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.



  1. Wonderful post, Prof Groves, as always!

    Just a side note that the poet McGonagall is mentioned as “arguably Britain’s worst poet ever” in P. D. James’ ‘Devices and Desires’ (ch 3, p 12).

    “[Bill Costello’s] only known interest in verse was his presidency of the McGonagall Club, whose members met on the first Tuesday of every month at a City pub to eat the landlady’s famous steak and kidney pudding, put down an impressive amount of drink and recite to each other the more risible efforts of arguably Britain’s worst poet ever.”

    I wonder, despite the name on the headstone in the graveyard, if Rowling’s first encounter with McGonagall as “bad poet” was not in the pages of one of her favorite mystery writers.

    The ‘Galbraith’ find, though, is solid gold! Again Rowling’s “I always loved the name” throw-away explanation for an obviously meaningful cryptonym is exploded… “An English person living in Scotland” — priceless.

    I look forward to the revelations of the next three days.

  2. Beatrice Groves says

    Many thanks John – and I love your ‘McGonagall Club’ idea!

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says

    Thanks, indeed – as full of lights as a haggis (if that is not too wretched a pun)!

    Do ‘we’ know…

    * any likely fictional or (pop) cultural ‘Galbraiths’ (or ‘Ellas’) she might have encountered;

    * if she knows Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae;

    * if she knows the work of Gerard Hoffnung (which is where, as far as I can recall, I first encountered McGonagall);

    * to whom – and what – the astonishing “One where they couldn’t sing and talk” refers? (I can’t access the Dutch original as linked, but can’t imagine ‘one’ where ‘they’ would not sing ‘Psalms’ in some form, in services…)

  4. Brian Basore says

    A friend remarked to me that, “Actually, some of the earliest castles in Moray were built by Flemings – minor aristocrats from what’s now Flemish-speaking Belgium, soon after the Norman takeover further south.”

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