Edinburgh is a literary delight

It is elementary, my dear visitors: Edinburgh has been the Inspiration for many brilliant and subsequently famous writers over the centuries, whose literary legacies in turn continue to inspire modern writers to this day. You may be familiar with the work of one such author who grew up here: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of […]

It is elementary, my dear visitors: Edinburgh has been the Inspiration for many brilliant and subsequently famous writers over the centuries, whose literary legacies in turn continue to inspire modern writers to this day. You may be familiar with the work of one such author who grew up here: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the legendary Sherlock Holmes series. As the name suggests, Doyle was of Irish descent, but was born and raised in Edinburgh. His family relocated from London for his father’s civil service job at Holyrood Palace, but remained very poor. While still a student, the resourceful young Doyle therefore wrote short stories to supplement his parents’ meagre wages. In doing so he also acquired his initial taste for literary success, albeit limited at the time.  His first published short story – The Mystery of Sarsassa Valley (1879) – earned him all of three guineas.

His five years (1876-1881) at Edinburgh University were not only important in Doyle’s development as a writer, but also because it was during that time that he met Dr Joseph Bell. A surgeon at the Edinburgh Infirmary and a professor in the Faculty of Medicine, Bell unwittingly was to be the inspiration for Doyle’s most famous creation, the character Sherlock Holmes. The young medical student later became Bell’s clerk, which allowed him to observe the experienced doctor at work. During one consultation which Doyle witnessed, Bell deduced that the patient in question was a non-commissioned officer from a Highland regiment wo had been stationed in Barbados, simply based on his observation of the man’s behaviour, nationality and specific ailment. This unexpected episode turned out to be the inspiration for the world’s most famous pipe-smoking detective. Doyle gleaned inspiration not only from Joseph Bell, but from parts of the city itself. The plateau in his 1912 novel, The Lost World, is said to be based on the Salisbury Crags, the prominent Holyrood Park cliffs. In fact, Doyle tended to use various Edinburgh place names (such as Lauriston Gardens which featured in his first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet) because he was as yet unfamiliar with London, where the Sherlock Holmes collection was set. Edinburgh-based Ian Rankin, author of tthe Inspector Rebus crime series, has cited Doyle (who features as a murderer in his book The Acid  Test) as a major influence on his own work. However, Rankin laments Doyle’s avoidance of Edinburgh, both physically and in his writing: “It is a shame that such a world-renowned author didn’t write much about Edinburgh. A certain amount of mystery surrounds him, because he moved away as soon as he could – when he graduated from the university.” While Doyle was  still in Edinburgh, he is said to have frequented Rutherford’s Houff pub (3 Drummond Street), as did Robert Louis Stevenson. Despite having undergone many changes of name and ownership throughout the years it still retains its distinctive 1899 façade. He also drank in The Beehive Inn in the Grassmarket, where other patrons included Walter Scott and Robert Burns. You might want to visit The Beehive Inn (said to have had a drinks licence for about 400 years) during your stay, as it remains an important part of the modern literature scene of Edinburgh, with the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour starting there. 11 Picardy Place – where Doyle was born in 1859 – was demolished 40 years ago to make way for the roundabout between Leith Walk and York Place. The closest surviving building to Doyle’s first house is actually The Conan Doyle – a pub in which you can peruse paintings and other artefacts relating to the writer over lunch, while sipping on your tipple of choice. However, there is still a plaque tucked away in the wall  on the opposite side of the road, next to The Street pub, commemorating his birth on Picardy Place. There is also normally a bronze statue of Sherlock Holmes complete with pipe in hand there, which is currently in storage until the city tram works are finished, due to be some time in 2011. Arthur Conan Doyle spent the formative years of his life in Edinburgh.

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