Robert Louis Stevenson Itinerary
Robert Louis Stevenson itinerary
Let’s assume you’ve opted for the ultimate literary getaway, Stevenson House on Heriot Row, the childhood home of none other than Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson lived at no.17 from the age of six, and as a sickly child he spent much time at home with his nurse Cummie. Her talent for storytelling fired the imagination of young Stevenson, long before he wrote Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Once fortified with a full Scottish breakfast, head towards Princes Street, where you won’t be able to miss the imposing gothic monument commemorating the historical novelist Sir Walter Scott. But then make a beeline for East Princes Street Gardens where you’ll find a modest memorial to Stevenson in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. Designed by Ian Hamilton Finlay, the memorial demonstrates the poet and sculptor’s playful approach to words and objects, reading: ‘RLS – Man of Letters’. Finlay’s Little Sparta, a garden and outdoor exhibition of his work, is a daytrip from Edinburgh.
If you walk back onto Princes Street and up North Bridge you’ll leave the New Town behind and enter Stevenson’s beloved Old Town. If you make a left and walk down the High Street you’ll come to the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the home of song, music, craft and storytelling in Scotland. If you plan ahead you might be able to catch some spoken word or theatre but if not, there’s a great café and a bookshop. Best of all, in the Storytelling Court you can listen to stories by Stevenson and get interactive with the Storywall.
If you head back up the way you came, on the left-hand side is Blackfriars Street, walk down and you’ll see a plaque to Chepman and Myllar, who printed the first books in Scotland. Then turn right and head up the Cowgate. Imagine what it would have been like in Stevenson’s time: overcrowded, dirty and noisy with calls of traders of all kinds. This was where Edinburgh’s underclass lived and where Stevenson liked to socialise: ‘I was the companion of seaman, chimney-sweeps and thieves; my circle was being continually changed by the action of the police magistrate.’
Stevenson was sensitive to the social divide and if you pause on the South Bridge to look down over the Cowgate you can call his words to mind: ‘To look over the South Bridge and see the Cowgate below full of crying hawkers is to view one rank of society from another in the twinkling of an eye. (1878)’
If you take Old Fishmarket Close back up to the Royal Mile and turn left you’ll see St Giles’ Cathedral. This is a great stop for a coffee and a snack but there is also an added Stevenson bonus. In the ‘belly o’the kirk’ there is a memorial to Stevenson. Just on the right as you go in the main entrance is a bronze engraving of Stevenson by the sculptor Augustus St Gaudens. The original is in the US and differs in one significant way: it depicts Stevenson smoking. The church authorities (somewhat ahead of their time with their no smoking policy) would not allow this, so the cigarette was changed to a pencil. There are memorials to several other writers in St Giles’, including Robert Burns, Gavin Douglas and Margaret Oliphant, so it is worth taking a little time to explore the aisles.
Further up the Royal Mile, hidden away in Ladystair’s Close is the Writers’ Museum and Makars’ Court. You can learn more about Stevenson (as well as Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott) in this beautiful converted 17th century house. There is a whole room dedicated to Stevenson with photos, manuscripts and other artefacts such as his riding boots and a ring given to him by a Samoan chief. The ring is engraved with the name given to Stevenson by the Samoans, ‘Tusitala’, meaning ‘teller of tales’. There is also an intricate book sculpture, one of many left across Edinburgh by a mysterious and highly talented book sculptor, depicting a scene from Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.
Outside in Makars’ Court – a living monument to Scotland’s writers with quotations carved into the paving stones – you’ll find quotations from Stevenson, Robert Fergusson, Muriel Spark, Norman MacCaig and many more.
Once you emerge back onto the Mile, take George IV Bridge to the National Museum of Scotland. You could spend days here, but if you want to explore Stevenson straight away, head to the ‘Facing the Sea’ gallery on level 3 and the ‘Innovators’ gallery on level 5 where you will find objects from Stevenson’s time in Samoa. There is a robe made from leaves and parrot feathers. This was laid over Stevenson by Tupuola, the chief of Tanugamanono when he died in 1894, as well as fans and an adze brought back by his family.
Stevenson came from a family of engineers and he reluctantly studied this at Edinburgh University before taking up law. In the Innovators gallery are models of lighthouses and bridges designed by the ‘Lighthouse Stevensons’. If you continue along Chambers Street and turn right, you’ll arrive at the entrance of Old College, where Stevenson would have attended lectures. It’s an impressive courtyard, as both Robert Adam and Henry Playfair were involved in its design, and contains the Talbot Rice Gallery which has changing exhibitions of contemporary art.
Or, as Stevenson would have done, you can slope off to the pub. The Hispanola restaurant on nearby Drummond Street was once Rutherford’s pub or “howff”. The varnished wooden façade is the same as it would have been in Stevenson’s day and the pub was enjoyed by many Scottish writers, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and later the poets of the Scottish Renaissance in the 1950s. Today, it is a family restaurant serving Italian and Spanish food in a setting that is reminiscent of Stevenson’s more swashbuckling stories.