When you hear the words UNESCO and global networks, it is tempting to assume that the City of Literature Network was born somewhere on the eighth floor of a big office at the end of a long meeting involving dusty paperwork and grey men giving lengthy speeches.

You couldn’t be more wrong.

Like all good ideas, it started in a cafe, over lunch, when four book lovers from Edinburgh had a great idea, UNESCO surely would agree, and they were not going to take no for answer.

Food for Thought

In 2002, Edinburgh was a literary powerhouse, attracting and spawning best-selling writers, home to vibrant publishing houses and the birthplace of the world’s biggest book festival.

Then, as now, Edinburgh was bursting with literary history and heritage and four book lovers – James Boyle, Jenny Brown, Lorraine Fannin and Catherine Lockerbie – decided over an extended lunch that they should find a way for Edinburgh’s rich literary past and innovative present to be recognised.

They also wanted to connect cities around the world with the same vision and energy, in co-operation rather than competition. The words, ‘we are a City of Literature’ were uttered, and with that, the idea for the designation came into being.

Laying the Foundations

Once the idea had been born, it gathered pace. UNESCO was approached with the idea and became a partner, immediately seeing the way the City of Literature concept fitted into their own embryonic plans for a Creative City Network.

Two years were spent bringing together partners, researching the literature sector in Edinburgh and creating the detail around what shape a City of Literature designation might take. Working closely with UNESCO the criteria for the designation were developed.

The response in Edinburgh to the idea of a designation was overwhelmingly positive and drew an enthusiastic band of partners, supporters and champions. Scottish Enterprise, City of Edinburgh Council, the Scottish Government and Creative Scotland (then called the Scottish Arts Council) all backed the idea, as well as writers, readers, businesses and literary organisations across the city.

By 2004, a beautiful two-volume hardback edition had been produced detailing Edinburgh’s story as the capital of a literary nation. These two books were to become the bid documents for the submission to UNESCO to join their – as yet unformed – Creative City Network.

From Edinburgh to Paris

And so, in October 2004, a delegation from Edinburgh visited the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. What had started as a heartfelt discussion over lunch by James Boyle, Jenny Brown, Lorraine Fannin and Catherine Lockerbie, had become an international mission for Edinburgh. Joining them were the Lord Provost for Edinburgh, Lesley Hinds, and Scotland’s Culture Minister, Patricia Ferguson. The Edinburgh Makar (poet laureate) Stewart Conn carried with him his specially commissioned poem, ‘Emissary’, which was to be read to the assembly. And of course, a piper and some whisky were there just for good measure.

On the 14th October, standing before more than 100 ambassadors and programme officials, Edinburgh’s delegation presented its story and its vision, its hopes for a City of Literature and a global network. They presented their two books, in French and English editions, the two languages of UNESCO.

Within hours of the formal submission of the bid, and the ink barely dry, Edinburgh was designated a UNESCO City of Literature and so the next chapter in the City of Literature story began.

The Seed was Sown

Edinburgh is the founding city of the UNESCO Creative City Network, which has a current membership of 180 cities from 73 countries, covering seven creative fields: Crafts & Folk Art, Design, Film, Gastronomy, Literature, Music, and Media Arts.

There are 20 UNESCO Cities of Literature. You can find out more about them through the links on this page.


Reception at Edinburgh’s City Chambers marking the tenth anniversary of its designation