for the days I spent in the city.
Phone Data Plan
During my group trip I noticed that only a few of us travelers had phone data plans while traveling, which often meant those without data had to stick around with someone (like me!) that did have Google Maps working on their phone. I highly recommend if you’re planning an international trip to get an eSIM plan via Airalo* if your phone supports eSIMs. It was extremely easy to switch to the travel e-sim while in Britain then switch back to my normal sim when I returned to the US.
*Disclosure: This is an affiliate link. If you purchase a plan through Airalo, I will make a few cents at no extra cost to you!
Edinburgh Literary Locations Map
This map only contains the sights mentioned in the post above. There are of course many more locations that I simply didn’t have time to see during this visit!
- Waverley Train Station
- Scott Monument
- The Writers’ Museum
- Greyfriars Bobby Statue
- Greyfriars Bobby Pub
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