Edinburgh uncovered on the trail of Rebus

It's 20 years since the troubled Inspector Rebus first stalked the streets of this Scottish city, home of his creator Ian Rankin. In fact, the author used some of his favourite haunts as the setting. Interview by Kieran Falconer

Edinburgh is a huge place compared with the village of Cardenden in Fife, where I grew up. I would arrive at Waverley Station and walk up Cockburn Street - a very alternative, trendy street full of hippie-type boutiques incense and cheap second-hand record shops - and have a browse. It's still alternative. It has tiny little shops selling posters, there's a gallery, a bookshop just for photographic books, a couple of record shops - including my favourite, Avalanche, which is a small independent specialising in indie rock, next door to which is Fopp, where you can get cheap CDs and DVDs.

As a teenager, my friends and I would maybe get as far as the university, up to Greyfriars Bobby, and then I'd just go back to the train station. Sometimes we'd cross Princes Street to Rose Street, because we were told the prostitutes hung out there. They did, but 30 or 40 years before we arrived so we found none. I used to think it would be like Amsterdam with big windows and a woman sitting inside waiting for us. So that was always a disappointment to us teenagers. I would go from the station to the Usher Hall to see gigs but that was about the extent of my knowledge. Edinburgh was scary because it was such a big place.

When you're first navigating it, it isn't easy. When I came to Edinburgh to live, aged 18 at university, I learned about Edinburgh by walking around it - partly because I couldn't afford taxis and was loath to take buses and partly because it's an exceptionally easy city to walk around. You navigate by landmarks because the streets are a maze. When I go to Glasgow I always get lost because it's just a series of grids but in Edinburgh you know where you are by statues and monuments. Or navigate by pubs, that's not a bad way to do it, there seems to be a pub every 15 feet.

As a student we frequented a lot of pubs because that's where your social life takes place at that age. I loved the atmosphere. When I came to Edinburgh I drank in the pubs around the university on Nicolson Street and then a mate of mine who I was sharing a flat with got a part-time job in the Oxford Bar (at 8 Young Street) in the New Town. I'd decided after writing the first Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, 20 years ago, that I was going to make Rebus drink in real pubs. Probably for the first two books I'd been inventing the pubs he drank in but then I thought, why am I making it hard on myself? Why not use the same bars? So I shifted him into the Oxford Bar and made it his regular haunt. Which it still is - and mine.

The Oxford Bar is great because it's like a private members' club. The first time you go in you're a stranger, the second time they know what you drink and they're pulling the pint before you get to the bar. It's very small and homely, with just two rooms, the back room has church pews for chairs. It has a traditional Edinburgh atmosphere. It hasn't changed in a hundred years or so.

It's indicative of the hidden Edinburgh that this place is a two-minute walk from Princes Street but only a local would know because it's up a little alleyway. If you stand outside, which smokers have to do - I've got the smoking ban in the forthcoming book, so Rebus has to go out for a fag - and look to your left you see a big Georgian building facing you on the corner of Charlotte Square. It's Bute House, where the First Minister lives, so you can give him a little wave.

There are many and various ways of taking people around Edinburgh, not just via the pubs. You can do it on the cheap visiting the free museums and galleries, go to the high points of the city where you get fantastic panoramic views, or try the different walking tours. A literary tour is a must, because Edinburgh is the only city I know in the world where the main railway station, Waverley, is named after a novel. And its author, Sir Walter Scott, is celebrated by the biggest monument to a writer in Europe, the Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens. This extraordinary city of 450,000 celebrates them all, from Scott, Stevenson and Conan Doyle through to Irvine Welsh.

Even if you have only a day in Edinburgh you can see quite a lot in a short space of time. The first place I would start is Calton Hill, at the east end of Princes Street, a volcanic hump of rock that has a bizarre array of monuments on top of it. There's a look-out tower, the Nelson Monument, where at one o'clock a big white ball descends from a mast so that ships at sea can get a fix on what time it is. It's got a re-creation of one side of the Parthenon - they ran out of money when the eccentric owner died - and there's also an observatory from which people have recently been stealing the lead from the roof.

You can look down towards Leith, look across the water to Fife; you get the most amazing view of Princes Street, and you can also look down on Holyrood Palace, on the new Parliament building, and on the biggest new construction in Edinburgh, the council headquarters next to Waverley Station.

You've got to choose the right day though, because it can be as blustery as hell. It's got a different clientele at nighttime: it's not the place to go in the dark unless you're looking for a same-sex pick up.

That's the thing about Edinburgh, it's two different places at the same time. It's got that Jekyll and Hyde aspect. It can seem to be this incredibly rational, well laid-out, cultured and civilised city, but at the same time it's got this dark side to it. The two cities co-exist quite nicely. You can get more of a sense of it from the architecture of the city: the higgledy piggledy Old Town, where there has been very little town planning at all and buildings have just been thrown up, versus the rationalism of the New Town, which is almost like a geometrical construction, all circuses and straight lines. Robert Louis Stevenson, as a teenager, would tiptoe out of his home on Heriot Row in the New Town and creep up to the Old Town to consort with whores and gamblers. He was actually living these two cities. You have to work hard to find some connection between Robert Louis Stevenson and his native city. There are statues of Sherlock Holmes, Walter Scott and David Hume, but none of Stevenson. Even the house he grew up in is not a museum and cannot be seen unless you know the owner - which I do. But if you visit St Giles Cathedral, on the Royal Mile, there's a fantastic brass relief of Robert Louis Stevenson in repose writing, with his words swirling around him. Visit the Thistle Chapel as well, small but extraordinarily ornate, the wooden carvings are phenomenal. There's one of an angel playing the bagpipes above the door. That's the sound of heaven - from afar!

Now if you go outside and around the back of St Giles, you'll be facing the law courts, Parliament Hall. Enter past the metal detector and you'll see a fantastic hall with an amazing wooden ceiling and a beautiful stained-glass window at the end. This was the old parliament building for Scotland. It's now where all the lawyers hang out whispering into each other's wigs. In the car park there - and I forget which bay it is - in the square behind St Giles, is an extraordinary brown square on the ground inlaid in the setts (what we call cobbles) that marks the burial site of John Knox.

Surely hell is having a Saab on top of you?

Just a few hundred yards from there is another part of hidden Edinburgh, Mary King's Close, a secret street beneath the City Chambers on the Royal Mile. It had been untouched since the 16th century when they had the plague and people died or they moved out. They just built over the top of it. The first time I visited I was taken into one room where hooks were hanging from the ceiling. The guide said it might have been a butchers. I thought "Bloody hell, what a great crime scene, what a fantastic opening for a book if a body is found hanging in a place like this."

So that's what happens in Mortal Causes. It turns out it that it sold pots and pans. Fictional licence. But it's worth taking the Mary Kings Close tour because it's fascinating, historically accurate and quite creepy.

Early on, reviewers said my books were "unlikely to be recommended by the Edinburgh Tourist Board". But now there is a Rebus walking tour. Visitors want to see Arden street where he lives, and they want to go to the Oxford Bar. They don't just want to see a city that has been kept in aspic, the monuments and museums, the stuff the council would like you to look at and then go away. People want to see a real, living, breathing city. And that's just what Edinburgh is.

Ian Rankin is at the Hay Festival on 28 May at 2.30pm to discuss the Rebus 20th anniversary and his latest novel, 'The Naming of the Dead'. Ticket prices and booking (0870 990 1299, hayfestival.com) will be available nearer the date. A 20th anniversary hardback edition of the first Rebus novel, 'Knots and Crosses', is published this month (Orion, £10.95). The next Rebus novel, 'Rebus XX', will be published in September (Orion, £19.95).

My favourite museum

One of my favourite museums is the Writers' Museum (0131-529 4901; cac.org.uk), just off the Royal Mile. It features memorabilia of Robert Louis Stevenson. One of the templates for Jekyll and Hyde was a character called Deacon Brodie - he has a pub named after him on the Royal Mile - who was a law-abiding citizen by day and a burglar by night. He was eventually hanged on a gibbet that he had helped to make because he had been a carpenter. Stevenson was fascinated by the story and his governess told it to him repeatedly. It's rumoured that Stevenson had a wardrobe made by Brodie in his bedroom. That wardrobe is now here in the Writers' Museum. Ask nicely and they might open the wardrobe and then you'll see the story of Deacon Brodie inscribed inside.

My best wild walk

The Hermitage of Braid, right on the edge of town, is a place that I love taking the kids for a walk. There's quite a fast running burn, set amid a glen of wilderness. You can climb Blackford Hill, another of the high spots in Edinburgh. They could do with a coffee shop, though. Anywhere in Holyrood Park is fantastic, but climbing up Arthur's Seat is an adventure in itself. It's like being in the Highlands: you won't see anybody yet it's in the middle of Edinburgh.

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