20 Minute Cities: Edinburgh – Digital Writers’ Festival

‘Ah remember walkin along Princes Street wi Spud, we both hate walkin along that hideous street, deadened by tourists and shoppers, the twin curses ay modern capitalism. Ah looked up at the castleand thought, it’s just another building tae us. It registers in oor heids just like the British Home Stores or Virgin Records. We were heading tae these places oan a shoplifting spree. But when ye come back oot ay Waverley Station eftir bein away fir a bit, ye think: Hi, this isnae bad.’

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Whatever your life journey, from whichever side of the tracks, the Edinburgh skyline forces an inhale of breath as you first catch sight of it coming up the steps out of Waverley Station. Many of us working and living in Edinburgh can identify with Renton’s stubborn reluctance to admit that as capital cities and global cultural destinations go, Edinburgh ‘ isnae bad’ at all. Truth be told, the layers of urban drama in the old town spires, the volcanic crags and the seven hills make us fall madly, deeply in love with the charm, the idiosyncrasies and the contradictions of the place. It’s just not really the Scottish way to shout about it.


Perhaps like the brewing of hops and barley that give the city its distinctive earthy smell (‘Auld Reekie’), knowing and understanding Edinburgh can take time to mature. Time is not something we have much of for tomorrow’s Digital Writers Festival ! During a mere 20 minutes, myself and fellow ‘emerging writer’ Viccy Adams, will take online viewers on a live tour by smartphone of some favourite landmarks, nooks and crannies in Edinburgh’s Literary Quarter. And a big, screaming disclaimer here – we will NOT get to everywhere in 20 minutes and will inevitably irritate by missing out that unique, hidden location or literary reference that you hold dear. We won’t get to Word Power Book Shop, or a Rally and Broad spoken word night, or an International Book Festival event. Sorry about that.

‘A setting for an opera nobody performs nowadays an opera called ‘Scottish History’.

1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray

Beginning in the meadows (scene-setting with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark), we will march at a pace to Looking Glass Books to meet with other writers enjoying a coffee in this, one of Edinburgh’s more than fifty bookshops.

It was coming near noon when I passed in by the West Kirk and the Grassmarket into the streets of the capital. The huge height of the buildings, running up to ten and fifteen storeys, the narrow arched entries that continually vomited passengers, the wares of the merchants in their windows, the hubbub and endless stir, the foul smells and the fine clothes, and a hundred other particulars too small to mention, struck me into a kind of stupor of surprise…

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Next, we will say a friendly hello to the most patted terrier in Edinburgh aside from @bonhound , dear Greyfriars Bobby, and on Candlemaker Row hear a reading from debut novelist Jane Alexander’s forthcoming book ‘The Last Treasure Hunt’, while pointing out both the National and City Libraries on George IV Bridge.

By this point, we might be needing a loo stop and we can pop into use The Elephant House cafe conveniences and see the graffiti tributes to JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter novel (we decided to spare viewers, and ourselves, from a visit to the ‘the worst toilet in Scotland’, described in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and rumored to be inside Muirhouse shopping centre).

We will reach the crossroads of Deacon Brodie’s Tavern and Parliament House (reference points to some notable lawyers turned writers including Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott).

writers museum

The Writers’ Museum and Makers’ Court

Finally, we will conclude the tour at Makers’ Court (‘Maker’ is Scots for a crafter of words) near The Writer’s Museum, The Scottish Poetry Library and The Scottish Book Trust with a reading by Edinburgh’s Maker/ poet laureatte, Christine de Luca, of her new poem Getting to Know You, Edinburgh and a look down to ‘that hideous street’ (Trainspotting) Princes Street, and Waverley Station (named after Sir Walter Scott’s most famous novel, Waverley).

Edinburgh was designated the first UNESCO City of Literature in the world in 2004 and now shares its City of Literature status with Melbourne, Iowa and Reykjavik, Krakow, Dublin and Norwich. Melbourne is host to the Digital Writers Festival (11- 22 February 2015) and is coordinating the 20 Minute Cities programme. Viewers on Twitter can help direct each tour, suggest places to visit, and share excerpts of their own creative writing.

Viccy and I will reflect on what makes Auld Reekie a City of Literature. Is it the individual writers – past and present- that make the city special; adopting Edinburgh’s cafes, pubs and libraries as incubators for fine words, or is the city itself the muse? Do Scots and Gaelic writers get due prominence? Why is Edinburgh often described as being like a woman (or a man?) wearing a ‘fur coat but nae knickers’? Is the city centre and its designated literary quarter all but a sheltered citadel to entertain the tourists and keep them away from other, less sanitized parts of the city (see my own attempt at a love poem, Tae Leith)? Are we in danger of romanticizing the authors of the past while neglecting today’s emerging talent and their struggle to get published and earn a living? What is a digital writer compared to an analogue writer? Are we in the midst of a Scottish re-Enlightenment?

Spoiler alert – we don’t have the answers to these questions but we will do our best to consider them while on a walk through some of the defining urban drama and charming contradictions of the city that have helped shape its literary successes.

Tune in live from 10.30am GMT. Sit comfortably by your Twitter feed, and we’ll begin…




And coverage on the STV Fountainbridge Show featuring Looking Glass Books, Greyfriars Bobby, and Maker’s Court, at 01.45, 17.51, 45.26, 56.40:

Maker's Court



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