Much comment is made today about this part of Edinburgh being home to a number of contemporary literary giants and we know that many locals take pride in this fact. The association of the area with ‘people of letters’ is obviously not new – in the previous century Dame Muriel Spark’s experiences at James Gillespie’s High School for Girls shaping her classic work the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie together with Owen and Sassoon (the ‘War Poets’) contributions to the Craiglockhart Military Hospital’s patients journal being prime examples.
Robert Louis Stevenson is an Edinburgh icon and the Edinburgh town and landscape inspired a great many of his great works. Stevenson was born in the New Town in 1850 but as a child was to spend a great deal of time at his maternal grandparents home at Colinton Manse – his adventures playing with his cousins in its garden later to inspire work such as a Child’s Garden of Verses and the Manse. Trips to Colinton, a separate village at that time, may well have fostered his obvious love of the Pentland Hills. His links with the area were further established when his family took a country cottage at Swanston for many years – perhaps as an attempt to escape Auld Reekie to fresher air to relieve their sickly son’s chest condition.
The road from Edinburgh to Swanston, up along Fly Walk and Cockmylane path, and on to the beautiful hills beyond served Stevenson’s quests to travel and to write. One of his first published works was an account of the Covenanters rebellion known as the Pentland Rising, which ended in grisly defeat at the Battle of Rullion Green in 1666. (The battle is commemorated by the grand monument still situated at Dreghorn). References of views to and fom the Pentlands were frequently to be woven into his later essays, short stories and books throughout his career.
Stevenson traveled greatly in his relatively short life – across Scotland, England, France and further afield in Europe and then onto his great journeys to California, the Pacific and his ultimate resting place at Apia in the Samoan Islands. Such was the intensity of his memories of Edinburgh that even on these distant travels he produced work most vividly associated with the town – such as Deacon Brodie, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the unfinished Weir of Hermiston. One of his final poems penned in the Pacific was indeed entitled Auld Reekie from which these words are taken:
‘I gang nae mair where ance I gaed,
By Brunston, Fairmileheid, or Braid;
But far frae Kirk and Tron.
O still ay ont the muckle sea,
Still are ye dear, and dear to me,
Auld Reekie, still and on!’