On the Harry Potter Trail in Edinburgh
Are your kids Harry Potter mad? One of the best fun and value city tours we’ve come across is in J.K. Rowling’s home town of Edinburgh. On The Harry Potter Edinburgh trail a potions master or witch will enlighten you on the locations that inspired J.K. Rowling. And at the same time teach you spells that can stop traffic. All for just a small donation to the wizarding fund. Read on for a round up of Edinburgh’s Potter magic…
I am a witch
“I need to warn you I am a witch. It comes with the job and I don’t understand any of this muggle traffic.” says the Potter Trail tour guide Charlotte Leandro.
She then proceeds to lead us towards the muggle traffic of a main Edinburgh junction. If you are a parent you might find this slightly terrifying. But fear not. At the start of your Harry Potter tour you will be given a wand. And taught a traffic stopping spell. And hurrah, it seems to work. But then Edinburgh is a magical place. After all it invented Harry Potter.
J.K. Rowling’s magical Edinburgh
Or rather its most famous daughter J.K. Rowling did. And today we are following in her footsteps, finding out the stories, myths and facts about how she created the child who was brave enough to stand up to the one so evil he has no nostrils.
“The story starts two decades ago. It begins on a train stuck somewhere between Manchester and London.“ says Charlotte, as we stand in Greyfriars churchyard next to some spooky looking graves. Eh? I thought the story began in Edinburgh? But no, the germ of the books predates J.K. Rowling’s time in the city.
“In 1990 the young Joanne Rowling was returning from her job as a secretary. Her train was delayed and she found herself staring out at an uninspiring sight; fields speckled with cows, when the kernel of Harry Potter popped into her mind. A very enviable way to get ideas,” explains Charlotte as she marches us further into Greyfriars Kirkyard all the time briefing us on the author’s creative methods.
“She didn’t have a pen so she was unable to capture the ideas that came into her mind. She later said it turned out to be a good thing, because instead of writing all the ideas down, she was able to focus on the ideas themselves and get more detail. She set herself a little test; if she remembered the ideas before returning home she deemed them worth writing down.”
And these ideas weren’t just worth writing down; as we all know they went on to become a global phenomenon. Twenty years on from the publication of the first book on 26th June 1997, children are still discovering the books. And soon whole generations of people who queued up for the first novel will be reading them to their own children.
Graveyard secrets revealed
“They were standing instead in a dark and overgrown graveyard; the black outline of a small church was visible beyond a large yew.” Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
“Now I’m going to reveal some graveyard secrets” says Charlotte, pushing her witches cloak behind her. “You’ll notice we are at the final resting place of William McGonagall. J.K. Rowling has confirmed he was the inspiration for Professor Minerva McGonagall’s name. He wasn’t a novelist but a poet. A notoriously bad poet, In fact he has been called the world’s worst.”
Charlotte announces she is going to perform some of his poetry.
“Tay bridge disaster.” She pauses for a moment.
“Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away.”
“Feel free to throw soft fruit in my direction.” she interrupts herself. “Someone the other day chucked an apricot and it was very exciting!”
The sorting hat ceremony
After a short period of awful verse, Charlotte is drowned out by a loudspeaker coming from a gate in the churchyard wall. We run excitedly to the gate, and are greeted by outline of Hogwarts. Well, not actually Hogwarts, but the school that is thought to have inspired it.
George Heriot’s school is a storybook sight of towers and turrets, domes and castellations. Charlotte confirms it’s likely that J.K. Rowling based the school on a combination of this and Edinburgh Castle. We look in at the ceremony taking place before us. Is it a sorting ceremony? I can’t see a hat or wands. Perhaps it’s just sports day.
Charlotte is not being upstaged by a school, even a school that inspired Hogwarts!
“No visit to Hogwarts is complete without some sorting. Does anyone want to be sorted today…?” says Charlotte. Is she kidding? Who is going to say no to that? Except perhaps a Slytherin candidate.
Picking our houses
“Or perhaps in Slytherin,
You’ll make your real friends,
These cunning folks use any means
To achieve their ends.” – Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone
“The colours of the houses at the school correspond perfectly to the colours of the houses at Hogwarts,” our guide says, asking us to choose the house we are drawn to. I pick one that corresponds with Ravenclaw, (for the clever children) and the kids pick Raeburn which is red like Griffindor (for the brave children). Stuart picks Lauriston that is green like Slytherin (for the evil children). No one mentions evil husbands but I’m sure we are all thinking it.
“Greyfriars is cream like Hufflepuff (for all the remaining children). We have no yellow wands for Hufflepuff, simply because no one ever wants them,” says Charlotte, adding that J.K. Rowling sent her own children to the school for a short while.
Now feeling slightly sorry for all the kids running the three legged race for Greyfriars in the George Heriot’s sports day, I follow Charlotte across the churchyard to the inspiration for Voldemort’s grave. In real life this is the resting place of Thomas Riddell; an aristocrat who was buried with his son in the cemetery. Charlotte tells us it used to be strewn with love letters until the council started removing them. Weird?
The demented underpass
At Potterow Port, an underpass in the student area, we hear J.K. Rowling worked at her idea of a school for wizards on and off for years, jotting down notes and names. Meanwhile she met and married a Portuguese journalist and had a daughter called Jessica. “Unfortunately the marriage ended in divorce leaving her alone with Jessica and she describes this period as the darkest period her life; one which inspired the dementors.” In the dark urban part of the city I can imagine dementors flying.
Charlotte continues to fill us in. Joanne was thrown a lifeline by her sister Dianne who encouraged the author to move to Edinburgh to be near her. “She set herself a one year deadline where she rented a flat and lived on social security, writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.”
The birthplace of Harry Potter
We move on to the building that housed Spoon Café (formerly Nicolson’s Café, owned by the writer’s brother in law) to see where The Philosopher’s Stone came to life while J.K. Rowling rocked the baby to sleep with one hand. More interesting is the Elephant House cafe, back towards Greyfriars, where some of the later books were written. It has a great view of the castle where the stadium being erected on our visit looks very much like a quidditch pitch. It also has table drawers stuffed with fan mail to the author, toilets that have been transformed into an art installation by fans with marker pens and queues of Japanese tourists.
“They leave the messages in the tables and on the walls in the hope that J.K. Rowling will find the time to return one day and see them,” Charlotte explains. Unlikely, I’m thinking. She’d be mobbed.
The hotel suite with a steep price tag
Far more likely, I imagine, is that she’ll return to suite number 522 of the Balmoral Hotel, another stop on the tour. In this hotel, next to Waverley Station, she wrote her version of ‘J.K woz ‘ere‘ in a black pen on a marble statue after she’d finished writing the last book.
“You can rent the J.K. Rowling suite for a weekend break,” says Charlotte. I know this as I have already been in to ask about it. At a rack rate of £1620 a night. A bit steep for anyone who isn’t a million dollar novelist. Perhaps if I was to book a Travelodge and start writing I could be finished by the time of Rowling’s thirtieth anniversary.
It isn’t hard to believe Victoria Street is the inspiration for Diagon Alley. It’s cute and colourful. At the head of it is a bank that looks exactly like Gringotts (there’s even a little goblin outside – or is that the security guard?). It has a joke shop that could be Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, a pub that could be the Leaky Cauldron, a Knights’ shop and a shop that mostly seems to be selling signs that say Diagon Alley. And wands too. But of course we have our own. As we leave the parade we stop the traffic with the spell Charlotte has taught us. The traffic halts as if by magic as the little man becomes green. (Not the Gringotts guard – keep up!) . Charlotte really is a very good witch and seems to understand muggle traffic lights, if not the whims of Scottish drivers.
Money in the hat
At the end of the tour she hands around the sorting hat. The tour is free to all but donations are welcome. Clearly an apricot isn’t enough after all. But no one minds paying for such a fun and informative walk. Although it must get a bit cold in the winter, hanging around all these graveyards trying not to say the name of Voldemort.
Whoops! Does that mean I am damned to wandering Edinburgh’s dark side for ever more? If so I reckon Charlotte would happily bring a tour to visit me. Despite the fact that Edinburgh is packed with tours of different kinds, these are getting pretty popular. In the summer they run in every weather and once during the fringe, 200 people turned up.
“The city has provided so much inspiration and different little pieces of the books. It is very exciting to walk around, Its infectious really,” says Charlotte, waving her wand and heading off in her black cloak to introduce another set of people to the city’s magic and J.K. Rowling’s inspiration.