Where to drink with literary greats in Edinburgh

Edinburgh's pubs are almost as famous as the many great figures of literature who have called the city their home. Find out where the giants of Scottish literature got their inspiration at their Edinburgh haunts.

Published 18th Jan 2016
Updated 20 th Sep 2023

The first UNESCO City of Literature, and also the city with more liquor licences than anywhere else in the country, a drinking session in Edinburgh lends a literary cachet to your exploits. Here are a few suggestions on where to raise a glass to Scotland’s stars of the written word.

Deacon Brodie’s Tavern on the Royal Mile is named for William Brodie, a councillor and cabinet maker who stole from his clients to fund his gambling addiction and (somewhat touchingly) his five illegitimate children. When Brodie’s antics were revealed, a crowd of 40,000 angry Edinburgh cabinet fans turned out to see him hanged at the Tolbooth Prison. A century later he was immortalised by Robert Louis Stevenson, who was inspired by the story of Brodie’s double life to pen The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in his honour – and that of his alter ego of course.

Oxford Bar
Oxford Bar

The Oxford Bar on Young Street in the New Town may be famous as the watering hole of Detective Inspector Rebus – creation of the UK’s best-selling crime writer, Edinburgh resident Ian Rankin – but there will be no commemorative plaque or themed cocktails to be found here; this is a functioning (and functional) local for a loyal clientele (including Rankin himself). Besides in August that is, when the crowds from the Edinburgh International Book Festival descend after a hard day’s reading.

The nearby Cumberland Bar, a gastro pub with an excellent beer garden, is another fictional characters’ favourite and as such now a point of pilgrimage for fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series – originally published as a serial in this newspaper in 2004. With the eponymous street being just round the corner, Bruce, Pat, Stuart, Matthew, Angus Lordie and even Cyril the dog are among its make-believe locals.

Founded in 1516 and one of the oldest pubs in the capital, the White Hart Inn on the Grassmarket was the lodgings for Robert Burns on his final visit to Edinburgh in 1791 – a trip during which he had his final fond kiss before severing with old flame Nancy, the inspiration behind his most recorded love song. The White Hart was also a favourite drinking den of infamous entrepreneurs Burke and Hare, and played host to William Worsdworth in 1803, who stayed at the inn while on a visit to Sir Walter Scott in Lasswade.

The morning after the night before, take your tour in a more wholesome direction (if you consider what you have to do to make a horcrux wholesome) and head to The Elephant House, now and forever to be known now as The Birthplace of Harry Potter. Adopted Edinburgher JK Rowling decamped to this cosy and comfy coffee house from a flat she couldn’t afford to heat to write the first instalment of the boy wizard’s adventures, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

elephant house
Picture: Stephen Montgomery

The café overlooks Greyfriar’s churchyard, final resting place of one Thomas Riddell, whose tomb stone, erected in 1806, provided inspiration for the original moniker of He Who Must Not Be Named – Tom Riddle to his mum and dad.

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