An Unexpected Potter Pilgrimage

I recently visited a friend of mine in Edinburgh, and although I didn’t know much about the city beforehand, I did remember it being mentioned in relation to J.K. Rowling. In particular, I’d heard there was a café there where she wrote parts of the first Harry Potter book. So when my friend asked if there was anything specific I wanted to do, I mentioned that I’d quite like to stroll by. I didn’t really expect anything too impressive or Potter-ish, though – it was just a café, after all.

Fortunately, my friend turned out to be far more knowledgable about Rowling and the history of the books than I am. She took me not just to the café, but to many other Potter-related places. I admit, I had trouble concealing my fangirl excitement. For some reason I had not expected Rowling to have drawn so much inspiration from the city around her, and in such obvious ways.

I’m sure many fans know these things already, but I thought I’d share a few pictures and details for any who, like me, have hitherto remained oblivious to their existence:

Greyfriars Kirkyard

This graveyard was by far the most exciting stop for me – not just for the mood, but because it turns out Rowling used names from some of the gravestones for characters in the books… which means you can visit “Tom Riddle’s grave”!

The Elephant House Café

The Elephant House is a café just around the corner from Greyfriars Kirkyard, now famous because Rowling wrote parts of the first Harry Potter book there. Apparently Rowling also wrote parts of it in another café that has since been turned into a Chinese restaurant, so the Elephant House has become the go-to location for Potter pilgrims.

The first time we went there the queue was too long, but the next day when we passed by we decided to brave the line (which wasn’t too bad) and have lunch. It was exciting to see the view she would have seen from the windows, and imagine her sitting there working away anonymously on the story that would soon take the world by storm.

However, the best thing about it in my opinion was the graffiti in the bathrooms:

These toilets have become a kind of bizarre shrine where Potter fans leave their mark. Every wall, and even ever ceiling, is brimming with graffiti. I couldn’t help but get my camera out, even though it felt a little weird to take pictures in the bathroom.

The Castle

Once again, I reveal my ignorance, but I had no idea there was a giant castle perched on a hill smack bang in the middle of Edinburgh. It is so impressive and imposing, and visible from so many places in the city… including the Elephant House café. I’m not saying it was inspiration for Hogwarts – it’s architecturally completely different, after all – but when I saw it, I personally couldn’t help but get a bit of the Hogwarts vibe.

Diagon Alley

Victoria street near Greyfriars and The Elephant House is often cited as the inspiration for Diagon Alley, with its cute shops and narrow curving shape. We strolled down it, and I have to say, some of these shops were indeed very Diagon-alley-esque.

The Schools

We had a peek through the iron gates of three grand old schools: George Heriot’s School, Stewart’s Melville College and Fettes College. They all had impressive coats of arms, and were more lavish and imposing than most of the castles I’ve seen in my lifetime… and certainly any school I’ve ever seen.

While George Heriot’s is regularly cited as the inspiration for Hogwarts, with its four school houses that parallel Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin, and its location right next to Greyfriars and The Elephant House, my friend told me she thinks Fettes College is more Hogwarts-like, and I agree. Fettes boasts a grand building perched atop a rise and surrounded by impressive grounds. In fact, in 1978 it apparently had 300-acres of forested grounds. The school even once held a Harry-Potter-themed open day, where the teachers dressed up like wizards. It also has school houses, and references to the ‘headmaster’ made me smile (in Australia you just call school heads ‘Principals’ so to see the term headmaster in use was unusual for me).

The Lewis Chessmen

This is more of a film reference, but it’s a fun one so I’m mentioning it. The Lewis Chessmen made a brief appearance in the first Harry Potter movie when Harry and Ron play wizard’s chess:

These 12th century, walrus-ivory chess pieces have a fascinating history, and 11 of them are on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

J.K. Rowling’s Residence

There’s no picture here because I didn’t want to get out my camera and seem like a stalkery fan, but on the way to do some sightseeing we drove past the property that J.K. Rowling now lives in. My friend knows people who’ve seen the author walking around in the neighbourhood (doing normal-everyday-human-people things *gasp*!). We kept a keen eye out, but alas, had no such sighting ourselves.

General Potter Tourism

Then there’s the simple fact that the city is well aware of its Potter association and the appeal to tourists, and plays on that in various ways. Whether it’s a street busker dressed as a Dementor, a stall with merchandise, or people offering the opportunity to hold an owl, the small reminders are always around you.  Yes, some of it can be tacky and commercial, but a lot of it is also creative and fun. Part of me was really tempted to hold an owl… (I think the owl people might have actually been promoting a different owl-related book, but all I could think of when I saw them was Harry Potter!)

__________

There are, of course, a multitude of other amazing non-Potter-related things to see in Edinburgh, and I got to explore plenty of those as well, thanks to my friend and her local knowledge. But if you’re a fan like I am, those Potter-related sights are a bonus, and make the experience just that little bit more magical. All in all, it’s a city well worth visiting, and I definitely plan to return one day!

Have you been to any of these places? Do you plan to go? Do you have a favourite Potter-related sight? Let me know in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “An Unexpected Potter Pilgrimage

  1. Good Early Morning from the South the USA, I have read your postings and this is one pure delight in seeing Rowling’s sites for her life and writings.
    Her series on a lost little boy, but loved by witches and wizards is really a genuine classic of how he found a home. Tom Brown’s School Days, Huckleberry Finn. The Thread that runs so True, several stories of childhood and life, which as a library science – elementary school study these were a part of learning literature for young children and teens.
    Your posting is well placed at a time with so much fantasy and fairy tale being questioned. The Potter series by Rowling is censored by a friend of mine, she will not let her grandchildren read the series, it is an occult genre?
    And Ms. Rowling get my interest because of her enormous research and reading of literature in many areas.
    Keep writing, and thank you. Mrs. Arthur L Keith (Annette)

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  2. This is so great! I’m a Harry Potter fan too but I didn’t know all that about what inspired the books. Actually, I most times I don’t look up such information though I’d be interested to know.
    I’m adding your post to my personal bookish bucket list. Hopefully I can visit Edinburgh one day. That photo of the castle made me immediately think Hogwarts and OMG Tom Riddle’s grave is real! And I gotta see that bathroom with the graffiti walls.

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    • Yeah I couldn’t believe the grave was real either!! That’s great you’re adding Edinburgh to your bookish bucket list (I think I need to put together one of those too 🙂 ), I hope you make it there! It’s a really great place, esp. if you love all things Harry Potter. Btw I also usually never look up info about inspirations for books, even though I’d be keen to know it… not sure why, I really should but I always seem to forget or not have the time.

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  3. That is SO awesome! I’ve always wondered if there are these “Harry Potter” tours all around the UK showing off these places of note. And I think I’ve been to that castle in Edinburgh! I visited Scotland many years ago, and my family and I went to a castle…it had to be Edinburgh Castle, since like you said, it’s so prevailing landmark!

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    • Yes I love that it’s possible to actually go see these places! I think there are definitely more all over the UK. Apparently further north in Scotland you can go for a ride on the steam train they used in the movies (I’d love to do that one day too!).

      I’m sure it would have been Edinburgh castle you went to – it’s extremely prominent! I didn’t actually go inside it but I hear it’s really good.

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  4. OMG how did I not know about any of this? I visited Edinburgh last year and didn’t do anything Potter related! Now I need to go back 😀 Plus Edinburgh is gorgeous, I loved it. Thanks for sharing your photos!

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  5. Ah wow this brings up so so many memories!! I went to uni in Edinburgh and so lived there for 4 years, so of course I went to all these places (though not too often, the Elephant House is surprisingly expensive) Have to admit I always preferred the actual cafe to the toilet 😉 I mean, all those elephant themed chairs (do they still have the elephant chairs?! It’s been a couple of years so I don’t know) and everything else Elephant themed was always so awesome. And I went to Greyfriars Bobby *all the time*/ It was such a great place to walk round there. Yeah the castle’s not totally Hogwarts- but did you go to Teviot? (the student union) it’s basically Hogwarts- especially if you poke around inside- which anyone can do. Gotta say, as fun as it was to read about HP stuff in Edinburgh, the side effect of this post is that I’m now ridiculously nostalgic for the city!! 😉

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    • Oh that’s so cool you lived in Edinburgh!! I can see why you’d be nostalgic, I was only there for a few days and liked it so much I was already planning what I’d do on my next trip! I’m very jealous you studied there, I glimpsed the uni campus on the map (didn’t explore it though) and thought that’d be a pretty cool place to study.

      Ah yes the elephant theme was great too – I don’t remember any chairs but there was an elephant tea cosy that I wanted to steal 🙂 I didn’t go to Teviot… guess I’ll have to add that to my ‘next trip’ list! 😀

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      • hehe yes definitely! Ah fantastic!! I hope you get a chance to go back soon- there’s so much to do there! 😀 Yeah it was a really cool city to be in 😀
        hehe they’re wooden chairs with elephant heads carved in- I actually had that pointed out to me tbh. Hehe yes, it’s part of the uni campus, but you can usually just walk inside on any given day and just check it out 😀

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