Beatrice Groves: Rowling and Heraldry

This is the third in a series of four ‘Back to Hogwarts’ posts by Trinity College, Oxford University Research Fellow and Lecturer Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. Enjoy!

As noted in my first blogpost of this series, ‘Rowling and Scotland,’ Rowling has put up a badge of the Murray clan – a traditional heraldic figure of a mermaid, carrying a mirror and a brooch, encircled with a cartouche inscribed with the Murray motto: ‘Tout prêt’ (Old French for ‘quite ready’) – and many thanks and a hat tip to Oxford graduate student Pratibha Rai who was the first to identify it for HogwartsProfessor.

This badge is a more subtle – and private – version of the photos of her husband which Rowling put up on her original personalised homepage. But it also points to her status as ‘Mrs Murray’ in a far more interesting guise. For heraldry – a pictorial guide to history – is something that has long interested Rowling and it has left a number of tantalizing traces in the Wizarding World: from the Hogwarts’s coat of arms inscribed on the title-page of each Harry Potter novel, to the family trees of the Blacks in Phoenix and the Lestranges in Crimes of Grindelwald to the tiny, but crucial, detail of Marvolo Gaunt’s erroneous belief that the Deathly Hallows symbol is his ancestral coat of arms.

Cursed Child even displays a heraldic memory of Deathly Hallows when Voldemort’s threat at the end of the Battle of Hogwarts that ‘the emblem, shield and colours of my noble ancestor, Salazar Slytherin, will suffice for everyone’ becomes reality. In the Cursed Child the total power of the Death Eaters is expressed heraldically at the close of Part One as ‘giant banners with snake symbols upon the descend over the stage.’

Heraldry tells stories – such as the charming histories of St Mungo (a Scottish saint familiar to all Harry Potter readers) which are depicted on Glasgow’s coat of arms. This coat of arms carries the charges of a bird, a tree, a bell and a fish with a ring its mouth (which are likewise the supporters of the shield). The fish with a ring in its mouth points to Mungo’s most appealing miracle which, in true fairy tale style, allows a penitent queen a second chance:

A Queen had a secret lover, a soldier, whom she had presented with a ring which given to her by her husband Redderech. However, a servant informed the king of the affair. Although Redderech did not want to believe the tale, the sight of ring on the young soldier’s hand convinced him. He then laid a plot to denounce his wife publicly. He invited the soldier to go hunting with him and then, when the young man fell asleep, he slipped up the ring off his finger and threw it into the river Clyde. He then went back and demanded that his wife show him the ring. She, of course, could not get it back from her lover because it was now lost…. In prison, she sent a messenger to Mungo asking for forgiveness and aid. Mungo tells the messenger straightaway to go fishing in the Clyde and to bring back the first fish he catches. This is a salmon, which, on being cut open, is seen to contain the ring. This is then taken to the queen who presents it to the King. 

St Mungo’s actions here in healing a relationship that seemed past repair, makes him a satisfying choice for the patron saint of healing in the Wizarding World.

The Murray brooch on Rowling’s homepage underlines her interests in both Scottishness and heraldry – and, indeed, Scottish heraldry itself makes a subtle appearance in the Wizarding World. Rowling has noted that in her fictional honours system, the Order of Merlin, first class, has a green ribbon. She has therefore given the highest honour in the Wizarding world the colour of the Order of the Thistle – the Scottish equivalent to the Order of the Garter – sometimes known as the ‘Green Garter’ or the ‘Green ribbon’ [see Literary Allusion in Harry Potter].

Today and tomorrow, I shall be looking at some of the ways in which Rowling makes use of heraldry’s ability to tell stories through symbols. Rowling wrote on the Black Family tree she drew in 2006 that ‘there are stories between the lines.’ Some of these stories can be read from the Black coat of arms and motto that she revealed for the first time in this drawing. [Read more…]

Beatrice Groves: Edinburgh’s Dark Side

This is the second in a series of ‘Back to Hogwarts’ posts by Trinity College, Oxford University Research Fellow and Lecturer Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter. Enjoy!

In yesterday’s blogpost ‘Rowling and Scotland’ we looked at how some of the world’s most enduring children’s classics – Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island and, now, of course Harry Potter – have been written by Edinburgh authors. And we looked briefly at the way Edinburgh’s literal, as well as literary, landscape may have influenced Rowling. Many people, for example, have suggested that Rowling was influenced by some of the ‘gothic’ looking schools in the city – a suggestion Rowling has rebutted in interview.

But it is the case that one of Britain’s most fêted ‘school’ stories (though hardly a children’s book) was influenced by an Edinburgh school. Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh and attended James Gillespie’s High School – the model for the Marcia Blaine School in her most famous novel: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But the titular character’s name points to a more interesting way in which Spark (and, I think, Rowling too) have been influenced by Edinburgh.

In this blogpost I will consider the literary legacy of three of the city’s most famous (and least salubrious) sons – Deacon Brodie, William Burke and William Hare – and suggest the influence their histories may have had the darker side of Rowling’s literary world. [Read more…]

Agatha Christie Pillar Post

Agatha Christie, though Rowling doesn’t like to talk about her as an influence, is perhaps the author with whom she has the most in common. Certainly Christie’s signature ‘big twists’ at the finale are much more akin to Rowling’s Harry Potter and Cormoran Strike novels’ endings than the conclusion of Austen’s Emma which The Presence claims is the target at which she aims in her writing.

Christie famously described herself and her writing as “lowbrow” and Rowling, sadly, would find that label an insult, I think, as she would association with the most popular novelist and writer who ever lived (only Shakespeare’s plays have outsold her detective novels and short stories, and, forgive me, except for the Bard’s plays being required reading in schools — in which Christie’s novels are almost never read — this would not be the case). Take the time to read the posts below, however, and I think it fairly obvious that Rowling has read Christie, studied her even, and kept her names notebook open as she did so.

This post will be filed (and updated as new entries appear) under the ‘Authors Not J. K. Rowling’ Pillar Post.

Agatha Christie: Ginny-Ginevra Source?

Christie’s ‘Appointment With Death:’ Reading Beyond the Ginny-Ginevra Find

Name that Not Quite Legible Book Title! The Mysteries on Rowling’s Book Shelf

Agatha Christie’s Eleven Missing Days

Lethal White: The Moving Finger

Agatha Christie and ‘The Pale Horse:’ Rowling Borrowings from the Master

Christie’s ‘Murder at the Vicarage’ Bellatrix Lestrange’s Debut in Fiction?

Agatha Christie: Murder at the Manor

Agatha Christie’s Last Marple Mystery: ‘Sleeping Murder’ and ‘Duchess of Malfi’

The Duchess of Malfi (1972)

Agatha Christie’s ‘Dead Man’s Folly:’ Moaning Myrtle and The Silkworm

Agatha Christie’s ‘The Clocks’ or ‘Arabella Figg Meets Hercule Poirot’

Christie’s Miss Marple Short Stories: Another Treasury of Rowling Sources?

Rowling, Inc., to Follow Christie Estate Lead and Commission Harry Potter Fan Fiction Under Its Own Trademark Brand?

BBC1 ‘Strike’ News Releases, Reviews Rowling Talks about Mystery Genre

Whodunit? Harry Potter — In the Great Hall — With a Wand!

No Romance in Mystery? What Sayers Wrote

Beatrice Groves: Rowling and Scotland

All Aboard! It is the day that all readers of Harry Potter imagine ourselves at King’s Cross and on Platform 9 and 3/4 where we await a journey to another magical year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This year, Oxford University’s Beatrice Groves, author of Literary Allusion in Harry Potter has shared four guest posts as going-away presents to Hogwarts Professor readers waiting to board the train — and as celebrations of Rowling’s artistry and meaning. Enjoy!

It is the 1st September and students are boarding the Hogwarts Express and taking the long journey north to Scotland.

Rowling lives and works in Scotland and describes it as ‘a country that has given me more than I can easily express.’ When she had a chance to do the first ever take-over of the Radio 4 programme ‘Woman’s Hour’ in 2014 – acting as editor for the programme – it was noticeable that half the features were focussed on Scotland. Rowling has declared ‘I love this country’  – and she also loves it as a location for her fictions.

Note for example her unusually in-depth response (Twitter, 20 Sept 2018) to a resident wondering why she’d chosen Barrow-in-Furness as a setting for Career of Evil:

It’s such an unusual, distinctive place. I looked into the history of it (I’d never been there), then visited to see whether it was all I hoped, and it was. I can’t really explain why without spoiling the book, but it developed certain themes and perfectly suited the plot.

What is the evidence that Hogwarts, like quite a bit of Career of Evil, is in Scotland?

Rowling has gone out of her way to make it clear that Hogwarts, too, is located in Scotland. In an earlier confirmation, she jokily amended the original Fantastic Beasts (2001) textbook entry – ‘Rumours that a colony of Acromantula has been established in Scotland are unconfirmed’ – with ‘unconfirmed’ crossed out and replaced with ‘confirmed by Harry Potter and Ron Weasley.’

The fact that Hogwarts’s Scottish location is an original part of Rowling’s conception, not an afterthought, is also shown by the fact that both of her sketches of Hogwarts mark the landscape as distinctively and explicitly Scottish by naming the Great Lake as a ‘Loch.’

One of these sketches was made in 1999 and the other may have been made as early at 1995.1 While the word ‘loch’ itself did not make it into text of Harry Potter, the way Rowling’s imagination of this deep lake has been influenced by lochs remains clear, for it is inhabited by a Giant Squid. Giant Squid, like the infamous Loch Ness Monster, are legendarily vast and difficult to see creatures and, indeed, some have wondered if some giant cephalopod hanging out in Loch Ness might be the origins of that myth…

It also simply makes sense that if you take a very long-distance train north from King’s Cross, and end up in a castle surrounded by mountains, where quite a bit of tartan is worn, you’re probably in Scotland.

‘By residence, marriage, and out of gratitude for what this country has given me, my allegiance is wholly to Scotland.’ J. K. Rowling

This is all circumstantial evidence – and we’ll get to the definitive textual evidence of Hogwarts’s Scottish location in a moment – but the reason I’ve been thinking about Hogwarts’s (and Rowling’s) Scottishness is due to a heraldic badge that she has put up on her homepage. 

It shows the traditional heraldic figure of a mermaid (carrying a mirror and a brooch) encircled within a cartouche/garter. And many thanks – and a big hat-tip! – to Pratibha Rai, Oxford graduate student and Harry Potter fan, who was the first at Hogpro to correctly identify this as a traditional badge of the Murray Clan.

Rowling’s display of this badge on her homepage marks her pride in the family which she has joined through marriage, and the fact that she is now a ‘Murray.’ Born Joanne Rowling, she first took the pen-name of J.K. Rowling and has more recently added two new names – both Scottish – to this list. Firstly when she decided to take her husband’s name upon marrying him in 2001. Secondly when she chose an entirely Scottish name for herself in her most recent nom-de-plume: Robert Galbraith.

Joanne Murray/Robert Galbraith

I suspect, notwithstanding the fact that I’ve lived in Scotland for twenty-one years and plan to remain here for the rest of my life, that [certain nationalists] might judge me ‘insufficiently Scottish’ to have a valid view. It is true that I was born in the West Country and grew up on the Welsh border and while I have Scottish blood on my mother’s side, I also have English, French and Flemish ancestry. However, when people try to make this debate about the purity of your lineage, things start getting a little Death Eaterish for my taste.

Rowling, satisfyingly perhaps for someone who – since the Independence Referendum at least – has not always felt welcomed in Scotland, has a married name that embeds her in the Scottish landscape. ‘Murray’ is a clan name derived from the province of Moray (most famous for the Moray Firth).

But the name she has chosen for herself is more equivocal – and a pitch-perfect recognition of her Scottish identity as something about which some Scots have been equivocal. Her nom de plume Robert Galbraith could not be more Scottish, and yet it is a Scottish name for a foreigner. Galbraith means ‘British foreigner’ or ‘stranger-Briton’ – ‘a name given to Britons settled among Gaels.’ (And as a little nudge about how important the meaning of names are to her, she has placed Reaney and Wilson’s Oxford Dictionary of English Surnames on her virtual home-page desk – a reminder to go looking for these kinds of clues.)

Rowling has spoken of her long-time love affair with the name ‘Galbraith:’ ‘when I was a child, I really wanted to be called “Ella Galbraith,” and I’ve no idea why.’ One reason might be that Scotland was part of the story of why how her parents’ met, and therefore imbued with some of that childish glamour so famously attributed by her to King’s Cross Station. Rowling has spoken of the station as part of her ‘childhood folklore’ in that it was on a train from King’s Cross that her parents met when they were both ‘travelling up to Arbroath in Scotland.’2 It is a train from King’s Cross to Scotland, therefore – not just any old train from King’s Cross – that carries the romance of this childhood story for her.

And it is interesting, by the by, that Rowling should twice mention the specific destination when she tells this story. For ‘Arbroath’ is a satisfying destination for those who – like John – think that this tale, trotted out whenever anyone asks why she chose King’s Cross as Hogwarts’s departure station, is a bit of a red-herring. John believes that this story about Rowling’s parents, charming though it may be, is intended to distract us from the symbolic importance of the name ‘King’s Cross’ – which is of much deeper significance to the series than the simple ‘my parents met there’ coincidence makes it sound.

And the fact that Rowling notes that the train her parent’s met on was going to Arbroath could be a little wink in support of John’s view. For, as non-Brits may not be aware, the famous Arbroath Smokies – haddock smoked until deeply golden – are pretty much the nearest thing to traditional red herring still knocking around.

Hogwarts in Scotland

Rowling loves Scottish names. She has not only chosen two for herself, but for many of the characters in Harry Potter. McGonagall, MacMillan, MacNair and Maclaggen are the most obvious. Then there is the weatherman Jim McGuffin (this is a fascinating name – more on that another time!). But there are also a number of names which, though less obviously Scottish to the uninitiated, are in many ways the most deeply Scots, being clan names – names such as Bell, Pringle, Wood, Scrymgeour and Lockhart. (And there is a likewise an important clan name lurking in Fantastic Beasts – Rowling has tweaked ‘Abernethy’ to create ‘Abernathy’).

Murray is likewise a clan name and while (wisely private) Rowling does not mention Neil Murray a great deal in interviews, it is noticeable that when she does, it is usually in connection with his Scottishness. She has noted, for example, that ‘my husband is also raised Protestant, but he comes from a very strict Scottish group. One where they couldn’t sing and talk.’  Likewise when she was scouting for far-from-London locations in Career of Evil she noted that it was her husband who came up with the perfect place: ‘I wanted them to come from one of the pretty border towns, and my husband suggested Melrose and it was absolutely perfect.’ 

And it is, in fact, another of these ‘pretty border towns’ which provides the definitive textual evidence that Hogwarts is – as Rowling has always said – in Scotland. For, as Harry and Ron fly above the Hogwarts Express, they are spotted by ‘Mr Angus Fleet, of Peebles’ (Chamber, Chap 5). Peebles – just like Melrose – is a pretty border town.

Scotland in Hogwarts

Scotland has punched above its weight in just about every field of endeavour you care to mention, pouring out world-class scientists, statesmen [and] writers… in quantities you would expect from a far larger country. 

Earlier this year John and I took part in a BBC radio show entitled ‘Harry Potter’s Edinburgh’ which looked at fan pilgrimage to the city. While Hogwarts now shapes the city of its birth – in terms of visitor numbers, trails, shops, Harry Potter societies and a Quidditch team – it is also clear that it was also shaped by it in a number of ways.

Edinburgh is towered over by an extinct volcano – part of which is known as Arthur’s Seat, and on another part of which Edinburgh Castle was built in the twelfth century (making it a little younger than Hogwarts, but not much). Edinburgh also has an unusually dominant train station – built proudly in the centre of the city in a deep enthusiasm for the opportunities it enabled. The landscape of Edinburgh’s unites medieval fortification, Arthurian myth and an excitement about steam-travel which resonates fairly clearly with Harry’s experience of arriving at Hogwarts via the Hogwarts’s Express.

Edinburgh’s train station has been known as ‘Waverley’ since the mid-nineteenth century and it is a name which stands as a striking testament to the pride Edinburgh takes in its literary heritage. (I cannot think of another British station named after novels.) Walter Scott – the author of the ‘Waverley’ novels – is the most visible literary presence in Edinburgh. (I love the tribute paid to Scott by another Edinburgh author – Arthur Conan Doyle – ‘I have been reading him again lately, and his work compares to [mine] as the front of the British Museum to the front of a stuccoed picture palace.’3) The Scott Monument dominates Edinburgh’s famous Prince’s Street (the street in which Rowling first went into a bookshop to find Philosopher’s Stone on the shelf).

And Scott himself, just like Rowling, was inspired by Edinburgh’s landscape, which he writes of wandering in as an ‘oasis’ of scenery and story:

The chief enjoyment of my holidays was to escape with a chosen friend, who had the same taste with myself, and alternately to recite to each other such wild adventures as we were able to devise. We told, each in turn, interminable tales of knight-errantry and battles and enchantments, which were continued from one day to another as opportunity offered, without our ever thinking of bringing them to a conclusion. As we observed a strict secrecy on the subject of this intercourse, it acquired all the character of a concealed pleasure, and we used to select for the scenes of our indulgence long walks through the solitary and romantic environs of Arthur’s Seat, Salisbury Crags, Braid Hills, and similar places in the vicinity of Edinburgh.4

Scott’s reminiscences also point up the way in which Edinburgh’s landscape is experienced in the active imagination of the writers who live there – and it seems likely that Arthur’s Seat may likewise have inspired Rowling with her own modern-day versions of Scott’s ‘wild adventures… tales of knight-errantry and battles and enchantments.’

Edinburgh is a city with a proud literary heritage – home, for example, to the printing of Scotland’s fabulously gothic-sounding first book: John Lydate’s The Complaint of the Black Knight (1508). It was crowned the world’s very first UNESCO City of Literature in 2004, and Rowling, supporting that bid, spoke of how ‘it’s impossible to live in Edinburgh without sensing its literary heritage everywhere.’

The Edinburgh literary forbear who has left the most obviously imprint on Harry Potter is William McGonagall – whom, as Rowling notes is a ‘very, very, very bad Scottish poet’ – and whose gravestone stands in Greyfriars Kirkyard opposite the Elephant Café.

But McGonagall is merely the worst of many famous writers who link Harry Potter and Edinburgh.

Edinburgh’s authors and Harry Potter

It is interesting how many of Edinburgh’s writers are famous for two genres above all – children’s literature and detective fiction. It can claim the authors of some of the world’s most enduring children’s writing (Peter Pan, Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island) and detective writers both classic (Conan Doyle) and more recent (Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and Kate Atkinson). Rowling not only inhabits both the genres of children’s literature and detective fiction separately as a writer but much of the success of the Harry Potter’s generic mosaic is owed, above all, to its fusion of these two genres. And it is a synthesis that perfectly echoes the literary heritage of her home.

J.M. Barrie attended Edinburgh university while Kenneth Grahame was born in the city (and Rowling has mentioned both Peter Pan and the Wind in the Willows in interviews). Robert Louis Stevenson is an even more emphatic son of the city, being both born and educated there, and Rowling has given his most famous work – Treasure Island – a few nods in Harry Potter. There is a Trelawney in both works as well as a ‘Captain’ Flint (in Treasure Island Flint, of course, is the captain of a pirate ship rather than a Quidditch team).

Arthur Conan Doyle was also born in Edinburgh (were his parent’s influenced by Arthur’s Seat when naming him?), lived there in early childhood and then returned to study medicine. At the university he studied practical botany at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden, and his first mystery story (‘The Mystery of Sarassa Valley’) and his first medical work (on plant poisons) were published neck-and-neck in 1879. It seems likely that Sherlock Holmes’s interest in the action of plant-based poisons – ‘well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally’ (as Dr Watson records in Study in Scarlet) – derives from Conan Doyle’s time at Edinburgh’s Botanic Gardens. Edinburgh’s glasshouses are spectacular, and I have long suspected that it was wandering among them that lead Rowling to imagine all Herbology lessons as occurring in greenhouses rather than – as might be expected – out in the gardens.

But whether or not Rowling, like Conan Doyle, has been influenced by the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens, Conan Doyle has certainly left his own legacy in Hogwarts. For Hermione’s sceptical unpacking of the Grim legend in Azkaban – ‘they see the Grim and die of fright. The Grim’s not an omen, it’s the cause of death!’ (Chap. 6) – is precisely the plot of Conan Doyle’s story about a giant spectral hound – which is also derived from the folk-tales of the Grim.

Arthur Conan Doyle also has an unusual middle name – Ignatius – which, of course, he shares with Percy Weasley.

Tomorrow I want to look at how Edinburgh’s darker side – its graveyards and specifically the infamous histories of Deacon Brodie and Burke & Hare – have influenced Rowling and might even hold the key to Voldemort’s name….

Read ‘Edinburgh’s Dark Side’ Here!


  1. In the sketch it is only labelled as a loch on the key. The creation date is unknown – the audiobook ‘Harry Potter: A History of Magic’ suggests that it was drawn in 1995 while this article suggests that that it was made as guidance for the map included in 2014 editions of the books This makes sense, but the descriptors on the map – but the naming of Hagrid’s hut as ‘Gamekeepers Cabin’ and the Herbology greenhouses as ‘Greenhouses for magical plants’ – sound much more like they were written before the Hogwarts saga had been written, rather than after it had been completed. (The 1999 sketch, for example, refers to them as ‘Hagrid’s Cabin’ and ‘Greenhouses.)
  2. Rowling again mentions the destination of this train from King’s Cross on her old website: ‘they met on a train travelling from King’s Cross station to Arbroath in Scotland when they were both eighteen’ And many thanks to the Rowling Library to their brilliant recreation of this site.

  4. Sir Walter Scott, Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since (New York: Hurst & Co., n.d.), p. 4.


Agatha Christie’s ‘The Clocks’ or ‘Arabella Figg Meets Hercule Poirot’

I have speed reading various Agatha Christie mysteries of late — the mysteries on my shelf, those Rowling has mentioned as favorites, those visible on her bookshelf, and one whose title suggested a connection with Galbraith’s Lethal White. It’s been a delightful exercise and rewarding; Christie is fun to read both because of her sense of humor and masterfully disarming plot twists and almost every one of her books seems to include a name or plot point that we find in Harry Potter’s adventures or Cormoran Strike’s murder investigations.

There is, for example, the Ginny/Ginevra red headed girl in Appointment with Death, the Mrs Lestrange in Murder at the Vicarage, and the anything-but-attractive-or-likeable Myrtle who dies as a teen girl in Dead Man’s Folly. In Rowling’s favorite ChristieThe Moving Finger, we meet the heroic disabled veteran who, while he re-learns how to walk, tries to figure out a murder that the police believe to have been a suicide. 

Crooked House, Christie’s favorite Christie, includes quite a few pieces from Cuckoo’s Calling, i.e., a bat-shit insane child-of-rich-parents murderer, a child murdered  by being thrown over a quarry’s edge, and the bizarre attempt by the murderer to write a murder mystery story to deceive the investigators, a story which if left unwritten would mean the killer-author’s never being suspected.

And then there are the passages in Miss Marple short stories that give us the Wizarding World’s currency, the Galleon, and the language of flowers Rowling employs so deftly in Harry Potter.

While I await the arrival of titles recently identified on Rowling’s 2000 bookshelf as Christie novels, I pulled down the last Dame Agatha adventure on my shelf that I hadn’t yet read, the Hercule Poirot murder mystery, The Clocks. It had three decent ‘finds’ I will share with you after the jump!

[Read more…]