Edinburgh's bookshops play a huge role in making the city a global cultural capital – Angus Robertson MSP

Edinburgh is a world-class capital of literature. So much so, it was the first city ever to be designated a Unesco City of Literature by the United Nations cultural organisation.

Monday, 11th October 2021, 4:45 pm
People browse books at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival at Edinburgh Art College (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Today it is home to bestselling international authors including JK Rowling, Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith.

Edinburgh’s literary reputation was established by the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle and Muriel Spark.

The city centre is dominated by its literary past, with the Scott Monument to Sir Walter Scott overlooking Princes Street next to Waverley bridge and Waverley station, the only main train station in the world named after a literary work.

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The Waverley novels by Sir Walter Scott were amongst the best read and most popular books in the 19th century worldwide. Amongst the series is the Heart of Midlothian, which was a historical novel set in Edinburgh and is now also the name of the capital’s premier football team.

Literature is celebrated every year in the city with the Edinburgh International Book Festival the largest festival of its kind in the world. The EIBF hosts hundreds of authors and includes presentations from writers, poets and playwrights in addition to writing workshops, education events, panel discussions and performances. In non-Covid years about 250,000 book fans attended the festival which runs for nearly three weeks at the end of August.

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Edinburgh has a glowing publishing and bookselling history, with the Encyclopaedia Britannica – first produced on the Royal Mile and published on Nicolson Street – an enduring legacy of the Scottish Enlightenment. The city’s oldest bookshop was opened not far away, opposite the Old College of Edinburgh University. Blackwells is still best known in the capital as James Thins, its trading name for nearly 200 years.

Despite the challenge from online sellers, there has been a flourishing of new independent and more established bookshops in Edinburgh including the magnificent Topping and Company on Blenheim Place at the top of Leith Walk.

Nearby is McNaughtan’s, Scotland’s oldest antiquarian bookshop as well as Typewronger Books on Haddington Place. In Stockbridge, Golden Hare Books has a beautifully curated offering as does the Edinburgh Bookshop, on Holy Corner between Morningside and Bruntsfield, and Portobello Bookshop on Portobello High Street.

Meanwhile if it’s secondhand books you are after, then Armchair Books in the Grassmarket or Tills Bookshop by the Meadows are amazing. And if you’re looking for political and alternative books, then try the Lighthouse Bookshop on West Nicolson Street.

Last weekend saw Bookshop Day being marked with "record-breaking" sales. According to trade publication The Bookseller there was “high footfall inspiring confidence in the lead-up to Christmas trading”. All of this is hugely encouraging for book lovers, booksellers, publishers and for authors alike (I should declare that I have a book currently on sale, which I wrote before my election as an MSP).

Part of Edinburgh’s appeal as an iconic global cultural capital is the fact that it is a literary city of international standing. Part of that offering is a range of bookshops offering works across the genres.

Reading for pleasure, learning or for work is important to virtually all of us. So let’s make sure that bookshops are well supported throughout the year and not just on Bookshop Day.

Angus Robertson is the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central and Constitution, External Affairs and Culture Secretary

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