If the literary walking group had enjoyed an eleventh literary outing, it would have been to walk up river from Slateford to Colinton through Craiglochart and Colinton Dell. Had they done so, they would have walked through a glorious wooded valley, one of Edinburgh’s “hidden gems”, and visited the newly unveiled statute of RLS, standing outside the gates of Colinton Kirk.
As a boy, Stevenson often visited Colinton where his mother’s father, the Rev Balfour, a man born in the 18th century, was minister. Mid nineteenth century Colinton was still, in some respects, a hill village, but the Water of Leith, which flowed through the Dell, was home to relentless industrial activity. Historically, a succession of mills – flour mills, snuff mills – had been built along its banks, from Balerno to the sea. In the 1840s, a chain of reservoirs had been constructed in the Pentland Hills to satisfy the drinking needs of a growing urban population, and “compensation reservoirs” were built at Bavelaw and Harlaw to ensure that the Water of Leith didn’t run dry. From the garden of the manse, Stevenson’s favourite view of the river was through a water door embowered in shrubbery:
The river is there dammed back for the service of the flour mill just below, so that it dies lies deep and darkling, and the sand slopes into brown obscurity with a glint of gold; and it has but newly been recruited by the borrowings of the snuff mill just above, and these, tumbling merrily in, shake the pool to its black heart, fill it with drowsy eddies, and set the curded froth of many other mills solemnly steering to and from upon the surface.
The Manse: Memories and Portraits
Over the borders, a sin without pardon,
Breaking the branches and crawling below,
Out through the breach in the wall of the garden,
Down by the banks of the river, we go.
Here is the mill with the humming of thunder,
Here is the sluice with the race running under –
Marvellous places, though handy to home!
Sounds of the village grown stiller and stiller,
Stiller the note of the birds on the hill;
Dusty and dim and are the eyes of the miller,
Deaf are his ears with the moil of the mill.
A Child’s Garden of Verses (XXIV)
Dark Brown is the river,
Golden is the sand.
It flows along for ever,
With trees on either hand.
Castles of the foam,
Boats of mine a-boating-
Where will all come home?
On goes the river
And out past the mill,
Away down the valley,
Away down the river,
A hundred miles or more,
Other little children
Shall bring my boats ashore.
A Child’s Garden of Verses (XIV)
Yesterday, I couldn’t help feeling – and the literary walking group, had they been with me, perhaps might have agreed – that the day had the feeling of the last Sunday of autumn, so I decided to catch a bus from the centre of the city and walk up river from Slateford to Colinton Kirk. I began my walk immediately opposite the Water of Leith information centre along the path that threads behind the Tickled Trout. On the opposite bank of the river, I had good views of the walled gardens at Redhall. There was frost in the glen, otherwise golden. Up river, I noticed the remains of a mill race and a massive weir. At Colinton, I encountered the statue of Stevenson at the kirkyard gate. On the wall behind, an official notice told me of a Stevenson walk. I couldn’t help wondering what RLS would have made of all this -the sickling child who dreamed from an invalid’s bed, the vagabond who loved the freedom of the open road, the man who, above all, occupied the world of the imagination. Would he, I wondered, be puzzled by a life explained, and a carefully delineated Stevenson route?
- Stevenson, RL, Memories and Portraits, 1887
- Adam Smith, Janet (Ed), Stevenson, Collected Poems, 1971