Photographer and author Shawna Law on Edinburgh’s hidden gems

SHAWNA Law has an eye for detail, be it a secluded tearoom, romantic corner, tucked away lane, a shop filled with curiosities or even a boldly coloured front door.

The photographer, who runs the popular Instagram account @ExploringEdinburgh has spent the past five years documenting the capital, capturing stunning images of hidden gems and often overlooked nooks.

Law has garnered 40K followers on the social media platform. It is a hobby-turned-career that the 24-year-old from Fife stumbled into by chance when she decided to do a student-led learning course on her summer break from the University of Edinburgh.

“I picked Edinburgh and photography as my subject,” she says. “I took my camera and began walking about, snapping photographs and learning more about the history of the city.”

As she amassed a considerable portfolio of work, Law decided to share her photographs on Instagram alongside captions containing little nuggets of history and fascinating facts about the places she visited.

“I take photographs for fun and tend to shoot in automatic mode because, for me, it is more about the exploring and the documenting,” says Law. “I never expected it would become as big as it has. I just wanted to share my work.”

Law spent her early childhood in Miri, Malaysia – her mother is Scottish and her father Malaysian – and moved to Fife when she was 10. She upped sticks to Edinburgh in 2013 to study business management.

“I knew bits and pieces of Edinburgh from childhood trips with my mum and grandma but when I came here to study, I decided I should get to know the city better – the photography project helped me do that,” she says.

“I started by exploring the Old Town and soon found things that were new to me. For example, I didn’t know the National Museum of Scotland has a rooftop terrace and discovering all the Royal Mile closes was fascinating.

“Whenever I had a free afternoon, I would wander around and see where my feet took me. I didn’t have a plan; I just walked. I found it relaxing and it helped me to de-stress.”

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Since graduating from university, Law works full-time as an Instagram influencer, partnering with local businesses, hotels and restaurants to promote their brands and services. She has spent the past year working on her debut book Pockets of Pretty: An Instagrammer’s Edinburgh.

Do you have a favourite place or part of Edinburgh?

Dean Village has long been a favourite. It is a peaceful spot with lovely buildings and the Water of Leith flows through there. I have noticed over the past couple of years, it has gone from being fairly quiet to there being more people around and I think that could be the Instagram effect.

It is great that visitors are seeing different parts of Edinburgh beyond the Royal Mile but at the same time there’s that love/hate thing of thinking: “Oh no, there’s lots of people enjoying my favourite space. I miss it being nice and quiet.”

You must have walked miles taking photographs?

I got in good shape and had quite a tan from walking about taking photographs. It was such a fun project, but I don’t think I could have done the book it if I hadn’t had such a back catalogue of photographs from the past few years.

Even this afternoon, I popped into the cafe Strumpets (35 William Street) for a cup of tea and began taking photographs. The owner Ingrida was telling me I should take a moment to sit and enjoy my tea before running out the door again, but it comes as second nature to document little things along the way. Taking photographs began as a hobby and I see it as an honour to do it as my job.

Are you still discovering new things about the city?

All the time. A friend recently asked what my next project will be after finishing the book and my plan is to keep on taking photographs of Edinburgh and discovering new places. I haven’t been bored documenting Edinburgh so far and I don’t imagine I will be any time soon.

There is a section in the book called Hidden Pockets and I explored places, such as along Granton Harbour, then behind that there’s Wardie Square with its colourful little houses. I had no idea that existed until I started walking around with my camera in hand.

What were the most surprising things you found?

I have a new admiration for Leith. I always thought it was a cool place, but I hadn’t really explored it properly and when it came to the book, I felt that Leith needed to be a substantial chapter.

I enjoyed the mural trail and discovering amazing shops such as Weigh To Go (27 Crighton Place) which is a plastic-free supermarket. Leith has a different vibe from the rest of Edinburgh. I explored the various Leith colonies and the little colony houses are such beautiful, hidden gems. I have become very attached to Leith.

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I also have newfound appreciation for the smaller, overlooked areas such as Fountainbridge, Dalry, and Abbeyhill – they’re featured in the Hidden Pockets: Edinburgh’s Little Gems section. These areas are by no means tourist hot spots, but each has their own unique charm and character.

Would you like to do a similar project in the future?

I would love to. I found doing the interviews for the book really interesting and think that it might be nice to do a series on my blog, or even another book, about the people of Edinburgh where I talk to all the inspiring artists, independent shop owners and entrepreneurs.

When visitors leave after the Festival in August or following Christmas, those are among my favourite times of year because you do see more locals out and about and people have more time to chat.

Could you talk us through some of the photographs that feature in the book?

Dean Village: I love flowers – everywhere I go I’m always snapping photographs of flowers – and this particular view of Dean Village is a personal favourite. Often there is a white vintage car parked nearby and it combines all my favourite things: vintage cars, flowers and the beautiful Well Court with its stunning red bricks and architecture.

Circus Lane, Stockbridge

One of my favourite lanes in the city. Circus Lane with its quaint little houses and small, well-tended gardens, has become a spot that, when you walk through, you will often see visitors doing mini photo-shoots of themselves. You can see St Stephens Church, designed by William Henry Playfair, in the background. It is a picture-perfect location in every season.

Custom Lane, Leith

This is another popular Instagrammable spot. Custom Lane is a great space to celebrate all the talented independent retailers and businesses we have Edinburgh. I love the pop-up space. Vegan clothing company Treen recently did a pop-up there and Williams and Johnson Coffee Co also share the space. It is such a nice nook of The Shore in Leith.

A Yellow Door

I have a thing for doors. My friend said he never noticed doors before he started walking about Edinburgh with me. I especially love Easter and Christmas when decorative wreaths start to go up on the doors. It is like they are getting dressed up for the occasion. Edinburgh has so many beautiful and different styles of door fronts. I love seeing people’s personal taste on their front doors.

Edinburgh Castle

There are many different angles that you can view Edinburgh Castle from but this one from the Vennel, just off the Grassmarket, is my favourite. I used to live nearby and even if I wasn’t necessarily meant to be heading in that direction, I would often find myself incorporating the Vennel into my walk. It is a stunning view and frames the castle so well.

Jupiter Artland

This one is in the day trips section of the book. After wanting to visit for years, I went for the first time this summer. Jupiter Artland at Wilkieston on the outskirts of Edinburgh – a private collection of contemporary art open to the public – is an amazing place that I think everyone should visit. Stepping through the gates is like being transported to a different world.

The Milkman

This is a cafe on Cockburn Street in the Old Town. The little corner by the window that you see in the photograph has become quite the Instagrammer’s hot spot. Whenever anyone is walking by and sees that it’s empty, they run in and make a beeline for it – it is the best seat in the house.

The Pastry Section

Throughout the book I have little interviews with different Edinburgh businesses. The Pastry Section in Stockbridge (86 Raeburn Place) is a place I spotted on Instagram. I popped in to say hello and met the owner and pastry chef Lesley Stewart who gave me a big hug.

These relationships mean a lot to me and are one of the best parts about running my Instagram account. I have made so many friends through Instagram, often people who share my interest of exploring the city.

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Lesley – who was a nurse before opening The Pastry Section – makes the most amazing pastries and cakes. The photograph shows some of her renowned mince pies.

Lifestory

Susan Doherty is the founder of the independent design-led lifestyle store Lifestory (53 London Street). We began to chat regularly on Instagram and when I went to visit her, Susan made me my first matcha latte. Over the years, I feel like Susan has become a mentor. She gives great tips and advice – I am always inspired by how she runs her shop and curates everything in it.

Autumn

I love autumn. This house on the south side of Edinburgh is called Hermits and Termits and was a two-minute walk from where I used to live. It always looks great throughout the year but then I went past on an October day and couldn’t believe how stunningly beautiful it looked, almost like a gold masterpiece. Autumn suits Edinburgh: the city wears it well.

Pockets of Pretty: An Instagrammer’s Edinburgh by Shawna Law is published by Black & White, priced £20. Follow Shawna Law on Instagram @ExploringEdinburgh

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