When you go to Edinburgh, you might pass by this seemingly ordinary little cafe called the elephant house and not even bat an eye.
But upon further inspection, you’d see that there’s a rather obnoxious sign on its front glass:
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.
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:
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 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)
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 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.