JK Rowling writing in Nicolsons

Nɪᴄᴏʟsᴏɴs

JK Rowling wrote ‘huge parts’ of Harry Potter & the Philosopher’s Stone in Edinburgh’s Nicolson’s cafe, this is:

  1. A history of Nicolsons’ evolution & rebirth.
  2. A memorial to the significance Nicolsons held to Rowling & every Potter-head, as the Rowling anointed nursery* for Harry’s first adventure.
  3. Nicolsons’ menu &
  4. a review.
* The original idea having struck on a train without paper!

Why eat at Nicolsons?

Thinking you could just order cake? You cruel tyrant! It’s true, the cake is ridiculously cheap, £3 for 3 decent pieces but it’s not a proper meal is it. Their House Elves aren’t going to feel fufilled are they?

You don’t want them to become frustrated and self soothe with copious Butterbeer do you? Their livers are only wee. You know what an alcoholic House Elf’s ears smell like? ...Not healthy.

Give the poor blighters a chance; work should pay 💪

Amazing lobster burger! Fantastic experience! The staff are really nice with great service! Strongly recommend!
Yang Guo

JK Rowling on Nicolsons

Nicolsons cafe in the 1990s where JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter
Witches & wizards signal their membership of their secret community by wearing purple in public. They might also frequent a purple café

This is Nicolsons where I wrote huge parts of the book. This was a really great place to write, because there were so many tables around here that I didn’t feel too guilty about taking a table up too long and that was my favorite table.

I always wanted to try and get that one because it was out of the way in the corner. It was just great to look up when you were writing and stop and think about things and be able to look out on the street which was quite busy.

They were pretty tolerant of me in here partly because one of the owners is my brother-in-law. And I used to say to them "Well you know when it gets published I’ll try and get you loads of publicity" and it was all just a big Joke. No-one ever dreamt for a moment that was going to happen.

Myth busting

Time Magazine 1999:
The Harry Potter books corresponded briefly with a bad patch in Rowling’s personal life. She was newly divorced, temporarily out of work, on the dole and living in an unheated Edinburgh flat. To keep them both warm, she would wheel her young daughter into a cafe and sometimes jot down Harry Potter ideas on napkins.

JKR: “During the day I was writing in cafes as everyone famously knows, but could I just say for the record once and for all 'cause it’s really irritating me: I did not write in cafes to escape my unheated flat, because I am not stupid enough to rent an unheated flat in Edinburgh in midwinter.

It had heating.”

TRUTH Rowling has since retreated on this. Upon arrival in Edinburgh she quickly exhausted her savings to place a deposit on a modern, heated flat. But the first place she stayed alone in was a ‘glorified bedsit’. To straighten out the full story race onto my

Edinburgh cycle tour
Like Chinese whispers the compressed Time story became mythologised with claims Rowling was so poor she wrote the Philosopher’s stone on napkins. Reading it Rowling screamed with laughter. It’s 80,000 words, how would she have kept them ordered? Hole punched them and built leaning towers of punch-files?

“Fireman arrived on the scene to find a 28 year old woman crushed beneath a mountain of ink-blackened napkins. She was declared dead at the scene from severe head trauma.”

Fortunately she wrote on paper pads.

The best thing I ever wrote on was an aeroplane sick bag. Came up with the Hogwarts houses on it. https://t.co/Fut4BvS6iM

— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 15, 2017

As Jessica dozed Harry frolicked

JK writes Harry Potter in Nicolosons cafe, Edinburgh university's Old College behind her
Rowling felt like she had ‘penniless divorcee lone parent’ tattooed on her head.

Rowling describes Harry’s beginnings:
“Eccentric woman dashes into cafes every day, one arm on the buggy, hair everywhere, slings a pile of A4 papers down, orders espresso after espresso and writes madly. At night, back in her grotty bedsit after Jessica falls asleep, she writes a bit more. Without writing, she’d go stark, raving mad.”

I had nothing to lose and sometimes that makes you brave enough to try. https://t.co/ETEk8lcih1

— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) March 25, 2016

In Nicolsons Rowling launched Harry free of Privet Drive and became enraptured. Hermoine, Ron & Harry wheeling around a whole new world, belittled and belittling, discovering and being entrapped; whirring around her head as she wrote furiously.

Rowling was troubled by whether she would be able to afford growing Jessica’s next set of shoes; the hard graft of writing, powered by Nicolsons’ espressos, transported her from her life of fret. As Harry escaped the Muggle world so did she.

 “Writing Harry Potter is the most fun you can have without anyone else present.” 

Check the bushy hair!

“Start by writing about things you know about”

Rowling was a teaching assistant in Paris during university, she taught in Portugal, she wrote a book about a school and bushy haired super-swot Hermoine is Rowling’s childhood writ large.

Nicolsons is sold

Early after Rowling’s arrival she was writing in the cafe Neogciants, the manager wanted her table over lunch because she didn’t buy (they liked beloved author Alexander McCall Smith, then a law professor, he paid table rent). Feeling unwanted she left permanently.

Nicolsons was owned by her brother in law, it had perhaps been avoided because she didn’t want to impose, well now it was the best option. Rowling toiled her pushchair up the stairs, they happily welcomed her and Rowling found her new home. She grew to love writing there, it became Harry’s maternity ward.

In 2003 the lease came to an end. Rowling’s sister was no longer a nurse, she had retrained as a solicitor and her husband decided to move on too. Nicolsons had always been a struggle, with no ground floor shop front it was so difficult to promote to folk passing on the street.

Her brother in law had dotted the walls of Nicolsons with swathes of paper mache flowers. When they shut up shop, he gave Rowling one, and she kept it above her kettle on her kitchen wall. A talisman from where Harry’s paper bound adventures had blossomed.

A chain opened up, *ALL* you can eat Jimmy Chung’s Chinese Buffet King owned by Eddie Ng. It wasn’t a runaway success, lauded as “distinctly average” and “definitely not the most sophisticated of restaurants and the service isn’t the best I’ve experienced”.

Eddie really began working the Rowling connection in the media, placing a brass placard outside the door, and inviting people to ‘experience the view that inspired a magical new world’.

It kept getting nicked.

the maternity ward of Harry Potter becomes Jimmy Chungs
The red circle cradles the plaque to JK Rowling beneath the window where she gave labour to Harry

In 2006 Edinburgh City of Literature revealed one about midway up to Rowling’s favourite window, where only Hagrid can reach. As a result many self-guided Potter fans are led to believe the book was written in the Black medicine cafe below Rowling’s Nicolsons.

Black medicine have satirised this confusion on their website: “Black Medicine is a coffee shop. Not a pet shop, nor a jazz quintet. It is not a branch of specsavers, and it is not a doctor’s surgery.”

OK we got it. Where can I change into my swimming trunks?

🏊

In January 2009 Eddie threw in the towel. He tried to sell Buffet King to JK Rowling for £1 million, saying it ought to be made a museum to the boy who lived. The offer was declined.

OMG how much was Spoon beloved? Loads 💞

Well Eddies begat Spoon, serving "Well-made rustic dishes with punchy flavours and good ingredients". They became THE destination over the festival for the artists, the large windows and bright room perfect for waking them up around brunch or lunch. So loved were they that they were open every day, taking 2 weeks holiday in September.

They were less loved by students and other skinflints seeking somewhere to camp whilst working. If you didn’t pay table rent you were asked ‘are you done?’, you weren’t to linger. The waitress service was also relaxed, fitting the rustic vibe.

🦠

As the pandemic spread across the world the former owner cannily sold up. The new owner understood what a strong business they had inherited and sought to honour its legacy.

After lockdown it flew over the 2020 festival, even opting out of the chancellor’s "Eat out to help out" ½ price discount scheme. However for the rest of the year much of Spoon’s income derived from their set course evening menu, designed to appeal to crowds from the palatial Festival Theatre across the road.

Come September with theatres still closed Spoon’s custom was devastated. As a newly acquired business they weren’t eligible for government grants, which were paid on historic income, so in October 2020 Spoon broke. The theatres weren’t returning, hope was extinguished.

A bookshelf in Spoon restaurant displays tawdry 'Weekender magazines'
Decoration from Spoon... pure class

Rowling & the crowd of reasonable voices

While she was writing the Philosopher’s Stone in cafes she would chat to the staff... ‘I told a few people and I think they thought “Oh my god, she’s really on her uppers and now she wants to write a book!”’

Rowling kept her mission a secret, she had a couple of unfinished novels in drawers; while a well liked friend, a fellow teacher at a language school in Porto Portugal, had completed a novel which went unpublished. Her friend’s passion for writing became a passion for the Simpsons, which all the staff enjoyed together.

Would Rowling suffer the same fate?

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live, remember that.
wisdom of Albus Dumbledore

All the self-doubt and uncertainty and fears of inadequacy that she endured were proved bone-headed. The Philosopher’s Stone was a triumph. After it was published Rowling began writing the Chamber of Secrets and said

“I’ve been back to a couple of cafes and they’ve said, ‘Oh we know what you do now. We just thought you were very strange’.”


Discover more about Edinburgh & its connection to the boy who lived on JK Rowling’s Edinburgh.

Find a Harry Potter tour perfect for you

N҉i҉c҉o҉l҉s҉o҉n҉s҉ ҉r҉e҉b҉o҉r҉n҉

Nicolsons Edinburgh from outside Edinburgh university’s Old College

What’s different?

Nicolsons Edinburgh entrance from Nicolsons Street

Nicolsons as a café

The coffee / tea menu is city prices, but the milkshakes, given their generous size & labour, are competitive. The Italian cakes however are some dark dark wizardry, stunningly cheap and generously large.

Harry Potter gigurine sits on the counter in Nicolsons where JK Rowling began writing Harry’s adventures in Scotland Nicolsons fine Italian aragoste cake Nicolsons cake prices Fine Italian chocolate cannonli cake Fine Italian strawberry cannonli cake Fine Italian coffee cannonli cake Fine Italian zaba glione cannonli & Sicikuab Frabgola cake
Merlin’s prickly nostril braids, Nicolsons has Italian cake for sickles! Diabetes my good friend, come this way...

The only drink Rowling quoted as a regular during the Harry Potter cafe years was Espresso and a glass of water; JK’s Espressos remain the cheapest coffee on the menu. I ordinarily get water as a backup to my lunch drink, to quench cost, but Nicolsons milkshakes are so HUGE there’s little need. Poverty is a lot like childbirth. You know it’s going to hurt before it happens, but you’ll never know how much until you’ve experienced it.

Many of the drinks are artisanal & labour intensive, unfortunately the tea is simple tea bags, which is lousy for Tessomancy. Rowling does it right:

Early Christmas present: Loch Ness monster tea strainer. I suspect this is the mark at which all other gifts will shoot in vain. pic.twitter.com/BB9cmnWFDY

— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) December 24, 2017

The specials menu

Let’s face it -

  1. Ron, poor, has a pet rat who needs a pension.
  2. Hermione, super-nerd mudblood.
  3. Harry, rich, as a baby defeated Voldemort by crying.
They’re the special gang, they’d be eating the special food. THERE’S NO BLOOMIN’ SPECIALS MENU, what is up with this?! Lobster burger is special, but I can only eat it every few visits.

The steep staircase up from the street to Nicolsons Edinburgh

Today as Nicolsons

There is a long flight of stairs to enter. There’s a stair lift. The staff enjoy working here, professing they don’t think they could work anywhere else, and they supervise the stairlift, supervise the dung out of it, keeping Edinburgh’s old-ladies under control, ‘steady, steady, we don’t want another moon launch’.


NASA scientist having been working overtime to explain the irregular ‘blood moons’, it’s Nicolson’s pensioner joy-riders gone splat down. The staff seem a caring bunch.

They are kitted out for parents with children and backpackers. There’s a large section by the stairlifts’ summit, for these things to be set aside.

Nicolsons, Alastor Moody & the -10° glare

When Professor Moody clomped in on his wooden leg, mad eye swivelling wildly, the waiter asked if he would like the stairlift. Apparently it took quite some explaining and when finally the professor understood his mad eye became very still and piercing then he said ‘I’ve lost a leg, not my bloody Gobstones’.

Fortunately the staff are a resilient lot. My waiter recalled Professor Moody was quite reticent about ordering, eventually opting for a long black coffee but then didn’t drink any. Just sat in a corner siping from his hip flask & looked twitchy.

To be fair the room has multiple potential infiltration points for Dark Wizards. Aurors 🙄

Mount your broom!


cyclist on a Harry Potter cycle tour a cyclist cycles on a Harry Potter cycle tour around Edinburgh

NEW: Cycle tours of JK Rowling’s greater Edinburgh with a salting of Harry Potter inspirations, written for fellow fans.

Put the rubber to the pedal, break the Fidelius charm & discover where Edinburgh’s most celebrated adopted daughter has truly lived, written & caffeinated for her last 30 years. As The Boy Who Lived grew more famous the caffeine had to be sought from ...shhh...

Stairs & baby Jessica Rowling

Some bloggers have doubted Rowling honestly wrote in Nicolsons because of the many stairs. Well truth is she said her legs would shake from caffine (and hunger) having hauled Jessica’s pushchair back down.

Decoration

Nicolsons is a bright dance hall sized room, divided up into themed sections, the central section is decorated with retro film cameras and either side are Harry Potter sections. It’s beginning to bustle with people and burble with happy conversation.

Interior of Nicolsons Edinburgh, a huge hall like room, the nursery of English’s briefest epic, Harry Potter

The Rene Machintosh style windows have a design that my mother says looks like the chosen one, complete with lightning scar, this can’t have harmed.

An abstract Harry Potter lightning scar in the textured glass windows of Nicholsons cafe Edinburgh
If you squint, the boy who lived! Or perhaps my mother has an overabundance of imagination.

Nicolsons’ Lavvys

As you may know the Elephant House cafe’s toilets have become a shrine to The Boy Who Lived & the Mother He Saved, or as Dursleys say ‘a skanky slum’. Not so for Nicolsons, their toilets are new and on my visit immaculate.

To save their fancy new loos from becoming a pale imitation of the Pachyderm Palace they have diverted fans’ love with a board dotted with post it notes pilgrims have written heartfelt tributes on. The toilets are just for sh--ing in OK?

Tinkles fine too.

Ron’s bottom humour & Myth busting

Seamus and Dean, who were working nearby, sniggered loudly, though not loudly enough to mask the excited squeals from Lavender Brown – ‘Oh, Professor, look! I think I’ve got an unaspected planet! Oooh, which one’s that, Professor?’

‘It is Uranus, my dear,’ said Professor Trelawney, peering down at the chart.

‘Can I have a look at Uranus, too, Lavender?’ said Ron.
Pottermore, Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire

Rowling thought her editor would cut that exchange, because her publishers didn’t want any swearing in the books, it would repel parents. Her editors were historied in mutiny, in the first book they’d asked to cut the Troll in the toilets, while Ron’s too naughty violent bishop trod on shaky ground. But her editor loved this scene, she laughed out loud.

There’s an internet myth that there’s a version of the books with lots of swearing. Rowling felt it would be in character for Ron to swear a lot, and so in the latter half you can see her working around her publisher, with Ron’s cursing cut off by his mother Molly, or quick “Rons!” from Hermione.

In the last few books Rowling doubled down on the problem inventing many sacrilegious references to Merlin’s various bodily appendages that made parents laugh. Invention conquers difficulty.

Do you think they like their Chef’s Special Sauce?

Yeah, I’m Rupert Grint, I ate all that. Just kidding 🤮

I had a lobster burger.

Nicolsons Edinburgh lobster burger with Chef’s special sauce

Indeed the Chef’s Special Sauce is luuuuvely, a touch special, a sublime guilty pleasure, probably contains minced Elf.

On my Complete Potterhead lunch is included, I ran one last Sunday and when my Pottehead ordered the lobster burger I skimped and went for small. Yeah, mistake, its not big enough, it arrived virtually a canape 🤦 The larger burger is filling and the price comparable to pub meals.

Chips 👨‍🚀

The sides, especially the chips, are bargainous. Bizzarely they don’t claim to be the Chef’s special chips, although they are, they’re dusted with curry powder; they’ve fashioned the Firebolts of chips, transporting your mouth into orbit.

Alcohol

Visiting Edinburgh with your coven & you’ve not read the books? Ah bless, the life of Argus Filch, not everyone can win at life, here’s the cure...

Nicolsons Edinburgh lobster burger with Chef’s special sauce

One day you too can be Sybill Trelawney 🥴

Paying

The summit of my ambition was handing my credit card to someone one day and them saying: ‘Oh my God, you wrote my favourite book’.
JK Rowling

It seems to be preferred to pay when you order, less administration. This is a general ethos, the chef’s special sauce render the burgers sticky finger food, so there’s a tray of cutlery should you need it. You’ll need it.

Nicolsons & the Edinburgh Festival

Well it’s bang in the middle of things during the largest arts festival in the world; formerly the room heaved with people eating between shows, so expect it to be a touch busier over August.


Is Bicolsons Nrilliant?

For the love of peach milkshake, OH GOD YES. And I very much enjoyed the lobster burger 💯

Nicolsons Edinburgh frothy peach & coconut milkshake complete with marshmallow

I’d like the management, if they’re successful, to double down like the Wizarding cocktail experience "The Cauldron" and create an environment magically immersive. It’s a bright, airy room: perhaps imagineer professor Aurora Sinistra’s astronomy tower? ‘Aurora’! Don’t you just 💞 Rowling’s names.

As is, it’s a nice bright room for working in, some wall tables have nearby plug sockets, it’s growing in popularity with Edinburgh University students but without a specials menu it may be a one visit wonder, that’s remembered cheerfully.

Nicolsons & JK Rowling today

I asked the staff if Rowling’s ever been back, she hasn’t. Unless polyjuice was involved. She’s said the fame & acclaim have made it impossible.

At the book release for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Rowling was asked “if you could have any superpower what would it be?” she replied “Invisibility, and it is a little bit sad, but I would go to cafes and write all day”.

She may never have returned, but part of her never left.

Rowling’s café legacy

Rowling continued to write in cafes around the city for some time and said: "I feel a bit superstitious because that’s how I wrote the first book and I don’t want to break the run of luck".

Today, while visiting places around the UK researching her Cormoran Strike detective novels Rowling borrows names for characters from waiter and waitresses name badges.

☞︎
For the moment the vast majority of JK’s writing continues in Edina.
A pilgrim on the Complete Potterhead tour writes a thankyou letter to JK Rowling in Nicolsons, Edinburgh

Nicolsons’ rebirth leans heavily into its Harry Potter heritage & here I’m visiting with Sue a Potterhead on my 7½ hour Complete Potterhead tour writing letters to JK. Rowling receives a few splotchy letters through her letterbox from us each year; her dogs probably eat them.

Is Rowling haunted by Nicolsons?

JKR: “For years now, people have asked me whether I ever dream that I am ‘in’ Harry’s world. The answer was ‘no’ until a few nights ago, when I had an epic dream in which I was, simultaneously, Harry and the narrator. I was searching for a Horcrux in a gigantic, crowded hall, which bore no resemblance to the Great Hall as I imagine it.

As the narrator I knew perfectly well that the Horcrux was jammed in a hidden nook in the fireplace, while as Harry I was searching for it in all kinds of other places, while trying to make the people around me say lines I had pre-arranged for them.

Meanwhile waiters and waitresses who work in the real cafe in which I have written huge parts of [the books] roamed around me as though on stilts, all of them at least fifteen feet high.

Perhaps I should cut back on the caffeine?”


A great crowded noisy hall, sounds a lot like...?

It also fits the third cafe she took flight to, like a glove. Discover it on my 4 hour tour, for those for whom Harry is family.

Find a Harry Potter Tour perfect for you

Harry Potter sights nearby

The Elephant House café is 6 minutes walk and serves food if Nicolsons is overflowing.

Teviot Row House is 5 minutes walk. It’s Scottish palatial gothic architecture is very much Hogwarts and it’s Britain’s oldest student union building.

Divine Rowling’s future with a palm reading at JK Rowling’s Edinburgh Award; 7 minutes walk.


Visiting? Choose your Avatar so we know how to greet you.


Multi-nationals, based outwith Scotland, such as Sandemans have run tours which breach Scotland's First Minister's guidance, thereby spreading disease. 160,000 UK citizens, no small number, have died. Members of people's families gone forever.

Local companies have endured having their guides on their tours, taking notes, to help build their own versions. They call this 'sieving' or 'filtering', their partners believe they 'do it properly' and are... sieving for gold?

This reduces local tour operators & Scotland 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 because their guides get little, much of the profits are sucked abroad. It also harms honest - originated the work - competition, because the multi-nationals lean on a cartel they've built with hotels & hostels. These partners, some 'pocketed' for a fee, spotlight multi-national's 'sieved' tours, building their review dominance.

There's little motivation to do original work if you expect the work won't pay. We're being sieved to the bottom. There's little need for tourism if its gift is congestion & hardship.

Please do not visit & norm 'sieving'.

If you go on a multi-national's tour you are helping pollute Scotland's culture & empower brands who kill 🤢

Work should pay 💪
Reject the fatcat cartel 😾↔😼↔😾 Prefer local tour providers who would love to host you, or maybe just go to Manchester instead.

Go well
Sam

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