Beatrice Groves Pillar Post

Beatrice Groves: Rowling Family Mottos

This is the fourth 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!

In my final post about Rowling’s choice to display of the badge of the Murray clan –following the themes of Scottishness and heraldry, naming, blood and belonging it evokes – we turn to the motto with which it is inscribed: ‘Tout prêt’ (Old French for ‘quite ready’). Although no heraldic mottos appear in the actual text of Harry Potter there are three mottos closely associated with the Wizarding World: the Black family motto, Hogwarts’s motto and, most recently, the Lestrange family motto. This blogpost will explore these three, very different, mottos and, satisfyingly, all three have some piquant parallels with the mottos of Scottish Clans.

‘Toujours pur’ and pithy mottos

Rowling become a Murray when she married Neil Murray on 26 Dec 2001. Phoenix was published in 2003, while her hand-drawn family tree of ‘The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black’ did not appear until 2006 – so the Black motto (‘Toujours pur’) could easily be coloured by the motto of the clan which she had recently joined. ‘Tout prêt/prest’ (quite ready) and ‘Toujours pur’ (always pure) are both of the – admittedly very common -punchy, two-word form. More unusually they are both in the traditional heraldic language of French (while most British mottos favour Latin or English).

It is clear, at least, that Rowling closely modelled the Black family motto on real heraldic mottos. Scanning Debrett’s I found a number of close parallels, such as ‘Toujours propice’ (always propitious), and even ‘Toujours prest’ (always ready) – which forms a ‘link’ motto between the Black motto ‘Toujours pur’ and the Murray motto ‘Tout prest’. (Debrett’s also records the deeply Snape-like motto of simply ‘Toujours’ [always].)

The idea that Rowling might include a nod to the Murray motto in the Black motto seems odd but it is of a piece with her well-known penchant for including ‘personal passwords’ within her work: ‘when I need a date or number, I use something that relates to my personal life. I do not know why I do that, it’s a tic. Harry’s birthday is mine, for example. The numbers and dates that appear in the books relate to me’ [see Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, p 141]. The idea is also strengthened by her recent – somewhat startling – inclusion of a family member in an even more Death Eaterish family tree. The Lestrange family tree forms an important plot focus in Crimes of Grindelwald – it is the bait that takes Leta, Newt and Tina to the Lestrange Mausoleum (and hence Grindelwald’s rally). The Rowling Library has recently noted that one member visible on this family tree – Salomé Volant – shares her name with Rowling’s great-great-grandmother [cf., The Rowling Library Magazine, issue 31 2019, pp.6-7]

‘Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus’ and practical mottos

The most important motto of the Wizarding World is, of course, the Hogwarts School motto. This paratext, appearing on the title page of every Harry Potter novel on an escroll beneath the Hogwarts coat of arms (and in the foreword to the Fantastic Beasts (2001) spin-off book), famously reads: ‘Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus’ (‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon’).

It is a phrase that appears to contain more than a passing nod to Tolkien: ‘Never laugh at live dragons, Bilbo, you fool! he said to himself, and it became a favourite saying of his later, and passed into a proverb’ (Hobbit, Chap 12). (This seems particularly close as proverbial phrases are very much the same linguistic register as mottos). Rowling has never mentioned this parallel, but she has spoken about the motto twice at length in interview:

You know the way that most school slogans are things like ‘Persevere’ and ‘Nobility, Charity and Fidelity’ or something – it just amused me to give an entirely practical piece of advice for the Hogwarts school motto.

Then a friend of mine who is a professor of Classics – my Latin was not up to the job (I did not think it should be cod Latin – it is good enough for cod Latin spells, that is, they used to be a mixture of Latin and other things). When it came to a proper Latin slogan for the school I wanted it to be right. I went to him and asked him to translate. I think he really enjoyed it, he rang me up and said, ‘I think I found the exactly right word, “Titillandus”’ – that was how that was dreamt up. 

Five years earlier, she gave a similar description:

Stephen Fry: And names like that. Even the school crest is something which is rather fun for those of us who have done a bit of Latin. For instance: “Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus” – it’s sort of like “Let sleeping dogs lie”, but it is “Don’t tickle a sleeping dragon”.

JKR: “Don’t tickle a sleeping dragon”, exactly.

SF: Which is fine advice.

JKR: I wanted good practical advice. All the schools I’ve ever been to or taught in have mottos: “Persevere”, “Onwards and Upwards”. I wanted good, solid, practical advice for Hogwarts.1

(It is interesting that Rowling gives ‘Persevere’ as an example in both interviews, despite their being five years apart: I suspect it means that if we were able to track down the school motto of either St Michael’s Primary School or Wydean Comprensive it would indeed turn out to be ‘Persevere.’)

Latin imparts both grandeur and pithiness which is why it remains a popular choice for mottos – and given how germane Latin is to both Rowling’s magical world, and to mottos in general, it makes sense that she should have taken care over a Latin motto for Hogwarts. (It also fits with the fictional foundation of Hogwarts: educational institutions founded a thousand years ago all have Latin mottos and more modern ones tend to follow suit – Rowling’s own University of Exeter has ‘Lucem sequimur’ (we follow the light))

Probably the second most famous school motto in Britain, is also in Latin. Eton was founded a little after Hogwarts (in 1440) and is, of course, the only real school that appears in Harry Potter. Justin Finch-Fletchley tells the trio: ‘my name was down for Eton, you know. I can’t tell you how glad I am I came here instead’ (Chamber, Chap 6). Eton’s motto is Floreat Etona – already famous in children’s literature as the dying words of Captain Hook in J.M. Barrie’s original play of Peter Pan. As David Mitchell writes:

Eton College’s most admirable attribute, I’ve long thought, is its motto. A Latin phrase, but not one that would have been familiar to the Romans, Floreat Etona translates as “May Eton flourish”. Contractually speaking, that’s watertight. No bombast and no virtue-signalling. Good luck anyone saying that particular institution has hypocritically betrayed its aims or principles.2

The solipsism of this motto is perfectly encapsulated by Barrie’s use of it as Hook’s dying words and Hogwarts’s motto (intentionally or un) is a kind of inversion of it. Hogwarts’s motto humourously addresses children to their own benefit – instead of asking them to lay down their allegiance on the altar of the school, it suggests that the school is there to serve its pupils. It is there not to be served by the children but to teach them to be wise, to teach them (at least) not to be the kind of idiot that tickles sleeping dragons.

It has been argued – in most depth by Nancy Solon Villaluz in her Does Harry Potter Tickle Sleeping Dragons? (2008) – that Rowling has used the obvious humour of this motto to hide in plain sight a hint about the Christian symbolism of her series. C.S. Lewis spoke of using story to ‘steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed much of my own religion in childhood’ – and the name he gives to these inhibitions is ‘watchful dragons:’ ‘could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could’ (Of Other Worlds, 1966). Given Rowling’s debt to Lewis – and the fact that she, like Lewis, is using story to renew the potency of religious archetypes for her readers – this is an appealing reading. (Even if the difference between ‘sleeping’ and ‘watchful’ dragons means that I don’t think it is a parallel that will convince anyone who is not already taken by the argument.)

What I don’t think has been noted before, however, is that Hogwarts’s motto may show some influence of Rowling’s move to Scotland as she was writing Philosopher’s Stone. For a number of Clan mottos are striking close to the basic – ‘don’t provoke dangerous animals’ – school of ‘good, solid, practical advice’ that Rowling claims to be at the heart of her motto. The Clan Mackintosh motto, for example, is: ‘Touch not the cat bot a glove’ (‘Don’t touch this cat unless you you’re wearing gloves’). Clan MacGillivray’s motto is an even more pared down version of the same motto: ‘Touch not this cat.’

In both cases the mottos are, in fact, boasting about the Clan’s strength – proclaiming them to be a wildcat only a fool would mess with. But taken out of context the general vibe of ‘don’t tease wild animals with sharp claws you idiot’ has some clear links with Rowling’s choice of humourous motto. As mentioned above there are clear parallels between the Murray Clan motto ‘Tout prêt’ and the Black motto ‘Toujours pur,’ which she probably thought up a year or two after joining that Clan. But it seems possible that many years before, when she had first moved to Scotland, she may have been influenced by Clan mottos about leaving dangerous animals well alone. ‘Touch not this cat’ may well lie behind ‘Never tickle a sleeping dragon.’

‘Corvus oculum corvi non eruit’ and equivocal mottos

A raven tops the Lestrange achievement of arms (technically in heraldry this is known as the ‘crest,’ though this term is used by most people – Harry Potter among them – to mean the coat of arms as a whole). In Crimes of Grindelwald Leta notes that ‘the raven’s my family’s emblem’ – but ravens are not only the dominant symbol of her family, but of the whole of the film. Corvus – whose identity is the riddle at the centre of the film’s plot – is Latin for ‘raven’ (the common raven is Corvus corax) and both Leta’s father and her lost brother share the name. Satisfyingly – given all the star and constellation names in the pure blood families of Harry Potter – Corvus is also a constellation (located in the southern sky, it was first catalogued by Ptolemy in the second century and was probably so-named because it does not contain many bright stars.)

The Lestrange Mausoleum is marked by ‘a stone raven on the lintel’ and this is why Grindelwald’s shrouds are marked with a raven – in order to call his followers to the rally beneath the Mausoleum. Grindelwald’s use of the raven, however, – given Harry Potter’s insistent linking of him with Nazi imagery – also recalls the black heraldic eagle (the Reichsadler) most famously used by the German coat of arms under the Third Reich.3 The Lestrange raven is also read, by Yusuf Kama at least, as present in The Predictions of Tycho Dodonus (the book that functions as a parallel for Trelawney’s Prophecy in Crimes of Grindelwald):

“A son cruelly banished

Despair of the daughter

Return, great avenger

With wings from the water.”

Kama reads this as referring to Corvus: ‘You are the winged raven returned from the sea’ (though we can note in passing that this reading is entirely muddled – Kama believes himself to be the avenger, and therefore it is Kama who should be ‘winged’ not Corvus [might that black feather in Kama’s fedora turn out to be relevant here?]).

The Lestrange motto also circles the symbol of the raven. ‘Corvus oculum corvi non eruit’ is an old Latin saying meaning ‘a raven will not pull out the eye of another raven:’ the Latin equivalent of the English saying ‘honour amongst thieves.’ It is a great motto, simultaneously incorporating the Lestrange raven emblem into a real Latin phrase and recalling the unswerving loyalty of the most famous Lestrange to another black-hearted character (Bellatrix and Voldemort). It also accurately expresses a certain aloof disdain which is something of a hallmark for heraldic mottos which often proudly display a trait which might otherwise not seem a matter for pride.

Many famous mottos have this surprisingly equivocal vibe. The highest honour that the English crown can bestow, for example, is the Order of the Garter. It is an honour that sounds slightly risqué and the story told about its inception makes it clear that this is not just a modern misapprehension. The motto of the Order of the Garter is ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’ (‘Shame be on him who thinks it’). In the legend of the founding of this order, Edward III was dancing with the Countess of Salisbury when her garter fell to the floor; and when courtiers laughed suggestively as he stooped to pick it up, he gave this retort. Shakespeare’s motto ‘Non sanz droict’ (‘Not without right’) is another of these equivocal mottos, underlining, with almost embarrassing obviousness, that he has very little right to his arms above the fact that he has paid for them.

The Lestrange’s motto’s proud consciousness of what others might consider faults, however, perhaps most clearly recalls the motto of the Clan that, in 2005, Rowling discovered was part of her own blood line. In August 2005 it was reported that Rowling had recently been informed that her biological great-grandfather was:

Dugald Campbell, an adventurous doctor, born at Lamlash, on the isle of Arran, in 1858, who later travelled to Hawaii, where he helped to establish a free health service for all. The discovery has prompted Rowling to visit the Campbell family burial plot on the island and to e-mail historians in Hawaii seeking information about her great-grandfather. 

The Campbells have, shall we say, a chequered history in relation to some other Clans and their motto is a proud reference to this history: ‘Ne Obliviscaris’ (‘Do not forget’). This motto appears to be an intentional riposte to those who might consider that the Campbells would be glad to forget aspects of their history, though it is explained by the current Duke of Argyll with admirable diplomacy as: ‘we have taken great pride in our achievements, yet are conscious of our mistakes, something reflected in our family motto ‘Ne Obliviscaris’.’ The equivocal pride of the Lestrange motto is very much in the tradition of the Campbell motto – a motto we can assume that would have caught Rowling’s eye when she learnt of her own connection with the Clan.

One final motto to end with – from Rowling’s third clan connection. Rowling has married into the Murray Clan, she has discovered a blood-connection with the Campbells – but she has also chosen to make her alter-ego, Robert Galbraith, a member of a third Clan. In a previous blogpost I have described how well the meaning of the name Galbraith works for Rowling [‘Beatrice Groves: Rowling and Scotland‘]. But Clan Galbraith also has a fantastic motto for a writer. For the Galbraith motto is unique (?) among Scottish clans in being derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

This is particularly pleasing given Rowling’s fondness for this poem, which has left its fingerprints all over Harry Potter [ref Literary Allusion] and appears, likewise to be behind some of the mythological symbolism in Strike. The Galbraith motto is:

AB OBICE SUAVIOR which translates from Latin as “gentler because of the obstruction”. The motto is derived from a phrase in Ovid‘s Metamorphoses “ab obice saevior” (“fiercer because of the obstruction”, describing a river which when dammed only flowed more violently), but inverted by changing “saevior” (“fiercer”) for “suavior” (“gentler”), according to John D. Christie, reflecting the bear’s muzzle on the heraldic crest.

The motto itself seems to be interestingly, and unusually, equivocal with some Galbraiths choosing ‘AB OBICE SUAVIOR’ (‘Gentler Because of the Obstruction’) and others ‘AB OBICE SAEVIOR’ (‘Fiercer Because of the Obstruction’.’

The phrase comes from Book 3 (ll.528-571) of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Pentheus objects to Dionysius’s appearance in Thebes:

His grandfather, Cadmus, his uncle, Athamas, and the rest of his advisors reprove his words, and try in vain to restrain him. He is only made more eager by their warning, and his rage is maddened and grows with restraint, and he is provoked by their objections. So I have seen a river, where nothing obstructs its passage, flow calmly and with little noise, but rage and foam wherever trees and obstacles of stone held it back, fiercer for the obstruction.

Pentheus’s fury will not end well (see Euripides’s Bacchae if you want to know quite how badly). Given this source the Galbraith Clan seems wise to shift the belligerent ‘Fiercer because of the obstruction’ to the more peaceable ‘Gentler because of the obstruction’ – but that does make it a very unusually irenic motto. ‘Get in my way and I’ll be nice about it’ is very much not the usual tenor of heraldic mottos.

Whether or not Rowling looked up the Galbraith motto before choosing her new name, it is satisfying that the motto of her nom de plume – a new identity behind which she hoped to hide – can be read in two diametrically opposed ways. Given her clear interest in heraldic mottos – shown through all the mottos discussed above – it seems plausible that she would have either known, or at least checked out, the Galbraith Clan motto. Her pen name’s motto has unimpeachably literary credentials – drawn from one of the great classical epics, and telling the story that inspired Euripides’s greatest tragedy.

1 Fry, Stephen. “Launch Day interview aboard the Hogwarts Express,” Bloomsbury Press, July 8, 2000.

3 The raven also links the Lestrange coat of arms with MinaLima’s version of the Black coat of arms in the film of Phoenix (2007) which, oddly, does not tally with that drawn by Rowling in 2006 but does include three crows/ravens: )

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…]

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.