Skip to main content

Literary Haunts


Robert Louis Stevenson was essentially a wanderer. The author of such classic tales as Kidnapped, Treasure Island, The Master of Ballantrae and The Weir of Hermiston was a gypsy by nature, and spent more of his adult life travelling abroad than living in his native Scotland.

Yet few places were impressed so firmly on his memory as Edinburgh, where he was born and brought up. Here he absorbed and then rebelled against his father's Presbyterianism, tasted low life to the full and wandered the streets carrying two books: one to read and one to write in.

Edinburgh was also the place where he was educated - after a fashion. Childhood was a mixture of illness, private tutors and brief spells at school where, one contemporary wrote, "he was quiet, almost aloof, and showed little interest in either us or his lessons".

Nor was he a model student at the university. In "Some College Memories" (one of many documents quoted in Bryan Bevan's useful recent biography), he described his life there as "infinite yawnings during lectures, and unquestionable gusto in the delights of truancy".

A few places where he lived can still be seen, though not entered: the classy Georgian house in Heriot Row, where he spent his formative years; his grandfather's manse at Colinton, where he played happily during the school holidays; the old cottage in Swanston near the Pentland Hills, remembered fondly ever after as "the hills of home".

At one time a collection of Stevenson memorabilia was held in his birthplace in Howard Place. When this was sold it was moved to Lady Stair's House just off the Lawnmarket, where it remains on display in The Writers' Museum.

The collection includes some fascinating personal items: the baby book kept by his mother; the coloured drama sheets that he used for his toy theatre; the boots and the ring he was wearing when he died suddenly in Samoa.

There are also two rare literary items: a copy of his first-ever publication The Pentland Rising, a pamphlet about the Scottish Covenanters written at 16 (his mother bought most of the 100 copies printed); and a playlet he wrote two years later, The Charity Bazaar.

The museum contains other curiosities such as the small hand press on which his step-son Lloyd produced little booklets of woodcuts, with poems by the writer, when the family was staying in Davos, Switzerland.

Among a good range of photos of RLS himself - as a boy, on a donkey at 10, at university, on his travels - there is a fine portrait of Alison Cunningham, the nurse whose stories had such an influence on him in childhood ("It's you that gave me a passion for the drama, Cummy," he told her later).

It's only five minutes from the museum down to the High Kirk of St Giles. Here in the west wall is a memorial bronze to Stevenson. In the original he holds a cigarette; in the church a pen was thought more appropriate.

Further information from Elaine Finnie, The Writers' Museum, Lady Stair's House, Lady Stair's Close, Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, Lothian EHl 2PA. Tel: 0131 529 490l. Robert Louis Stevenson: Poet and Teller of Tales, by Bryan Bevan, The Rubicon Press (Pounds 9.95) n Next week: Boswell's Auchinleck, Ayrshire

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you