EDINBURGH EXPERT WALKING TOURS - BLOG
As the world's first UNESCO City of Literature, Edinburgh is renowned for its literary influences and connections. Chief among the figures frequently celebrated is Robert Louis Stevenson, who was born in the city on 13 November 1850.
Stevenson is still widely read with works such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and one story that has a particular connection to Edinburgh itself, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
To mark 170 years of Stevenson's influence and legacy in Edinburgh, here are eight locations in the city associated with this literary giant.
17 Heriot Row
The Stevensons moved to this grand address in Edinburgh's New Town when Robert Louis Stevenson was six years old, and he spent the bulk of his childhood at this address.
As a child he was prone to illness, especially problems with his lungs and his breathing, and so was rarely allowed to go out into the damp Scottish climate to play with the other children of the neighbourhood.
Directly across the road from the house is Queen Street Gardens, a private garden space, where Stevenson would watch the other children playing, from the safety of the drawing room on the first floor of the house.
In these gardens is a pond, with a small island in the centre of it. Literary historians have speculated that it was from watching the children playing around this pond and its island that Stevenson came up with the ideas of what became Treasure Island.
During the summers of the late 1870s, Stevenson spent much of his time in this picturesque village on the side of the Pentland Hills, to the south of Edinburgh.
His father had rented one of the properties, and Stevenson used the village as the inspiration for his unfinished novel St Ives, which he wrote in parallel with The Weir of Hermiston, which he did manage to complete.
Today the village of Swanston is still a rural retreat from the city of Edinburgh itself, with access to the hills, and remains popular with dog walkers and ramblers.
Another local setting which Stevenson borrowed for his writing was one of the many hills which make up Edinburgh's landscape. Corstorphine is to the west of the city, towards Edinburgh airport, and features in Kidnapped, Stevenson's adventure story set in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising.
The book ends with the two main characters form the story - David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart - going their separate ways on Corstorphine Hill. Today a statue of the figures by the artist Alexander Stoddart can be found on Corstorphine Road, near the location where the scene from the book is set.
Princes Street Gardens
Stevenson spent the latter years of his life on an island in Samoa, in the Pacific Ocean. He integrated into the community there, who named him 'Tusitala', meaning 'Teller of tales', and on his death in 1894 he was buried in a spot overlooking the ocean, a reminder of his time as a traveller, journeying in the way many of his characters did in their respective stories.
So he has no formal grave in Edinburgh, his hometown. Instead, in Princes Street Gardens, surrounded by a glade of birch trees, is a simple commemorative headstone bearing his initials, RLS.
The Writers' Museum
One place where Stevenson is celebrated fully is in Edinburgh's Writers' Museum, a small building celebrating the life and work of three of Scotland's greatest literary figures - Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, along with Robert Louis Stevenson.
The museum can be found on Lady Stair's Close, off the Lawnmarket on the Royal Mile. It's a free entry museum and is worth exploring for anyone interested in the lives of the writers featured.
Stevenson was known for living the lifestyle of a nineteenth-century writer, which meant (broadly) significant amounts of drink, drugs, and a fondness for prostitutes... One of the bars in which he drank still survives, and is today an Italian restaurant in the Old Town.
The Hispaniola was a bar popular with writers, poets and figures associated with the University of Edinburgh, and Stevenson is known to have spent time here with figures like William Henley, a writer and poet who had a large red beard and only one leg, the other having been amputated after a childhood illness...
The Hispaniola bar helped give Stevenson the name for the ship in Treasure Island, and surely a one-legged bearded man must have inspired that story's notorious pirate, Long John Silver?
Another suburb of the city where Stevenson spent time was Colinton, a small village near to Swanston where he spent time during his childhood. Stevenson's grandfather was minister of the church in Colinton, and the area provided young Robert with plenty of space to roam and explore and develop his interest in the natural world.
Today Colinton remains a peaceful residential suburb of Edinburgh, with the Water of Leith running through the area, and visitors can find a small statue of a boy playing with his dog, near to a heritage and nature trail. The boy in the statue is Robert Louis Stevenson, and his dog is Coolin, Stevenson's own childhood pet.
My final Edinburgh location which has a Stevenson connection is Chessel's Court in the Old Town, just off the Canongate section of the Royal Mile.
It was here in 1787 that a robbery took place, masterminded by Deacon William Brodie, the man whose life would help to inspire Stevenson's most enduring (and influential) character study - that of the duality of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde...
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Born across the Firth of Forth in Fife, a county to the north of Edinburgh, Adam Smith is one of the best-known and most important figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, in the eighteenth century.
His work on economics in particular remains a text for our time, and it was this book - entitled An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations - that garnered Smith his reputation as the father of modern economics (or modern capitalism, depending on your perspective!).
Smith himself never knew his own father (also called Adam Smith), who died a couple of months before his son was born. Few details of Smith's childhood are known - even his exact date of birth in 1723 isn't certain - until he started studying at the University of Glasgow at the age of 14. Here his academic prowess proved to be a great gift, and he later undertook post-graduate studied at Oxford University - although this seemed not to be a happy experience, and it is believed that he ended his studies there prematurely after experiencing the effects of a nervous breakdown.
Whilst giving lectures at the University of Edinburgh, Smith became acquainted with the philosopher David Hume, whose work he had read during his time at Oxford, and they established a firm friendship (despite Hume being 10 years senior to Smith).
In character Smith was perhaps considered a bit absent-minded, prone to distractions and known to frequently talk aloud to himself. Although he was known as a great writer and intellectual, in conversation he could be lifeless and un-engaging - some speculated that he dulled his conversation so as not to distract from sales of his books, in which he was more loquacious - and although he gave frequent public lectures he was an uncomfortable public speaker, the result of a speech impediment. There are few portraits of him from life because he disliked his appearance - he once remarked that "I am a beau in nothing but my books".
In 1759 Adam Smith published The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a study outlining Man's moral nature and his capacity to make decisions based on conscience and the impact on the social relationships with others. Smith intended this to be the first volume in an eventual series of 23 works which would consider in great detail every aspect of human experience... Although The Wealth of Nations would prove to be his more influential book, Smith considered Moral Sentiments to be the better work, and continued revising and editing the volume for subsequent publications right up to his death.
At the time he wrote and published The Wealth of Nations, in 1776, Smith was living in Kirkcaldy, the town in which he'd been born.
The house Smith wrote in was owned by his mother, with whom he maintained a close relationship until her death, just six years before his own.
Later Smith would return to Edinburgh to live in Panmure House, just off the Canongate on the Royal Mile - the building still stands, and today is a venue for economics forums.
One of the key ideas often cited from The Wealth of Nations is Smith's notion of an 'invisible hand', the unseen but active forces influencing and shaping a society's economic process, but the phrasing of 'invisible hand' occurs just three times in all of Smith's writing - once in The Wealth of Nations, once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and once in A History of Astronomy, which was published posthumously in 1795.
A modern statue of Smith, produced by Alexander Stoddart, pictured above, features a rather playful allusion to this idea of an invisible hand, with Smith standing with a hand atop a sheaf of corn - and the cuff of his jacket conceals his hand rendering it 'invisible'...
Smith died at Panmure House on 17 July 1790, and left instruction to his executors - themselves major figures of the Enlightenment period, physicist Joseph Black and the geologist James Hutton - that all of his unfinished, unpublished work should be destroyed.
Smith didn't want any of his writing being published without his explicit editorial oversight. And so, of the 23 major volumes of work that he had planned and (it is believed) started writing, just Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations survive.
But these two works by themselves have been enough to secure Smith's place in the pantheon of great thinkers of the world, whose vision and ideas continue to influence society today, centuries after their deaths. Yet on his deathbed Smith regretted that he hadn't achieved more.
Adam Smith was buried just a stone's throw from his room at Panmure House, in the Canongate Kirkyard, where his grave today has become a small site of pilgrimage for economics students and others from all around the world, who commemorate Smith in a way that I think is rather fitting - by throwing small coins of their national currency on his grave, literally celebrating him with the wealth of nations.
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In 2005, UNESCO named Edinburgh as the world's first City of Literature, thanks to the number and variety of bookish influences that can be found here. From familiar names like Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott to contemporary figures like JK Rowling and Ian Rankin, Edinburgh's streets have influenced novels, plays, poems and works of non-fiction right through history.
So soaked in verbiage is Edinburgh that you can find many examples of poetry and literature inscribed literally in the stone of the city! Here are just a few examples of the words on the streets of Edinburgh...
A good place to start looking for street poetry is on Makar's Court.
In Scots a 'makar' is a poet (a bit like a 'bard' in ye olde English) and to celebrate a whole host of Scottish poets, one of the lanes of the Old Town has been given a distinctly poetic feel.
Lady Stair's Close is also home to the Writers' Museum, but if you cast your eyes downwards on your way to the museum you'll find all kinds of short quotes from a variety of Scottish writers in the paving stones at your feet.
Many of these quotes relate specifically to Scotland, or in the case of the quote above, to Edinburgh itself. A bit like this one:
This quote, from local author Alexander McCall Smith, is one of my favourite descriptions of Edinburgh, and you'll find it on the wall of one of the new buildings on Morrison Street, built to house the expanded Edinburgh International Conference Centre.
The golden coloured sandstone is typical of Edinburgh's stone, and the quote stretches a good distance along the street, hence the slightly strange waves in the picture - it's hard to get the whole thing in frame even with a panoramic feature!
This short poem is one I only discovered quite recently, despite walking miles through the city every year... It's in the pavement at the front of the new Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood, and it's a little hard to read because of the colour of the stone in which it's inscribed. It reads:
Look. What can you see?
I see beauty in the lochs
I see majesty in the mountains
I see legend in the rocks
And it is ours.
The poet is Robert Adam - not the celebrated architect who gave Edinburgh its classical style, but a 14-year old school boy who won a competition to have his poem featured in the parliament complex. I think it's rather lovely.
At another entrance into the parliament building - not one used by the public, alas - is another piece of text that has a poetic quality.
It's a passage from the Bible (1 Corinthians 13:1, if you want chapter and verse!) translated into Scots that was deemed to have a particular resonance for the new Scottish parliament when it was being established in the late 1990s.
The original text reads: "If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal."
There's also a rather interesting poem in the ground outside the University of Edinburgh's main library building on George Square... It is the world's only circular mesostic poem! (No, me neither...)
Have a look at it - start reading from the word 'our' and go clockwise:
A mesostic poem is a bit like an acrostic, where a text is constructed around the letters of a word or phrase that the poem also describes. This example is by the artist Alec Findlay and was commissioned by the University of Edinburgh in 2009, with the letters indicated with dots spelling the phrase 'thair to reman' ("there to remain"), which was taken from the will of the first benefactor of the library itself.
Not all the text that you'll find in the city is poetry or art. Some of it just helpful, like this panel in the Grassmarket which describes the geological activity and interaction between volcanic rock and movement of glaciers which created the city's landscape itself, known as a 'crag and tail' formation:
Most of the text you'll find in the city are quotations on lintels of doorways - 'Blest be God for all his giftis' [sic] occurs fairly frequently - and dates of construction. These indicators are always worth looking out for, as they give a real sense of the city's history, and are a direct connection to the people who built and shaped the city over the years.
And some of the text you'll find is pure graffiti, which can often be amusing and insightful, so long as it isn't actively damaging the fabric of the city or detracting from the historic features.
This example continues to make me smile every time I walk past it! (Shoes: model's own.)
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Things may be looking up, but in Edinburgh you need to look down once in a while too! Not just to avoid tripping on the cobbles and the steps, but to seek out some of the smaller hidden gems and details that are set into the pavements and roadways around the city.
Here are a handful of things to look out - and down - for...
In Scots a makar is a poet, and on Lady Stair's Close in the Old Town you'll find numerous paving stones carved with text from a variety of Scottish writers. Appropriately it's the same lane where you'll find the Writers' Museum, celebrating the lives and works of Robert Burns, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson.
But take your time passing through the street itself, and check out the inspirational quotes at your feet, including this one from Stevenson himself: "There are no stars so lovely as Edinburgh street-lamps".
Keep your eyes peeled for Edinburgh's trams, running into the city centre from the airport. The new tram service opened just a few years ago, but Edinburgh had horse drawn trams from the nineteenth century, and electric ones in the twentieth century.
The original tram service was finally abandoned in the 1950s, and all the original tracks were ripped up and removed. All except one short section, left as a reminder (or possibly a warning!) to future generations... Look into the roadway at the end of Waterloo Place, near the Balmoral Hotel, for the sad reminder of the city's long-lost tram service.
The Holyrood Abbey provided sanctuary to those in debt, who would otherwise be at the mercy of Edinburgh's draconian legal system, which imposed heavily punishments for being unable to repay money that was owed. At one time the sanctuary had over 2,000 people in its care, and they were so well treated they were known as 'abbey lairds', or abbey lords...
The sanctuary itself wasn't a specific building but an entire area, within which the debtors had to stay if they wanted to remain protected from arrest, The boundary ran up to the summit or Arthur's Seat, and across the Royal Mile at Abbey Strand are a series of brass letters S's, marking a part of this original boundary line.
SCOTLAND IN A NUTSHELL
This one is a bit hard to read, both in the photo and in real life!
Look. What can you see?
I see beauty in the lochs.
I see majesty in mountains.
I see legend in rocks.
And it is ours.
These words are in front of the modern Scottish Parliament building, near the exit where visitors to the parliament make their way out, in a single granite paving stone. They are the words of Robert Adam - but not the classical architect who gave Edinburgh its classical style in the eighteenth century, but a 14-year-old school boy who won a competition to mark the official opening of the new parliament in 2005.
History is yet to demonstrate whether Adam becomes a great poet later in his life, but I rather love his short, simple, beautiful poem which seems to capture Scotland in a nutshell!
PHYSICS MADE PHYSICAL
On George Street in the New Town sits a statue of James Clerk Maxwell, a giant of physics whose pioneering investigations into the world around us yielded all kinds of results which continue to have importance today. Maxwell demonstrated that different colours of light travel at different frequencies, and paved the way for Einstein's general theory of relativity...
In the ground in front of his statue are the four equations which he said defined the physical universe. I can tell you nothing more than that - they're just numbers and squiggles to me! - although one group I had told me that in recent times Maxwell's four equations have been combined into one single statement which (apparently) comes pretty close to being a single unifying theory of the universe...
THE NEXT BIG THING
Walk across Bristo Square in the university district and you may not even notice the Old Town's largest piece of public art, commissioned by the university a few years ago.
The piece is called The Next Big Thing... is a Series of Little Things, and it's 1,600 brass dots set into the paving stones of the square, running across from the west to the east side, looking a little as though someone has dripped metallic paint across the space. The artist is Susan Collis, and her intention was that an piece of art which is almost invisible initially will become more visible with the passage of time, as people walking through the square unknowingly buff the brass dots to make them shiny... So if you don't see it now, come back in a few years when it should be more visible!
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Standing on the corner of Princes Street and the Mound in the New Town, a rather dapper looking figure stands looking down on the shoppers and passersby. This is Allan Ramsay, an Edinburgh man notable for establishing the world's first circulating library, and today remembered for his former home in the buildings which bear his name adjacent to Edinburgh Castle itself, Ramsay Garden.
Ramsay had been born in Lanarkshire in 1686, and by 1701 had settled in Edinburgh as an apprentice wig-maker. At the turn of the eighteenth century wigs were worn by men as a form of status symbol, elaborate constructions of human, goat or horse hair that often fell in ringlets below a man's shoulders, or were elevated to a significant height as a means of increasing their wearer's sense of physical stature. They were expensive products and were created by skilled craftsmen whose reputations rested on their ability to create ever newer and greater objects for their customers to display in public.
By 1712 Ramsay had become a well-known wig-maker of excellent reputation with premises on the High Street (today's Royal Mile) for the richest and most high status customers to buy.
His love of reading and literature saw Ramsay join the Easy Club, a cultural group established to celebrate traditional Scots writing just after the union with England in 1707, when many features of Scots culture were threatened with extinction. From this association Ramsay began writing, and by 1718 was a successful enough poet to turn his wig shop into a bookshop. Some people have credited Ramsay's early writing with being a major influence on the careers of Robert Fergusson, and later Robert Burns.
In time Ramsay's bookshop mutated into the world's first organised circulating library, a cultural hub for readers to borrow books, magazines and periodicals and take them away in order to peruse them at leisure, and then return them for other readers to enjoy.
The modern notion of a library providing such access free of charge is quite different from the original circulating library system, where members where charged an annual subscription fee in order to have access to the collections of materials available. The early function of such organisations was not primarily an educational one, as might be expected, but a capitalist one - to profit from those who had money to spend on such memberships.
In Edinburgh, the rise of the Enlightenment ideals and the city's relative affluence made Ramsay's library a roaring success, and he was able to spend time focusing on his own writing, penning not just poems but also dramas, his 1725 pastoral play The Gentle Shepherd being performed and celebrated as a work of theatre in his own lifetime.
Ramsay opened a theatre on Carubbers Close, off the High Street, which was opposed by the religious fervour of the Calvinists, and later forced to close. Ramsay railed against the dour principles of the Presbyterian church in some of his poems of this time.
In 1740 Ramsay retired to the house he had built for himself, still seen on the land immediately east of Edinburgh Castle - the cream and orange coloured building at the top of the Royal Mile is called Ramsay Garden, and the central structure - Ramsay's original home - was popularly known during his own lifetime as 'Goose Pie House' because of its octagonal shape.
Ramsay died in 1743 and in buried in the Greyfriars Kirkyard, where a memorial on the side of the church building celebrates his life. The statue of Ramsay on Princes Street was carved by John Steell, and ensures that Ramsay is still visibly commemorated in the city where he made most impact during his lifetime.
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Next week the King's Theatre in Edinburgh hosts a new touring production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, based on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella of man's divided personality.
First published in 1886, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (to give it its full title) fast became a popular staple of Gothic melodrama, and has since been adapted countless times into film, stage, comic book and TV versions, and has influenced many more.
Stevenson's story concerns the visionary scientist Dr Henry Jekyll, who discovers a potion that allows him to change into an alternative personality, the evil Mr Edward Hyde. It is believed the first draft of the book was written in the space of just a few days, after Stevenson dreamed the whole basis for the plot during a terrible (and possibly drug-induced) nightmare he experienced whilst living in Bournemouth, on the south coast of England.
The story is set in the dark and atmospheric streets of Victorian London, but it was Edinburgh who helped inspire Stevenson's writing, with one figure from the city's history who is alleged to have been the basis for the whole split personality concept.
Edinburgh's Deacon William Brodie was a member of the church, member of the city council, and a successful businessman, with his own cabinet making and locksmith business in the Old Town. However, he harboured a secret life wherein he masterminded robberies of wealthy families in the city, using his privileged position as a locksmith to gain their trust (as well as access to their homes).
After a bungled robbery on the city's customs house on Chessel's Court, Brodie fled Edinburgh to escape capture, only to be arrested in Amsterdam and brought back to Edinburgh to face trial.
He was found guilty in a sensational trial in the city, and sentenced to be hanged for his crimes. Legend has it that Brodie himself had helped to design the mechanism for a new gallows, featuring a trap door mechanism to ensure a faster, less painful death for those being hanged. It is considered a rare feat of poetic justice that Brodie was hanged on an gallows of his own construction...
Stevenson had certainly heard the story of William Brodie - he owned a writing desk and a cabinet made by the man himself - and must have utilised the notion of one man embodying two very different characters in his creation of Jekyll and Hyde. It is often said that Edinburgh itself inspired something of that split nature, being one city with two very different sides - a medieval, dark, dangerous Old Town, and a clean, bright, comfortable New Town. This 'split personality' of Edinburgh's city centre is still in evidence today.
'Jekyll and Hyde' became a classic shorthand for describing the duality of man's nature, the competing elements of good and evil within our psychologies, and the split personality trope is still a common feature in many horror stories. Even the name Brodie lives on - those who have watched the early series of TV drama Homeland may recognise that the central character's name is Marine Sergeant Nicholas Brody (spelled differently, but with the same split nature to his character).
We have Robert Louis Stevenson - and, by extension, Edinburgh - to thank for all that!
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On February 1 1918 Muriel Camberg was born here in Edinburgh. Coming into the world in the final year of the worst international conflict the world had yet seen, the future may not have looked especially good for young Muriel.
But Muriel Spark, as she became, is today rightly hailed as one of the UK's greatest literary icons, with her own place in the pantheon of great writers and artists who made Edinburgh their home.
Spark lived in the Bruntsfield area of the city as a child, and today this popular and bustling suburb is still a favourite for locals looking to escape the city centre. She was at school at James Gillespie's, still an active school with its buildings facing almost directly onto the open expanse of Bruntsfield Links. It was here she would meet one of her great inspirations, who would later lead to the creation of one of the most iconic figures in British literature. Gillespie's School, and a teacher named Christina Kay, would later find themselves represented in what is probably Spark's best known and most loved novella, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, Muriel married Sidney Spark, and they moved to Zimbabwe. By 1944, at the height of the conflict, Spark was back in London without Sidney, and spent the rest of the war working for the British government in intelligence.
After the war Spark's writing career developed, with her first novel published in 1957. She would become one of the foremost literary voices of her generation, with stories that defy easy categorisation. Spark's wit and humour shines through stories laden with political interest and social commentary, with a cast of characters that remain vivid today.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie was first published in 1961. Set at a girls' school in Edinburgh, the story follows a collection of schoolgirls under the tutelage of their waspish teacher, Jean Brodie. Seeking to give her girls the widest possible education, to encourage them to broaden their minds and their horizons, her fascism-favouring influence takes a dangerous edge as the girls get to grips with love and politics.
The story is set in and around Edinburgh, and the film of the story, released in 1969, with Maggie Smith winning an Oscar for her performance as the eponymous Miss Brodie, features Edinburgh in many of its location scenes. Bruntsfield, the Meadows, the Vennel, and Cramond all featuring in the film, along with Edinburgh Academy, which stood in for the Marcia Blaine School for Girls.
Spark went on to live in New York and then Rome for a time, and from the 1970s until her death lived in Tuscany. She died in 2006.
Over the course of her career, Spark garnered many awards and much recognition for her work. She was twice nominated for the Booker Prize, was given eight honorary doctorate degrees (including from her alma mater, Edinburgh's Heriot Watt University), was made a dame of the British Empire in 1993, and a Golden PEN award for Lifetime's Distinguished Service to Literature.
On the centenary of her birth, Spark's work remains vivid and startling for its combination of wit and social commentary, and she remains one of the most celebrated British authors of all time.
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