"What happens when we die?" is one of the existential questions that humans have puzzled over since we first grew aware of our own mortality. Few of us can ever have contemplated that our name might be seized from our gravestone by a bestselling author, assigned to a fictional evil wizard and our final place of rest transformed into a vacuous bucket list novelty for fans of a popular fantasy franchise.
That is, however, the fate which has befallen Thomas Riddell, who died in Edinburgh in 1806. His grave, nestled within the city’s Greyfriars Kirkyard, has become a pilgrimage for hundreds of visitors every day, who trek to the site to see an inscription that possibly inspired the naming of a character in a book.
Riddell’s name, you see, is a bit like that of Tom Riddle, otherwise known as the wicked wizard Lord Voldemort, the primary antagonist of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. On another tombstone nearby, someone has scrawled "Sirius Black, 1953 – 1996", a reference to another series character.
That this part of the churchyard is now swarming with visitors, its grass having long been churned into mud by hundreds of daily visits to an obscure grave, is just one symptom of an emerging trend: Harry Potter tourism is infringing more and more on Edinburgh.
The year had barely begun when it was revealed – in a mysterious overnight change of signage – that a well-known city centre pub, the Conan Doyle, was now the J K Rowling. Just in case the point needed hammered home any more, a hanging sign featuring a glum portrait of the author settling down to a meal of three (three!) boiled eggs in an austere-looking flat appeared outside too. Apparently a tie-in with a literary themed visual art festival, and therefore a temporary change, it was a clever piece of marketing, rapidly generating press coverage around the world.
The pub’s owners are not the only company to realise the viral potential of everything HP-related, and the last year or so has seen a growing number of budding entrepreneurs attempt to corner the Potter pound.
The city now boasts two shops devoted to its merchandise – their frontages both claiming to represent the "inspiration" for Diagon Alley, the imaginary shopping arcade of the wizarding world. A daily walking tour traipses around sites in the city tenuously linked to the series, excitable drama students in pyjamas – sorry, wizarding robes – leading the way. A pop-up Potter themed bar will also open up in the city for three months from February.
There is inevitably – in a city where housing is coming under enormous strain from Airbnb – even a Harry Potter-themed luxury apartment available for rent. "I have ordered a sign saying 'Wizards welcome (Muggles Tolerated)'," its owner told a property website recently, revealing she is already lining up plans for a second "Slytherin-themed" apartment. The Potter craze even extends to an institutional level, with an excruciating American YouTube personality given a pile of Scottish government tourism cash to run around the country cosplaying Hogwarts last year.
Then there is the Elephant House café, where, legend has it, Rowling wrote some of the first book. The café overlooks Greyfriars Kirkyard and, from certain seats, probably has one of the best views of Edinburgh Castle in the city. Helpfully, it also has a giant, brightly-coloured window sign – in a font I had previously thought was killed off with Windows 98 – screaming out that it is the "'Birthplace' of Harry Potter".
Things do not get much better on the inside, where you are immediately greeted by one of those inane chalkboards – "we don’t have Wi-Fi, talk to each other and pretend it’s 1995!", the year Rowling was writing her first novel. Which is a bit ironic, given the only reason anyone comes here is so they can tag themselves on Instagram.
If you were writing a book, the Elephant House is now probably the last place in the world you would come to do so, unless you fancied being peered down on by photos of JK and surrounded by awestruck Spanish tourists and screaming Edinburgh Uni students in Hogwarts house scarves.
That other Edinburgh cultural export of the 1990s – Trainspotting – famously claimed to showcase the worst toilet in Scotland. It was wrong. The worst toilet in Scotland is clearly within the Elephant Café, the most disturbing confined space into which I have ever stepped foot.
In the probably optimistic belief that Jo Rowling is one day going to come out from behind the giant hedge where she lives and return to the café where she penned some of the first book, her fans have turned the toilets into a graffiti-strewn dungeon of desperate messages to their hero-author. Ever felt the urge to crouch down over a sanitary bin and scrawl "Jo you are my patronus, my dream is to meet you and do some shopping with you," or, perhaps, "nice shot! 10 points for Gryffindor!" above a grotty cubicle floor? Then this is the toilet for you!
A couple of years ago, there were warnings that the sheer number of tourists in Edinburgh, alongside the rapid rise of unregulated holiday lets and overdevelopment of new hotels, was making the city’s Old Town increasingly hostile for those who live there, and even threatening its heritage status. Just last month, another Edinburgh literary titan, Alexander McCall Smith, warned that the city was in danger of becoming "a vulgar wasteland of tourist tat shops, big hotels and nothing much else", with families driven out. The sudden rise in Harry Potter tourism seems to cut to the heart of that, cheered by local tourism chiefs and some businesses, but bearing very little relation to the city of Edinburgh or its inhabitants, aside from the only one who matters: JK Rowling. In Northern Ireland, drastic road closure measures have already had to be brought into play after the country got more than it bargained for when hordes of Games of Thrones tourists started descending on sites that were unprepared for the onslaught.
If Harry Potter tourism feels hollow, it’s because it is built on a fantasy. Then again, Edinburgh – and indeed, Greyfriars Kirkyard – has form when it comes to pandering fantastical bullshit to tourists, cynically exploited by local business owners and indulged by the press. It has been doing it for 150 years. The story of Greyfriars Bobby, the faithful terrier who kept up a vigil by his master’s grave – of the statue and film fame – was actually a shaggy dog story invented by a local businessmen who fabricated it in return for cash. After their story became a newspaper sensation in Victorian Edinburgh, it proved so lucrative that, when the first dog died, they brought a new one in as a replacement.
On Sunday, local dignitaries turned out to commemorate the 146th anniversary of the dog’s death. Perhaps, in centuries to come, people will be doing the same for Thomas Riddell.