THE WORKS of Robert Louis Stevenson are read the world over. Classic adventure stories like Treasure Island and Kidnapped, darker novels like The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the beauty and simplicity of A Child's Garden of Verses make "RLS" compelling reading for children and adults alike.
He travelled widely, dying in Samoa – as far from and as culturally opposite to his native country - at age 44. It was his childhood in Edinburgh that shaped him. His writings are sprinkled with references to the places where he lived, studied, worked and played as boy and man. So where are Edinburgh's Stevenson "landmarks" that so inspired him - and how have the years changed them? Let's take a journey.
8 Howard Place - Stevenson's birthplace. A nondescript two-storey Georgian House in the city's Canonmills area on a busy road leading into the city centre. Thousands of people pass this little house daily without realising its significance. The iron gate leading to the short garden path has the initials RLS ornamented above a Scottish thistle. And carved into the stone beside the front door are the words, "Robert Louis Stevenson was born in this house on 13th November 1850". Still a private house, it is very easy to miss.
1 Inverleith Terrace - His second home, round the corner from Howard Place, is more difficult to find. Confusingly it was no 1 when the family moved there in 1853 but is now no 9, a row of Victorian houses having been added. Still a private house, there is nothing to indicate that RLS lived there.
17 Heriot Row - The Stevenson House, where the author lived from the age of six, is in the heart of Edinburgh's New Town and a very desirable address. Stevenson grew up here and from the outside little has changed. Strict planning controls mean the facades of the houses on the street can not be altered. The impressive dining room and drawing room are let out for conferences and small functions by owners John and Felicitas McFie. Stevenson was quite sick as a child, suffering from tuberculosis, and spent long periods in bed being treated for various illnesses. His bedroom is now occupied by one of the McFie children. Although it is a family home the owners have to balance a "part public/part private" existence. Tour buses go past and visitors, complete with cameras, are a regular feature. On the pavement outside is the old gas lamp that inspired the Stevenson poem The Lamplighter:
My tea is nearly ready and the sun has left the sky.
It's time to take the window to see Leerie going by;
For every night at teatime and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.
Now Tom would be a driver and Maria go to sea,
And my papa's a banker and as rich as he can be;
But I, when I am stronger and can choose what I'm to do,
O Leerie, I'll go round at night and light the lamps with you!
For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And oh! before you hurry by with ladder and with light;
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!
14 Canonmills - Only yards from his birthplace is the small hall where Stevenson first attended school. On the wall at the corner of Canonmills and the cobbled lane Munro Place is a plaque which reads: "In this hall Robert Louis Stevenson first went to school circa 1857". Now Canonmills Baptist Church, the building is across the road from a 24-hour filling station. Stevenson was also educated at Edinburgh Academy in Henderson Row and by private tutors in India Road and Frederick Street.
Colinton Manse - A beautiful location by the Water of Leith far from Edinburgh city centre, Stevenson’s grandfather, Lewis Balfour, was the minister here. The church is more than 900 years old and a swing still hangs from the yew tree where Stevenson played as a boy. The garden inspired many of the poems in A Child’s Garden of Verses. Now part of the city, the manse is in a quaint location surrounded by old mill houses. The garden is best seen from a modern information centre and caf in the churchyard.
Edinburgh University - Unlike his school days, Stevenson loved university life. He studied science and law and was a familiar figure in the quadrangle (right) just off South Bridge. He was a keen member of the Speculative Society debating club and changed his middle name from Lewis to the more romantic Louis. With long hair, a velvet jacket and floppy hat he cut a Bohemian figure in the lanes and bars of old Edinburgh.
Rutherford Bar - Pubs played a big part in Stevenson’s life. The Rutherford in Drummond Street is one minute’s walk from the university quad and Stevenson was a regular here. Still very much a "man’s pub", a section of the wall is given over to photographs, newspaper cuttings and verses which link the poet with this landmark. Other bars that Stevenson frequented include Bannerman’s on the Cowgate, Hunter’s Tryst on Oxgangs Road, where he was a member of the Six Feet High Club, and the Hawes Inn in South Queensferry, where he is said to have been inspired to write Kidnapped.
Swanston Cottage - Nestling at the foot of the Pentland Hills, do not be fooled by the word "cottage". This is a substantial house with large gardens which Stevenson’s father leased from Edinburgh Council as a summer getaway when RLS was 17. It now overlooks the sprawling housing estates of Oxgangs and Fairmilehead where in the 19th century there were only fields. The author went on long walks into the hills and gained inspiration from the panoramic scenery. On the grounds are a water filtration unit and a lodge house occupied by the waterman, the brother of Stevenson's long-time nanny Alison Cunningham, or "Cummie". She lived there for a time and above the entrance is carved "AC 1880-1893". Swanston is still used as a private house but a walk along the public footpath gives a good view of the gardens, including pediments salvaged from St Giles Cathedral during renovation work.
Although his experiences in Edinburgh were close to a century and a-half ago, the buildings and spaces are marginally still in place, ready for the next aspiring writer to lay their footprints over those left by one of Scotland's most-noted authors.
Anyone wishing to visit The Stevenson House should contact the McFie family in advance.