Famous Scottish Writers : The History of the Edinburgh Literati
The city of Edinburgh was once described as "a hotbed of genius" by Tobias Smollett. The capital of Scotland has produced many great minds in modern history.
Towering figures in science, medicine and engineering have provided outstanding service to the advancement and betterment of humankind.
But many great men and women have also contributed to human society and learning through the power of the word alone. From the theologians and the intellectual giants of philosophy to the story-tellers of the novel and the verse of the romantic poet.
Edinburgh has been known as a 'City of Letters' beginning in earnest in the early 18th century. Whether from the days of the quill and pen or the laptop here are the leading lights.
In the 15th century William Dunbar was the city's first recognised poet and was also closely associated with the Court of King James IV of Scotland. He was known as one of the 'Makars' who wrote in the vernacular style in this transitional period between the Medieval Age and the Renaissance. Although inspired by Chaucer some of Dunbar's writings exhibit a more whimsical humour and biting satire bordering on invective.
The poet Robert Fergusson was born in 1750 and lived a short life until 1774 when he suffered from a brain injury after an accident. Although not well known in modern times, he was a direct influence on his more famous successor Robert Burns.
The latter, who became Scotland's national poet, reverted to writing in the Scots tongue rather than English following in the fashion of the tragic Fergusson.
The nickname of Edinburgh is 'Auld Reekie', a term coined by Fergusson and which is still popular today. Even though it refers to the not so pleasant smell of the streets of 18th century Edinburgh. He is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard.
A wonderful exponent and supporter of the written word was Allan Ramsey who was born in Lanarkshire in 1686. Besides having the occupation of wig-making he was also a poet, a playwright, a publisher and a librarian.
In fact he was so determined to spread reading among ordinary people that he introduced a 'Penny Library' where poor people could borrow books. These were far too expensive at that time to buy and Ramsey's efforts helped promote literacy especially among children.
He moved to Edinburgh in 1701 as an apprentice wig-maker but later founded 'The Easy Club' in 1712 to encourage literary gatherings of like-minded souls.
The Scottish Enlightenment
The coming of the 18th century saw the development of one of the most influential Scottish thinkers in the history of the nation.
David Hume, born in 1711, was a historian, an humanitarian and a religious sceptic.
He is perhaps Scotland's best known and celebrated philosopher and is credited with sowing the seeds of modern Sociology.
His 'Treatise of Human Nature' is one of the most important books of Western Philosophy ever written.
Incredibly he began writing it when he was only 16 years old and finally completed the work 10 years later.
His book comprised enquiries into the human mind, emotion and how society operated. As an atheist and a sceptic he promoted the actions of reasoning, observation and the experimental method onto moral subjects of his time. Considered controversial among academic circles he was denied a seat at Edinburgh University because of his views. However a lasting tribute from the city is the fabulous Roman style Mausoleum in the Old Calton Cemetery over his burial place of 1776.
Adam Smith, born in 1723 in Kirkaldy in Fife, was another thinker and writer who is still widely regarded and followed to this day. In the field of economics his seminal book 'The Wealth of Nations' published in 1776 is a classic. He also became firm friends with David Hume who was 10 years his senior.
Smith invented the term "the invisible hand" in referring to the free market and which is still quoted today particularly among his admirers in modern liberal economic ideology. He delivered public lectures in Edinburgh from 1848 and in 1851 became a member of the Edinburgh Philosophical Society. He died in 1790 and is buried in the Canongate Kirkyard off the Royal Mile in the city.
Also born in 1723 Adam Ferguson became a philosopher and historian. He studied Divinity and was a Gaelic Chaplain for the Black Watch Regiment during the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion.
His most important work came in 1767 with his 'Essay on the History of Civil Society' which became widely read in Europe. It was translated into German and is reckoned to have influenced the thinking of Karl Marx and Georg Hegel.
Ferguson traveled widely and became involved with various political and philosophical and contemporary political issues. In particular his criticism of the American Revolution in 1776.
William Robertson, born 1721, was an historian and the Principal of Edinburgh University.
He had been a Parish Minister in East Lothian who became known as a powerful preacher.
Hi book 'History of Scotland' published in 1759 was widely read.
In 1763 he became the Moderator of the General Assembly and also Historiographer Royal to King George III.
Born later in 1753 Dugald Stewart had been a student of Adam Ferguson. A brilliant polymath he became a Professor of Mathematics at the age of 25 at Edinburgh University. He was a philosopher of the 'common-sense' school inspired by Thomas Reid although he retained a critical approach.
He occupied the Chair of Moral Philosophy at the University for 25 years until his retirement from teaching in 1810. One of his students was the future judge Lord Cockburn who declared, "To me, Stewart’s lectures were like the opening of the heavens. I felt that I had a soul".
Dugald Stewart's opinion of Philosophy was that it should "diffuse as widely as possible a degree of cultivation" In his memory there is a prominent Greek style monument to him that stands on Calton Hill in the Edinburgh.
With reputation secured by his 'The Life of Samuel Johnson' the lawyer and diarist James Boswell has had his name enter the English language.
Born in Edinburgh in 1740 the term 'Boswellian' refers to a constant companion and observer of record. This was the basis of his partnership with Johnson and the subsequent biography of their travels although the latter was scathing about Scotland and its people.
The brilliant circle of the 18th century Edinburgh Literati lived and met under the intellectual leadership of David Hume. They began the popularity of literary associations such as the aforementioned 'Easy Club' plus 'The Cape Club' and 'The Speculative Society'
They would gather in taverns that were tucked away within the wynds and closes of the medieval Old Town of the city. This community became a social and intellectual hub for the thinkers and writers of the city. Conviviality and high-spirited discourse were the order of the day.
The Age of the Story-teller
However one of the most famous of the later Edinburgh Literati was Sir Walter Scott who was born in Guthrie St off the Cowgate and lived from 1771 until 1832.
He was the blockbuster novelist of his day and pioneered the historical novel as a form of literary fiction.
His greatest works include the eternally popular 'Rob Roy' and 'Ivanhoe', the sword and shield adventures that made him particularly famous.
He was also a poet and a great social campaigner being a passionate supporter of the Monarchy and the Union of Great Britain.
Ironically his first series of books 'The Waverley Novels' were written anonymously. He worked in legal circles and was a lawyer, an advocate and a sheriff at various stages. Therefore writing works of fiction was considered beneath a man of such standing in his early writing career.
A contemporary and acquaintance of Scott was another great writer called James Hogg. Although born in Ettrick in the Scottish Borders, he relocated to Edinburgh in 1810 to further his literary career. His classic book 'The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner' was published in 1824.
One of the greatest and most popular writers worldwide to have graced the Edinburgh literary scene was Robert Louis Stevenson.
His exciting adventure books such as ''The Master of Ballantrae', Kidnapped' and 'Treasure Island' have been read by both young and old all over the world.
He was born in Edinburgh in 1850 and although from a family of engineers his talents were for the flowing pen.
Perhaps his most famous work was the horror classic 'The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde' published in 1886. It struck a chord with its story of good and evil.
It has been the subject of many TV and movie adaptations ever since with its powerful message of the duality of man. It was loosely based on the infamous William Brodie, an Edinburgh notable of the late 18th century who led a secret life as a burglar in the dead of night.
One of the most successful writers to have come from Edinburgh is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He was born there in 1859 from an Irish-Catholic family who were prosperous although Doyle's early life was bedevilled by an alcoholic father.
Despite studying medicine at the city university he went on to find fame and fortune writing the legendary series of Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories.
However it is also reckoned that one of his medical teachers had an unintended influence on his writing.
A Dr Joseph, Bell who was a brilliant observationist of logic, deduction, and diagnosis, apparently provided the inspiration for Holmes.
In creating probably the greatest fictional detective in history Conan Doyle would surely rank among the highest of the Edinburgh Literati. He died of a heart attack in 1930 at his house in Crowborough, East Sussex in England.
Also born in 1859 was Kenneth Graham who's family lived in Castle Street in the centre of the city. The bedtime stories that he had told his young son Alistair eventually became the source of his most famous book. In 1908 'The Wind in the Willows' was published. It took time to take hold on the public but has proven to be a major success both with children and adults.
At the end of the century Naomi Mitchison was born in Edinburgh in 1897 although she lived most of her life on the Mull of Kintyre. She published many novels through her long career with her prolific work-rate producing over 70 books in total. She died in 1999 at the incredible age of 101 leaving behind great works such as 'The Conquered', 'Cloud Cuckoo Land' and even a Science Fiction novel called 'Memoirs of a Spacewoman'.
The 20th century Scottish Renaissance
The early to mid-20th century Literati met in the New Town of Edinburgh at places like The Abbotsford Bar in Rose St, The Cafe Royal off Princes St and Milnes Bar in Hanover St.
Famous writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid, one of the leading lights of the Scottish renaissance, the Glasgow poet Edwin Morgan, Sorley McLean and Ian Crichton Smith from the Islands and the life-long Orcadian George MacKay Brown.
All these venerable institutions are still around today if you wish to soak up the atmosphere of yesteryear or the real ales of today. The atmosphere was captured in Alexander Moffat's imaginary conception of the meeting of the minds. His painting 'Poet's Pub' sets the background as an amalgam of the bars where the famous poets met in Edinburgh.
Within the painting you will also find one of Scotland's greatest modern poets. He stands on the left with a ubiquitous cigarette in his hand.
Born in 1910 Norman McCaig was a virtuoso miniaturist of poetry.
A colourful character he enjoyed dialogue and debate and often gave popular readings of his work.
He was close friends with both Hugh MacDiarmid and Professor Douglas Dunn the Renfrewshire poet.
As a life-long pacifist he was a conscientious objector during World War II. An example of his humour was his description of himself as a "Zen Calvinist" with regards to religion. He passed away in 1996.
Continuing the tradition of writing in the Scots tongue Sydney Goodsir Smith followed in the footsteps of Fergusson and Burns.
He was actually born in New Zealand in 1915 but his family moved to Edinburgh when he was 12 years old and he attended Malvern College before university in Edinburgh and at Oxford. His poem 'Under the Eildon Tree' published in 1948 is considered his masterpeice. He died of a heart attack in 1975 and was buried in the Dean Cemetery in the north of the city.
Another writer of the Scots language was Robert Garioch born in the capital in 1909. Also inspired by Robert Fergusson as well as the Romanesco writings of Italian Giuseppe Giaochino Belli.
A spell as a POW in World War II in Italy provided the opportunity to learn their language and develop a love for the literature of the country. However it was his Scottish poems that made his reputation with a passion for social causes and the plight of the ordinary man. He died in 1981.
Such was her precocious talent that Muriel Spark was a child poet who had already had her work published whilst still at school.
She even won a poetry prize when she was only 12 years old and never looked back.
An Edinburgh native, born in 1918, her most famous writing however came in the 1960s
The novel 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie' was published in 1961 and was about a flamboyant inspirational school teacher in 1930s Edinburgh.
Miss Brodie's unconventional teachings were a quest to inculcate in her schoolgirls a love of the finer things in art and culture. A romantic vision of pre-war Italian Fascism notwithstanding.
After a short theatrical run on Broadway it was made into a successful movie in 1969 graced by an Oscar winning performance by Maggie Smith. The expression "Creme de la creme" spoken in an Edinburgh accent became a popular catchphrase. Muriel continued writing until her death in 2006.
Alexander McCall Smith was most famous for writing 'The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency' series of novels. He was born in Africa in 1948 in what was then Southern Rhodesia and in his life has moved around with spells in Northern Ireland and Botswana. The latter is where his famous books were based and later made into a TV mini-series jointly produced by the BBC and HBO. After his African sojourn he returned to settle in Edinburgh.
Into the 21st century
A former drug addict himself Irvine Welsh turned to the mighty pen for redemption. He has produced some provocative and controversial books. Always highly readable and entertaining with their depictions of life and low-life in stories such as 'The Acid House' and 'Filth'.
But none more so than the now legendary 'Trainspotting' about a crowd of heroin addicts in the capital city. The movie of 1996 was a box-office smash and made international stars of its cast. In particular Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle and Kelly McDonald established their acting careers through the movie.
Following in the footsteps of Conan Doyle came Ian Rankin the writer of the very successful 'Inspector Rebus' novels which are based in Edinburgh. They were made into a popular British TV series initially starring a youthfully miscast John Hannah in the role. However his replacement Ken Stott was much more suited to the part.
His tougher characterisation of the world weary urban detective with lived-in features gave the series a boost. Special 'Rebus' walking tours are available in the city for tourists plus the Oxford Bar featured in the books actually exists and is in Young Street off Charlotte Square in the New Town. Rankin was born in Fife in 1960 but has lived in Edinburgh for many years.
A woman who needs no introduction is JK Rowling the writer of the astronomically successsful 'Harry Potter' books.
The popularity of the subsequent movies have made her a billionaire through the royalties.
Although she began her writing in Edinburgh she was actually born in England in the town of Yate near Bristol.
She moved to Edinburgh in 1993 and two years later became a student at the Teacher Training College at Edinburgh University.
The 'rags to riches' story of the single mother writing the books in Edinburgh coffee shops is actually true.
On Nicholson Street in the south-side of the Old Town there is the Spoon Cafe. This was previously called 'Nicholsons' at the time when she began her writing in there.
Her brother-in-law ran the shop which allowed her to stay as long as she wanted while her baby daughter slept beside her. The Elephant House on the South Bridge was another location where she would write and the rest, as they say, is history. It is also claimed that Fettes College in the north of Edinburgh inspired her ideas for the image of Hogwarts School.
And so the literary tradition continues in the 'City of Letters' and we await the words of new and aspiring writers from Scotland's capital city. For the visitor to the city interested in the history there is the Writers' Museum in the Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile.
There are also literary tours around the streets and wynds where you can trace the footsteps of the great word-smiths. Not forgetting the related art and exhibits in the many museums and galleries that Edinburgh has to offer.
On the other hand a simple trip to your local library or bookshop wherever you are in the world will surely find many of these authors on the shelves.
Mohan Kumar from UK on June 25, 2012:
A-ha, my fears that you were a one hit wonder have been truly cleared by this wonderful discourse on the Scottish literati. marvellous hub, great detail and wonderfully compiled. I am glad I am a follower.
Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on April 28, 2012:
Thanks for the comment Allan.
Great to hear some insight from someone who was there :-)
Allan Dodds on April 28, 2012:
Sandy Moffat's painting reminds of the days when I used to drink in Milne's Bar and all of the people in the painting were there too at some time or other, although not altogether.
Little did we know that we were drinking cheek by jowl alongside such literary talent. Norman McCaig was the only one who used to give me a pleasant smile, and Hugh McDiarmid was invariably in a foul mood. Alan Bold was always completely p-ssed.
My new book entitled "laughin' on the ither side o' ma face' uses Sandy's picture for its cover.
Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on March 16, 2012:
Thanks Tammy glad you enjoyed the read.
Reminds me I should read some more of these authors to, especially Robert Louis Stevenson. Be careful with Irvine Welsh though, you might have to cover your eyes from some of those naughty words. I think the phrase is 'earthy language'!! LOL
Tammy from North Carolina on March 15, 2012:
What a wonderfully crafted and researched hub. I see some of my favorites on this list and some new authors I must check out. My favorite Scottish work of all time is Rob Roy. Excellent stuff!
Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on March 13, 2012:
No way!!!! McGonagall got a Hub out of me all on his own. Such was his genius LOL
amillar from Scotland, UK on March 13, 2012:
Another interesting and useful work Shinkicker. I'll bookmark it for future reference.
I'm guessing you missed out the indefatigable Mr William Topaz McGonagall, as he was from Dundee (where the jam came from.)
"The horse runs up an' doon the braes,
Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on March 13, 2012:
I'm sure Norman would have joined you for a cheeky wee Beaujolais or two being the convivial chap he was.
I remember the great Johnathan Meades waxing lyrical about James Hogg in a documentary about Edinburgh. I'll need to check him out.
Thank you both for your comments.
susiequeue from Glasgow, UK on March 13, 2012:
Brilliant rundown, makes me want to re-read some Robert Louis Stevenson short stories for the first time in ages. Would also thoroughly recommend James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner which is set in Edinburgh although he wasn't from there himself.
jandee from Liverpool.U.K on March 12, 2012:
I want to climb into the picture and with my glass of red in one hand would put my other arm around his shoulder,I know he is full of charisma,but he looks lonely in that picture does Norman McCaig
Alexander Moffat-lovely artist,
enjoyed every line of this ,so much info...
best from jandee
Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on March 12, 2012:
I must admit that many moons ago after enjoying all those Sherlock Holmes stories I had no idea that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was Scottish.
Thanks for your comment
diogenes from UK and Mexico on March 12, 2012:
Although many better known writers give you an idea of their roots by their Scottish sounding names, just as many do not and i was surprised to find so many whose work was familiar to me are, indeed, from north of the border.
A thorough and interesting introduction to Scottish talent through the ages.
Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on March 12, 2012:
Yeah Stella, I read The Crow Road once, great book. Iain Banks is from Fife and I read he still lives there. Unless someone can correct me there's not a huge Edinburgh connection, although he did stay there for a while.
Thanks for reading
StellaSee from California on March 12, 2012:
I had to read Kidnapped as one of the books for my literature class and I was so surprised to find out that Robert Louis Stevenson was the author for that book and Treasure Island AND Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Such a talent! Do you know Iain Banks? I think he's another Edinburgh writer too..
Shinkicker (author) from Scotland on March 12, 2012:
I love it when people find out famous folk are actually Scottish. Purely national pride I suppose but credit where credit's due I say :-)
Thanks for commenting. I look forward to reading your Hubs
All the best
Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on March 12, 2012:
Wonderful hub! I am so glad I read this, as I learned so much about the Scottish men and women of letters. This is fascinating because I didn't realized so many of these people were born in Scotland. I had associated David Hume, and Robert Lewis Stevenson, among others, as English rather than Scottish. I'm glad to be corrected by this article. And, I'm glad you included the modern writers so I know who to look for. Thanks for sharing your breath of knowledge with us!