Edinburgh was named the world’s first ‘City of Literature’ 15 years ago, but has seemed unsure of what to do with the title in the years since. But there are signs that is about to change, writes Brian Ferguson.
It is just over 15 years since Edinburgh was crowned the world’s first official “City of Literature” by Unesco. The bid to claim the title was backed by big-hitters like JK Rowling, Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith, with then Lord Provost Lesley Hinds and Culture Secretary Patricia Ferguson leading a 20-strong delegation in Paris.
Having expected to wait several months for the decision, the city’s literary luminaries found themselves celebrating when the home of Arthur Conan Doyle, Muriel Spark, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson was awarded the accolade almost immediately.
Edinburgh suddenly had another significant feather in its cultural cap. But for much of the intervening period, with public funding for the arts under more pressure than ever, Edinburgh has seemed unsure what it wanted to do with it.
There have been admirable efforts to promote the city’s grass-roots literature and spoken-word scene, which has been transformed since the late 1990s and early 2000s, despite the loss of key venues. There is little doubt that the city is a magnet for fans of Harry Potter and Inspector Rebus, while the book festival has gone from strength to strength, underlined by its new partnership with the New York Times this summer and its expansion into George Street in recent years. Yet there has been a lingering feeling that Edinburgh has been selling itself short over its world City of Literature status.
Scotland’s first books
While a lack of resources may have much to do with its relatively low profile, particularly compared to the city’s signature summer and winter events, the absence of a real focal point is also a likely factor. Suddenly, though, there are two beacons of hope which should address this infrastructure gap and elevate that global status to unprecedented levels.
The first is the transformation of an old bank building at the top of Leith Walk into a vast new branch of the bookseller Topping and Company. My social media feeds were awash with images of the two-storey shop as soon as it opened its doors and it is little wonder, given the mesmerising layout of the store and the 75,000 titles that have filled its shelves. Almost as impressive is the line-up of opening events, many in the neighbouring Greenside Church.
Still to come is the long-awaited evolution of a cornerstone of the original bid, to capitalise on an unofficial literary quarter in the Royal Mile, centred on the Netherbow area, where Scotland’s first books were published in the 16th century. Its evolution has been stop-start, to say the least, since then. The 2006 expansion of John Knox House to create the Scottish Storytelling Centre was a landmark moment in the modern history of the Royal Mile and, to this day, it is a thriving year-round hub for events and festivals. Yet wider ambitions for the area – where publishers Canongate, The List magazine, the Scottish Book Trust and the Saltire Society are all based – have largely stalled.
But now there appears to be real momentum behind plans to make the 15th-century John Knox House itself into an official Scottish Literature House, by turning it into one of the most futuristic attractions in the city. The tantalising prospect of “data-driven wizardry” being used to create an “evolving, immersive exhibition” has been teased by the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust ahead of a full reveal in the next few months of “a place dedicated to telling our story as a nation built on books”.
A rebirth of the medieval building could just hold the key to unlocking a new chapter in the city’s literary history.