The Swiss Family Carlson Finds JK Rowling’s Scotland

This is Part 2 of our trip to Scotland. You can read Part 1 here.

I will admit to being a huge fan of JK Rowling and her Harry Potter books. I will also admit to being extremely pleased that E is also a huge fan and H also seems to be “catching the bug.” We have let E read through book 5 and on his birthday we have promised that he can read book 6. He is ticking down the days. We also have the books on tape and E and H listen to various part of books 1-4 while going to sleep at night.

It’s no secret that JK Rowling lives in Edinburgh and that she took a lot of inspiration from the city for settings and characters in her books. I mean, just look at this street.

IMG_1753It just screams “Diagon Alley” to me.  This is on the Royal Mile just around the corner from Edinburgh Castle and is in the neighborhood where JK Rowling liked to walk around.

There are Harry Potter tours that you can sign up for. The guides escort you around the city wearing black cloaks and Hogwarts hats, however I decided that the kids and I would stumble around at our own pace looking for signs of the wizarding world.

I did just a little bit of research on Harry Potter in Edinburgh. The Google search was interesting and yet limited at the same time.  Of course we know that JK Rowling finished her books at the Balmoral Hotel, conveniently located across the street from the Apple store where I had to go and buy a UK pronged plug for my phone.


But the one place I found that I HAD to go to was The Elephant House Cafe, the place where JK Rowling famously sat with her baby daughter in her stroller and wrote most of books 1 and 2.  As most of you probably know, she was on The Dole when she was writing book 1. She had given herself 1 year to be on welfare and to write it and get it published. She often chose to go there and write while nursing a cup of coffee because it was cheaper than turning on the heat in her apartment.  Scotland is chilly, people.  We were there in the middle of July and the high temperature was 68F!


Turns out, The Elephant House Cafe is a really wonderful place to get a bite, a cup of tea, and write part of your story.

There is also a little tourist trap and junk food shop just 3 doors down that sold the only Harry Potter merchandise I saw the entire time we were in Scotland. We bought E and wand and H a stocking hat.  I now regret not getting myself a Ravenclaw stocking hat, but such is life.

Some of it really was stumbling around and into magic.  We were fresh from buying our wand and hat when E declared he had to use the loo.  We couldn’t go back to the cafe because we’d have to wait in line just to get back into the shop. So we plunged forward and went to the Greyfriar’s Kirk.  If there is one thing that traveling in Switzerland has taught me it is that the churches usually have a clean bathroom.


The loo was found and after a spirited discussion of The Reformation and a comparison of Calvinism between Scotland and Switzerland, Diane, the lovely docent asked E and H if they happened to be Harry Potter fans.  With a shouted, “Yes!” ricocheting around the upper buttresses of the church, she explained that JK Rowling liked to walk around the graveyard and that she took the names of Moody, McGonagall, and Tom Riddle from the stones in that very yard.  She kindly led us outside and took us right to the stones. Definitely above and beyond her call of duty.

It’s spelled with an “ie” here, but Diane assures me this is where Ms. Rowling got the name of Moody.

If only these people knew how famous they would be long after they had died.

And the Kirkyard looks a lot like where the duel between Voldemort and Harry took place in book 4.

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And then right through the metal gate next to McGonagall’s stone was the George Heriot School for Orphans.  Our cab driver from the airport drove us by the George Heriot school and told us that it had been the inspiration for Hogwarts. We ooo’d and aah’d over it as we passed by, but when we happened to find it just on the other side of the fence of the Greyfriar’s Kirkyard I was delighted by the serendipity.

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After finding this out I did a little research on George Heriot’s school. It turns out they have a headmaster AND the pupils are sorted into 4 houses! Lauriston (green and named after the school’s address at Lauriston Place), Greyfriars (white), Raeburn (red, named after a famous student), and Castle (blue).

After we had taken in the Harry Potter landscape of Edinburgh, I took the kids to Holyrood House.  It’s also known as Holyrood Palace by those who want to be extra royal.

IMG_1826It’s also a smidge Hogwartsian, isn’t it?

Holyrood House is the official residence of the Queen and the royal family when they visit Scotland. You can go and tour it every day of the year except when the Queen is there. It’s at the end of the Royal Mile and right next to Arthur’s Seat, a long-dormant volcano and popular hiking spot.


It started out as just a tower built in the 1500s by James V, but around 1670 Charles II (wasting no time after Cromwell’s death) built it into it’s current Baroque form.


Mary Queen of Scots lived there with her husband Lord Darnley, until Darnley, in a drunken and jealous rage, stabbed one of her male friends (who by all reports was gay) 57 times. Mary then deemed it expedient to get the heck of out dodge. However, her apartments remain as they were when she so hastily left and also house some beautiful art and jewelry that she left behind.

The main floor still has the tapestries and furniture that Queen Victoria and other previous residents of Holyrood House brought there.  You can see the wear in the carpets, but you can tell how hard the preservationists are working to keep all the furnishings intact.

It’s a really good audio tour. The adults get one tour and the kids get another and I quote, “slightly more bloody” tour.  My boys seemed to enjoy it, although H declared he was bored right before the Great Gallery.  E got a kick out of Sean Connery (a/k/a James Bond) being knighted right in that room and searched high and low for the secret door.  H decided he’d rather sit and watch the video of the Queen’s arrival ceremony.

And, of course, there are these Beefeater boxes all around the palace. And, of course, the boys just had to duck into them and pose for pictures.

What you can’t see is the line of people waiting to get into these boxes to pose for their picture.  If they charged for this honor they’d have the national debt problem solved.

Right around the corner is the Holyrood Abbey ruins. This abbey was founded in 1128AD by King David I.  A century before the Reformation part of the abbey was turned into the Royal residence and James I built the main tower. In 1544 and 1547 English soldiers came over during the Rough Wooing of Mary Queen of Scots (Henry VIII wanted the infant Mary to be betrothed to his infant son, thereby making Scotland part of English territory and he was not subtle or tactful) and sacked the Abbey.  Then it was sacked again during the Reformation, as were loads of churches all over Europe.  It was repaired and over the years different repairs were made and it was used for another 200 years until a shady contractor did a bad job of repairing the roof and it collapsed during a horrible rain storm.  They never did try to fix it after that.

Now it’s just a wonderful, romantic ruin.


IMG_1842 IMG_1839 IMG_1838 IMG_1836 IMG_1834 IMG_1832  IMG_1843Holyrood House was so incredibly fantastic.  The tour information was well done. They let you go at your own pace and we had plenty of time to savor what we wanted to savor and pass by the stuff that didn’t grab our attention.

They have a cafe outside the palace, but on the grounds. It was a great place for a bowl of soup and a tasty children’s meal. And then, should you want to, you could make the 45 minute hike up to the top of Arthur’s Seat.  Or you could go to Dynamic Earth, an interactive museum about the history of the earth and our ecosystems, that is just around the corner (and which the boys absolutely loved).  OR! You could go into the Parliament Building that is literally across the street.

I also recommend a walk through the Royal gardens. This is the Queen’s gardens and her gardeners know what they are doing.  However, if you have my children, you will run through the gardens at top speed, stopping only to jump into one of those Beefeater boxes before you take off again.  Surely you’ll have more time to enjoy it than I did.

Next time we’ll be visiting Hadrian’s Wall and searching for the Loch Ness Monster!  Stay tuned!

3 responses to “The Swiss Family Carlson Finds JK Rowling’s Scotland”

  1. Ingrid nichols Avatar
    Ingrid nichols

    Love it!


  2. […] 3 of our trip to Scotland. You can read Part 1 about Edinburgh Castle and Part 2 about Harry Potter […]


  3. […] Part 4 in our visit to Scotland.  Over here you can find our visits to Part 1: Edinburgh Castle, Part 2: JK Rowling’s Scotland, and Part 3: Hadrian’s […]


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