MacDonald, Toby. "Rowling's house of secrets," Scotland on Sunday, 21 March 2004

THE Harry Potter phenomenon has become a worldwide byword for rags-to-riches success.

But are JK Rowling’s millions of book sales and hundreds of millions of pounds in the bank due to the generosity of a humble office clerk?

The relationship between Rowling and her Edinburgh friend Fiona Wilson - who met while the author was a struggling single mother - has been well charted.

And when the creator of Harry Potter rose to fame and fortune, she gave Wilson, who helped her during some of her darkest moments, one of her former homes to mark their friendship. But the real reason behind Rowling’s astonishing generosity - the flat is now worth £200,000 - may now have been revealed.

Rowling, in a radio interview to be broadcast today, says she was only able to get her literary career under way after a mystery benefactor loaned her £4,000. The money allowed Rowling to get private childcare so she could study for a new job.

It also allowed her the freedom to write her first novel - Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone - which became a runaway bestseller and the launch pad for one of the most remarkable writing careers in literary history.

Rowling refuses to identify her benefactor, but the revelation that the author received financial help at a key point in her career could go a long way to explaining why she later gifted Wilson a flat. In the radio interview, Rowling reveals she broke down and cried at the extent of her friend’s financial gesture, which she says rescued her from the "scrapheap".

The episode occurred when Rowling, now 37, was living on benefits in a rundown flat in Edinburgh after leaving her first husband. She had won a place to become a student teacher but could not afford childcare for her daughter, Jessica. Then, at her lowest point, the friend gave her a £4,000 loan to carry on studying.

With just £70-a-week income, Rowling believed she could never afford to pay back the money, but the gift was to change her life, allowing her to graduate and teach part-time as she wrote the first Harry Potter novel.

Rowling, the world’s richest female author, is now worth more than £500m and is a patron of the National Council for One Parent Families.

Office clerk Wilson, now 42, was also a struggling single mother when she and Rowling lived in neighbouring streets in Leith almost 10 years ago.

In the interview, Rowling talks emotionally of her gratitude when her friend extended her the financial lifeline.

"I broke down and cried when my friend offered it to me," she says. "At the time it was like half a million pounds to me. It was this enormous sum of money. I think we both thought I would never be able to pay it back. The friend was saying, in effect: ‘Here is a gift to help you.’"

‘I broke down and cried when my friend offered it [the money] to me’

Rowling said that she was in desperate straits when she arrived in Edinburgh with daughter Jessica after leaving her Portuguese husband.

"I was living on virtually nothing. Income support in those days was just under £70 a week. I was getting full housing benefit so my rent was being paid, but out of that £70 obviously came everything - clothing, food, utilities - and then I was looking at buying the textbooks and all the equipment you need to study.

"I had been teaching abroad and wanted to qualify for teaching over here. I very much felt that I was on the scrapheap and I desperately wanted to work."

Rowling confesses that the first time she had to go into a post office to pick up her benefits she felt "everyone knew why I was there. It was as if I was in a clinic for some horrible illness".

She qualified for a Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), but then found her way barred.

"I had been misinformed that there was a crèche at the place I was going to study, but it turned out to have been closed down two years previously. So, having achieved a place on the course I had literally 24 hours’ celebration before I realised I could not do the course because I had no childcare available to me.

"State childcare simply does not give you the hours you need to study full-time or work full-time. Private childcare was prohibitively expensive - I couldn’t dream of it."

The loan, however, meant she was able to pay for childcare and continue with her course. But she says it was not without its heartache.

Rowling, interviewed by Libby Purves for The Learning Curve, to be broadcast on Radio Four at 11pm, said: "I found it a terrible wrench to leave my daughter - up until then we had been together 24 hours a day, and then suddenly we were separated for the vast majority of the day.

"I found that very difficult. But I did believe it was an investment in her future, so that’s really what made me strong enough to do it."

She carried on with a punishing schedule: studying by day, looking after Jessica in the evening, then writing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone through the night.

"I can remember being so tired I would fall asleep on buses. I was writing at the same time as doing the PGCE. It tipped me over the edge and took me into zombie territory."

Once she had graduated, Rowling worked on supply for a year, teaching French. After her first book was published she received a £6,000 grant from the Scottish Arts Council to complete the second Potter novel, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

With the advance from that, she bought a two-bedroom flat in Edinburgh for £40,000.

In August 2001, Rowling, with royalties flooding in and after just selling the film rights to her first two books, gifted the flat in the Merchiston area of Edinburgh to Wilson, a financial clerk.

She has a daughter the same age as Rowling’s and is said to have been born in India, but lived mainly in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Rowling’s publicist at Colman Getty said the author had no intention of identifying the benefactor and added that the gift to Wilson was "a personal thing".

When she was approached at her home, Wilson declined to comment.