Robert Louis Stevenson's Edinburgh
Stevenson was born on 13th November 1850 in Howard Place, Edinburgh, the only child of Thomas Stevenson, a member of the great engineering dynasty that gave Scotland so many of her lighthouses, and Margaret the daughter of the Rev Lewis Balfour, Minister of Colinton. The family soon moved, first to Inverleith Terrace, and then in 1857, to 17 Heriot Row, in the New Town.
Stevenson, although he spent much of his life far from Edinburgh - in France, the South of England, the United States of America and the Pacific - retained a deep and abiding passion for the city of his birth and the Pentland Hills that overshadow it. A passion not unmixed with a certain distaste for the climate and for the moral atmosphere of the area. As a young man he rebelled against the religious beliefs of his father and lived a student life of bohemian unconventionality in the less respectable parts of Edinburgh.
Stevenson was a sickly child and spent long periods confined to bed with illness - an experience he later turned to poetry in works from A Child's Garden of Verses such as 'The Land of Counterpane':
When I was sick and lay a-bed
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay
To keep me happy all the day
Perhaps the best-known image of Stevenson's early life comes in the 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 tea-time and before you take your seat,
With lantern and with ladder he comes posting up the street.
The young Stevenson spent much time away from Edinburgh's smoky atmosphere in the hope that fresher air would alleviate his chest complaints - not for nothing was the city nicknamed 'Auld Reekie.' Many visits were paid to his grandfather's manse at Colinton, then a village outside the City, until Dr Balfour's death in 1860. As he wrote later: 'that was my golden age.'
In 1867 the Stevensons took a country cottage at Swanston, a hamlet nestling under the end of the Pentland Hills, and from there he learned to know and love the hills and the hill-people:
In the highlands, in the country places,
Where old plain men have rosy faces,
And the young fair maidens
Where essential silence cheers and blesses,
And for ever in the hill-recesses
Her more lovely music
Broods and dies.
(Songs of Travel XVI)
Stevenson was intended for the family profession of engineering and spent three years studying at the University in the winter and working in the family business in the summer. However engineering was not where Stevenson saw his future and after one of many clashes with his father he changed to the study of law. However the literary life was even more to his taste than a career as an advocate. As a youth of 16 he had written an account (which was privately published thanks to his father) of the ill-fated Covenanting rebellion known as the Pentland Rising, which came to its bloody end at the Battle of Rullion Green in 1666 - the first, but not the last time that the Pentlands and the stories associated with them would enter his work.
Stevenson's health problems continued into adulthood and the climate of Edinburgh and the Pentlands was thought unsuitable. The harshness of the Edinburgh climate is hinted at in his description of Swanston in 'Ille Terrarum' (1887):
Frae nirly, nippin', Eas'lan' breeze,
Frae Norlan' snaw, an' haar o' seas,
Weel happit in your gairden trees,
A bonny bit
Atween the muckle Pentland's knees,
Secure you sit.
He had earlier written:
The Scots dialect is singularly rich in terms of reproach against the winter wind. Snell, blae, nirly, and scowthering, are four of these significant vocables; they are all words that carry a shiver with them, and for my part as I see them aligned before me on the page, I am persuaded that a big wind comes tearing over the Firth from Burntisland and the northern hills; I think I can hear it howl in the chimney, and as I set my face northwards, feel its smarting kisses on my cheek.
In 1878 he contributed a series of essays on Edinburgh to The Portfolio - these were published as Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes in the next year. These essays cover subjects such as The New Town, Parliament Close, Winter and New Year (from which the extract above is taken) and the Pentland Hills. In this last, after considering the view over the city from Caerketton, at the north end of the Pentlands, he concludes:
For every place is a centre to the earth, whence highways radiate or ships set sail for foreign ports; the limit of a parish is not more imaginary than the frontier of an empire; and as a man sitting at home in his cabinet and swiftly writing books, so a city sends abroad an influence and a portrait of herself. There is no Edinburgh emigrant, far or near, from China to Peru, but he carries some lovely pictures of the mind, some sunset behind the Castle cliffs, some snow scene, some maze of city lamps, indelible in the memory and delightful to study in the intervals of toil.
RLS certainly carried pictures in his mind, wherever he travelled. Even when ostensibly writing about other places Edinburgh informed and coloured his work. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1886) is set in London, but many critics have pointed out that the dualism which lies at the heart of the story owes more to Edinburgh than to London. Edinburgh, after all was the city of Deacon Brodie, prosperous tradesman by day, thief by night, and, significantly, the maker of a cabinet that formed part of the furnishings of the nursery at Heriot Row. The tale of Deacon Brodie furnished RLS with material for play on which he collaborated with his friend W E Henley. The dualism of Edinburgh had of course also been exemplified by Stevenson as a student - still living with his parents in the respectable God-fearing family home in Heriot Row, but wandering the howffs of Lothian Road and consorting with prostitutes and the underclass of the city.
More directly he drew on the landscape of his youth for the settings for short stories and novels. The great short story 'The Body-Snatcher' is set in and around Glencorse Church - a very few miles along the Pentlands from Swanston; while his novel St Ives (started in 1893 while living in Samoa) has the prisoner of war hero escaping from Edinburgh Castle, finding adventure in the city streets, just as RLS had as a student and making his way to freedom along the Pentlands.
Stevenson's unfinished masterpiece Weir of Hermiston - on which he was working on the day of his death in 1894 - is equally deeply rooted in Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside. Young Archie Weir, the son of the Lord Justice Clerk, is a young and sensitive man at odds with his over-bearing father (an interesting parallel with RLS's own relationship with Thomas Stevenson) and who, after a scandal, is removed from his studies at Edinburgh University and sent to the country to manage the family estate.
Stevenson's literary response to the landscape of his youth continued to find moving expression in his work throughout his all too short life, perhaps most clearly in a poem such as this - dedicated to the Scottish novelist S R Crockett, and written in August 1893 from Samoa:
Blows the wind to-day, and the sun and the rain are flying,
Blows the wind on the moors to-day and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,
My heart remembers how!
Grey recumbent tombs of the dead in the desert places,
Standing-stones on the vacant wine-red moor,
Hills of sheep, and the homes of the silent vanquished races,
And winds, austere and pure.
Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,
Hills of home! and to hear again the call;
Hear about the graves of the martyrs the peewees crying,
And hear no more at all.
A few months earlier he had written to Crockett:
I shall never take that walk by the Fisher's Tryst and Glencorse; I shall never see Auld Reekie, I shall newer set my foot again upon the heather. Here I am until I die, and here will I be buried.
His prediction was accurate, Stevenson died at Vailima, his house in Samoa, on 3rd December 1894. The inscription on his tomb consisted of lines from his poem Requiem written in the South of France in 1884:
Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
The fact that it was a hill in far-off Samoa where he was to find his last resting place rather than the familiar 'hills of home' does not diminish the intimate relationship between Stevenson and Edinburgh. His health, Edinburgh's climate and his inability to accept his father's religious, social and moral views all meant that he spent most of his adult life away from the city but the closest of ties always bound him to the city of his birth and the scenes of his childhood and youth. One of his last poems, Auld Reekie, sums up his relationship with his home:
When chitterin' cauld the day sall daw,
Loud may your bonny bugles blaw
And loud your drums may beat.
Hie owre the land at evenfa'
Your lamps may glitter raw by raw,
Along the gowsty street.
I gang nae mair where ance I gaed,
By Brunston, Fairmileheid, or Braid;
But far frae Kirk and Tron.
O still ayont the muckle sea,
Still are ye dear, and dear to me,
Auld Reekie, still and on!
Brian D Osborne
Biographies and Studies of RL Stevenson
- The Strange Case Of R.L. Stevenson - - Hardback
Robert Louis Stevenson died at 44. A self-professed bohemian, his struggle with illness, extensive travel and early death created a lasting romantic myth around him. But did he have consumption or is there another explanation for his symptons?