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Highlander and his Books


The Edinburgh Literary Companion
By Andrew Lownie

A Book Review

By
Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA email: jurascot@earthlink.net

I have been to Edinburgh fifteen or sixteen times. I have walked the city by the hour with my wife Susan, who is an indefatigable companion on trips. I’ve caught the taxis out of Waverly Station or from the airport to my hotel. More often than not, I have driven into “Auld Reekie” from Manchester or Inverness. It is the first Scottish city I ever rented a car and, thus, had my first encounter with something that I later was informed was a “round-about” on Leith Walk. It was and is a very busy round-about, and I could not get back to The Royal Terrace Hotel quick enough to put these old flat feet on solid ground! I know both Old Town and New Town. I think I know the majority of bookstores first hand, as well as my share of restaurants and pubs. I’ve spent my share of pounds sterling in that city. I’ve lugged my share of books back to Atlanta, even to the point of being called by Delta employees into the back luggage room at the airport in Manchester and asked to unpack “this heavy suitcase so we can verify its contents.” And that was before 9/11! I know where to find the best cup of coffee, the best cappuccino, and the best Italian food. I know where the wait staff is good and where it is not. I’ve had more than my share of good food and good wine in that city. People I met years ago who live there are now considered friends. Simply put, Edinburgh is one of the best cities in the world that I’ve visited during my lifetime of travels. For an outsider, an American whose ancestors come from the Isle of Jura, I thought I knew a lot about Edinburgh until…

I read Andrew Lownie’s The Edinburgh Literary Companion. And I must say, the author is a multi-talented man and was kind enough to introduce himself to me via email after having read a previous review of mine in this space. I discovered what his publisher already knows - he is a gifted writer. Reading his book about Edinburgh is the best thing I have ever done in connection with this great city. It is a wee book consisting of 150 pages of narrative. It is worthy of the famous “Two Thumbs Up” review, but if I had four, so would this review!

I would have known a lot more about this delightful city a lot sooner had this book been written earlier. This is one of those “do yourself a favor” tips - get a copy if you are going to Edinburgh for the first time or the fifteenth time. There is something special about Edinburgh - its magic has pulled on the hearts and minds of over five hundred authors who have used the city as the background for their novels. Lownie points out “a hundred of them have been published in the last fifteen years.”

There is not much I can add to the various publications that have already reviewed the book. The list reads like a “Who’s Who” publication: The Herald, Sunday Telegraph, Scotland on Sunday, Glasgow Evening Times, Daily Mai, The Economist, Mail on Sunday, Scots Magazine, Catholic Herald, Spectator, Choice Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, The Edinburgh Literary Companion, and The Scotsman. Yes, the book is that good to command such an audience of reviewers. So why would I review a book that has been reviewed “to death”? For two simple reasons - the author’s story needs to be told here in the States and abroad, and it needs to be told to a larger audience of Scots and others with interest in Edinburgh. Did you know that www.electricscotland.com has 1.2 million hits a month? Of that number, 60% comes from the USA, 20% from Canada, 10% form Australia and New Zealand, and the other 10% from the United Kingdom.

I have maintained for sometime that Sir Walter Scott is on a comeback among our readers. For too long Sir Walter has been considered out of date. A few years ago in the home of a friend of mine in Edinburgh, he told me in no uncertain terms over a very Scottish dinner of smoked salmon and lamb chops that Scott was outdated and no longer read. However, Scott remains my favorite Scottish writer, and God knows how much I love Robert Burns. The increasing number of today’s authors who are quoting Scott encourages me. My library of nearly 400 books on Scott alone testifies to my love for him. It does indeed seem to be fashionable to quote Scott once again as evidenced in Magnus Magnusson’s SCOTLAND, The Story of a Nation and Arthur Herman’s How The Scots Invented the Modern World, to name two. Andrew Lownie is no exception. He relies on the writings of Scott and quotes him throughout the book. It helps to remember that Edinburgh was Scott’s town, and he could be called the first celebrity writer the world ever knew! Scott writes of the emotions he endured when he finally had to sell his Edinburgh residence to help fight off impending bankruptcy ruin.

More importantly for our subject, Andrew Lownie will make both the first time tourist and the frequent traveler to Edinburgh feel as if the town now belongs to them. What is unique about this book is that over a hundred literary figures are covered by Lownie with a lot of emphasis on the likes of Scott, Stevenson, and Garioch, the latter two singled out by the Lownie as “indulging my own particular loves.” You’ll love what he writes about Barrie, Boswell, Burns, and Byron regarding Edinburgh, and that is just a few of the one hundred plus writers who will join you for your daily walks around Edinburgh if you are smart enough to purchase a copy and take it with you on your next visit. The book has a bibliography consisting of 211 books, and it lists the 500 books that have been written on Edinburgh.

“Andrew Lownie was born in Nairobi. He was educated at Fettes and at the universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh. He lives in London where he works as a literary agent.” You will find this book fascinating. It has a certain elegance not found in the normal run of  “guide” books, and it is difficult for me to classify it as such because it is indeed a jewel of a book. Case in point, the unusual use of maps on the inside covers of the book are most helpful - you certainly can’t lose them!

The Edinburgh Literary Companion is published by Polygon, an imprint of Birlinn Ltd., ISBN 10: 1 904598 61 7. The paperback carries a price tag of 9.99. Any Barnes & Nobles or Borders, or your favorite local bookstore should be able to get it for you. Thanks, Andrew Lownie, for making my next trip to Edinburgh more enlightening on one of the world’s most beautiful cities!

(FRS – 1/21/06)

You can purchase The Edinburgh Literary Companion at Amazon.com