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The 13th of November is Robert Louis Stevenson Day. In this article Steve Porter, founder of Auld Toun Walking Tours, explores the places that make up Stevenson’s Edinburgh.
Robert Louis Stevenson was born with the trickle of water in his ears. The Water of Leith to be exact. Edinburgh’s secret river quietly makes its way from its source in the Pentland Hills just south of the city to its estuary at the port of Leith in the north. There is a walkway that accompanies the entire river. It is some eighteen miles in length. On my return to Edinburgh, I reflect on a journey completed in jigsaw fashion. During a ten year stay in the Scottish capital I gradually slotted together the geography of the city, piece by piece, while strolling along the tranquil banks of the Water of Leith.
The house at 8 Howard Place where Stevenson came into the world is next door to the Austrian Consulate and just a stone’s throw from the city’s botanic gardens. A number 23 bus from Edinburgh’s Royal Mile will take you there. Get off when you see a pleasant little cream coloured bar called the Orchard. You might like to drop into the Orchard and sample one of their imaginative Scottish dishes such as haggis in Drambuie sauce.
Howard Place is a section of Inverleith Row, extending north from Canonmills junction, where the Water of Leith threads its way towards the port that gives the river its name. Stevenson wrote: “I HAVE named, among many rivers that make music in my memory, that dirty Water of Leith. Often and often I desire to look upon it again; and the choice of a point of view is easy to me.”
The author was referring to spot at Colinton where his grandfather Reverend Lewis Balfour lived in the local manse. Stevenson enthusiasts will know that he borrowed his grandfather’s surname and gave it to the protagonist (David Balfour) in the Jacobite adventure novels Kidnapped and the sequel Catriona.
I took a number 10 bus from Princes Street to Colinton. The latter is still a village in terms of its layout and peaceful environment although it has been absorbed into Edinburgh’s suburban sprawl. The manse where Lewis Balfour lived looks as elegant as ever. It lies between Colinton church and the Water of Leith. Many of the poems in Stevenson’s poetry collection A Child’s Garden of Verses are inspired by memories of playing at his grandparents’ home and the lush countryside around Colinton. The surrounding area is heavily wooded with riverside walks and the Water of Leith is no longer dirty. The garden itself is home to a yew tree, now hundreds of years old, where the young writer loved to swing and climb.
The Pentland Hills create a dramatic backdrop to Colinton High Street. RLS’s first publication was entitled The Pentland Rising: A Page of History. In fact it was sixteen pages in length. He was fascinated by tales of the Scottish Covenanters; a group of nobles and churchmen who attracted wide support in seventeenth century Scotland. The Covenanters wanted a Scottish Parliament and General Assembly in order to limit the authority of King Charles I and bishops who they thought had too much power.
Stevenson was delighted when his father took out a lease on a house at Swanston on the edge of the Pentland Hills. Swanston lay in the heart of Covenanting country and the cottage was to become their holiday home for the next 13 years. The battlefield of Rullion Green and the picturesque ruin of Glencorse Church were within walking distance. The Battle of Rullion Green took place somewhere around the hamlet of Flotterstone where a memorial to the fallen can be found today. Historians are now at odds over the exact site of the battle but in any case the area provided Stevenson with inspiration for his colourful history of the period.
In 1857 the Stevenson family moved to 17 Heriot Row overlooking Queen Street Gardens in the city centre. This row of Georgian tenements are typical of Edinburgh’s ‘New Town’, which is the name given to the 18th century expansion of Edinburgh. Thanks to the city council’s strict preservation orders Heriot Row hasn’t changed very much since the days when the Stevenson’s lived there. The house is leased out by its current residents, the Macfie family, for dinners and functions where up to eighty guests can be accommodated. On the other hand if it’s just a quiet drink you’re after you’ll find the Jekyll & Hyde on nearby Hanover St. The pub is easily recognisable due to the flaming torches outside and it has a suitably gloomy interior.
Conjecture is ongoing with regard to the source of inspiration for Dr. Jekyll. In her biography of Stevenson, Claire Harman suggests that the character may have stemmed from James Walter Ferrier; a fellow law student of RLS at Edinburgh and a victim of alcoholism. After all, Jekyll was a man who lead a double life after drinking potions. But Stevenson was no stranger to drink and drugs himself. He was indulging in Jekyll and Hyde activities while studying at Edinburgh University. He appeared more interested in the underworld of Edinburgh taverns like the Gay Japanee where he met prostitutes, drank and smoked opium. The young dandy must have been quite a sight in his favourite smoking jacket that led the locals to nickname him Velvet Coat.
Although Stevenson’s most famous tale is set in London the popular belief in the Scottish capital is that the author took inspiration from Deacon Brodie; a respected cabinet maker and Edinburgh town councillor. William Brodie may have been head of Edinburgh’s wrights and masons but he was far from trustworthy. Brodie was a compulsive gambler with numerous illegitimate children so he could never get hold of enough money. He used his skills as a locksmith to lead a gang of burglars who broke into wealthy Edinburgh homes. His secret dual lifestyle was eventually uncovered and the final irony was that this skilled craftsman went to the Edinburgh gallows that he himself had helped to design.
RLS was undoubtedly fascinated by Brodie. The Stevensons owned a piece of furniture made by the Deacon which was kept in young Robert’s bedroom. Later RLS collaborated with a William Ernest Henley on a play entitled Deacon Brodie, which was first staged in the summer of 1884. Stevenson had first encountered Henley on a visit to the city’s Royal Infirmary in 1875. Henley suffered from necrosis of the bone and first came to Edinburgh to be treated by the pioneering surgeon Joseph Lister.
There’s a pub named in honour of Deacon Brodie on the Lawnmarket. This street is the upper section of Edinburgh’s famous and oldest thoroughfare; The Royal Mile. Stevenson would have been familiar with many pubs in this area near Edinburgh Castle. One can just see him slipping off down a close (narrow side street) in his velvet coat to socialise with Edinburgh’s underclass on a quest for literary inspiration.
It may well be that the Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde was simply a metaphor for the city itself. The hidden river aside, Edinburgh is a place that invites the visitor to peel away layer after layer and search off the beaten track for the unexpected . Like Dr Jekyll, the city should not be taken at face value. A few hundred years ago Edinburgh’s Royal Mile was one of the most densely populated streets in Europe with tenement buildings up to fourteen storeys high and closes shooting off in all directions. These were home to the lower echelons of society and some of them, such as Mary King’s Close, have only recently been reopened to the public. The Stevenson legacy lives on with supernatural tales, tours abound and Edinburgh has been awarded the title UNESCO City of Literature.
It is apt too that one of these dramatic closes is home to a writers’ museum where Stevenson features along with another two giants of Scottish literature – the romantic novelist Walter Scott and the ploughman poet Robert Burns. Lady Stair’s Close is just a couple of doors up from Deacon Brodie’s tavern. Stevenson items on show in the museum include a pipe, fishing rod and basket all of which would have been useful for a day spent cogitating by the Water of Leith. Other souvenirs from his residence in Valaima (Western Samoa) include fans made from woven dried grasses and riding boots and a crop.
Poor health and weak lungs that had plagued him since childhood meant he spent less and less time in Scotland although the country continued to play a major role in his work. At the time of his death, from a brain haemorrhage in Samoa in 1894, he was working on Weir Of Hermiston, a character based on a hanging-judge from the Edinburgh area.
Stevenson once said that ‘to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’. Perhaps that is not true of his native city. I’m also a Scot who chose to leave home in search of a kinder climate but I walk through Edinburgh with a sense of anticipation. I’m caught in two minds, that of the excited tourist but one who is already familiar with the literary and historical delights that lurk in every dark nook and cranny of this majestic northern jewel.
©2007 Steve Porter