A Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in Scotland
8 minute read
The Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in the Cévennes is well known, but few are aware that there is another Robert Louis Stevenson Trail in Edinburgh - albeit somewhat shorter!
When Scotland was put under Tier 4 lockdown in December 2020, daily exercise was limited to our council area. However, we were fortunate that for us this included the whole city of Edinburgh and most of the Pentland Hills to the south, so we took the opportunity to explore the haunts of the writer’s childhood.
Robert Louis Stevenson in Edinburgh
Stevenson was born in the new town of Edinburgh in 1850, the only son in a family of eminent lighthouse engineers. He decided at an early age that he wanted to be a writer, and many of the places described in his books can be found as you walk around the city. In Brodie’s Close, off the Royal Mile, there is Deacon’s House Café, home of the notorious Deacon Brodie. A respectable businessman by day and a thief and murderer by night, Brodie became Stevenson’s inspiration for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Near the famous bridges over the Firth of Forth in South Queensferry you can still have a drink in the Hawes Inn, the setting of his novel Kidnapped. And although he died and is buried in the far-off Pacific island of Samoa, St Giles’ Cathedral in the city centre bears a large memorial relief in bronze, depicting him reclining with a quill-pen and a book.
But we were not just looking for places mentioned in his books: we were looking for a marked Robert Louis Stevenson Trail to complement the longer one in the Cévennes. And this is what we found on a wintry day in Colinton, five miles to the south of the city.
The RLS Trail from Colinton
In Colinton, a signpost clearly labelled “RLS Trail” led to the gateway of the church of St Cuthbert where there was a bronze statue of the young Stevenson, unveiled in 2013 by Ian Rankin, another famous Edinburgh novelist and a great admirer of Stevenson. The statue depicts him seated on a tree-trunk with a book on his knee, accompanied by his Skye terrier, with an inscription from his book Memories and Portraits below.
Stevenson frequently visited here on childhood holidays, for his maternal grandfather, Dr Lewis Balfour, had been minister of the church and lived in the neighbouring Manse. The times he spent playing with his cousins in the gardens of the Manse, and sailing paper boats on the nearby Water of Leith, provided inspiration for many of the poems in his “A Child’s Garden of Verses”. It is easy to imagine that the swing still hanging from the yew tree in the Manse gardens is the one in his poem “The Swing”, and that the nearby Water of Leith inspired his poem “Looking-glass River”. The trail continues from the statue with the sign “A Walk with Robert Louis Stevenson”, and has panels illustrating his poems.
Swanston and the Pentland Hills
Stevenson was eleven when his grandfather died, and holidays thereafter were spent in Swanston, at the foot of the Pentland Hills. His family rented Swanston Cottage, a large house with bow-fronted windows and well-kept gardens, near to the village green, which is still surrounded by the original thatched cottages. Stevenson clearly loved the tranquillity here, and spent his summers writing stories and poems, and wandering in the hills.
One of the hills he must have climbed many times is Allermuir, immediately above the village. This walk is described in Cicerone’s Walking in the Pentland Hills, by Susan Falconer, and is called “In Stevenson’s footsteps”. Once you climb above Swanston you enter wild, open country, and it is difficult to believe that you are so close to a busy city.
Herds of Highland cattle graze up here, and in the summer the hillsides are yellow with gorse. On a clear day there are spectacular views from the top as the whole of Edinburgh is spread before you, with Arthur’s Seat and the castle in the centre, and the Ochil hills and Ben Lomond across the Firth of Forth to the north.
Stevenson knew that in the 17th century these remote and inaccessible Pentland hills had been an ideal location for secret meetings of the Covenanters, strict Presbyterians who were persecuted for their religious beliefs. Many of them had met their deaths at the hands of the authorities, and Alison Cunningham, or “Cummy”, Stevenson’s nurse and lifelong confidant, had told him their stories and taken him to Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh to see their memorials.
One day, while walking up Black Law hill further west in the Pentlands, he had come across the tall headstone known as the Covenanter’s Grave. This marks the last resting place of a Covenanter mortally wounded at the Battle of Rullion Green in 1666. After their defeat by government forces, he had fled up into the hills, managing to reach the house of a shepherd, Adam Sanderson. Knowing he was close to death, he begged the shepherd to bury him within sight of the Ayrshire hills of his homeland. The story goes that Sanderson found his dead body the following morning and, at great risk to himself, buried him in this remote and beautiful spot, near the summit of Black Law hill.
The present gravestone was erected many years later, in 1841, and on a clear day you can indeed see as far as the Ayrshire hills. Starting at the village of West Linton, this is another walk described in Cicerone’s Walking in the Pentland Hills, entitled “Covenanters and Cairns”.
No doubt influenced by Cummy, Stevenson had a great deal of sympathy for the Covenanters, and his first printed work was a 16-page pamphlet, The Pentland Rising: A page of History, 1666. Written when he was only sixteen, this commemorated the 200th anniversary of the battle, and was a private publication of one thousand copies, paid for by his proud father.
From Scotland to the Cévennes
It was this fascination with the Covenanters in Scotland that in 1878 led Stevenson to the Cévennes, for here a similar Protestant sect, the Camisards, had also been persecuted for their beliefs. In the chapter on Pont de Montvert in his Travels with a Donkey, he even refers to them as “southern Covenanters”, and recounts in graphic detail how in 1702 a group of rebels rose up against their Catholic oppressor, the Abbé de Chayla. He had used his house next to the bridge over the River Tarn as a prison and torture-chamber, and the Camisards released the prisoners and then set fire to the house. They captured de Chayla when he jumped into the garden to escape the flames, and killed him with 52 stab wounds, one for each of their relatives who had suffered at his hands. This had started the War of the Camisards which resulted in reprisals similar to those against the Covenanters in Scotland, with hundreds of villages burnt, their inhabitants massacred.
The hump-backed bridge over the Tarn is still there, and it is not difficult to imagine Stevenson crossing it, accompanied by his small donkey Modestine, thinking about those killed for their beliefs in both countries. He sympathised with the Camisards as much as he did with the Covenanters, and before setting out on his travels had contemplated writing a novel based on their exploits – another novel, like his planned book on the Covenanters, that he never even started.
But what also attracted Stevenson to the Cévennes was his love of wild open spaces, which he had first found in the hills of his native Scotland. And so it was that after several summers spent exploring the Pentlands, he headed off to an equally wild, remote spot of bleak and windswept moorlands. Here, at the town of Monestier, he first met Modestine and embarked on his famous Travels with a Donkey, a trail now mapped out with an updated Cicerone guidebook, Trekking the Robert Louis Stevenson Trail, newly published earlier this year. The older Cicerone guidebook Walking in the Cévennes (currently out of print) also has walks relating to Stevenson and the Camisards, and will hopefully be completely revised at some point in the future.
When lockdown ends and borders open, we may finally be able to travel again to follow this, but meanwhile those in Scotland can explore the Edinburgh RLS Trail and the haunts of Stevenson’s youth.
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