Edinburgh should celebrate its proud literary tradition

JAMES Boyle’s recent proposal that Edinburgh should seek recognition by UNESCO as a World City of Literature is a bold but brilliant idea.

Great writers have lived and worked in Edinburgh for 600 years. Writers of all kinds. Poets such as William Dunbar in the 15th century to Robert Garioch, Sydney Goodsir Smith and Norman McCaig in our own time. Novelists from Walter Scott to Stevenson and to Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith. Philosophers and historians from David Hume and William Robertson to George Davie and Michael Lynch.

Many of the poets have celebrated the spirit of the place. Dunbar spoke of the "bliss and glory of Edinburgh, the mirry toun" and Robert Fergusson called it "the wale o ilka toun". Its life has been recorded by diarists of genius, including James Boswell and Walter Scott.

Periodicals of international influence, such as the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Magazine, were published here, and this was the first home of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

This is a living tradition. Today, probably more books are being written in Edinburgh than ever before.

It is time that this record was celebrated for a good practical reason: to draw the attention of our own people, and the world at large, to the infinite riches, pleasure, enlightenment and stimulation that are lying there in the bookshops and libraries ready for them to discover for themselves.

Of course, we are not suggesting that Edinburgh is the only city with such a record. Think of Florence, Paris, St Petersburg, London, Dublin, Glasgow and many more. It would be good to have an international network of Cities of Literature.

But declarations and recognitions are not enough. We have to produce accessible and visible evidence so that anyone can see what we are talking about. That means a comprehensive Writers’ Museum.

We have a small one already, and it is a charming place, but it has space for only three writers, even if they are three of the greatest: Burns, Scott and Stevenson. You can imagine visitors saying: "Is that all they have to offer?" Space is needed for scores, if not hundreds, and from the earliest times to the present.

There is such a museum in Dublin, where you can get an introduction to all their major writers by exhibits which set out briefly their lives and works in display panels, supported by some editions, letters, manuscripts and portraits. A museum of this kind would be a valuable educational resource and a stimulus to self-confidence in its evidence of past and present achievement.

We already have a literary quarter in Edinburgh which is crying out for such a place. The present Writers’ Museum, the Makars’ Court, the National Library and the Central Public Library all lie within a few steps of the intersection of George IV Bridge and the High Street. The Scottish Book Trust, the Scottish Poetry Library and the Saltire Society are all quite close.

For the new comprehensive Writers’ Museum, the ideal building would be the former Lothian Regional Council Chambers building, used at present by the parliamentary committees; but the City Council needs that for its own purposes. Space can probably be found elsewhere on George IV Bridge. This would have the additional advantage of helping both the National and the Central Library to extend their accessibility to the public.

From conversations that I have had with people involved, I am confident that both of the libraries would be eager to participate. The new museum might also become a sort of literary powerhouse by providing office and meeting space for the literary organisations.

This proposal has the potential to make a similar impact on the international reputation of Edinburgh as the International Festival and, not only for three or four weeks a year, but for the whole 12 months.


• Paul Scott is a writer and a former president of the Saltire Society and of the Scottish Centre of International PEN.

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