“For the visitor this must surely be the best tour available. For the resident, The Edinburgh Book Lovers’ Tour is a masterclass in presenting our city to visitors.”
Editorial Rating: Outstanding
“Don’t expect a crowd.” As I pick my way towards the Writer’s Museum I can’t help wondering if Allan Foster hasn’t rather overdone things in the modesty department. En route to the rendezvous I pass assorted aldermen, literary luminaries and even the odd Duke (it’s a truism of getting older that policemen and Dukes all start looking younger). But it turns out that the gathered host aren’t in Lady Stair’s Close to join The Edinburgh Book Lovers’ Tour.
My host explains that a memorial is being unveiled to Gavin Douglas (1474-1522) (no?..me neither) the priest, poet and statesman who translated the Aeneid into Middle Scots. Presumably paint dried faster at the turn of the 16th century, thus offering less spectacle, so this is how they spent their time. Douglas is the 37th writer to be commemorated with an inscribed flagstone – handy for that direct form of criticism alluded to in Byron’s lament for Castlereagh. I will not find anything good to say about the flagstone commemorations until the organisers cease to shun McGonagall.
I have an awful lot good to say about Foster’s approach to guiding, starting with the way he rides out the noisy intrusion into his routine by the horde of newly fledged Douglas groupies. The weather is on our side but even so Foster’s laconic embrace acts like an umbrella on our small party, shielding we few from the outside elements. It’s an odd thing taking a walking tour through one’s own regular haunts – unsettling almost. That is until you remember how much fun you will have over the coming months lecturing anyone fortunate enough to be in company with you on the Southside’s glorious (and not so glorious) literary heritage. Foster is not short of an opinion or three but he is better than most (present author included) at separating his commentary from reportage.
Our route takes us from the Writer’s Museum, across the Royal Mile to Parliament Square, down Barrie’s Close, along the Cowgate to the Old Infirmary, up Drummond Street through the Potterrow Port and via George Square, before concluding beside Greyfriars.
Along the way we are treated to a grand narrative, illustrated with dozens of facts trivial and otherwise. My two companions are a journalist and English professor from daaahn sauff and Newfoundland respectively. I enjoy chatting to them as we pass from point to point. This is not such familiar geography for them but then they have sailed to Treasure Island, peered under morgue sheets with Rebus, played Quidditch with Potter and gazed upon the gently rolling eyes induced by Scott’s best romantic vistas.
This rain-soaked ground we Edinbuggers bustle about on is holy. It slowly dawns on me how much we are taking for granted. It’s not just the sack of Robert Louis Stevenson’s beloved Rutherford’s Bar by pirates of the Caribbean. Nor how little bronze or marble denotes the untended springs of creativity sacred to Clio, Calliope, Melpomene and their sisters. It’s the sinking feeling that we are not much better than the historically illiterate residents of Worcester who met messrs Adams and Jefferson with such bemused incomprehension and contempt.
Scott was derided in his own life for writing popular trash unworthy of a gentleman of letters. Despite huge sales and an even larger intellectual impact (especially, much to the regret of Mark Twain, in the American South) the true identity of “The Author of Waverley” was kept an open secret in case it sullied Scott’s true reputation as a provincial lawyer. Foster does not avoid questions of taste when discussing Edinburgh’s literary present but does identify them as secondary and somewhat unbecoming. Foster is not crippled by paroxysms of grief, as is one former literary editor of the North Britischer newspaper of my acquaintance, when he thinks on the work McCall Smith, Rowling and Ranking COULD be writing – what matters is that they ARE writing (and, incidentally, are being read by millions).
For the visitor this must surely be the best tour available. For the resident, The Edinburgh Book Lovers’ Tour is a masterclass in presenting our city to visitors. Unlike the former literary editor and his discredited vintage of print pundits there is nothing in Foster cringing or apologetic. The plaque to Rowling just above eye level across from Old College is treated with as much deference as are those to Stevenson or McGonagall across the way. Knowledgeable and in the know, he must navigate the tour by all the names he drops, Foster is informed and informative. Lyrically laconic but also hugely welcoming. A civic ambassador extraordinaire.
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The book tour, led by Allan Foster, was lovely. It was intelligent, witty and sharp. Allan is very humorous - and he thinks he's funny, which adds to it. It's not a huge tour (there were seven of us, guide included), which means you didn't get lost in the crowd - he'll include you, talk to you, ask questions, and so forth. It was interesting enough for someone who maybe didn't know a lot about the authors in question, but it was also good for someone who is well-read and knows these people. He takes you off the beaten path and doesn't just show you tourist things. It's not a star-hunting tour, either. He takes you to significant places in the history or background of the authors (pubs, medical college, etc.), and he talks about the authors like he knows them all. He has a great sense of timing and tells lots of stories, and he's a very colorful person. He seems more like a clever, funny writer who loves his city than he does like a tour guide, which makes him a great tour guide. I'm sure he gives the same tour each time, but he doesn't sound tired of it, and actually, even having done it, I'd still do it again. I spent the whole time alternately laughing and wishing I had a notebook.
“ALLAN FOSTER’S PERSONAL ODYSSEY. BY FAR THE BEST TOUR OF THE CITY IN MANY A LONG DAY.”
“GIVES YOU A SENSE OF THE REAL EDINBURGH THAT IS OVERLOOKED BY MANY TOURISTS. IT IS AN EXPERIENCE YOU SHOULD NOT MISS!”
I loved visiting Edinburgh. And I’ve told everyone I know the best thing about my visit to Edinburgh was your Book Lover’s Tour. It inspired a poem. I hope you enjoy it.
Book Lovers' Tour
At the University of Edinburgh,
in a downy birch park,
I hear ancient scraping - Walter Scott
carving on twigs,
of Rob Roy’s resistance
axers and archers
leaping as high as
steps of war will allow.
I follow the thoughts of Robert Louis Stevenson up stairs
of the Medical building
to visit an editor wild of mane and fame.
This one-legged man’s changed name
lumbers past me,
Long John Silver, Ah har.
I watch the memory of Conan Doyle
walking on thistle lined flagstones
totter and freeze noting down all but the sneeze
of a teacher solving medical mysteries.
Sherlock Holmes, he became
But Dr. Joseph Bell was his name.
Educated in the University’s highland dance of mind and mores
these authors – and Barrie, Rankin, McCall Smith too
mentored by the mists of Culloden,
and kelpie maidens,
created a haven for imagining
in books of magic and mayhem
By Roberta Kanefsky 8/26/19
Thank you again for your wonderful tour!
Alec the Birdman and Hazel the Owl at the top of Wardrop's Close on the Royal Mile, close to the Book Lovers' Tour
departure point. Both are frequent visitors to Edinburgh. Alec is the book lover, but Hazel prefers dead mice.
Photo by Ben Bridgway, October 2019.