Robert Louis Stevenson – Always in Edinburgh

By Colin Galbraith

In the 19th Century, poverty and disease were rife throughout Edinburgh’s Old Town. Cobbled streets and narrow lanes harbored the dangerous and the delinquents; vagrants and beggars were aplenty and the threat of feces falling from the slums above, always a possibility.

In the New Town, fine Georgian houses with large gardens and butlers, contrasted the squalor on the other side of the city with a more sophisticated and salubrious way of life. Into this was born Robert Louis Stevenson on the 13th November 1850, and his impact on the literary world was nothing short of astonishing.

It was in the New Town that Stevenson grew up from the age of six. He lived at 17 Heriot Row with his father, Thomas, a lighthouse engineer of some fame and his mother, Margaret.  Please see the Stevenson website for details about this remarkable building in the heart of the Scottish capital.

Edinburgh is an inspirational city for a writer; its architecture and contrasting groups of people who live in it. It was the same for the young Stevenson, as he looked out over the large gardens of Queen Street and beyond to the magnetic allure of the Old Town.

Stevenson was part of a close family, but their strict Presbyterian and middle-class values became a source of great unrest within him. The family’s engineering background did little to motivate him and his thoughts were always elsewhere. See here for more on lighthouses built by the Stevenson family.

From an early age Stevenson suffered from poor health. Tuberculosis saw him bed- bound for long spells, and often he would cough up blood and miss a lot of school. A nurse brought in to care for the young Stevenson – Alison Cunningham  – had perhaps the greatest influence over the early part of his life. Known to him as Cummy, he later referred to her as “My second mother, my first wife”.

Cummy took him on long walks through Edinburgh, focussing largely on graveyards where she would fill his mind with intricate tales of Scottish history, the Bible, ghosts and ghouls. Whether or not these stories contributed to the vivid and horrifying nightmares Stevenson went on to suffer throughout his life are debatable. But one thing for certain is they formed an integral part in shaping a literary mind, which went on to write some of the best known and acclaimed novels of the 19th Century.

Stevenson’s urge to write arrived early and the combination of the strong influence from his Calvinistic upbringing and Cummy’s tales of Scottish history, gave cause for him to write two stories with a Bible theme; A History of Moses and The book of Joseph were written when just a boy.

When he was sixteen years old, his family published a pamphlet he wrote entitled, The Pentland Rising, an account of the murder of Nonconformist Scots Presbyterians who rebelled against their Royalist persecutors. Nobody stopped to consider the strength of desire that existed within Stevenson after his first published work, least not his Presbyterian father.

Thomas Stevenson always assumed his son would follow him into the family profession by becoming an engineer. As he grew older, they had many arguments over Stevenson’s desire to write instead of follow in his footsteps, but these only served to strengthen Stevenson’s resolve. He attempted to appease his father by enrolling at Edinburgh University in 1867 ( He matriculated in a Law degree, but ended up spending most of his time reading and writing rather than studying his coursework.

By 1871, he had contributed several stories to the now defunct Edinburgh University Magazine. One story entitled The Philosophy of Umbrellas became well- known at the time to his peers; Stevenson’s first acknowledgement as a writer.

Literature was forming a strong passion within him but he kept his secret life apart from his family, intent on allowing them to assume he was studying hard at University. While they thought he was attending lectures and late night seminars, he could often be found hidden in the back-streets of Edinburghs Old Town, spending his time in grimy bars and seedy brothels. He would spend long nights talking to the drunks, prostitutes and gamblers, all the while gathering huge amounts of material for his stories. It was this combination of both sides of his double-life, which later contributed to the inspiration to many of his most famous novels.

The Old Town to this day is just as inspiring for any writer or artist. The streets surrounding the castle are steeped with a history that combines much that is important to the UK as a whole but also to the locals that live there. It has been this combination that feeds the muse of many Scottish writers throughout history.

When Stevenson left University in 1872 he graduated with a Law Degree. Shortly after, he announced to his father his strong desire to become a professional writer. The depths of disappointment within the family were immeasurable, for it was seen as Stevenson’s ultimate act of rebellion against his upbringing. His father took it personally, having relied on the assumption his son could be diverted from his nonsensical career choice. An intense argument ensued and harsh words spoken.

The following year when Stevenson uncovered papers indicating his father might once have been an atheist, Stevenson suffered his worst falling out with his father, and although a semi-reconciliation was made, Thomas Stevenson remained eternally disappointed with his son.

By now, Stevenson’s health was worsening and despite a shortage of money he attempted to find a climate more suited to his lungs. He began to spread his wings and travelled to London, Bournemouth and France, though his heart always lied in Edinburgh and with Cummy, who he missed dreadfully.

While at an artists colony near Paris, Stevenson met Fanny Vandergrift Osborne and fell head over heels in love. Their relationship was one of immediate passion despite her already being married with a young son. When she left to go home in 1880, he followed her to San Francisco thereby temporarily estranging his parents. They were extremely upset about his relationship, although hearing of their son’s dire circumstances, they cabled him enough money to save him from poverty.

Stevenson contracted a bad case of malaria while in the States, which almost killed him. Fanny nursed him through his illness while her divorce was being processed and on 19th May 1880, she and Stevenson were married.

A suitable location to settle proved problematic because of Stevenson’s reaction to poor climates and he suffered horrific bouts of harsh coughing. They travelled together to Continental Europe and spent some time back in London and Braemar, Scotland. It was during this time Stevenson began to write furiously; churning out stories, articles and essays. He wrote Treasure Island in 1883 while on holiday in Braemar. It was Fanny’s young son who provided the inspiration for the story and many of the characters harked back to his days in Edinburgh.

Long John Silver was based on Stevenson’s friend William Ernest Henley, whom he met while he was in Edinburgh for surgery to save his other leg from tuberculosis. Treasure Island put Stevenson’s name on the literary map, and it remains his most famous contribution to the present day.

The medical theme continued when he wrote The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, a novel, which went much further then being just a chilling shocker. When writing it, Stevenson suffered terrible nightmares; an affliction he suffered from childhood, and he often woke up sweat-soaked and talking to himself. It would be no feat to link these nightmares back to his trips out with Cummy through the graveyards of Edinburgh as a child.

During one such nightmare, he woke up while repeating the phrase, “It’s in the powder, it’s in the powder.” The dreams it seemed, contributed to much of the story’s plot, many have since described as the ultimate analysis if the human psyche; the internal struggle of good versus evil; and the cross between science and medicine, explored in a literary and terrifying form.

Although set in the backstreets of London, elements of Jekyll and Hyde are firmly rooted in Edinburgh. Dr Jekyll, as was suggested, was based on Deacon Brodie, a respectable Edinburgh businessman of the 18th Century. By night Brodie was a gambler, adulterer, armed robber and murderer. He was involved in a bungled robbery, which eventually proved his downfall and he was hung on gallows he himself had invented.

In 1886, Stevenson was staying at the Hawes Inn at South Queensferry (, just north of Edinburgh. He was already a regular visitor to the Inn and enjoyed taking long walks around the area. The history of the village and the Inn clearly had an affect on him as he watched the Forth flowing into the North Sea from, the boats in the harbours and the way of life of the mariners from the window of room 13. Thoughts of travelling further seeped into his mind and ideas of sea-travel consumed him. It was in room 13, that the idea for Kidnapped was spawned and written the same year, further supporting his reputation as a world-class writer.

Stevenson’s father died in 1887 at a time when Stevenson’s health was deteriorating at an alarming rate. The following year, he took his family out of Britain for good and onto the vast oceans. He took them eventually to the South Pacific, where they grounded on the small island of Samoa and set up home, but by then Stevenson realised his health could never stand a return to Scotland, despite his friends’ urgings and his own homesickness.

Despite being thousands of miles away in a climate he found suited him, Stevensons mind constantly drifted back to Heriot Row and the cobbled streets of Edinburgh’s Old Town. With improving health he worked long hours and threw himself into writing not only novels, but prolific letters. He wrote and published The Master of Ballantrae in 1889 and Catriona four years later the sequel to Kidnapped.

In the last two years of his life Stevenson’s letters to his friends in Great Britain increasingly revealed his longing for Scotland and the frustration he felt at the thought of never seeing his homeland again. To S. R. Crockett he wrote, “I shall never see Auld Reekie. I shall never set my foot again upon the heather. Here I am until I die, and here will I be buried. The word is out and the doom written.”

It may have been this preoccupation with Scotland and its history that made Weir of Hermiston so powerful a tale. With its theme of filial rebellion, its evocation of Scotland’s topography, language, and legends, it is a masterly fragment and the most Scottish of all his works.

While making mayonnaise with Fanny on the 3rd of December 1894, Stevenson collapsed from a stroke and never awoke. He was 44 years old. He was at the height of his creative powers and his health better than never before, but Edinburgh and the world, lost one of its greatest and most remembered writers.

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