Robert Louis Stevenson & Edinburgh, Edinburgh and the Lothians


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Robert Louis Stevenson & Edinburgh, Edinburgh and the Lothians

The best way to walk in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Edinburgh footsteps is metaphorically to do just that. The future writer loved to walk around his native city as a youth, venturing into some places his Presbyterian parents would have found very worrying, including low bars and brothels; and when in good health (all too rarely) he would walk as far afield as South Queensferry ; with his father in 1872 he ventured on foot to Glencourse Church some seven miles south of Edinburgh; and he often made his way in summer to spend time with relatives in Portobello, Edinburgh’s seaside resort.
Robert Louis Stevenson was born on November 13 1850 at his middle-class family’s home, 8 Howard Place, once but no longer a museum dedicated to the writer. Like the house at 1 Inverleith Terrace where the family moved in January 1851 and their next home at 17 Heriot Row which they inhabited from 1857 onwards, his birthplace is privately owned. The Georgian house in Heriot Row, named Stevenson House in the writer’s honour, is now available for hire as a venue for conferences and receptions.
As a sickly child often laid low by the damp and windy climate of what he later called “Our inclement city” Stevenson spent long periods recuperating or holidaying at his grandfather’s manse in Colinton, once well outside the city, now a part of it. Again this is a private residence, as is the cottage that his family leased from 1867 onwards in Swanston, another once entirely separate settlement now enveloped by Edinburgh. Both Colinton Manse and Swanston Cottage provided plenty of material for the imaginative child and youth, retained and used by the future writer: the former home near the Water of Leith , the latter at the edge of the Pentland Hills .
Ill-health meant Stevenson’s early education was rather disjointed, often via private tutors: his time at the school in 14, Canonmills is commemorated by a plaque there; aged 11 he entered Edinburgh Academy on Henderson Row, but left the next year when illness again intervened.
An only child, it was intended that Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson would join the family business, which specialised in lighthouse and harbour construction. But at the age of 18 even though he had dutifully entered Edinburgh University to study engineering the newly self-styled Robert Louis Stevenson had other ideas. He eventually came to an agreement with his father that he should be allowed to pursue a literary career provided he studied law as a fall-back should his writing prove unproductive. Thus he remained at Edinburgh University reading law, and in 1875 was called to the Scottish Bar.
The student Stevenson edited The Edinburgh University Magazine, something his parents could be proud of; they were probably unaware that he also spent a good part of his time in bars along the Lothian Road, and when his limited allowance permitted in some of the brothels in the Old Town.
Stevenson left Edinburgh in 1875, returning briefly in 1880. He retained a deep love for the place, perhaps best summed up in his poem Auld Reekie, one of his last. And the city continued to provide his with inspiration and settings for his works: St Giles and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston among them. More substantial memorials can be seen in St Giles Cathedral where there is a bust of the writer; and in Princes Street Gardens below Edinburgh Castle . And for those wanting to get a flavour of his life and times The Writers’ Museum at Lady Stair’s House has a good selection of artefacts linked with the author of Treasure Island.

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