The first UNESCO City of Literature: Edinburgh’s literary tradition

To be a writer you have to have something worth writing about. You need experiences that fascinate others, or adventures like no other. To be a writer, or at least a good one, you need to be inspired. One city in particular has no shortage of all-encompassing inspiration; brilliant authors have grown up in Edinburgh and their work exquisitely paints that.

Renowned writers like Kenneth Graham, Arthur Conan Doyle, Walter Scott and even JK Rowling have wandered the same streets as us students. The Complaint of the Black Knight, Scotland’s very first book, was published in this very city in 1508. George Square, the same place many of us take our politics or computing classes, was the childhood home of Walter Scott. Waverley was written just steps away from Teviot Row House. The character of Sherlock Holmes was inspired by a professor at the University; author Arthur Conan Doyle sat in his flat at Picardy Place and created the criminal mastermind Moriarty and the reliable Watson. Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad of the illustrious Wind in the Willows were conceived by Kenneth Graham around the beautiful Edinburgh. Even though it is disputed in which cafe this took place, Harry Potter was undoubtedly conjured in one of the many around the city. Rowling once said, “Edinburgh is very much home for me and is the place where Harry evolved over seven books and many, many hours of writing in its cafés.”

Countless stories have taken place in this enchanting city. Who wouldn’t be mesmerised by the history and natural beauty? Trainspotting, Frankenstein, The Pickwick Papers and even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are all based in the city we call home.
There is no shortage of literary events to partake in at all times. Edinburgh is even home to the world’s largest literary festival, The International Book Festival. It is a two week event that takes place in August. Almost 800 authors from over 40 countries entertain the 225,000 visitors of the event.

There are 28 designated UNESCO Cities of Literature, but due to this rich literary background, Edinburgh had the honour of being the first to be awarded the title in 2004. Surprisingly, this title does not just get handed out to any old city.
There are very specific criteria if a city wishes to attain this prestigious status. The quantity of libraries and bookstores, the quality of publishing houses and the existence of literary events or festivals are only a few of the attributes that make a city qualify.
Edinburgh has been the designated UNESCO City of Literature since 2004, but 15 years later, does it still deserve the title? Did it ever deserve the title? Is the title even consequential?

In theory, the allure of the UNESCO status is to inspire young writers and award the city for its renowned dedication to the field, but from a pragmatic point of view, the only benefit I can see is tourism. Tourism accounts for five per cent of Scotland’s GDP and over eight per cent of employment is within the service industry. The abundant history of literature is a huge tourist draw to Edinburgh.

The title in and of itself is inconsequential, but the responsibilities that come with it are nothing but. The committee in Edinburgh is responsible for bringing together other UNESCO cities of literature, all 28 of them. They must support and aid other cities wishing to attain this status. Sharing knowledge and expertise on literature is undoubtedly the most noteworthy of tasks.
Books, stories, poems, songs – literature like these add to the beauty of a city, and a well-rounded education that youth is in need of. Fostering an energetic outlook on the literary arts is vital, and one of the most tangible and purposeful uses of this title.

“Mine own romantic town,” wrote Scott of Edinburgh. He could not help but become entranced by the city he grew up in. The windy crags and hills draw artists in. The spires of smoky stone and cobbled streets make them never want to leave. Inspiration is brimming and maybe that is the real reason Edinburgh is renowned for the literary arts. In the end, having a certain number of book shops is not what holds any importance, it is the inspiration you can find around every corner in this city.

 

Illustration: Katie Moore

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