Our seventh literary tour took us from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery via Drummond Place to Scotland Street – we didn’t pass no 44 – and the northern entrance of the long blocked Scotland Street Tunnel. We headed westwards along Eyre Place to Henderson Row, and beginning our ascent in the lengthy shadows of St Stephens’s Church, climbed to Heriot Row and Castle Street. This horse shoe walk took us almost as far as the Assembly Rooms, where we shall meet next Monday.
From SNPG to Scotland Street:
In Picturesque Notes (1878), Robert Louis Stevenson, expresses his views on the New Town of Edinburgh very plainly, He was after all, a man, pre-eminently, of the hills and sea. By the time of Stevenson’s birth, in 1850, James Craig’s original New Town had mushroomed. The construction of a northern new town, planned by Reid and Sibbald, had begun in about 1813. with its first houses appearing in Heriot Row. By 1824, William Burn had built a new classical academy on its northern perimeter, a school to rival the High School, and a few years later William Playfair’s St Stephen’s Church opened at the foot of Howe Street. For Stevenson, the New Town was inward looking. He couldn’t contain his displeasure at the expense of its “town bird” creator:
It cannot be denied that the original design was faulty and short sighted, and did not fully profit by the capabilities of the situation. The architect was essentially a town bird. And he laid out the modern city with a view to street scenery, and to street scenery alone. The country did not enter into his plan; he had never lifted his eyes unto the hills. If he had so chosen, every street upon the northern slope might have been a noble terrace and commanded an extensive and beautiful view…
Drummond Place, at the eastern end of Great King Street, mirrored St Andrew Square and George Street to the south. In more recent times, it was the home of Sir Compton Mackenzie and the poet and “wit” Sydney Goodsir- Smith. Mackenzie lived at no 31 Drummond Place. Before their marriage, his then sister in law, later his third wife, Lily, ran a hairdressing saloon from the basement of the house.
Although expressing his dismay at the “draughty parallelograms” of the New Town, the young Stevenson, sought out its green places, its nooks and corners, with eagerness:
But the effect of not one of them will compare with the discoverer’s joy, and the sense of old Time and his slow changes on the face of this earth, with which I explored such corners as Canonmills or water Lane, or the nugget of cottages at Broughton Market. They were far more rural than the open country, and gave a greater impression of antiquity than the oldest land upon the High Street…
Stevenson, RL: Edinburgh Picturesque Notes, Chapter 6, “Town and Country”, 1878
Youngson, AJ: The Making of Classical Edinburgh, Edinburgh, 1975
As a sickly child, Stevenson was captivated by the excitement of rail travel. The “subterranean passage” of Scotland Street tunnel, emerging immediately beneath Drummond Place, was a place of profound excitement
The sight of the Scotland Street Station, the sight of the trains shooting out of its dark maw with the two guards upon the brake, the thought of its length and the many ponderous edifices and open thoroughfares above, were certainly things of paramount impressiveness to a young mind. It was a subterranean passage, although of a larger bore than we were accustomed to in Ainsworth’s novels; and these two words, “subterranean passage”, were in themselves an irresistible attraction, and seemed to bring us nearer in spirit in to the heroes we loved and the black rascals we secretly aspired to imitate…
From a Railway Carriage Window
Faster than Fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and Houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and the cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by
Child’s Garden of Verses, XXXVII published 1885
In July 1865, at the instigation of businessman and philanthropist, John Cox, of Gorgie House,the former site of Canonmills Loch was transformed into the Royal Patent Gymnasium. Attractions included a giant see-saw with a leverage of 50 feet.
RLS attended the Edinburgh Academy from 1861-1863 where he was taught by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, the “master” referred to in “Poem for a Class Re-union”. In a letter written in January 1875, he recalls attending an annual dinner of Academy schoolfellows and describes how he read verses to his old school friends: It is great fun: I always read verses, and in the vinous moment they always propose to have then printed…
Poem for a Class Re-Union:
There’s a sort of bond in the fact
That we all by one master were taught,
By one master were bullied and whach’t.
And now all the more, when we see
Our class in so shrunken a state
And we, who were seventy-two,
Diminished to seven or eight….
RLS also celebrated the Thompson class re-union in Their Laureate to an Academy Class Dinner Club, a poem which he wrote in the Scots tongue.
The Stevenson family home was at 17 Heriot Row. There are echoes of Heriot Row, transferred to Randolph Crescent in Stevenson’s semi auto-autobiographical short story, the Misadventures of John Nicholson.
Windy Nights, IX, Child’s Garden of Verses
The Lamplighter, XXX, Child’s Garden of Verses
The Land of Counterpane, XVI, Child’s Garden of Verses
The Land of Nod
From breakfast on through all the day
At home among my friends I stay;
But every night I go abroad
Afar into the land of Nod….
Child’s Garden of Verses, XXXVII
Collected Poems of RLS, A Child’s Garden of Verses, edited Janet Adam Smith, London 1971
For Stevenson’s more bohemian, rebellious view of Edinburgh, read
My brain swims empty and light:
,..I walk the streets smoking my pipe
And I love the dallying shop girl
That leans with rounded stern to look at the fashions;
And I hate the bustling citizen,
The eager and hurrying man of affairs I hate,
Because he bears his intolerance writ on his face
And every movement and word of him tells me how much he hate me.
I love the night in the city,
The lighted streets and the swinging gaits of harlots.
I love cool pale morning,
In the empty bye-streets,
With only here and there a female figure,
A slavey with lifted dress and the key in her hand,
A girl or two at play at a corner of waste land
Tumbling and showing their legs and crying out to me loosely.
Poems 1869-1879,XXIV, Collected Poems of RLS, edited Janet Adam Smith, London 1971
Until his bankruptcy in 1826, Sir Walter Scott resided at 39 North Castle Street. There was a sedan chair rank, further up the hill, at the junction with George Street. In his novel, Waverley, expressing admiration at the strength of Fergus MacIvor’s Highland followers (as they lift and transport an injured Edward Waverley from the scene of a stag hunt), Scott remarks that it was not improbable that they may have been the ancestors of some of those sturdy Gael who now have the happiness to transport the belles of Edinburgh in their sedan chairs, to ten routes in one evening (Sir Walter Scott, Waverley, Vol.II, Chapter 1)