EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
In 2005, UNESCO named Edinburgh as the world's first City of Literature, thanks to the number and variety of bookish influences that can be found here. From familiar names like Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott to contemporary figures like JK Rowling and Ian Rankin, Edinburgh's streets have influenced novels, plays, poems and works of non-fiction right through history.
So soaked in verbiage is Edinburgh that you can find many examples of poetry and literature inscribed literally in the stone of the city! Here are just a few examples of the words on the streets of Edinburgh...
A good place to start looking for street poetry is on Makar's Court.
In Scots a 'makar' is a poet (a bit like a 'bard' in ye olde English) and to celebrate a whole host of Scottish poets, one of the lanes of the Old Town has been given a distinctly poetic feel.
Lady Stair's Close is also home to the Writers' Museum, but if you cast your eyes downwards on your way to the museum you'll find all kinds of short quotes from a variety of Scottish writers in the paving stones at your feet.
Many of these quotes relate specifically to Scotland, or in the case of the quote above, to Edinburgh itself. A bit like this one:
This quote, from local author Alexander McCall Smith, is one of my favourite descriptions of Edinburgh, and you'll find it on the wall of one of the new buildings on Morrison Street, built to house the expanded Edinburgh International Conference Centre.
The golden coloured sandstone is typical of Edinburgh's stone, and the quote stretches a good distance along the street, hence the slightly strange waves in the picture - it's hard to get the whole thing in frame even with a panoramic feature!
This short poem is one I only discovered quite recently, despite walking miles through the city every year... It's in the pavement at the front of the new Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood, and it's a little hard to read because of the colour of the stone in which it's inscribed. It reads:
Look. What can you see?
I see beauty in the lochs
I see majesty in the mountains
I see legend in the rocks
And it is ours.
The poet is Robert Adam - not the celebrated architect who gave Edinburgh its classical style, but a 14-year old school boy who won a competition to have his poem featured in the parliament complex. I think it's rather lovely.
At another entrance into the parliament building - not one used by the public, alas - is another piece of text that has a poetic quality.
It's a passage from the Bible (1 Corinthians 13:1, if you want chapter and verse!) translated into Scots that was deemed to have a particular resonance for the new Scottish parliament when it was being established in the late 1990s.
The original text reads: "If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal."
There's also a rather interesting poem in the ground outside the University of Edinburgh's main library building on George Square... It is the world's only circular mesostic poem! (No, me neither...)
Have a look at it - start reading from the word 'our' and go clockwise:
A mesostic poem is a bit like an acrostic, where a text is constructed around the letters of a word or phrase that the poem also describes. This example is by the artist Alec Findlay and was commissioned by the University of Edinburgh in 2009, with the letters indicated with dots spelling the phrase 'thair to reman' ("there to remain"), which was taken from the will of the first benefactor of the library itself.
Not all the text that you'll find in the city is poetry or art. Some of it just helpful, like this panel in the Grassmarket which describes the geological activity and interaction between volcanic rock and movement of glaciers which created the city's landscape itself, known as a 'crag and tail' formation:
Most of the text you'll find in the city are quotations on lintels of doorways - 'Blest be God for all his giftis' [sic] occurs fairly frequently - and dates of construction. These indicators are always worth looking out for, as they give a real sense of the city's history, and are a direct connection to the people who built and shaped the city over the years.
And some of the text you'll find is pure graffiti, which can often be amusing and insightful, so long as it isn't actively damaging the fabric of the city or detracting from the historic features.
This example continues to make me smile every time I walk past it! (Shoes: model's own.)
Book one of my private Edinburgh walking tours to find more examples of poetry (and graffiti) in this historic city!
Edinburgh Expert Walking Tours is run by Gareth, an adopted native of Edinburgh, with over 20 years experience of living and working in the city...
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