Harry Potter in Edinburgh - A Muggle's Guide to the Inspirations for JK Rowling's Wizarding World
I don't offer Harry Potter tours of Edinburgh. Plenty of other people do. I've never even read the books or seen the films, but as my focus on Edinburgh history must also include the influence the city had on JK Rowling (who still lives in Edinburgh) I offer this brief introduction to some of the sites in the city that Potterheads may like to seek out.
As the world's first UNESCO City of Literature, Harry Potter is just one of the literary influences with connections to Edinburgh.
Just don't ask me for a Harry Potter tour as refusal often offends...!
There are four big private schools in the city, and if you stacked their buildings on top of each other, you'd probably end up with a reasonable template for what became the Hogwarts Academy in the Harry Potter books.
The most central of the schools, which a lot of visitors seek out, is George Heriot's, which can be seen on Lauriston Place or from Greyfriars Kirkyard.
This school - established as a hospital in the 1620s - not only has a Hogwarts style, it also features four houses named for various figures from Edinburgh's history, similar to the four houses of Hogwarts School.
TOM RIDDLE'S GRAVE
Actually the family grave of a man called Thomas Riddell, but why let a little misspelling get in the way of cultural exploitation...!
Along with some of the other inspirations for characters in the Harry Potter universe, Riddell's grave can be found in Greyfriar's Kirkyard - look for the muddy track, worn away by the thousands of people who trek to find it.
I can't help but wonder what Riddell and his family would make of people leaving tributes to a fictional character at their graveside.
Perhaps an inspiration for the eponymous hero of the stories, Potterrow was originally the street where Edinburgh's potteries were based, just beyond the city walls (where it was safe to have industrial premises, with the risk of fire spreading). Today the Potterrow area is heavily linked to the University of Edinburgh, which has some of its main student buildings in the city centre clustered around the area.
Another historical figure whose name was co-opted by JK Rowling, McGonagall is widely considered the world's worst poet. He famously walked to Balmoral in the Scottish Highlands, to present Queen Victoria with a poem he had written for her, only to be told the queen wouldn't see him and he should walk home again. Which he did.
Born in Dundee (where the subject of one of his best known poems, the Tay Bridge disaster, also took place) McGonagall's work remains in print, as terrible as it is. Alas he never got to enjoy the reputation he gained, and he died in poverty as an alcoholic in his rooms above the Captain's Bar on South College Street (where a plaque commemorates his death), and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Greyfriars Kirkyard. A small memorial stone for him can be found near the gateway to George Heriot's School.
This historic building on the Canongate section of the Royal Mile was formerly home to the Moray family, and today houses the Univerity of Edinburgh's teaching school. It was here that JK Rowling trained as a primary school teacher, before writing the books and saving herself the hassle of actually teaching kids.
This unremarkable-looking row of tenement houses is where JK Rowling lived when she was writing some of the early Harry Potter books. There's no formal marker of the property she lived in, but it's to the west of the city centre, towards Fountainbridge.
THE EDINBURGH AWARD
An award given annually to a local figure who has helped to boost Edinburgh's profile on the international stage, JK Rowling was given the Edinburgh Award in 2008.
You can find the gilded handprints of Rowling and other winners, including fellow writer Ian Rankin, physicist Peter Higgs, and sportsman Chris Hoy, just off the Royal Mile outside the City Chambers near St Giles' Cathedral.
THE ELEPHANT HOUSE
Self-proclaimed 'birthplace' of Harry Potter, this cafe on George IV Bridge has become a mecca for Potterheads, and you often have to step into the road to get around the crowd that gathers outside the cafe to take photographs. The cafe charges £1 for visitors to take photographs inside, assuming you aren't buying coffee or cake.
JK Rowling has endorsed a different cafe - nearby Spoon, formerly Nicolson's - as being where she spent more time scribbling the early drafts of the stories.
Friends who know such things tell me that Diagon Alley is a wizard's market (ie. not a real thing) in the Harry Potter books - and that Victoria Street in Edinburgh's Old Town was the inspiration for it.
Candlemaker Row and Cockburn Street also claim the influence, and Victoria Street is far from the only place where you'll find Harry Potter shops taking your money for branded plastic goods - but it is one of the more colourful streets of the Old Town (and quite interesting in terms of its real history too - check out the story of the Wizard of the West Bow...!).
Explore more of Edinburgh's other literary and cultural history with my private city walking tours!
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