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Behind The Scenes

FAMILY ACTIVITIES LITERATURE + FILM Scotland

Seeking Harry Potter in Edinburgh

September 11, 2016

“Logically [the Harry Potter series] had to be set in a secluded place,

and pretty soon I settled on Scotland in my mind….where my parents had married”

-J.K. Rowling

A82 Road to Glencoe in Highlands

Driving on A82 to Edinburgh through Scottish Highlands near Glencoe

*

Now, I know I’m not alone when pointing to Harry Potter as the fuel for my children’s passion for reading. We were more than happy to line up at our local bookstore to purchase Harry Potter and the Cursed Child one midnight in July.

Our bookstore’s launch party included an impressive trivia game contest and a birthday cake for Harry (as the book was released on the protagonist’s birthday).

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Book

When I think of my childhood days I wonder, was there any particular book which created a spark for reading? Was there any new book release that would have had me lining up at midnight like I would for a concert ticket? Nope.

The success of Rowling’s Harry Potter series has been profound for this younger generation. Harry Potter catapulted Young Adult Fiction onto international bestselling lists. Today, YA Fiction is a vibrant genre which literary agents still actively seek due to its continuous appeal to a wide range of age groups.

So naturally, I couldn’t skip the Harry Potter angle when I booked our trip to Scotland. We started our trip with an overnight train ride from London Euston station. While the train was far from luxurious, the novelty was unforgettable.

Granted, Harry Potter never took an overnight train, but he traveled to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry by rail.

Overnight Caledonian Sleeper Train

Trains were an important theme for Rowling personally. Her parents met on a train traveling from London to Scotland.

Furthermore, she conjured up the concept of Harry Potter on a fateful rail journey from Manchester to London. Because her pen was broken, she just sat in the carriage as ideas flooded her imagination with characters, settings, and general storylines. She wrote it all down in a notebook once she got home.

British train tracks

We decided to begin our trip in Inverness, 150 miles north of Edinburgh. We rented a car and drove south to Edinburgh, past lochs and through the Scottish Highlands (which I’d highly recommend).

The next day, we arrived in the country’s capital designated The City of Literature by UNESCO in 2004 and home to the world’s first circulating library. Authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stephenson (Treasure Island), and Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) were born in Edinburgh.

The City of Literature, Edinburgh

In 1993, Rowling was working in Portugal, and it was time to leave her unhappy marriage. As a newly single mom, she thought Edinburgh to be a good place to raise her infant, Jessica, and work on her book which consisted of 3 chapters at the time. She claims she was so broke, she was “literally choosing between food and a typewriter ribbon”; she received welfare benefits.

Her sister and brother-in-law also lived in the city and owned Nicholson’s Cafe (now defunct) where she finished her first book. She wrote in other Edinburgh cafes too, including The Elephant Cafe which claims to be “The Birthplace of Harry Potter”. She could only afford one cup of coffee per visit.

She had to wait a year before a publisher bought her manuscript. The industry found her book to be too long, too complicated, and too dark for young adult readers (my, were they wrong).

The Elephant Cafe

The Elephant Cafe

 

For the first time, a long queue for the ladies loo made me curious. I soon discovered women and girls were lining up to pay homage in ink to the author and her characters in The Elephant Cafe’s restroom.

Almost every inch was covered with quotes, dedications and names. The cafe used to paint over graffiti made by ‘fandals’, but as soon as the paint dried, words appeared again. Graffiti varies from “The service is so slow in here, anyone could write a book” (which was painted over) to the endearing “You taught me how to read, love and believe, thank you JK always”.

Loo at The Elephant Cafe

Rowling grew up near a cemetery in South Wales and remarked, “All our friends thought it was spooky living next to a graveyard but we liked it. I still love graveyards – they are a great source of names”.

So our Harry Potter quest pointed us toward Greyfriars Kirkyard near the cafe. In the ancient churchyard, we found gravestones displaying surnames Potter, McGonagall and Moodie (Moody in the books).

We eventually discovered Thomas Riddell’s grave (Lord Voldemort’s birth name was Tom Marvolo Riddle).  His site was one of the few with a bouquet of flowers, which a fan must have left behind. I’d guess he’s more famous now than when he was alive.

Cemetery in Edinburgh Scotland

Like many mothers, Rowling took her daughter to the park to tire her out. Once Jessica fell asleep in her stroller, Rowling rushed to a coffee shop to get some writing done. It’s easy to imagine the duo on their daily stroll watching children playing at George Heriot’s School situated behind the churchyard gates. It suspiciously resembles Hogwarts.

George Heriot's School Edinburgh

Without a magic wand or flying broomstick, we muggles sometimes have to resort to optical illusions. My teenagers ranked Camera Obscura & World of Illusions as one of their favorite museums (you can skip the show, but don’t miss the rooftop view or Ames Room).

It is located near the Edinburgh Castle and within walking distance to everything mentioned in this post.

Camera Obscura and World of Illusions

As for Rowling, she later married Dr. Neil Murray, and their family grew with the birth of their son David. She is one of the wealthiest authors in history.

Source: Conversations With J.K. Rowling (book), BBC, The New Yorker, Scottish Daily Mail 1, 2

More Harry Potter posts: A Tweenager’s Review: ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ PlayWarner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour

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