Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-96), one of Edinburgh’s best loved authors, ended his life in exile in the South Seas but looked back nostalgically on the city of his birth.
by Andrew Fraser
(reprinted from The Inverleith News, Autumn 2002)
Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-96), one of Edinburgh’s best loved authors, ended his life in exile in the South Seas but looked back nostalgically on the city of his birth. His Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1879) and Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) reflect his enduring love for Edinburgh, and there are many mentions of the haunts of his youth in essays and letters. His earliest years were spent around the Canonmills/Inverleith area, until the family moved to No. 17 Heriot Row in 1857 when he was six. RLS features prominently in the City’s Writers Museum in Lady Stair’s Close in the Lawnmarket, which produced an excellent little booklet on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Edinburgh in 2001.
His father was Thomas Stevenson, one of the famous family of civil engineers who designed and built many of the lighthouses round the Scottish coasts. Thomas and Margaret Stevenson moved into No. 8 Howard Place in 1848 and RLS, their first and only child, was born there on 13 November 1850. The houses in Howard Place were built along the edge of the grounds of West Warriston House, mainly in the 1820s, to a façade design laid down by the architect James Gillespie Graham. This terrace is unusual in Edinburgh in having front gardens between the road and the basement areas, reflecting the predominantly rural environment when they were first built. From 1926 to 1962 No. 8 Howard Place was run as a museum by the Robert Louis Stevenson Club, and there is a commemorative plaque beside the front door.
In June 1853 the family moved across the road to No. 1 Inverleith Terrace, a larger house, though its dampness has been blamed for contributing to the ill-health that dogged the life of RLS. This house was the first in a short isolated terrace of three Georgian houses built in the early 1830s opposite the gardens of the Royal Caledonian Horticultural Society (later absorbed into the neighbouring Royal Botanic Garden).
The original No. 1 was renumbered No. 9 after the gap between these houses and Inverleith Row was filled up in the 1860s and 1870s. It is an interesting exercise to compare the elegant detail of the original three houses, complete with original small-paned windows, with their later plate-glassed neighbours.
There is no plaque on No. 9 Inverleith Terrace but there is one on the Baptist Church opposite the petrol station at Canonmills. The building has been altered several times, but incorporates the little early 19th century school which RLS attended for a short time around 1857. A book edited by Rosaline Masson, I Can Remember Robert Louis Stevenson, contains reminiscences by those who knew him at various stages, including some notes on Canonmills by a fellow pupil, William Boss. ‘Of course there are great changes in the locality … In those days there were the mills and granaries opposite the school, with their stores of grain which we tried to reach into: the mill lade; the Old Coach Inn further up the road; the tannery; the market-garden, where we used to spend our halfpence on fruits in their season; the Coachman’s green at Bellevue, where a travelling menagerie with Tom Thumb and his wife Mrs Thumb was on view for a time; the Zoological Gardens in East Claremont Street, where we saw the monkeys, the strange birds, the bears down in a pit, and got peacock’s feathers to our delight; while the corn was growing in the fields near by, and Blondin walked on the tight-rope high in the air down at Inverleith Row, and the miller’s horses toiled zigzag-ways up the hill with their loads of flour on sled-carts for the city, and Jocky Reid at Bellevue chased us boys, would-be plunderers, away from his garden.’
These were formative scenes in Stevenson’s imagination. Late in life, in Rosa quo Locorum, he remembered how the 23rd psalm brought up images of childhood scenes, the ‘pastures green’ seen as a local stubble field and ‘death’s dark vale … a certain archway in the Warriston Cemetery; a formidable yet beloved spot’.