Harry Potter in Edinburgh

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In this month’s Real English, we take you on a Harry Potter tour of Edinburgh, showing lots of great places you can visit, telling you about the city’s history and teaching you 6 fantastic words and phrases for you to learn in English.

You can see all of this great information on our video, and read on to find out more about Harry Potter and learn more vocabulary in context! Click on the highlighted words to find our what they mean.

Is Edinburgh the Birthplace of Harry Potter?

So, full disclosure, just after we filmed our video, JK Rowling published a Twitter thread where she disclaimed a lot of rumours about places which are said to have inspired her wizarding world. However, she did say that she has been influenced by all the different places she has seen in her travels, so I am sure it’s safe to say that Edinburgh would have helped create her vision! She didn’t mention Greyfriar’s Kirkyard which has a lot of Harry Potter stops on it, which means we can presume those are still correct! What we know for certain though is that a lot of places in Edinburgh have now become really important for Harry Potter fans because of legend. Read on to find out more!

JK Rowling had the idea for Harry Potter on a delayed train from Manchester to London in 1990​. Apparently, while she was staring out of the window, the whole story just popped into her head! It would still be some time though until this idea became the first Harry Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. 

She wrote a lot of her life experiences into the novels

During the 7 years until the first book was published, her mother died, her first child was born, she got divorced and lived on state benefits. ​ All of these enormous life events would go on to shape her famous books. The theme of mothers and a mother’s love runs through the entire series and you can see the struggles of depression in the Dementors, those horrible creatures that suck the joy out of you until you are left without a soul. 

In December 1993, Rowling moved to Edinburgh with three chapters of what would become Harry Potter in her suitcase.​ She started writing Harry Potter in fairly humble beginnings, and would often spend time writing in cafes in the city​. This was not due to her not being able to afford heating, like many rumours say, but because she had a baby that she needed to walk around the city so that she would fall asleep. 

Image of The Elephant House on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh. It has a bright red front and says birthplace of Harry Potter on the sign.
The Elephant House on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh

Were the books written in The Elephant House?

When the rumour of JK Rowling writing in Edinburgh cafes started, many were quick to jump on the bandwagon and claim that she had created Harry Potter in their place, however no cafe was as successful in this as The Elephant House. The Elephant House has become legendary, and calls itself “the birthplace” of Harry Potter. They have even put it on their sign! But those quotation marks are really important because it isn’t actually the birthplace of Harry Potter. She has said that she wrote there, but the cafe that JK Rowling has mentioned the most by name in Edinburgh is Nicholson’s Cafe, where she acknowledges that she wrote a chapter of one of the books. Nicholson Cafe then because Spoon cafe for a long time, but they were sadly forced to close due to the pandemic. It has now been taken over by a new owner and re-named Nicholson Cafe, so we will see what they plan to do! Despite this, The Elephant House has become one of the most important places to visit if you are a true Harry Potter fan, and I recommend going just to see the toilets where thousands of fans have written messages about their love for the series. You can see this on our video, so check it out!

And it’s not only the cafes!

Another Edinburgh spot where JK Rowling definitely wrote Harry Potter is the Balmoral Hotel. She wrote a lot of the Deathly Hallows here, and on the 11 January 2007 she finished the final chapter. She celebrated by signing the bottom of a marble bust in her room! You can stay in this room, now called the JK Rowling suite, although you will need a few thousand pounds to spare!

Harry Potter was rejected 12 TIMES before the publisher Blommsbury finally published it. Imagine being the person who passed up Harry Potter! JK Rowling went on to become the world’s first billionaire author, however she isn’t one anymore as she has donated a lot of her fortune to charity

An image of Tom Riddle's Grave in Greyfriar's Kirkyard, Edinburgh
Tom Riddle’s Grave in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, Edinburgh

Harry Potter Tours

With the rise of Harry Potter tourism in Edinburgh, a lot of guides now offer tours to the Harry Potter sites in the city. However, a lot of the places they take you to visit have nothing to do with Harry Potter, or have fairly tenuous links. Some places you can check out for yourself which do have a Harry Potter connection are:

JK Rowling’s hand prints

In the courtyard of the City Chamber’s on the Royal Mile, you can see where JK Rowling left her hand prints along with other famous people of Edinburgh. 

Tom Riddle’s Grave

We can’t know for certain if this was actually the inspiration for the real name of Lord Voldemort, but it does seem like quite a coincidence! This grave is at the far end of Greyfriars Kirkyard (click here for a more detailed map), but make sure you get there early as by 10am the Harry Potter tourists will start appearing. As we say in the video, this incredibly important historic graveyard is now seeing a great deal of erosion due to the increased footfall from people trying to find the spot. If you are visiting any heritage sites, always remember to be respectful.

McGonagall’s Grave

Again, this might be another very big coincidence, but just up from Tom Riddle’s grave you will find William McGonagall’s. Rumour has it that this grave inspired the name of Minerva McGonagall. I love the idea, especially as William McGonagall himself was a fascinating character, but it is a common surname in Scotland. Despite this, I still like to include it on the Harry Potter stops.

Other graves in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard are said to have inspired character’s in the series. Why not have a hunt and see if you can find the names of Moodie (Alastor Moody), Scrymgeour (Rufus Scrimgeour), Potter, and Cruikshanks (not quite spelled the same as the famous cat!). This excellent blog post goes into lots of detail of where to find them all!

The Elephant House and Nicholson’s Cafe

As I said earlier, although The Elephant House wasn’t the real birthplace of Harry Potter, it has now passed into wizarding legend and any fans should definitely check it out. If you want that more authentic experience, head over to Nicholson’s Cafe instead. 

The Balmoral Hotel

If you don’t have those extra thousand pounds to spend the night here, you can instead have a coffee or a drink in the hotel restaurant, or for an even lower budget, just get your photo taken outside!

Some other great places to visit

Although they didn’t actually inspire Harry Potter, there are so many beautiful spots in Edinburgh that you should definitely visit if you want to imagine you have taken a step into the wizarding world! With its cobbled streets, bright colours and independent shops, Victoria Street has serious Diagon Alley vibes. There are countless numbers of spooky narrow closes to explore in the Old Town which will definitely make you feel like you are in Knockturn Alley. George Heriot’s school, while not the inspiration for Hogwarts, looks a lot like it. And the view from Calton Hill will definitely make you feel like you are in a magical wonderland!

An image of The Glenfinnan Viaduct and Jacobite Express. The train is going over the viaduct and the background is full of green vegetation.
The Glenfinnan Viaduct and Jacobite Express: Photo by Jack Anstey on Unsplash

Where was Harry Potter filmed in Edinburgh?

I’m afraid the answer to this question is nowhere! There are however some great Harry Potter film locations in Scotland, but a bit further afield than Edinburgh. The Glenfinnan Viaduct is now world famous thanks to those incredible shots of the Hogwarts Express. You can even take a trip on the Hogwarts Express aka The Jacobite Steam Train and recreate the shot for yourself! The Highlands were a really popular filming location for the films. In Glencoe you can find the location of Hagrid’s Hut. The mystical Rannoch Moor is the spot where Death Eaters board the train in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 1. And Loch Shiel (which is also beside the Glenfinnan Viaduct) has served as a backdrop to Hogwarts as well as the location of the Black Lake in The Prisoner of Azkaban, and The Half-Blood Prince.

If you want more information on Harry Potter locations around Scotland, Visit Scotland have put together a brilliant 4 day itinerary.

Come and have a tour with us!

My personal claim to Harry Potter fame is that I babysat for JK Rowling’s daughter when I was 14! This was before she was famous of course, but I do have an excellent anecdote. When I asked her what she did for a living, she told me that she was a children’s author and illustrator. I replied that it must be a lovely job, and she said “yes, but it doesn’t pay much money”! 

We run some great Harry Potter and language tours which include learning vocabulary in context as well as the history of Edinburgh, a Hogwarts House competition, sorting hat ceremony, readings from the books in key locations, and chocolate frogs! If you are interested in getting our Harry Potter Edinburgh Experience, get in touch!

And if you’d like to expand your Harry Potter vocabulary in English, check out our Quizlet card set for free!

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