The Writers’ Museum

Writers' Museum, Edinburgh
The Writers’ Museum

“It’s a grand thing to be given leave to live”

Nan Shepherd (1893 – 1981)

This is the cheerful message engraved on the stones leading to the Writer’s Museum: a statement by the 20 th century novelist and geopoet, Nan Shepherd, and as a female, balancing the exclusively male writers –Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson – celebrated within the museum. Its setting, within a fine 17thC Lady Stair’s House off the upper Lawnmarket, – a tall old tenement with very basic, Old Town living conditions – resurrects memories of childhood for the present writer. Certainly the location would have been well known to the literary celebrities, all of whom were familiar with the dark pends and wynds of the city. The museum, displays a wide variety of the mementoes associated with their very different lives, although all gained world-wide fame, which has continued to this day. What could be more distinctive than the experience of the ‘Ploughman Poet’, the esteemed lawyer and creator of Scottish legend, and the legendary world-wide adventurer?

Writers' Museum sign, Edinburgh

This free Museum, in the heart of the Capital city, the place of Edinburgh also symbolises in the history of European literature, crowned by the unique accolade of becoming the very first designated UNESCO City of Literature. It is paralleled by hosting yearly the largest celebration of the written word in the world, inviting over 800 writers from across the globe. It is complemented, even in this digital age, by having a plenitude of bookshops, both modern and quaint, throughout the city. But none of this could have happened without the eminent publishing houses and paper mills which developed alongside the demands of the city’s ancient university, with its demands for publishing and printing facilities – backed by a famously wide education system open to anyone of talent. 

The city has not rested on its laurels with the names of writers who have now gained a worldwide-reputation, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, and importantly a female cadre including Muriel Spark, J.K. Rowling, and Kate Atkinson, while amateur writing groups abound. I return to my heroine, Nan Shepherd, mentioned above who is only now becoming recognised as one of the greatest Scottish writers, not only of the early novels which were unacknowledged precursors to Lewis Grassic Gibbons famous Sunset Song, but also because of her original insights into her very personal experience of the natural world.

James McCarthy