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Lynsey May at Looking Glass Books, one of her favourite book cafés in Edinburgh. Photo: Brendan MacNeill
Lynsey May at Looking Glass Books, one of her favourite book cafés in Edinburgh. Photo: Brendan MacNeill

Take a walk on the writer’s side of Edinburgh

The world’s first Unesco City of Literature and home of the world’s largest book festival, Edinburgh is the perfect destination for any lover of words. Lynsey May, recipient of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award, takes us on a tour of her literary Edinburgh.

Scotland’s charming capital has a rich literary heritage and countless writers have called it their home, from Sir Walter Scott and Muriel Spark to Irvine Welsh and J.K. Rowling.
The city is known for its vibrant literary scene and every August hundreds of authors descend on the city for the Edinburgh International Book Festival, touted as “the biggest and best” literary festival of its kind in the world.

This is Lynsey May

Born and raised in Edinburgh, Lynsey writes from an observationally gritty female perspective. Her first novel, The Miraculous Return of Flora Whyte, is about a teenager who returns to her hometown after eight years away and promptly begins performing miracles.

“Edinburgh is a very inspirational place to walk around, but the Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street and the Scottish Portrait Gallery are two of my favorite places to find new ideas,” she says.

Our guide through the streets of Edinburgh, and the bookstores, book cafés, and libraries that make up a small portion of the city’s literary hotspots, is author Lynsey May, recipient of the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2012.
“The events related to literature are an all-year thing here, not just the two weeks of summer when the festival is happening,” she says, before adding: “Well, the week right after the festival is pretty quiet to be honest.”
We meet up for coffee and scones at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile, where live storytelling, theater, music, exhibitions, workshops and family events take place year-round. October also sees the Scottish Storytelling Festival, an annual celebration of traditional and contemporary storytelling.
We step out onto the Royal Mile and make our first stop a couple of blocks later at Forbidden Planet, the world’s biggest comic book chain, just off South Bridge.
Lynsey picks up an anthology, Amazing and Fantastic Tales, from the shelf.
“Oh look, I have a story in this one,” she says pleased. 

One of the great things about Edinburgh is that it is easy to get around on foot. As we make our way from one bookstore to another we pass libraries, statues and cafés where famous writers are said to have found inspiration while writing books about, say, young wizards with lightning bolt scars on their foreheads or eccentric detectives.

Photo: Brendan MacNeill

There are more than 50 bookstores in Edinburgh, ranging from chains to independents, antiquarian to secondhand. Lynsey takes us to Word Power Books, an independent bookshop close to the university with a strong political bent that is popular among students. We stop at Playfair Library Hall, housed inside the Old College, to see one of Scotland’s finest public rooms. The grand neoclassical setting is mainly reserved for dinners, receptions and lectures.
Also nearby the university and just off the Meadows is Looking Glass Books, an independent bookshop and café and all-round literary scene with live storytelling and book clubs. This is Lynsey’s home away from home and office, a place she can come to work on her stories and novels.

The city and its inhabitants are a major source of inspiration for Lynsey. The novel she’s currently working on takes place in Leith, her own neighborhood in the northern part of Edinburgh by the harbor. Leith was also the setting for Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting and the movie directed by Danny Boyle.
As we head back north, walking through Greyfriars Kirkyard, we pass a group of Japanese tourists gathered around the statue of a terrier. Legend has it that Greyfriars Bobby kept watch over his dead master’s grave for 14 years. Rubbing Bobby’s nose is said to bring you good luck.

Photo: Brendan MacNeill

Across the street from Greyfriars Kirkyard, on the George IV Bridge, the Central Library and National Library of Scotland stand opposite each other. Together they contain over 14 million printed publications – books, manuscripts and maps, covering every subject you can think of. The National Library of Scotland also has a café and hosts regular free exhibitions.

When you have had enough of walking and need to collect your thoughts, Hush Hour, a monthly silent reading gathering at the Lucky Liquor Co. cocktail bar on Queen Street, is a refreshing alternative.
The range of literary things to do in Edinburgh can easily be overwhelming, and a good place to start is one of the many organized walks on offer. Themes range from Harry Potter to Trainspotting and the walks can be enjoyed with or without a glass in your hand. You can pay for a professional guide or find your own way using one of the apps or guides provided by the city’s numerous literary organizations.

Almost every street in Edinburgh has a connection to the city’s writers, characters and literary history. Bring your curiosity and a good pair of shoes and let Edinburgh stimulate your imagination – both visually and intellectually.

Text: Emma Brink 

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