As Unesco’s city of literature, Edinburgh has both a rich literary history and a thriving contemporary climate for literature. From Sir Walter Scott to J. K. Rowling and Ian Rankin, many of the great figures English literature have connections with this Scottish city, whether visiting it, living there or being influenced by its writers.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886
‘Quiet minds cannot be perplexed or frightened but go on in fortune or misfortune at their own private pace, like a clock during a thunderstorm’.
While the novel may be set in London, it is common consensus among scots that this infamous story may just as well have been set in Edinburgh. The dual personality of the protagonist clearly echoes the Janus nature of the city itself, split between the Old Town with its closes, maze like streets and age old buildings, and the New Town, with its perfectly planned Georgian architecture. Robert Louis Stevenson is one of Scotland’s most beloved authors, and this novella is a must on any reading list.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Muriel Spark, 1961
‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life’.
Filmatised in 1969 starring Maggie Smith, this novel is considered a modern classic. Follow Jean Brodie and her girls, ‘the Brodie set’, parade through the Meadows and the Grass Market, as Miss Brodie applies her unconventional teaching methods. This novel uses frequent flash forward and flash back, making for an interesting read of how Miss Brodie was ‘in her prime’.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
James Hogg, 1824
‘Nothing in the world delights a truly religious people so much as consigning them to eternal damnation’.
Murder, intrigue, duels and family drama… explore Edinburgh at a time when brawls broke out on the Royal Mile and the Princes Street Gardens was still a Loch in the middle of the city. Calvinism and superstition also feature heavily, two influential and important aspects of Scottish history which remain part of the Scottish character today. Cultural influences of this novel still persist in today’s culture, far beyond the borders of Scotland.
Irvine Welsh, 1993
‘By definition, you have to live until you die. Better to make that life as complete and enjoyable an experience as possible, in case death is shite, which I suspect it will be’.
Now most famous as the cult classic film starring Ewan McGregor and Kevin McKidd, this is originally a novel set in Edinburgh and Leith. While Leith itself has undergone gentrification since the novel’s publication, Welsh shows with gritty realism the underside of any large city, even a picturesque one like Edinburgh. It is a challenging read, both style- and content wise, depicting characters riddled with addiction, frequent use of a broad scottish dialect and a narrative consisting mainly of short stories. The movie provides a great point of reference, so although this is supposed to be a list of novels, in this case the film is heartily recommended as well.
Hide and Seek
Ian Rankin, 1991
This is the second detective novel of one of Edinburgh’s resident writers, Ian Rankin. Following Inspector John Rebus as he reports to the scene of an overdose where the body is surrounded by symbols of satanic worship, his investigation leads to the discovery of a much larger systemic corruption. Like Welsh, Rankin uncovers the shady underside of the ‘posh’ city. This crime novel is full of literary allusions to John Keats, Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson, and in his preface to the novel, Rankin himself cites Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as one of his main influences. This is a book of mystery with one of the most enduring and influential ‘hard-boiled’ detectives created in recent times. If you are going to read one piece of tartan noir, read this one.