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.
Discover more of Edinburgh's literary and historical features with my private city walking tours!
Enjoy the blog but can't take a tour?
Show your support and
buy me a coffee!