Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh is the first designated UNESCO City of Literature in the world. This trailblazing city is one of the most spectacular, with a literary heritage spanning centuries and some of the world’s most exciting contemporary writers. Home to many firsts but always looking to the future, Edinburgh is alive with literary events, unique book shops and cafes, new writing and traditional (and not so traditional) storytelling. Every year, Edinburgh hosts the largest celebration of the written word in the world in August with the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

1. Famous authors

Edinburgh has been the birthplace, home and hangout to some of the world’s biggest and best loved writers. JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, wrote all her books in Edinburgh, starting from humble beginnings in the city’s cafes. Muriel Spark brought Edinburgh’s Morningside manners to fame with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and Kate Atkinson, one of the world’s best loved cross-genre writers, calls Edinburgh home. Visit 44 Scotland Street with Alexander McCall Smith, explore Edinburgh’s sordid underbelly with Ian Rankin and Rebus, or wallow in Sir Walter Scott’s glorious back catalogue of books, starting with Waverley. In the mood for a mystery? Tread the streets with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, or shiver your timbers, Treasure Island style, with Robert Louis Stevenson.

2. Festivals

Edinburgh hosts the world’s largest book festival, the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Every August, over two and a half weeks, over 800 writers from across the world come together in a heaving program of events for an audience of thousands.

The City of Literature Trust is proud to be part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival every year with Story Shop, the New Writer’s Salon, and Reading the City. Story Shop gives some of Edinburgh’s best new writers a platform to perform their work at the festival before introducing them to the literary industry at the New Writer’s Salon. Reading the City explores how Edinburgh influences its writers and vice versa, with some surprising guest appearances.

Smaller book festivals happen year round, from Portobello’s books beside the sea to the Independent Radical Book Fair, bringing independent voices to the city for free since 1988. And just a day trip away, other major book festivals include Bloody Scotland, the Wigtown Book Festival, and the Dundee Literary Festival. There’s something for everyone within easy reach of Edinburgh’s centre.

3. Publishing

Edinburgh is central to the rich history of publishing in Scotland. The first book printed in Scotland was printed in Edinburgh in 1508 and today, publishers in Edinburgh publish some of the most exciting contemporary writers in the world. Just over a quarter of Scotland’s 110 or so publishers are based in the city including Canongate Books, Edinburgh University Press, Luath, Polygon and Birlinn.

4. Bookshops

The city also supports over 50 unique and wonderful bookshops. Some have animals (alive and stuffed), some have inspired famous characters – BBC TV series, Black Books is said to be based on more than one Edinburgh bookshop – and some just defy description. High street, antiquarian or niche, the city is comfortably stuffed with a range of bookshops to suit every taste.

5. Literary Prizes

Edinburgh is the home of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction, Biography and Drama, the only prize in the world to be exclusively judged by scholars and students. Winners are awarded a £10 000 prize. It’s also linked to the James Tait Black Scholarship Fund for literature students. The Edinburgh International Book Festival celebrates new writing with the annual First Book Award, and the Saltire Prizes, supported by Creative Scotland, award five categories of literary excellence.

6. Libraries and Museums

Edinburgh’s libraries are the beating heart of their communities, providing books, literacy support, events, workshops and more. The City of Edinburgh Council also supports literature in the city through museums, in particular the Writers’ Museum, which celebrates the lives and works of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburgh celebrates Scotland’s poetic legacy and continuing creativity with The Scottish Poetry Library (pictured above), the world’s first purpose-built library for poetry in the world.

7. Literary Attractions

Edinburgh is spectacular, and visitors flock to the city to experience its architecture, literary events, statues, monuments, literary cafes and pubs, and to walk the streets in the footsteps of their literary heroes. From Edinburgh Castle to its smallest, darkest close, Edinburgh’s literary history is written in the stones. There’s always live literature happening somewhere for those who love exciting spoken word. The National Library of Scotland runs free year-round exhibitions telling Scotland’s literary story, and you can always find a story and a warm welcome at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

8. Literary Heritage

Edinburgh’s literary heritage begins in ordinary people’s homes with the tradition of storytelling, and in the medieval Scottish Royal Courts with the extraordinary performance poets, the Makars. In 1496, the Scottish Parliament passed the world’s first compulsory education law, paving the way for some of the world’s best educated, brilliant thinkers and the Scottish Enlightenment. In 1726, poet Allan Ramsay established the world’s first circulating library. In 1768 the first copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica was published, and Edinburgh’s 20th century heralded a rethinking of Scottish literature with the Scottish Renaissance. With centuries’ worth of history behind it, Edinburgh’s heritage shines through in the writing of its contemporary superstars.

9. Growing Audiences for Literature

Work is carried out all across Edinburgh promoting the importance of literature and literacy for all, and its yearly calendar is filled with programmes that aim to reach people from all backgrounds and ages. The City of Literature Trust’s Words on the Street campaign was launched in 2012, and is a series of projects that aim to bring literature to the streets of Edinburgh. Projects have included RLS Day, LeithLate, and Canongate Stars and Stories which featured an illuminated walking trail in the city’s Old Town.

The Scottish Book Trust, a national charity that works to change lives through reading and writing, runs a series of programmes throughout the year, such as Book Week Scotland, a week-long celebration of books and reading, and Bookbug, which gifts book bags to every child in Scotland and runs free song & rhymes sessions. As well as this, Scotland’s only poetry library, the Scottish Poetry Library, runs a range of outreach programmes: Living Voices which runs activities for older people using poetry and stories; reading groups for young children and families in Poetry for Peanuts; and reading groups for people both familiar and new to poetry.

The headquarters of Scottish PEN are also in Edinburgh; an organisation which runs numerous projects championing freedom of speech and literature across borders; an example being their Many Voices project, which sought to amplified voices that had been silenced and marginalised.

In 2018, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay introduced Message from the Skies as part of their celebrations, involving a literary journey through the city using a story written by a leading Scottish author.

10. Noted Centre of Education

Established in 1580, The University of Edinburgh is the sixth oldest university in the English-speaking world, as well as being one of Scotland’s ancient universities. It was the first to appoint a Regius Professorship of Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (English Literature), and played an important role in developing Edinburgh’s reputation as an intellectual centre during the Enlightenment, with figures such as David Hume and Charles Darwin belonging to its alumni.

Numerous creative writing and literature courses run in the city to this day, and there are now four Universities located across the city: University of Edinburgh, Heriot Watt, Napier University, and Queen Margaret University. In 1995, the Scottish Centre for the Book was established at Napier University as a focus for research and knowledge transfer in publishing, the material book and print culture. The University of Edinburgh also set up the Centre for the History of the Book in the same year.