Seeing Edinburgh’s imprint on J.K. Rowling

Or how I learned to stop trying to find Harry Potter references and appreciate the city for itself

Before our first visit to Scotland earlier this month, I found myself journeying down a rabbit hole on Pinterest. Although I’m a longtime fan of Harry Potter, I hadn’t realized that J.K. Rowling currently lives in Edinburgh and that she wrote several of the books while living there. But once I learned this, I couldn’t stop myself from looking at all the places in this beautiful Scottish city that inspired not only Hogwarts but also many other places throughout the books I’ve loved for years.

As interested as I was to see the sights of Edinburgh (especially the Castle and the city’s gardens) during our few days there, no sooner had we arrived than I began looking for indicators of Harry Potter and Ms. Rowling’s experience. Several were quite easy to find; I happened upon the Greyfriar’s Kirkyard Cemetery, where Rowling may have drawn inspiration for several characters’ names. Victoria Street, the alleged inspiration for Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, was rather central and delightful to walk up and down. I even sat for afternoon tea (a la carte, not the fancy affair) at the Balmoral Hotel, where Rowling holed up to finish her final installation in the series. As I walked the city’s streets, I couldn’t help but note several other cafes and restaurants boasting that Rowling had written there.

So where didn’t Rowling write, you might ask? Well, I also saw quite a few cheeky signs seeking out the anti-tourist, ala “J.K. Rowling Did Not Write Harry Potter Here.”

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Of course she did.

Now, I’m a fan of Harry Potter, but I have limits to my fandom. Sure, I’ve read all the books, sometimes twice, and loved the movies; I’ll never forget the pride I felt strolling into high school the day after the first film was released at midnight, where my job at the local movie theater granted me the right to view it before anyone else. I brought my Mom, who had introduced me to the Harry Potter books, though I had several friends who were jealous not to join instead. And yes, I got a bit teary eyed when visiting Universal Studios The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, and not just because of the price of paying for two tickets to get the full experience. But the more time we spent in Edinburgh, the more I started to feel a weariness of even speaking the Boy Who Lived’s name.

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Even though the weather was dreary most days, throngs of fans clustered outside most of the known establishments. Not for me, I thought, feeling fine watching from afar (perhaps a little creepily) and then walking to Potter-free cafes that looked even more inviting. I quickly learned that the whole city of Edinburgh is full of architectural masterpieces to explore despite chilly temperatures. Within a couple of days, I stopped searching for Harry Potter related spots altogether and accepted that the whole great city must’ve served as inspiration (both conscious and subconscious) for Rowling.

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A view from the Edinburgh castle of the city

When I told Sean about learning to take in the whole city instead of trying to scout out specific locations, he reminisced about his first trip to New Zealand shortly after the Lord of the Rings movies were released (which were filmed there). Sean purchased a guidebook to the Lord of the Rings filming sites as soon as he landed at Auckland’s airport, only to find that as he set off into the countryside to discover elven woodlands and Fellowship-crossing mountains, that the filming locations he did find were comparable to other gorgeous look-alikes throughout the country. Soon enough, he began to use the guidebook as a prompt rather than a series of destinations. Afterwards, he returned home with a deeper appreciation of why the LOTR film crew decided to shoot in New Zealand. (Of course, if you’re a superfan, an official Hobbiton has since opened. It’s supposed to be quite fun to visit the location for the Shire, but we chose to bypass this during our latest visit together, appreciating the Shire-like conditions around us.)

If you have time (and in many cases: money) to support your fandom, it can be wonderful to get as deep into the specific locations and experiences of your favorite books or films, but if you’re short on either, remember that you’ll often get a sense of a place — and the author or director (or film scout’s) inspiration — just by being there. And who knows, maybe that inspiration will lead you to create a piece of art of your own. Or at least a halfway-decent blog post, I hope.

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Scotland’s National Animal is the unicorn. Eliza was pretty excited by the abundance of ‘em in Edinburgh.

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