Walk In the Footsteps Of... Robert Louis Stevenson
The city of Edinburgh had a significant influence on the creative imagination of R.L. Stevenson. The dark closes of the Old Town provided an exciting contrast to the elegance and respectability of the New Town, where Stevenson grew up. His descriptions of Edinburgh are vivid and frank but it is the underlying atmosphere of the Scottish capital which helped mould his imagination and informs his writing. Unless otherwise indicated the quotations represented here are from his Edinburgh Picturesque Notes.
"For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door"
17 Heriot Row
In 1857 at the age of 7 Stevenson moved with his family to 17 Heriot Row in the New Town. He was a sickly boy and perhaps his febrile imagination had to compensate for a lack of physical exertion. In Queen St. Gardens, which he could see from his bedroom window, an islet in a small pond may later have given rise to his famous Treasure Island. His nurse's stories coupled with his child's fear of the dark further fired his imagination. The gas lamps, which may still be seen on Heriot Row, offered some comfort to the frightened young Stevenson:
"For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And O! Before you hurry by with ladder and with light,
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him tonight!"
(from 'The Lamplighter', A Child's Garden of Verses)
"What a clashing of Architecture!"
Built from rubble scoured from the drained Nor’ Loch, the Mound straddles the valley separating the Old and New Towns. From here the distinctive characters of the two areas lie in contrast, often alluded to as an urban ‘split personality’ which may have sown the seed of the idea for Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.
“And then, upon all sides, what a clashing of Architecture! In this one valley, where the life of the town goes most busily forward, there may be seen, shown one above and behind another by the accidents of the ground, buildings in almost every style upon the globe.”
"Pickeering among the closes by the flicker of a dark lamp"
Lawn Market and Brodie’s Close
It is often suggested that the famous Edinburgh criminal Deacon Brodie provided inspiration for Jekyll and Hyde: a respectable cabinet maker and highly regarded Edinburgh citizen by day, a dissolute and sinister criminal by night. Brodie’s penchant for fast living caused him to run up significant debts which he thought to pay off with the proceeds of his burglaries. Certainly his story was well known to Stevenson, who even owned a cabinet made by Brodie.
“But still, by the mind’s eye, he may be seen, a man harassed below a mountain of duplicity, slinking from a magistrate’s supper room to a thieves’ ken, and pickeering among the closes by the flicker of a dark lamp.”
"The Heart of Midlothian, a place old in story and namefather to a noble book"
Tolbooth and Parliament Square
Brass plates on the cobbles around the Heart trace the walls of the Tolbooth, which once stood on the spot. Used variously as a council chamber, tax office, law court and squalid prison, it was finally torn down in 1817.
“This was the site of the Tolbooth, the Heart of Midlothian, a place old in story and namefather to a noble book. The walls are now down in the dust; there is no more squalor carceris for merry debtors; no more cage for the old, acknowledged prison-breaker; but the sun and wind play freely over the foundations of the jail.”
To the south is the old Parliament Hall, hidden behind its 18th century classical façade, and since the Union of 1707 part of the law courts. Stevenson, who trained as a lawyer, knew it well.
“...[Beneath Parliament Hall]...You descend one stone stair after another, and wander, by the flicker of a match, in a labyrinth of stone cellars […] and you strike upon a room, not empty like the rest, but crowded with productions from bygone criminal cases: a grim lumber: lethal weapons, poisoned organs in a jar, a door with a shot hole through the panel, behind which a man fell dead. I cannot fancy why they should preserve them, save against the Judgement Day.”
"The matter of grimly illustrating death"
Greyfriars was the first church to be built in Edinburgh after the Reformation, on the site of an old Franciscan friary. The church has a bloody history: the Covenant was signed here in 1638, heralding fifty years of religious strife and it was used as a barracks by Oliver Cromwell during his invasion of Scotland. The churchyard contains both the monument to the many covenanters who died for their religious convictions and the tomb of George Mackenzie, the Lord Advocate responsible for putting many of them to death.
“[…] we Scotch stand, to my fancy, highest among nations in the matter of grimly illustrating death. We seem to love for their own sake the emblems of time and the great change […] the emblematic horrors, the figures rising headless from the grave, and all the traditional ingenuities in which it pleased our fathers to set forth their sorrow for the dead and their sense of earthly mutability.”
"Of all places for a view, this Calton Hill is perhaps the best"
Calton Hill was one of Stevenson’s favourite viewpoints in Edinburgh, remarkable for its eclectic assortment of architecture and its dramatic perspectives. Although he was not always full of praise for the former (the Nelson Monument he thought “ranks among the vilest of men’s handiworks”) he was certainly taken with the latter: “Of all places for a view, this Calton Hill is perhaps the best.”
“The scene suggests reflections on fame and on man’s injustice to the dead. You see Dugald Stewart rather more handsomely commemorated than Burns. Immediately below, in the Cannongate churchyard, lies Robert Fergusson, Burns’ master in his art, who died insane while yet a stripling…”