Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson

Just over a year ago, I took a trip north with my Aged Parent; our road (or, rather, train) trip was to revisit the city of our birth, the very beautiful and atmospheric Edinburgh. My mum had been back more recently; I hadn’t visited for decades; and it was an emotional visit for both of us.

However, one thing I wanted to do while up there was to connect with the cultural aspects of the city, and in particular her famous son, Robert Louis Stevenson. It took a while, but I eventually tracked him down via the Writers’ Museum, just off the Royal Mile, as well as passing by his childhood home in Heriot Row. I came back with a collection of his poems, which I dip into regularly; and of course I’ve followed his journeys through the mountains of France with a hapless donkey… However, a browse online earlier this year reminded me that I wanted to read his little book about our home city, “Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes“, although getting a nice edition was not quite as straightforward as you might expect – more of which later…

… for after a hospital, what uglier place is there in civilisation than a court of law?

Anyway. RLS’s book was published in 1878 and was actually his second work to make it into print. Drawn from a series of essays, it takes a look at the city of Edinburgh and although described as a paean, RLS is not always complimentary about the place – which actually makes entertaining reading! There are ten chapters, focusing on different aspects, and RLS delves into the history and legends of the city, the famous characters who’ve passed through, the customs of the people – and of course, the weather, which is a recurring issue… When ruminating on the effects the climate has on the populace, driving them to either hearth or drinking establishment, RLS is very funny:

To none but those who have themselves suffered the thing in the body, can the gloom and depression of our Edinburgh winter be brought home. For some constitutions there is something almost physically disgusting in the bleak ugliness of easterly weather; the wind wearies, the sickly sky depresses them; and they turn back from their walk to avoid the aspect of the unrefulgent sun going down among perturbed and pallid mists. The days are so short that a man does much of his business, and certainly all his pleasure, by the haggard glare of gas lamps. The roads are as heavy as a fallow. People go by, so drenched and draggle-tailed that I have often wondered how they found the heart to undress. And meantime the wind whistles through the town as if it were an open meadow; and if you lie awake all night, you hear it shrieking and raving overhead with a noise of shipwrecks and of falling houses. In a word, life is so unsightly that there are times when the heart turns sick in a man’s inside; and the look of a tavern, or the thought of the warm, fire-lit study, is like the touch of land to one who has been long struggling with the seas.

Stevenson was only 28 when this book was published, but he’d already started to display the restlessness that would lead him to travel for the latter part of his life. It’s clear that he had a complex relationship with Edinburgh, and his continuing ill-health must have had a lot to do with this (hence the constant grumbling about the weather!) He can be forgiven for being snarky about that, after all, and he obviously still had a great affection for the place which does show through. His writing about Edinburgh is often lyrical, he knows its history well and is happy to share to share stories and opinions on the city, the Scots and their habits. I had to laugh at his asides about the horrors of eating Black Bun, and his pithy commentary on the gruesome architecture of Scottish churches and graveyards was a joy.

Setting aside the tombs of Roubiliac, which belong to the heroic order of graveyard art, we Scotch stand, to my fancy, highest among nations in the matter of grimly illustrating death. We seem to love for their own sake the emblems of time and the great change; and even around country churches you will find a wonderful exhibition of skulls, and crossbones, and noseless angels, and trumpets pealing for the Judgment Day. Every mason was a pedestrian Holbein: he had a deep consciousness of death, and loved to put its terrors pithily before the churchyard loiterer; he was brimful of rough hints upon mortality, and any dead farmer was seized upon to be a text.

And yet, he’s always a thoughtful observer. He’s realistic about the hardness of life in the Old Town, and even-handed in his discussion of the New Town. It’s worth remembering that the building of the New Town, a long and complex process, was only really completed around the time of Stevenson’s birth, and Princes Street, with its Gardens constructed on the bed of the drained Nor’ Loch, was still a shiny new thing. Stevenson was therefore writing about relatively recent changes to the city, which had not always been popular, and it’s fascinating to read his take on it.

View of the Pentland Hills – cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Anthony O’Neil – geograph.org.uk/p/5835135

However, it was the final chapter, “To the Pentland Hills”, that spoke to me most personally. The southern edge of Edinburgh is bordered by that range, and I grew up in a house overlooked by them. When we returned to it last year, mum and I stood and studied them, and she recalled looking out of our home’s window at the hills all those years ago. Maybe that’s why I’m so fond of hills and mountains to this day… The area we lived in was the Colinton Mains one, and that of course is a very recent development – in fact, mum revealed to me that my great-uncle’s building firm constructed the house we lived in, which she had lived in with my nana, so I learned a new bit of family history. Anyway, in Stevenson’s time the area was of course undeveloped country, but the following passage caught my eye:

The district is dear to the superstitious. Hard by, at the back-gate of Comiston, a belated carter beheld a lady in white, ‘with the most beautiful, clear shoes upon her feet,’ who looked upon him in a very ghastly manner and then vanished; and just in front is the Hunters’ Tryst, once a roadside inn, and not so long ago haunted by the devil in person. Satan led the inhabitants a pitiful existence. He shook the four corners of the building with lamentable outcries, beat at the doors and windows, overthrew crockery in the dead hours of the morning, and danced unholy dances on the roof. Every kind of spiritual disinfectant was put in requisition; chosen ministers were summoned out of Edinburgh and prayed by the hour; pious neighbours sat up all night making a noise of psalmody; but Satan minded them no more than the wind about the hill-tops; and it was only after years of persecution, that he left the Hunters’ Tryst in peace to occupy himself with the remainder of mankind.

We got about by bus while in Edinburgh (the Lothian Bus app is amazing!) and frequently jumped aboard conveyances with “Hunters’ Tryst” on the front (the number 27 – our favourite one!). I checked out Wikipedia and the inn is still there and in use – so that was a lovely little case of synchronicity and I felt rather happy about discovering another connection with RLS.

Edinburgh Castle from the illustrated Seeley edition

This post seems to be drifting off in a weirdly autobiographical direction, which wasn’t quite what I intended. However, it was inevitable that I’d have a deeply personal response to this book, and I loved following Stevenson round my home city while he shared his thoughts on it. It’s a wonderful city and what a marvellous writer he really was!

*****

As a coda, I do feel I need to have a word about editions! When I decided I wanted to read this book, I did a bit of an online search as I couldn’t find anything in a bricks and mortar shop. As I’ve grumbled about before, if you go on Amazon there are all sorts of odd and nasty-looking editions; if a book is old and out of copyright, I guess people think they can produce random copies all over the place, and there’s no real guide to what they’re like. But I could see no decent, modern edition, so I turned to the rather wonderful Robert Louis Stevenson Club (who can be found here) and dropped them a message asking for advice.

The cover of the illustrated Seeley edition

Their very helpful Duncan Milne confirmed that there was no decent modern volume, so I followed his suggestion of picking up a pretty second-hand one. He recommended the Seeley edition of 1903; mine is actually from 1910 and alas lacks the illustrations. However, archive.org to the rescue with a scan of the 1903 Seeley complete with lovely engravings and etchings! So I had the pleasure of reading a pretty vintage edition obtained at a Very Reasonable Price, and looking at the illustrations I’d found online. Which just goes to show it’s worth researching a bit to find a nice copy which makes the reading experience so much better!