Ar Turas
Scottish Ancestry Reseach

My Precipitous City

I saw rain falling and the rainbow drawn on Lammermuir. Hearkening I heard again in my precipitous city beaten bells winnow the keen sea wind. (Robert Louis Stevenson 1896)

Welcome to the Ar Turas blog, a regular eclectic mix of topics centred around Edinburgh and the Lothians, covering anything that catches my interest – especially if it has a connection with genealogy, family or local history.

Robert Louis Stevenson

I took the name for my blog from a quote by Robert Louis Stevenson; it was the dedication to his wife in his unfinished novel, Weir of Hermiston (see the quote at the top of the page). So, it’s fitting that my first blog piece is dedicated to Stevenson’s memory.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson

It wasn’t easy being Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson (he changed the spelling to ‘Louis’ in his teens and later dropped ‘Balfour’ altogether). Born in 1850 to Thomas Stevenson and Margaret Balfour, he was the refusenik in a famous engineering family (the design and building of lighthouses). He was expected to study engineering and join the family firm but he switched his degree to law and although he graduated as an advocate, and his father proudly fixed a brass plate to the house railing, RLS never practised law. He was set on a writing career which didn’t bring in much in the way of an income and he lived on his father’s money until well into adulthood.

Heriot Row, No. 17 has the red door

Heriot Row, No. 17 has the red door

RLS was born close to the Royal Botanic Gardens at 8 Howard Place. After only a few years the family moved from this damp house, round the corner to Inverleith Terrace and moved again in 1857 to 17 Heriot Row where RLS lived until his travels abroad and where his parents lived out their lives. His mother was the daughter of the Revd Lewis Balfour at Colinton. In the nineteenth century Colinton was a village outside Edinburgh and RLS spent much of his childhood there for the benefit of the good, clean rural air. The family also took a house at Swanston, on the northern edge of the Pentland hills to escape the heat of the city summers. One of the greatest influences on RLS in his childhood was his nanny Alison Cunningham, “Cummy”, who joined the family in 1852 and stayed with them for twenty years. She was strict in her religious observations and a great teller of stories. Due to ill health RLS didn’t attend school regularly; he attended Mr Henderson’s Preparatory School for a few weeks in 1857, again in 1859 and then on to Edinburgh Academy in 1861 for just over a year.

RLS was a restless spirit desperate to escape Victorian Edinburgh and developed a love/hate relationship with his native city. He was an only and a sickly child indulged by his parents. When he was in Edinburgh he wanted nothing more than to leave it, but when in Samoa towards the end of his brief life his mind was filled with the city, “and here afar, intent on my own race and place, I wrote.” (1896)

Some years earlier in Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (1879) he gives this description of Edinburgh, “The weather is raw and boisterous in Winter, shifty and uncongenial in Summer, and a downright meteorological purgatory in the Spring. The delicate die early, and I, as a survivor … have been sometimes tempted to envy them their fate.”

He goes on to talk about the unhappy souls leaning over Waverley Bridge (“that windiest spot in this northerly temple of the winds”) to watch the trains leave for the “somewhere-else of the imagination”. However, to emphasise his troubled relationship with this city he adds at the end of the same piece, “go where they will, they find no city of the same distinction; go where they will, they take a pride in their old home”.

His relationship with Edinburgh seems to be based largely on the weather; his criticisms are of the cold and the wind and perhaps we can excuse him given his state of health. He suffered from diphtheria before his first birthday and a chest infection at three years old that had his parents concerned for his life. His adult life was spent searching for a warm, dry climate to ease his physical ailments.

His first published work was an essay on the Covenanters, The Pentland Rising which appeared in November 1866 at his father’s expense. Stevenson wrote a wide variety of essays, poems, short stories and novels. He is probably best known for the novels, Treasure Island (1883) Kidnapped (1886) and the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). A full listing can be found on the RLS website.

RLS died in Samoa (3rd December 1894) where the native people called him ‘Tusitala’ – the Storyteller.

RLS Memorial

RLS Memorial

In 1987 the Stevenson Society commissioned a memorial stone in West Princes Street gardens in Edinburgh, sculpted by Ian Hamilton Finlay. It reads “RLS A Man of Letters 1850-1894”. This simple memorial lies in a coppice of birch trees below the castle, a short walk from that other monument to another Edinburgh writer, Sir Walter Scott.

Visit the RLS website: where you can find lists of his work, suggestions for further reading and links to museums/galleries highlighting his work

I found Eileen Dunlop’s book, Robert Louis Stevenson The Travelling Mind (NMS Enterprises – Publishing, 2008) a very good, readable introduction to Stevenson’s life.

(All text and photographs copyright Rosaline Furnivall 2018)

Mark Furnivall