Tracing the footsteps (and hand prints) of Harry Potter author JK Rowling in Edinburgh

By Charleen - October 20, 2019

As avid fans of the Harry Potter books and movies, we were excited to explore the Greyfriars Kirkyard and other sights in Edinburgh that might have inspired the author J. K. Rowling as she created the wizarding world of Harry Potter. In following her footsteps, in between visits to Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Park and restaurants near the Golden Mile, we discovered more than we expected!

In 1999, we came across books-on-cassette tape for sale in a Sam's club, some with colorful, somewhat clunky drawings of a boy with glasses. Thinking this might be good for long drives to Chicago and Georgia, we asked our nearly 3 year old son to pick one. He selected a box showing the boy hanging onto the tail of a large maroon bird, so we bought Books 1 & 2 in that series. On that first long trip, he slept through most of it, but my husband and I were completely hooked!

CD covers, as the boxes of cassettes are long gone!
Our children literally grew up listening to the engaging voice of Jim Dale, as he brought each character to life with their own characteristic speaking styles. So when our daughter picked London as her graduation trip, we knew we would visit Platform 9 3/4 in Kings Cross Station. 
At London's King's Cross Rail Station
When I was toying around with whether we had time for a side trip to Hadrian's Wall, our son encouraged us to visit Edinburgh. As much of the writing of the seven Harry Potter books took place while J. K. Rowling was living in Edinburgh, it was fun to follow in her footsteps to see what sights might have consciously or subconsciously inspired her.
Greyfriars Kirkyard Gate on Candlemakers Row

Edinburgh Castle

Although J.K. Rowling did not move to Edinburgh or see Edinburgh Castle until after she had envisioned Hogwarts, she admits to a certain similarity "Bizarrely, I've come to live in the shadow of what could be a lot like Hogwarts, excerpt Hogwarts has a lake. (From a 2002 60 Minutes interview)."  
Esplanade in front of Edinburgh Castle
But of course, from 1460-1820 Edinburgh Castle was set on a large lake called Nor' Loch, in which alleged witches and warlocks were routinely drowned. Indeed the loch was so smelly from all the trash, sewage and bodies that Edinburgh once had the nickname of "Auld Reekie" for its clouds of coal-fueled smoke and stench. This we had learned from our Orange Edinburgh Tour our first night here

Click to read about our visit to Edinburgh Castle, and the Edinburgh Ghost Tour

Victoria St, W. Bow St. Candlemaker Row - inspirations for Diagon Alley?

After leaving Edinburgh Castle, we sought to satisfy our hunger with a delectable roast pork sandwich from Oink! As we exited the tiny restaurant and started looking around the cobbled street, we realized that this just might be one of the streets that inspired Diagon Alley. Victoria Street, which becomes West Bow Street as you descend towards the Grassmarket plaza, is composed of closely set, double layered buildings with brightly colored store fronts below and pointy roofs above.

Directly across from Oink was a shop called The Boy Wizard (1 Victoria St). Just a few doors down is a shop called Museum Context (40 Victoria St). Near the bottom of W. Bow St is a Joke Shop. While none of these are directly related to Rowlings' work, they still make for interesting shopping.
We did not enter the shops at this point, but returned on our last afternoon in Edinburgh to do some shopping in the Grassmarket area.
Museum Context is a crowded multi-story shop with lots to see. There is a large selection of wands, including Professor Dumbledore's original black wand bearing a twisted grapevine-like motif near the handle. It is unclear what happened to this wand after he dueled Gellert Grindelwald to win the Elder Wand
Make sure to take the time to go upstairs. There is even a photo spot complete with Hedwig, Fawkes and Dobby at the top!
At the end of W. Bow St, we turned right and walked to the end of Grassmarket Square, with the Castle looming above, before cutting up the Vennel stairs between Mary's Milk Bar and the Kick Ass Hostel.
On our way to George Heriot's School, we walked along the Flodden Wall, which was built in the 16th century after King James IV was killed in the Battle of Flodden in northern England, and retaliation from the English was expected.

George Heriot's School. 

As Vennel changes its name to Heriot Place, small round turrets of a castle-like building come into view over the wall. The George Heriot School was built in 1628 as an orphanage and school (then known as a hospital) for boys. The royal master mason William Wallace studied and drew inspiration from the gracious Renaissance-built Linlithgow Palace on the banks of a beautiful loch, with its central courtyard, multiple turrets and absence of connecting corridors. 
As a primary and secondary school for boys and girls, the school is not open for visitation. We had turned left on Lauriston Place to head towards Greyfriars Kirkyard when a group of children adorned in Ravenclaw colored uniforms passed from one building to the next. These kids, however, were certainly younger than 11.
Note that the speculations that Hogwarts may have been based on this school, which can be seen better from Greyfriars Kirkyard, have never been confirmed by the author herself. 
View from Greyfriars Kirkyard
Although she has stated that Hogwarts is set in Scotland, J. K. Rowling denies any inspiration from Heriot's School with its students sorted into four houses. She also had not seen Edinburgh Castle before conceiving of "A huge, rambling, quite scary-looking castle, with a jumble of towers and battlements. (Interview with Scholastic in 2000)"

Greyfriars Kirkyard. 

Continuing left around the block, we headed for Greyfriars Kirkyard, the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, and the Elephant House via Forrest Road. We passed Mum's Great Comfort Food, but unfortunately, Mum puts Meadowland (a butter substitute) and shortening (laden with unhealthy trans fats) in her pie crusts. I had inquired in advance, as trans fats and palm oil are common problems with pastries, baked goods and flour tortillas. She wrote: "You would be better substituting...a mashed potato lid."

Luckily, we were on our way to a graveyard and not in the mood for eating. Staying left on the downhill side of the fork, we turned left just before Greyfriars Bobby's Bar to enter near the kirk, which was built in the early 17th century. 

Following the path passing to the left of the church building, we walked under an arched gateway in the eastern portion of the Flodden Wall (through which you can see the Heriot School), and found the plaque on the wall for William McGonagall, whose name inspired Professor Minerva McGonagall. 

We then headed parallel to the western wall along large courtyard-like enclosures to find the final resting place for Mrs. Elizabeth Moodie. The connection to Mad-Eye Moody is pretty tenuous, but it is still fun to speculate as Rowling did indicate she took inspiration from gravestones among other things for the names in the book.
There are six people with the surname Black buried within the Kirkyard. This includes the physician Joseph Black, buried in the Covenanters Prison area. These vaults can only accessed by arrangement with guides at the Church or on a City of the Dead tour. Unfortunately, we read that the marker for Charles and Francis Black had to be moved, and we did not find it (why can't people be respectful -- it is only a story, a great story, but fiction nonetheless). However, we did see some graffiti "Sirius Black" on a site with a missing plaque. 

Continuing further down the hill, we came to the Riddell plot. These include Thomas Riddell Esquire, who died at age 72, and his son by the same name, who predeceased him. Daughters Christian and Maria Jane Riddell are also at rest here. While we may never know whether this stone subconsciously influenced Rowling, it is a fact that a Chris Riddell illustrated an edition of The Tales of Beedle the Bard
We did not find Margaret Louisa Scrymgeour Wedderbur's grave, or that of Anne and Robert Potter on the Giles marker, but we did see some Browns.
We exited the kirkyard onto Candlemaker Row, but found that Merchant St went under George IV bridge and would not take us to the Elephant House Cafe. So we turned back south to the V-shaped point where the statue of the loyal Skye Terrier known as Greyfriars Bobby stands, then headed north on George IV Bridge. 

Elephant House Cafe, 21 George IV Bridge

A back room in the Elephant House Cafe is where many of the Harry Potter books were written, although the claim of being the "birthplace" of Harry Potter is untrue. Although Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was published in 1997, it had been written between 1990 and 1995, and the cafe did not exist before 1995.
Nevertheless, it has certainly benefitted from being the site where at least the 2nd and 3rd books were written, although Rowlings' growing fame made it impossible for her to write the latter books in public spaces. 

To reduce disruption to customers, there is a sign on the door indicating that one should only enter if prepared to order food/drink or pay a fee to take photographs and view the HP graffiti in the bathroom. 

After passing by the Elephant House, we continued back to High Street and down the Golden Mile to Holyrood Park. Click here to see photos from the highest point in Edinburgh.

Potterrow Street

On the way back from climbing to the top of Arthur's Seat and having dinner at a noodle shop near the University of Edinburgh, we walked past Potterrow Street and a pedestrian underpass called Potterrow Port.  Thus, ended our day exploring Edinburgh's Old Town.

The Balmoral Hotel - Suite 552. 1 Princes St. near Waverley Train Station

We then spent 1.5 days driving to fantastic sites north, west, south and east of Edinburgh, including two castles one day and Linlithgow Palace, the turreted building on a lake that influenced the Heriot School, on the next day. After returning the car, we stopped to explore shops on Victoria St and the Grassmarket, before heading back to our hotel to change for dinner.  On the way, we passed the train station and saw the Balmoral Hotel in the distance. 
Not having £1,500 to spare, there was no straightforward way to see the 55 square foot suite where J.K. Rowling finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. So we will just have to rely upon the internet to see photos of the graffiti she scrawled on the marble bust of Hermes (now encased behind protective glass) upon finishing the seven-book series on 11 Jan 2007. 

J.K. Rowling's Hand Prints - City Chambers courtyard - 253 High St.

Just prior to a nice dinner our final night in Edinburgh, we wandered past an arcade near the restaurant that separated High Street from a courtyard. Upon entering the courtyard, we discovered hand prints of notable Edinburgh residents immortalized in gilded concrete depressions Hollywood style. 

A pair of these hand prints were made by J.K. Rowling, who received the Edinburgh Award in 2008. 

Other sites for a future visit.

We did not have time to visit The Writer's Museum, which highlights the work of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, and perhaps also J.K. Rowling -- a superb woman author. 

We also did not have time to visit the corner of Nicolson and Drummond St, where J.K. Rowling wrote much of the first book Harry Potter and the Philosopher's (Sorcerer's) Stone one floor about street level. Back then it was called the Nicolson's Cafe (6a Nicholson St) owned by her sister and brother-in-law. Notably, Nicholas Flamel was a real person, a 14th-15th century scribe rumored in the 17th century to have achieved immortality through the philosopher's stone. 

Although it has no real connection to Harry Potter or J.K, Rowling, we love Escape Rooms. Thus Department of Magic (9 Blair St) will be on our list to check out.

For more information on Harry Potter themed places and events in Edinburgh, see this blog site. It is pretty comprehensive and the author analyzes the credibility of various claims and theories. I wish I had found it before our trip to Edinburgh...

On to London King's Cross and Platform 9 
Preparing to board the LNER train from Edinburgh to London

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