Robert Louis Stevenson

Writer | Number 17

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) moved to Number 17 in 1856.  His parents hoped that his delicate health would improve there. The house remained his base until the same hopes of better health (along with the freedom to write and experience the world) took him south to England, to Europe, to America and finally to the South Seas.

Thanks to his own writing, his many letters and his enormous fame which encouraged biographies we know a lot about his childhood in Heriot Row. His own self descriptions are not flattering – ‘I was sentimental, snivelling, goody, and morbidly religious’.  Another view is provided by a minister who holidayed with the Stevensons – ‘He was without exception the most delightful boy I ever knew...... Full of fun, full of tender feeling’.

We know of his childhood interest in theatre, fed by penny plain and twopence coloured theatre cutouts and stories from Aladdin to Macbeth. Also, his many wakeful nights full of terror as he waited for the dawn, his fascination with Leerie the lamplighter, the family dog Cool, the games in Queen Street Gardens. His childhood friends were his cousin Bob Stevenson (who later became an artist and art historian) and Sir James Young Simpson’s son Walter Simpson (who lived the other side of the shared gardens). Both boys later became his adult travelling companions. His schooling was erratic, home tutors alternating with local day schools and even a term at boarding school in Middlesex.

Travel was a constant feature – locally to his grandfather’s manse in Colinton and the family cottage in Swanston, then round the coast of Scotland to experience the engineering endeavours of his father and uncles.  He also travelled to France and Italy with his parents.

His teenage years brought rebellion.  He turned his back on religion – to the horror of his parents – and on the prospect of an engineering career in his father’s footsteps. He completed a law degree but scarcely practised. Yet many threads of his youth in Edinburgh came together in the poems and stories that made him one of the most idolised writers of his century. We see Edinburgh in many guises, a place of childish marvel, the low dens of the High Street, the historical Edinburgh of Jacobite and Napoleonic times, the hanging judge.

Towards the end of his life, his widowed mother left Heriot Row to join him in the Pacific.  An extraordinary journey for a woman of her background, made more extraordinary by the fact that she took her dining room furniture with her.  It sat in the house at Vailima, on Samoa. Then after RLS died, his mother returned to Edinburgh, while the dining room furniture travelled with his wife to California (where it now sits in a museum at Monterey, a small piece of Heriot Row detached).

many threads of his life in Edinburgh came together in the poems and stories that made him one of the most idolised writers of his century