Driver’s tall tale casts a Harry Potter spell on tourists

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IT PROMISES to be a magical experience that transports tourists into the mind of Harry Potter author JK Rowling.

Thousands of visitors taken to a garden centre on the edge of Edinburgh are being told that it provided the name for one of the most popular characters in Rowling’s mega-selling set of Potter novels.

But Scotland on Sunday can reveal that what has become an urban legend now being publicised by a number of tour companies – that Dobby the House Elf was named after Dobbies the business – was made up by an Edinburgh bus driver and guide.

Brian McCardle was horrified when some of his clients likened him to Dobby, a short and wizened elf, but once over the shock, he began kidding tourists that Dobbies, near Dalkeith in Midlothian, was the inspiration for the name of one of leading characters.

Then the tale snowballed with the throwaway remark being taken as fact, and it is now being repeated by travel companies throughout the UK and beyond.

McCardle, 55, a guide with Edinburgh-based travel company Gray Line Scotland, said: “I remember the exact moment it all started. I was taking passengers on a tour to the Scottish Borders and as we passed the cafe in Nicolson Street in Edinburgh where Rowling sat writing when she was a struggling single parent I mentioned how she used to look out the window at Edinburgh University’s Old College at the passers-by looking for inspiration for her Harry Potter characters.

“I got a bit carried away and said: ‘You never know, I might have been the inspiration behind a character.’

“Then this guy shouted out: ‘Maybe you inspired Dobby’.

“I was quite pleased at the idea, but didn’t know who Dobby was. When I eventually did, I wasn’t too pleased to find out he was a wee creature with a pointy nose and big ears. I’m no oil painting but I’m not that bad.”

McCardle wanted to do something about this “slight” and hit on the idea of using Dobbies garden centre, as a joke. “The tourists love it,” he said. “They get off the bus looking for JK Rowling.”

McCardle, who has been with the bus company for 11 years, added: “I find it flattering that other companies are using my idea.”

Companies which use the Dobbies story include Cashel Travel, UK and Ireland tours, Scotland Tours, My Guide Britain, Marathon Travel and City Discovery.

The garden centre is now an essential stopping-off point on tours to the Scottish Borders and Rosslyn Chapel, which featured in the Hollywood blockbuster The Da Vinci Code.

Anne Mayer, owner of Stonehaven-based Scotland Tours, said: “I don’t mind at all that it was made up by a bus driver. It’s just a laugh, but it’s a good story to tell the tourists. Scotland has lots of stories about ghosts, so why not an elf and a garden centre?”

The idea that Rowling, now estimated to have a fortune of £560 million, would have used the garden centre’s name for inspiration, is not far-fetched.

Rowling, who is constructing a Renaissance-style garden at her Edinburgh home, has visited Dobbies, and many of the spells throughout the Harry Potter series reveal a knowledge of herbs and plants famed and feared for their legendary properties over the centuries. In a memorable scene from Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets the trainee wizards are taught how to care for mandrakes. And in Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, Harry eats a plant allowing him to breathe underwater and communicate with a merman.

Simon Martin, general manager at Dobbies Garden World, said: “We’re extremely amused and flattered to hear that one of Harry’s most magical friends might be named after us. JK Rowling perhaps got her inspiration from one of her trips to our garden centre outside Edinburgh – we’re very privileged that she has popped into our centre from time to time over the years.

“Since learning the news of our possible namesake we’ve been trying to think up ways to help entertain our coach-trip customers… perhaps a wizard soup in our restaurant, some Butterbeer in the Foodhall or a new line of Mandrake root in the garden centre”.

A spokeswoman for StonehillSalt, Rowling’s PR company, said they do not ever comment on the inspiration behind her characters.