Scottish fact of the week: The ‘Harry Potter’ cafe

IF IT wasn’t for the large sign in the window and the occasional queues out the door, you might not realise that the rather plain cafe on Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge is where some of the capital’s most celebrated writers have honed their skills.
The Elephant Cafe on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh. Picture: TSPLThe Elephant Cafe on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL
The Elephant Cafe on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh. Picture: TSPL

Both Ian Rankin, creator of Inspector Rebus, and the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency author Alexander McCall Smith both spent time in the cafe working on future books.

But perhaps most famously, in the cafe’s back room overlooking Edinburgh Castle, JK Rowling’s boy wizard Harry Potter was written onto the pages of what would go on to be one of the most successful series of books ever published.

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Although Harry Potter was, according to Rowling, conceived on a train journey, The Boy Who Lived is more closely associated with two Edinburgh cafes, the other being Nicholson’s, which changed hands in 2003 and became a Chinese restaurant (although a memorial plaque is cited at the spot on Nicholson Street). It was in these two places that Rowling pieced together the wizard’s adventures, friends and background as a single mum on benefits struggling to make ends meet - a far cry from the suite at the Balmoral where the Harry Potter series was brought to an end.

JK Rowling. Picture: AFP/GettyJK Rowling. Picture: AFP/Getty
JK Rowling. Picture: AFP/Getty

A quick glance at the Elephant Cafe’s website shows a number of guestlist entries from people planning pilgrimages to the ‘birthplace of Harry Potter’, or enthusing about completed trips. The plaque on the wall outside the cafe describes it as the ‘place of inspiration’ for writers such as Rowling. The large sign in the window simply reads: ‘Birthplace of Harry Potter’.

Rowling’s decision to move to Edinburgh in the early nineties shaped much of the wizarding series, with Scottish references littered throughout the books. Hogwarts School is situated somewhere near Dufftown in Moray, and there is a Quidditch team called the Wigtown Wanderers.

Whether or not Rowling spent more time in Nicholson’s or the Elephant House cafe is unclear - what is clear, however, is that her Scottish surroundings had more than a slight influence on one of the world’s most popular phenomenons.