Of all the literary associations that Edinburgh has - which helped earn its status as the world's first UNESCO City of Literature - one of the contemporary writers who still lives in the city is Sir Ian Rankin, creator of the Inspector Rebus series of detective stories.
In 2007 Rankin was the inaugural recipient of the annual Edinburgh Award, given by the city to a resident who has "made a positive impact on the city and gained national and international recognition for Edinburgh" - his handprints can be found outside the City Chambers on the High Street.
Edinburgh is no stranger to crime fiction, with figures like Arthur Conan Doyle, born in the city and best known for creating possibly the world's most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. But Rankin more explicitly takes his inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson in exploring the mismatch between Edinburgh's genteel surface and its grimy underworld - the Rebus stories often feature Edinburgh locations as the backdrop to various grisly events, along with utilising significant events and figures from Edinburgh's history to give local flavour to the writing.
Here's my pick of just a few of the city centre settings found in Ian Rankin's books, to help you explore the city in the footsteps of Inspector John Rebus himself.
A terraced street of tenement properties in the suburb of Marchmont, Arden Street is where Rankin was living in 1987, and where he imagined Rebus living in the building directly opposite his as he sat writing the early drafts of the first book.
Arden Street features as a setting both in that story, Knots and Crosses, as well as in flashback in A Song for the Dark Times, the twenty-third title in the series, and is just a short walk from where Conan Doyle himself used to live, on Argyle Park Terrace near the Meadows.
ARTHUR'S SEAT COFFINS
A collection of mysterious wooden dolls, discovered on Arthur's Seat in the 1860s, features in Rankin's twelfth Rebus story, The Falls.
The dolls are historical fact, and can still be viewed - along with prop versions which were made for the TV adaptation of the Rebus story - at the National Museum of Scotland.
A five-star hotel in Edinburgh's New Town, the Caledonian was originally a railway station before being converted into a hotel.
Built from distinctive red sandstone, sourced from the west coast - in contrast with Edinburgh's yellow local stone - the building was built by the Caledonian rail company and served as Princes Street Station, finally closing in 1965.
It features at the beginning of Rather Be the Devil, the twenty-first Rebus novel, published in 2016.
Today a museum complex, Surgeons' Hall was designed by the architect William Playfair and features in Rebus's investigation in The Falls.
The story finds Rebus tracing historical clues related to the serial killers Burke and Hare...
The building itself was the location for the Surgeons' Hall Riot of 1870, one of several high-profile social uprisings in the city.
THE OXFORD BAR
The early novels had seen Rankin create fictionalised settings for his characters, including a variety of local bars where John Rebus consumed a less-than-healthy quantity of whisky and beer.
Later, Rankin realised he needn't go to the trouble of creating fictional locations, when Edinburgh had a good variety of real-life spaces that he could use instead! And so he began putting Rebus into the Oxford Bar in the New Town, known as the Ox, where Rankin himself continues to drink.
The bar remains a popular local, and is decidedly not a tourist bar... Rebus fans may enter if they dare!
ST LEONARD'S POLICE STATION
From the fifth Rebus novel - The Black Book - John Rebus is working out of the police station at St Leonard's, on the southside of the city.
Although St Leonard's is a real place (backing onto Arthur's Seat) it's not necessarily somewhere worthy of visitor attention - unless you're being detained by Police Scotland, of course!
GAYFIELD SQUARE POLICE STATION
Another real-life police station at the top of Leith Walk, to the east of the city centre. Gayfield Square is where DI Siobhan Clarke is working in Saints of the Shadow Bible, the nineteenth Rebus story.
Having previously featured as a location in Alfred Hitchcock's film versions of John Buchan's The 39 Steps, the Forth Bridge, just outside of the city, is the site of the discovery of a body in Rankin's The Black Book, from 1993.
The bridge was built in the 1890s, and is the most recently listed of Scotland's six UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Sometime home of Rebus's nemesis, gangster Gerry Cafferty, Duddingston is a small historic village on the south-eastern side of Arthur's Seat.
The Duddingston kirk is a twelfth century house of worship which remains active, and the Sheep Heid pub has solid claims to being the oldest pub in Scotland.
It may be decidedly tricky to imagine 'Big Ger' Cafferty, one of Scotland's meanest gangsters, living on these quiet cobbled streets, but possibly that was Rankin's point...
MARY KING'S CLOSE
Today a popular underground visitor attraction, at the time that Rankin wrote the sixth Rebus novel - Mortal Causes - Mary King's Close was still a space that could only be accessed by prior arrangement with Edinburgh Council, under whose City Chambers the old street lies. (The setting is right next to where Rankin's Edinburgh Award handprints can be found.)
It's here that the body of a torture victim is found at the start of the story - and where Rebus finds it surprisingly easy to park, even during the summer's festival season...
The eleventh Rebus story, Set in Darkness, features a plot centring on the proposed location of the new Scottish Parliament building, and involves a murder victim being discovered in Queensberry House, a historic property that became part of the modern parliament.
Queensberry House has its own disturbing and gruesome history, dating from the time of the union with England in 1707, when it was allegedly the site of an act of murder and cannibalism - both par for the course in modern politics...!
The only feature of Edinburgh which gives its name directly to a Rebus novel - Fleshmarket Close is Rankin's fifteenth title, published in 2004.
Fleshmarket Close is one of the characteristic narrow alleys - the closes and wynds - of the Old Town which connects the Royal Mile to Market Street.
The defining feature of Edinburgh - and the location which helps give the city its name - is the site of an apparent suicide in The Naming of the Dead.
Seen here viewed from...
KING'S STABLES ROAD
A road I often take groups down, not because it's especially attractive but because it's a good link between the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh. King's Stables Road is the site of a brutal attack which ends in the death of a character in Exit Music, the book which sees Rebus retired from the police (the first time, from 2007).
There are plenty of other references to Edinburgh landmarks and locations in Rankin's Inspector Rebus stories, along with semi-fictionalised settings and places which have never existed on any map. Rankin himself continues to live in Edinburgh, in the Morningside area, and the most recent Rebus novel, published in 2022, brings the inspector bang up to date with a case set during the Covid-19 pandemic.
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Continuing my occasional series looking at some of the particular features of Edinburgh's graveyards and burial grounds (part I, part II, part III) - this entry focuses on one grave in particular. It's known locally as the grave of the three Roberts - but I'm going to make the case for why I think that's numerically inaccurate, and why at least one more Robert should be associated with it...
The grave is in the Canongate Kirkyard, one of the five major burial grounds within Edinburgh's UNESCO World Heritage Site. You'll find it to the left hand side of the Canongate kirk, under a cherry tree, and with roses growing in front of it.
Here's the story of its three (or more) Roberts...
THE FIRST ROBERT
The first Robert associated with the grave is the one actually buried in it. Robert Fergusson was a young poet, born in Edinburgh on 5 September 1750. He was educated at St Andrews University and by 1768, at the age of 18, was back in Edinburgh and responsible for looking after his mother, following the death of his father.
Mixing with the social classes of Edinburgh at that time, Fergusson found favour with actor and theatre manager William Woods who gave him regular access to the Edinburgh's theatres, and the attendant community of writers and poets who plied their trade in the Old Town.
Fergusson began contributing satirical poems to the Weekly Review, and acquired a reputation for his use of Scots, the language of Scotland which had fallen out of favour during the middle of the eighteenth century. By 1773 he had published his first collection, in an edition of 500 copies which rapidly sold out.
During 1774 Fergusson fell into a melancholic state, experiencing what we might today recognise as symptoms of severe depression, and his writing became similarly maudlin. Whether it was merely fear or a premonition, he began to obsess about the prospect of dying in an asylum, after hearing about (and writing a poem for) the poet John Cunningham who had died in a Newcastle hospital in 1773.
Perhaps Fergusson turned to alcohol as a means of alleviating the symptoms or the experience of his illness, as he was believed to have got drunk one evening and fallen down one of the staircases of Edinburgh's Old Town. In the process he suffered a brain injury which saw him taken to Darien House, which was the official name of the city's asylum... The building stood near where the Bedlam Theatre building is today - the name of the theatre taken from the Bethlehem Hospitals for the insane, which gives us the meaning of bedlam (for disordered or chaotic).
It was at the asylum that Fergusson died, on 16 October 1774. He was just 24 years old.
THE SECOND ROBERT
The second Robert associated with the grave is Robert Burns, who at the time that Fergusson was writing was beginning to write poetry himself. He was writing in English originally, but was inspired by Fergusson's writing to experiment in Scots - the language had a different meter, a different rhythm, more musicality...
Robert Burns would later become celebrated as the national poet of Scotland, and is today one of the most iconic Scots figures with global recognition of his work. There are more statues of Robert Burns around the world than any other writer except William Shakespeare.
After Fergusson's death Burns was always keen to ensure that people knew he was only a poet because of Fergusson's influence. He never tried to deny the impact Fergusson's writing had had on his own, and modern scholars have even suggested that Fergusson may have developed into a better poet even than Burns - what Fergusson was writing in his twenties was at least as good as what Burns was writing by the time he died.
So if he had lived, today we might have been celebrating Robert Fergusson as Scotland's national poet, instead of Robert Burns...
Thirteen years after Fergusson's death Burns commissioned a stone to mark the site of Fergusson's burial, which had originally been an unmarked grave in the Canongate kirkyard, and he wrote the four line epitaph on the grave stone itself.
THE THIRD ROBERT
The third Robert associated with the grave is Robert Louis Stevenson, another writer who was born in Edinburgh and used the city as inspiration for much of his own writing.
Born in 1850, a full century after Fergusson, Stevenson grew up in the New Town and would have been reading Fergusson's poems with the hindsight of knowing about the full panoply of writers and artists who had been influenced by Fergusson's use of Scots language.
Stevenson especially felt kinship with Fergusson's experiences of physical and mental illness, and in a letter sent in April 1891 he wrote:
"Ah! what bonds we have – born in the same city; both sickly, […] wearing shoe-leather on the same ancient stones, under the same pends, down the same closes [...] Command me to do [...] so that another monument (after Burns’s) be set up to my unhappy predecessor on the causey of Auld Reekie. You will never know, nor will any man, how deep this feeling is: I believe Fergusson lives in me."
Sadly Stevenson would die before he was able to make the memorial to Fergusson, his namesake predecessor with whom he felt such a strong connection. But a plaque at the grave today describes Stevenson's intentions, helping to give the grave its moniker - the grave of the three Roberts.
However, at least two other Roberts linked to the grave deserve mention, too!
THE FOURTH ROBERT
The fourth Robert is the architect Robert Burn (father of William Burn), who was commissioned by Robert Burns to create the original grave stone for Fergusson's burial site.
At that time, Robert Burn was starting out as an architect, and it's not clear why Burns chose him over the many other stonemasons and artisan builders in the city at that time - nor is it apparent why it took Burn two years to produce the grave stones that Burns had commissioned!
Later Burn would produce the Nelson Monument at the top of Calton Hill, visible from Fergusson's grave, and possibly he considered producing a few stones for a dead poet to be a bit beneath him.
Regardless, when Robert Burns received the bill for it he sat on it for two years, before writing a letter suggesting that as it had taken two years for Burn to produce the stones, and as he had spent two years withholding payment for the work, perhaps they could consider the matter settled...!
THE FIFTH ROBERT
Yet another Robert has a link to Fergusson's grave. Because the stone which stands today is not the original stone - it is a replacement which was installed in 1850.
The renovation of the original stone was organised by a local man named Robert Gilfillan. Like Burns he was also a member of the Freemasons, and was a songwriter, as well as contributing various writings to local magazines like Blackwoods.
Gilfillan led the collection of public funds to pay for the replacement stone on Fergusson's grave, and died just a few months after the work was undertaken, in December 1850. (It's worth noting that the stone from 1850 records Robert Fergusson's date of birth incorrectly - he was born in 1750, not 1751 as the stone indicates.)
So there you have it! Edinburgh's grave of the three Roberts, which actually has at least five Roberts associated with it...
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It could be my favourite structure in Edinburgh. Standing just over 200ft (61m) high, and known as the Gothic Rocket, the Scott Monument is often mistaken for a church - understandably, perhaps - and dominates the view of the eastern section of New Town along Princes Street.
The monument was commissioned following the death of Sir Walter Scott in 1832. At the time he was probably the most widely read British author of the era, with books like Rob Roy and Ivanhoe having become instant classics for readers across the UK, Europe and North America.
Scott is credited with inventing the historical novel, using a combination of fact and fiction - reality filtered through imagination - to tell stories about Scotland's people, history and landscape. Having published the works anonymously at first with his first novel Waverley in 1814, and then using the pseudonymous 'by the author of Waverley' for subsequent books, he only publicly acknowledged that he was the author in question sometime later (and, it is said, at the encouragement of his friend Catherine Sinclair).
A public consultation was held to receive applications for a monument in Scott's honour - the three best designs would win a cash prize of 50 guineas, and the winning entry would be built. Fifty four entries were received in the competition, and the winning design was one submitted under the name John Morvo. Morvo was a French architect who had built Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders.... except by 1832 he'd been dead the best part of a thousand years!
It was revealed that the competition entry had been drawn up by a man named George Meikle Kemp - he wasn't an architect, and didn't have any formal training in the field. He had previously been employed by the architect William Burn as a draughtsman, and had sought to be employed as an architect on a number of building projects in Glasgow and in the Scottish Borders, but no design job ever came to fruition because of his lack of training.
Kemp revised his winning entry, and in 1838 it was confirmed that his design for a monument celebrating Walter Scott would be built in Princes Street Gardens, in Edinburgh's New Town. Construction started in 1840, with the foundation stone for the monument laid on 15 August - what would have been Scott's 69th birthday.
The Scott Monument is built of Binnie sandstone which was quarried in West Lothian. The stone was chosen because the quarry which produced it had a plentiful supply (and a lot would be needed!) but also because it was an especially oily form of sandstone, which would attract dirt and dust to the surface of the monument.
To a modern eye the building seems dirty and discoloured - even though it had an extensive clean just over a decade ago - but it is likely that the colouring of the structure today is at least partly what Kemp wanted; instead of looking new and clean, the monument would look dirty and old, which fitted with its Gothic styling and with Scott's tendency to create historical works which were in some ways exaggerated or heightened versions of Scottish history.
By early 1844 the monument was nearing completion. And then on 6 March of that year Kemp vanished after walking home from a meeting with the head builder. His body would be found five days later in the Union Canal - the circumstances which led up to his death were never fully established, and it's possible he simply stumbled and fell into the water and drowned before anyone realised he'd had an accident.
George Meikle Kemp would never see his monument to Walter Scott completed. At the time he had only just over £200 to his name, and although there was a great outpouring of grief and his funeral was well attended, his family struggled financially in the years after his death. He was buried in St Cuthbert's churchyard.
Construction of the monument was completed in the autumn of 1844, when Kemp's son - Thomas, aged just 10 years old - oversaw the placing of the final stone. It was estimated that 23 masons died during the construction project, of illnesses related to the inhalation of stone dust and its effects on their lungs. Thomas Kemp himself would die in 1853.
As well as featuring a marble likeness of Walter Scott himself - produced by John Steell, and featuring the author along with his favourite dog, named Maida - the Scott Monument features 68 figurines based on characters from Scott's books. These include fictional characters as well as those based on historical figures, such as Mary, Queen of Scots, George Heriot, Robert the Bruce, and John Knox. Different artists were responsible for the individual carvings, including John Hutchison, Amelia Hill, William Brodie and John Rhind.
Visitors to the monument can still climb the 287 steps up to the four viewing platforms, including the highest 'crows' nest' outlook point at the top of the monument - the view across the Old Town and New Town (on a good, clear day) is rather incredible, and well worth the effort! A small museum to Scott can be found on the first level. Look out also for the graffiti carved into the sandstone from Victorian-era visitors on the staircases.
(Not everybody was a fan of the monument - Charles Dickens, after visiting Edinburgh in 1847, wrote: "I am sorry to report the Scott Monument a failure. It is like the spire of a Gothic church taken off and stuck in the ground..." However, Queen Victoria did like it, and was said to have asked George Gilbert Scott to use the monument as an inspiration when he produced the Albert Memorial in London.)
The Scott Monument also features in a number of films set in Edinburgh, as well as some that aren't - notably it's one of the locations in the 2012 film adaptation of David Mitchell's time-travelling, universe-hopping sci-fi novel Cloud Atlas, and was also used by the American magician and stuntman Harry Houdini for chase sequence in a 1920s film he made called Haldane of the Secret Service, although the sequence filmed on the monument didn't make it to the final movie. (Houdini would later develop a turbulent friendship with Edinburgh-born author Arthur Conan Doyle, over the differing opinions about spiritualism).
Today the Scott Monument is operated by Edinburgh city council, and even if you don't manage to climb to its summit, it forms a fitting feature for any exploration of the city.
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Edinburgh became the world's first UNESCO City of Literature in 2005, and is celebrated today for its wealth of literary connections. Figures like Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin and JK Rowling occur frequently in many visitors' experiences of Edinburgh, but there's a whole host of less familiar - or less expected - literary associations too.
Here's my brief peek at five other bookish figures whose lives intersected with Edinburgh...
The city may be famous for crime novelists like Doyle, Ian Rankin, Ambrose Parry and Quintin Jardine, but the grandmother of all popular crime writers also has an Edinburgh connection.
Agatha Christie was married at St Cuthbert's church in 1930 - her second marriage, after she sought a divorce from her first husband. At that time, that she was a divorcee was scandalous enough, but the man she was marrying being 14 years younger than her was even more so!
Max Mallowan was an archaeologist, and their marriage was an elopement - they tied the knot at St Cuthbert's church with no friends or family, just two witnesses off the street.
In her autobiography, Christie describes being married at St Columba's church in Edinburgh, rather than St Cuthbert's... Could this be an easy mistake to have made, or a deliberate red herring in her own life story?
THOMAS DE QUINCEY
Born in Manchester in northern England, DeQuincey is still best known for the semi-autobiographical novel he wrote in 1821 called Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
His life had been full of personal drama, including bereavement, unemployment and homelessness, and he had begun using opium as a means of suppressing his pain and his moods, and became addicted - the novel he wrote was based on these experiences, including time he spent under the care of the monks at Holyrood Abbey, which in the nineteenth century was still a debtors' sanctuary.
DeQuincey died in Edinburgh in 1859 and was buried in St Cuthbert's churchyard. His work is considered by some to have inspired other writers to create stories of their addictions, itself a literary genre today. Perhaps without DeQuincey we may not have had Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, another Edinburgh literary connection.
The original Mrs Doubtfire, of Anne Fine's children's novel Alias Madam Doubtfire, was an Edinburgh woman named Annabel Coutts, who ran a second-hand shop in the New Town. She had been married a number of times, her first husband being a seaman named Arthur Doubtfire. She had been questioned on a number of occasions on suspicion of running brothels in the city, and using her shop as a front for the money she made, hence her nickname 'Madam Doubtfire'...
In the 1970s, when Anne Fine was staying in the city, she came to know of Madame Doubtfire's shop, and would later use the name for her children's story, which later got turned into the classic family film, Mrs Doubtfire.
The accent Robin Williams uses in the film is not just a Scottish accent but decidedly an Edinburgh accent, so it's possible he knew something of the character's local origins...
A figure not often thought of as a Scottish writer so much as an English one is Kenneth Grahame, best known for The Wind in the Willows. But he had been born in Edinburgh before moving to England as a young child.
His family had occupied a house on Castle Street in the New Town, in which today is a bar and a restaurant named Badger and Co., after the characters from his most popular story.
Best known as a novelist for books like Robinson Crusoe, Defoe found inspiration for that story following time spent in Edinburgh in 1706.
At that time, the Scottish government was in discussion with the English parliament about what would become the Act of Union, creating the United Kingdom under one political system.
Defoe had been employed by the English government to act as a spy, and had been posted to Edinburgh under cover of working for one of the local newspapers - his job was to report back to the English authorities about the attitudes to the union that was being negotiated, and to keep them informed about developments that the official channels of communication may not cover.
During his time in the city, Defoe lived at Moubray House on the Royal Mile. The building still stands, adjacent to John Knox's House on High Street, and I often use it on tours to illustrate what many of Edinburgh's old buildings would have looked like at one time or another - narrow, with a shop front at street level and then an external staircase providing access to accommodation space on the upper floors.
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