Sips and Sonnets: Burns, Beer, and Books

Sips and Sonnets: Burns, Beer, and Books

Sir Walter Scott watches over the goings-on in this city from his larger-than-life mason-work throne on the main drag, surrounded by a beautiful garden, a café, and a museum.

Clearly, these are my people.

Walter Scott Memorial
The Walter Scott Memorial in Princes Street Gardens

Scottish Literature and Edinburgh

Unless you’re an absolute English literature nerd, you don’t think of Scotland as being a bastion of literary accomplishment. To be completely honest, until I started doing research for my trip, I hadn’t realized how many of my favorite writers had connections to Edinburgh. Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and, one of my favorites, Robert Louis Stevenson all did their time in the pubs of Edinburgh and did battle with the dual nature of life in their city.

For many people, the most familiar example of that struggle comes in the form of that beloved book, The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the story of a man respectable by day and downright nefarious by night. For Stevenson, that was Edinburgh: pretty and polished when it needed to be, but all too ready to slip into those age-old vices that ruin any and all who engage with them. In fact, some speculate that a real-life native of Edinburgh, a certain Deacon Brodie, actually inspired the story.

Makars Court literature
A paving stone in Makars’ Court

William Brodie, the leader (or deacon) of a craft guild in Edinburgh, was a well-respected cabinet-maker. The city’s wealthy hired him to build custom furniture in their homes, never suspecting that after he finished his work, he slunk off to the less reputable establishments and gambled away his earnings. In order to pay his mounting debts, he started stealing from his clients. He carried on in this way for about twenty years before he was finally caught and tried.

In a city with two faces as wildly different as this, it’s no wonder that Edinburgh churned out writers. There was plenty of fodder for stories and poetry, and most of it was sitting right there in the pub, just waiting to buy you a drink.

The people of Edinburgh today aren’t shy about their Janus-like history. Nor are they ignorant of the writers who immortalized it in their books and poems. In fact, they rather seem to enjoy it.

During my stay in Edinburgh, I satisfied by literary fan girl needs in two different ways. The first, a museum dedicated to Scottish literature: the Writers’ Museum.

The Writers’ Museum

Writers' Museum
The Edinburgh Writers’ Museum

The Writers’ Museum is a cute – and very small – museum very near to the Royal Mile, one of the main streets in Edinburgh. The museum is free (most of the museums are in Edinburgh, by the by), and is a monument to Scottish literature. It houses collections of works, writings, and memorabilia from Scottish writers, such as Scott and Burns.

The rotating exhibit right now focuses on the life and works of Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of the first – and arguably the best – children’s book in literary history: Treasure Island. I don’t know about anyone else, but I read that book four or five times in sixth grade. I checked it out from the library so many times that my grandmother actually gave me her copy of the book from when she was little. If we’re being honest, I was about two more readings away from turning pirate myself. Needless to say, I was pretty excited to see this exhibit.

This exhibit focuses on Stevenson’s early life and works, and aims to show his development as a writer. I had never even heard of some of the books on display, which I consider the mark of a good exhibit on literary materials. The photographs and journals they have give a good insight into Stevenson’s younger years. Of course, there’s the obligatory South Pacific display. Stevenson spent many of his later years in the South Pacific, where the weather was kinder to his health, including our very own Hawaii (before it was our very own).

After wandering around the museum – and its gift shop – I was in need of a brew. Luckily enough for me, there were people who could help me find one without breaking my literary mood. The second mode of literary satisfaction: a literary pub crawl.

Literary Pub Crawl

That is not a typo.

And this is not a drill.

Literary pub crawls are things that happen, and they are incredibly fun. A pair of local actors teamed up and took me and thirty other people (that was a very large group; I was informed that normally, there are no more than twenty) on a tour of Edinburgh bars and Scottish literature. At each stop, we had time to buy a drink and regroup, at which point our hosts, Clart and McBrain, would launch into literary quotations, descriptions, explanations, and, on occasion, heated discussions about the life and times of the writers, particularly Rabbie Burns. All in all, it was a great time. The beer was fantastic (tip: ask the bartenders for their favorite local beer – you won’t go wrong that way), Clart and McBrain were engaging and entertaining, and Scottish literature is never so exciting as when it’s recited with a Scottish accent.

The Rabbie Burns
The Rabbie Burns Cafe on the Royal Mile

Whether you’re an academic lover of fine literature, or a rowdy, write-drunk-edit-sober literary aficionado, there’s something for you in Edinburgh. You might as well try both types of literary entertainment while you’re here. You never know what you’ll learn about your favorite authors by trying something different.

beer and literature
Burns and Beer: Scottish Literature at its finest

Curious about the Writers’ Museum? Click here.

Need proof of literary pub crawls? Need tickets? Click here

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