Edinburgh cafe’s claim to be true birthplace of Harry Potter

Nicolson's claims to the true birthplace of Harry Potter. Picture: Pamela Grigg for News/Stephanie Todd
Nicolson's claims to the true birthplace of Harry Potter. Picture: Pamela Grigg for News/Stephanie Todd
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Ask most Harry Potter fans where JK Rowling first conjured up the boy wizard and they will point to the Elephant House cafe on Edinburgh’s George IV Bridge.

But on the 20th anniversary of the publication of Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone, new evidence emerged yesterday that his birthplace was in fact a rival cafe nearby.

In 1997 local photographer Marius Alexander pictured Rowling at Nicolson’s, a business co-owned by her brother-in-law, where the aspiring author had been writing since she moved to the city with her daughter three years earlier. Rowling described Nicolson’s as the place “where I wrote huge parts of the book” in a BBC documentary in 2001.

Sarah Anderson was a student living on Nicolson Street at the time Rowling was writing her first Harry Potter book.

She said: “I lived opposite in the mid-‘90s and watched her writing it. I was quite envious of the lady sat in a window every day sipping a cuppa while I starved in my cold student flat. I think fans should treat it as the true birthplace.”

Since 2009, the premises have been a cafe called Spoon. A small plaque outside mentions the Rowling link, below the window where she once sat.

But waitress Molly Lambert said Spoon’s owners do not have plans to claim “birth rights”.

“The interest comes in waves,” she said. “Today we have had three groups of people come in and ask about it, but promoting it is not really for us.”

At the Elephant House cafe a sign in the window claims the adventures of Harry Potter were first put to paper inside.

The cafe’s director David Taylor said Rowling would not have allowed such a bold claim unless it was at least partly accurate. He said: “She obviously does not seem to mind. While we have benefitted by association, it is only in the last two years we’ve seen an increase in business because of it. We have never claimed to be the only Edinburgh café she wrote in. The sign has always been tongue-in-cheek. It’s in inverted commas and most Potter fans will know that the birthplace – if there is such a thing – was actually on a train.”

Mr Taylor said the Elephant House uses its association with Harry Potter to raise money for good causes.

“We were getting lots of tourists coming in, looking around without buying anything, so we started charging a pound.

“Since April last year we’ve raised £20,000 for Children’s International and a £4,000 towards building a community centre in the Philippines.”