Thus Born the Boy Wizard: Tracing J.K. Rowling Steps in Edinburgh

When you go to Edinburgh, you might pass by this seemingly ordinary little cafe called the elephant house and not even bat an eye.

the elephant house, Edinburgh

But upon further inspection, you’d see that there’s a rather obnoxious sign on its front glass:

the elephant house, Edinburgh
The Elephant House: Birthplace of Harry Potter

Yes, when J.K. Rowling was writing her first and second Harry Potter books, she was so poor that she found it cheaper to buy a cup of coffee and wrote in this cafe the whole day, rather than paying for her heating bill at home.

the elephant house back window
The backside of the elephant house cafe

Every day J.K. Rowling would sit on that third floor and stare out of the window. (I did not have time to go in, but I heard the cafe made a little sanctuary for her – after the books got giganormously famous of course.)

What did she see from that window?

First there’s a cemetery called Greyfriars Kirkyard. And further in the distance, the towers of George Heriot’s School:

Greyfriars Kirkyard and George Heriot's School

George Heriot’s School is prestigious private school in Edinburgh, with four houses and four towers – a clear inspiration for Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry:

George Heriot's School

George Heriot’s School was built in 1628 with the funding from George Heriot, who left his estate to build a school for orphaned children. Thus it is an irony that the school became so prestigious that presently only the richest can afford to go to this large private school. Unless you’re a rich orphan I guess. (The school ground is all locked up, so I couldn’t get a better picture. Above picture was taken from a closed gate in the Greyfriars cemetery.)

So when J.K. Rowling was taking a break and trying to find inspiration, she would roam around the cemetery just behind the elephant house cafe.

She would read the names on the tombstones one by one — as you do when you need name inspiration for the books you’re writing. (click to enlarge pictures)

Moodie, Greyfriars cemetery, Edinburgh
Elizabeth Moodie – Mad-Eye Moody anyone?
William McGonagall, Greyfriars cemetery
William McGonagall – for Professor McGonagall (this is just next to the gate of George Heriot’s School). I like how he is known as “Tragedian”.
Thomas Riddle, Greyfriars cemetery
And the scariest of them all, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Thomas Riddle – Tom Riddle (aka Voldemort)

I would say the experience of seeing the tomb of Tom Riddle was rather creepy.

On a lighter note, there’s this pub in Edinburgh called Maggie Dickson’s Pub:

Maggie Dickson's Pub, Edinburgh
Maggie Dickson’s Pub, Edinburgh

Maggie Dickson lived in the early 18th century and was subjected to public hanging for concealing pregnancy outside of marriage – which is pretty much the worst law breaking act you could do as a woman at the time! So she was hung at the public square and her body was taken away in a cart. Not very far away yet, the cart man heard knocking and banging from inside the coffin. Maggie Dickson was still alive! They rushed back to the square – where the crowd hadn’t even quite dispersed yet. Some people thought that Maggie should be hung again, and some people thought technically she had, and if she survived the execution she should be allowed to live.

At the end she did live for many more years. Maggie Dickson became a local celebrity and she is known as Half Hangit’ Maggie.

If that sounds familiar at all, that is because Half Hangit’ Maggie was the inspiration for Nearly Headless Nick :)

Wandering around Edinburgh, you could see how J.K. Rowling was inspired to write Harry Potter – what a fantastic city full of stories and storytellers. All the pubs based on some quirky characters, like Maggie Dickson, Burke and Hare, and Deacon Brodie (the inspiration for The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). Edinburgh is also known as the most haunted city in Europe!

Anyway I think if there’s a moral to the story, it is:

Be nice to customers who hang out at your cafe all day long though they only buy a cup of coffee. You never know if later she becomes the person who writes Harry Potter and turns to be the richest woman in the UK. (yes, more than the Queen)


Thus Born the Boy Wizard: Tracing J.K. Rowling Steps in Edinburgh is cross-posted at my travel blog Wandering Mee.

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23 thoughts on “Thus Born the Boy Wizard: Tracing J.K. Rowling Steps in Edinburgh”

    1. sakura, yes the cemetery was fun to visit! It also has the grave of Greyfriars Bobby (the dog who spent 14 years guarding his owner’s grave – somewhat in the same vein as Hachiko!).

  1. Great article. Spent a lot of time in Edinburgh (on business rather than pleasure) over the last few years, but rarely got to see the amazing sights it has to offer. Considering a weekend jolly on the strength of your blog!

    1. Willoughby, I loved Edinburgh! The only thing I regret was that I only spent one night there. By the time I got back I was already contemplating another visit, and next time it will have to be at least another 2 nights. There are so many things to see and do. I absolutely loved the city.

    1. Thanks Tze-Wen! I think there are special Harry Potter tours (never read about one in guidebook), but I actually took a general Edinburgh walking tour (which I can highly recommend!), and the guide kindly took us to these places. You can check out Sandeman tour which is basically a tip-based tour (it’s free but tip is expected at the end so you can give however much you like). It’s 3.5 hours long and it was probably the best walking tour I have ever been on! The guide was so wonderful!

  2. Interesting to see inspiration from the Harry Potter’s characters. I went to Edinburgh last year but obviously I wasn’t following the Harry Potter trail. :) Thanks for sharing.

    1. Jo, it was actually quite a nice surprise for me, because I did not take Harry Potter tour, and did not see HP stuff on the walking tour outline. The walking tour covered many things around Edinburgh and the HP stuff was a small part of it (almost in passing mostly). It’s so nice to be shown all these quirky little things that you probably won’t be able to find out by yourself!

  3. I loved all the pictures in this so informative post of yours! Now I need to share them with my 21 year old son, who’s long been a huge Harry Potter fan.

  4. Thanks for the awesome virtual tour, Di! How fascinating to see how and where writers get their inspiration from. Particularly fascinated by the names on the tombstones!

  5. Thanks for the awesome virtual tour, Di! How fascinating to see how and where writers get their inspiration from. Particularly fascinated by the names on the tombstones! (P.S. I mistakenly left my old site and old email address on the previous post.)

    1. Thanks Claire! I also find the tombstones fascinating and I have so much fun sharing this post :D

      ps: I love your new cooking site too. Everything looks so delicious! How lucky are you to have a chef husband?! :)

      1. Thank you! I know right, I’m so lucky I don’t have to cook, ha ha. No, but seriously, I still have to, because he’s at work most of the time and there’s no other way of feeding the kids so I have no choice! Still experimenting on the food blog though. Hopefully it lasts!

        1. Oh yes I wouldn’t think that you don’t have to cook lol. But at least you’re all set for special occasions! And you know the kids would be fine with him ;)

          Hope your food blog lasts Claire. I really enjoy it!

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