“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.”
“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour.”
In between writing The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson found time to travel far and frequently from his Edinburgh home. I discovered these two wonderful quotes of his during my all-too-short stay in Scotland’s capital city.
–Writers’ Museum: Edinburgh earned its nickname, “Athens of the North,” not from its unfinished replica of Parthenon, but from its prominence during the Reformation. Influential scholars like Adam Smith and David Hume made their homes in Edinburgh, as did a number of other highly regarded thinkers. The Writers’ Museum presents a modest collection of memorabilia from the estates of Scottish writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Burns. Perhaps the most impressive exhibit is the Stevenson section, which includes a wooden cabinet from Stevenson’s childhood bedroom. The bureau was constructed by Deacon Brodie, the man who inspired Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
–Edinburgh Castle: Perched high on a cliff, Edinburgh Castle is protected by steep rock faces on three sides. The fourth side is the entryway, a gently sloping hill leading to a lovely street called the Royal Mile. Although I didn’t cough up the 13-pound ticket fee to enter the castle, I enjoyed wonderful views of the city from the courtyard at Castle Hill.
Visitors to the inside of the castle can view Scotland’s crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny, Scotland’s ancient coronation stone. King Edward I took the stone to Westminster Abbey in 1296, where it sat in England’s coronation chair until a few Scottish college students decided to break in to Westminster Abbey on Christmas Eve in 1950 to steal the stone back. After taking the rock to a few parties (Stanley Cup style, I would imagine) and having fun showing it off for a few months, the students returned the Stone of Destiny to England. British Prime Minister John Major decided that it was time for the stone to return home to Edinburgh Castle in 1996.
–Scotch Whisky Experience: I did this educational tour and tasting by myself. It was a great tour to do on my own, except that I didn’t have anyone to take a picture of me sitting alone in the embarrassing barrel ride at the beginning of the experience. Visitors begin their tour by going through a Disney-esque exhibit about the process of making whisky, all the while seated in gigantic barrel-shaped vehicles. An animated Scottish ghost with a mustache hosts the ride. We continued into a tasting room where a tour guide (a human this time) explained the differences between the four distillery regions and they types of flavors they are known for. In Scotland, whisky is spelled without the “e.” It also has to be distilled in Scotland for it to be called “scotch.” After choosing which region to sample, we were ushered into a room housing the World’s Largest Whisky Collection (over 3,000 bottles!) for a guided tasting. Despite the initial silliness of the barrel ride, the tour was actually very educational.
–Harry Potter Landmarks: When I went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios theme park this summer, I almost cried. Now imagine me, an unabashedly enthusiastic Harry Potter fan, standing outside the café where J.K. Rowling wrote the first two books in the series. Yep. J.K. Rowling was living and writing in Edinburgh when she created Harry Potter and his magical world.
I took a fantastic free walking tour through New Europe Tours, and the guide brought the group past the Elephant House Café, birthplace of Harry Potter. When Rowling was living in Edinburgh in 1997, she was so poor that she couldn’t afford to heat her house. She’d send her kids off to school and come to the café, where she could sit with a cup of coffee and write all day long. When she needed a break, she would wander across the road to Greyfriars’ Cemetery. Browsing the names on the headstones gave Rowling ideas for character names. We saw a McGonagall, a Moodie (Moody in the books), and most notably, two Tom Riddells (Riddle in the books). The guide mentioned that a Hermione and a Granger were buried next to each other elsewhere in the cemetery, too. A massive, castle-like school stands adjacent to the graveyard – Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts.
The Scottish accent is like an Irish accent on crack. It was refreshing to be in a place where I could read and understand the advertisements and signage, but it was startling to not always be able to understand people’s accents. I knew that they were speaking English, but there were a few times when I absolutely could not figure out what people were saying to me.
Scotland completely lived up to its stereotypes. Shortbread is everywhere, and it’s delicious. People drink to get hammered, and they succeed. The biggest surprise was that the men actually wear kilts. The big Scotland-Italy rugby match was in Edinburgh on the day of my visit, so the kilt-wearing population was a bit more concentrated than I would imagine is typical, but even so, there were a lot of burly men in skirts wandering around downtown.
I wish I had had more time to explore Edinburgh and take advantage of the city’s many free museums and plentiful walking tours. Edinburgh’s literary history is appealing to me, as is Scotland’s complex relationship with England as part of the United Kingdom. I loved wandering through the narrow closes and down the Royal Mile, following in the footsteps of writers of the not-so-distant past who crafted characters and created settings based on Edinburgh.