Written by Abbey Bartz
If you walk up George IV Bridge towards the Royal Mile in Edinburgh, you will pass by an unassuming red cafe called The Elephant House. Even on the gloomiest of Scottish winter days, when the wind is howling and a cold rain dribbles from the sky, tourists stop and take pictures here. If you have never opened a guidebook about Edinburgh, you might wonder why these people choose to stop here. It looks like nearly every other coffeeshop you have ever seen, set apart only by its bright red front and elephant-shaped sign. This coffeeshop is proof that you should never judge a place by its appearance. For it was here, in this ordinary little cafe, that J.K. Rowling penned part of Harry Potter.
I’m sitting in this very cafe now, eating a scone with strawberry jam and clotted cream, drinking a latte, and soaking up the magic that J.K Rowling left behind. I’m hoping that by being here, I’ll absorb some of her literary talent. I’m also secretly hoping Mrs. Rowling will walk through the door herself and offer to have a cuppa with me. One can dream.
The Elephant House is one of many places worthy of literary pilgrimage scattered throughout Scotland. Scotland is very proud of its literary figures, especially of those who were born in Scotland (although Rowling wrote much of Harry Potter here in Edinburgh, and has lived here for many years over the course of her life, she was born in England, so I’m not sure she would identify herself as a Scot. And I’m not sure the Scottish would claim her as such, either, but that’s another story). Two of Scotland’s native literary sons–Sir Walter Scott, novelist extraordinaire, and Robert Burns, pre-Romantic poet–crop up time and time again throughout Scotland. Their influence is scattered across the Scottish country and throughout Scottish history and culture, reaching far beyond the pages on which they wrote. As you travel through Scotland, you will find monuments to them in many cities, and a museum dedicated to them in nearly every town in which they lived.
Mark Twain famously accused Sir Walter Scott of starting the American Civil War, because Scott’s novels, which were reportedly widely read by the plantation owners of the time, led Southern gentlemen to imitate the clan chiefs of old.
Sir Walter Scott was a famous novelist in Scotland in the late 18th and early 19th century. He was born in Edinburgh, just blocks from the University of Edinburgh where I’m studying for the semester. He is known for writing some of the world’s first historical fiction novels, turning Scottish history into fictional dramas punctuated with descriptive scenery from the Scottish landscape, to wide appeal. One could argue that he is partially responsible for creating the romantic view of Scotland and the Scottish Highlands that many (including me) hold today. Scott wrote about Highland clans and culture, about the Jacobite Risings, about chivalry and loyalty and warfare. And although many Americans these days (at least most that I have encountered), have no idea who he is, he was once a literary phenomenon in the States as well. Mark Twain famously accused Sir Walter Scott of starting the American Civil War, because Scott’s novels, which were reportedly widely read by the plantation owners of the time, led Southern gentlemen to imitate the clan chiefs of old. Their big plantation houses and ideas of chivalry, Twain said, were attributable to the images of lairds Scott created in his books. This claim is interesting to me, although I don’t personally buy into the idea that a Scottish author is single-handedly responsible for a war that had more to do with slavery than chivalry. Although I admit that I have read very few of Scott’s novels (one, if we’re being completely honest), I could see the romantic appeal to the way he renders the Highlands and its culture.
But writing is not Scott’s only claim to fame. If you go to Edinburgh Castle and see the Honours of Scotland (the sword of state, the crown, and the scepter), his name pops up in that exhibit as well. Why, you ask? Well, after Oliver Cromwell took over England in the 1650s, the Scottish people endeavored to hide the Honours so that they would not be destroyed. They did such a good job of it that the Honours were lost for a hundred years. Sir Walter Scott, with his love for Scottish history and the status he’d developed from being a famous novelist, was given royal permission to search for the Honours of Scotland. He found them in a chest under Edinburgh Castle, and became a hero. He was given a title for his efforts (hence the “Sir”) and got his name into the history books of the country he loved so much.
There are museums in honor of Scott scattered all across Scotland, mostly along the region bordering England. There is also a gigantic gothic tower dedicated to him on Prince’s Street in Edinburgh, and another monument to him in Glasgow. It is clear that the Scots are very proud of him, and have made every effort to ensure that he is remembered.
Robert Burns is another literary figure that Scotland is extremely proud of. Robert Burns was a prolific poet in the late 18th century, who came from a humble background, rose to literary fame, and died at age 37. Although his life was short, it was not without impact. He is known as The National Bard of Scotland, drawing on the rich history of poetry in Scotland. Burns remains one of Scotland’s most famous poets, writing in Scots and in the Scottish dialect of English. Most Americans probably don’t know that they are familiar with at least one of his works: the song “Auld Lang Syne.”
As the band played the familiar notes on an accordion and a violin, everyone on the dancefloor joined hands and sang the entire song, swaying back and forth to the music.
Although in America this song is reserved for saying goodbye to an old year on New Years’ Eve, here in Scotland the song is used to close out many events. For instance, it is often played at the end of ceilidhs, traditional Scottish dances, an event that I have experienced firsthand. As the band played the familiar notes on an accordion and a violin, everyone on the dancefloor joined hands and sang the entire song, swaying back and forth to the music. I only knew the first verse, and was surprised when the song picked up at the end and people started jumping around as if they were at a rave. The song, which has a sort of archaic and somber tone to it back home in America, is lively and joyful here.
The Scots are so fond of Rabbie Burns–as they call him– that they still celebrate his birthday, 223 years after his death. January 25 is known as Burns Night, a night for having ceilidhs and fancy dinners serving haggis, neaps, and tatties, which together comprise the national dish of Scotland. Burns’s poems are recited, and “Auld Lang Syne” is sung at the end of the night. Although I didn’t engage in the festivities (not because I didn’t want to – I just didn’t know about the events in time to buy tickets to anything), I did observe it from the periphery. I saw men and boys dressed up in kilts and women wearing fancy dresses, headed off to celebrate their beloved poet.
Burns, like Sir Walter Scott, has many museums and monuments dedicated to him. There is a monument on Calton Hill, near the city center, commemorating his life and his contribution to Scottish literature and culture. His birthplace, the town of Alloway, now has a museum dedicated to his life. And both he and Scott are commemorated in the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh.
Although Scott and Burns have both been dead for a long time, the Scots celebrate them as if they were alive and well. They are regarded as national heroes for their huge influence on the cultural framework of Scotland and their effects on its history and landscape. It is awe-inspiring to see them commemorated and celebrated the way that they are.
Although many Americans may not know Sir Walter Scott or Robert Burns off the top of their heads, in their own day, these two men were just as famous as J.K. Rowling. Although Scott and Burns have both been dead for a long time, the Scots celebrate them as if they were alive and well. They are regarded as national heroes for their huge influence on the cultural framework of Scotland and their effects on its history and landscape. It is awe-inspiring to see them commemorated and celebrated the way that they are, because in America, authors don’t generally get monuments dedicated to them, and their birthdays certainly aren’t celebrated as national holidays. Although in certain circles, writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald or Emily Dickenson are spoken about with reverence, their art and lives don’t touch all aspects of American culture; they don’t receive the same sort of recognition as Scott and Burns do here. I think that’s a real shame. Americans are missing out on the fun of celebrating writers, and simultaneously are not giving literature the place of reverence it deserves in our cultural identity.
I’ve finished my scone now, and J.K. Rowling still hasn’t turned up. Oh well, it was worth a shot. I suppose I’ll walk down to Blackwell’s, the bookstore, for a wee while and see what new Scottish authors I can find. Blackwell’s has a whole wall of shelves dedicated to Scottish authors, including several contemporary authors who are following in the footsteps of Scott and Burns. Authors like Irvine Welsh, who wrote the internationally acclaimed novel Trainspotting, or Ian Rankin, one of Scotland’s most famous crime writers, or James Robertson, who writes about Scottish current events in his fiction. Perhaps I’ll encounter some up-and-coming authors that will someday be as revered as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. There is a vibrant literary culture here in Scotland, so I will have no shortage of things to read on those rainy and cold Scottish days. Although I can’t say I am particularly fond of the weather, with all the books and authors around here, I could be convinced to stay here forever.