Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson – an enchanting, personal memoir exploring the city’s culture and heritage.
“Stevenson’s writing strikes the twenty-first century ear as still being fresh and intensely readable … we are in the company of an agreeable and relaxed guide giving us an anecdotal run-down on Edinburgh over a cup of coffee or lunch.”
Alexander McCall Smith
Novelist, poet and travel writer, Robert Louis Stevenson first published Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes in 1878, (revised 1889). This attractive new edition has been published by Manderley Press, a new indie publisher founded by Rebeka Russell, focusing on forgotten or out-of-print books which feature a memorable house, place or landmark. The books will be small hardbacks, quarter-bound in cloth and printed on high quality paper. Cover artwork will be available to buy as prints.
“I have always loved books, art, travel and old houses, so when lockdown happened, I decided the time was perfect to set up Manderley Press. Armchair travel and literary escapism had never seemed so important!” Rebeka Russell
Most appropriately, the name ‘Manderley’ is taken from the classic romantic novel, ‘Rebecca.’ “I could swear that the house was not an empty shell but lived and breathed as it had lived before.” Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca.
The first book selected for the Manderley Collection is ‘Edinburgh’ featuring decorative artwork by Iain McIntosh (as shown here on the front cover), with a marvellous Introduction by Alexander McCall Smith, who is renowned for his popular and most amusing novels set in the city (44 Scotland Street, Isabel Dalhousie).
McCall Smith begins with succinct biographical background explaining that having studied engineering (to join his family clan of lighthouse designers) and then law, RLS wisely followed his literary vocation as an excellent storyteller.
‘Stevenson found Edinburgh such a rich source of inspiration for his writing. This is a walk through parts of the city that have survived to this day as they were during his lifetime.
If we were to stroll down Heriot Row with him today, there would be no surprises for him when we reached No. 17, although he might not have expected a plaque.’
RLS moved here with his family in 1857 when he was seven. From the nursery window, he loved to watch the lamplighter, the Leerie, switch on the gas lamps every evening.
McCall Smith describes how much the city inspired him from his childhood, frequently ill in his bedroom, looking out over Queen Street Gardens. As young man he explored the streets, taverns, monuments, rivers and hills, fascinated by ancient history, legendary myths and cultural heritage.
“It is at times a prose poem. It is a stream of conscious memoir about living in a town so gorgeously romantic it could be an opera set; it is a love song to a city.”
This personal Memoir is divided into ten chapters, taking the reader on a journey to Stevenson’s favourite haunts as well as describing seasonal weather and festivities. RLS appreciates how the magic of Edinburgh gets under your skin – “ the place establishes an interest in people’s hearts; go where they will they find no city of the same distinction.’
‘What a clashing of architecture! Greek temples, Venetian palaces and gothic spires are huddled one over the another.. the Castle and the summit of Arthur’s Seat look down with a becoming dignity.‘
This is a city set up on a hill, he explains, dominated by the Castle with its open view to sea and land.
Tourists love to stroll down the Royal Mile from the Castle to the Palace of Holryroodhouse as did Stevenson to see St. Giles Cathedral, Parliament Close and the High Court spotting “ an advocate in wig and gown and a tide of lawyers.” (just as you will see today).
He is especially shocked by the social inequality between the overcrowded tenements, families living in a ‘huge human beehive’ in the Medieval Old Town, in contrast to the wealthy citizens in their grand houses on Heriot Row and Moray Place et al. around the Georgian-Victorian New Town.
Chapter Four is Legends, illustrated with a drawing of a man in a blindfold and bow tie with a hangman’s noose in the background – Deacon Brodie, a respected city councillor and cabinet maker by day but a thief by night – whose secret double life sparked the novel, ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’.
Edinburgh may be haunted by ghostly tales of grave diggers and murder but this is a “city of churches .. a clamour of bells upon the Sabbath morning in one swelling, brutal babblement of noise”. Babblement! – Stevenson’s rich language is inventive and colourfully poetic.
RLS was inspired by the stone carved tombs of the moody, gothic Greyfriars Kirkyard. More than a century later, J. K. Rowling followed in his footsteps to borrow a few names on the gravestones – Potter, Riddell, Scrimgeour, McGonagall, – now resurrected as her famous fictional characters.
The symmetrical grand design of the New Town features spacious crescents, round circuses, and private gardens. This sounds like the writer is standing on the corner of Heriot Row and the steep hill of Dundas Street with a view of Fife: “It is surprising to see a perspective of a mile or more of falling street and beyond that woods, villas, a blue arm of sea and the hills upon the further side.”
RLS takes a walk to the Dean Bridge over the Water of Leith where “carriages go spinning by and ladies with card cases pass to and fro about the duties of society” (elegant 19th century ladies who lunch!).
He recalls outdoor adventures as a schoolboy with a love of nature: “many an escalade of garden walls, a ramble among lilacs .. when the Spring comes round, the hawthorn begins to flower and the meadows smell of young grass”.
Calton Hill has hardly changed since Stevenson’s day with the Athens of the North ‘Parthenon’, Lord Nelson’s monument and Observatory. “Of all places for a view, Calton Hill is the best, since you can see the Castle, Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Palace, Princes Street, Leith, the Firth. It is the place to stroll on one of those days of sunshine.”
In the chapter, Winter and New Year, RLS embraces the Scotch dialect to describe the cold wind – “snell, blae and scowthering, words which carry a shiver with them.” But there’s nothing cosier than an old pub, “the warm atmosphere of tavern parlours and the revelery of lawyers’ clerks.”
He finds a painterly beauty in the winter chill. “We enjoy superb sunsets, the profile of the city stamped in indigo upon a sky of luminous green.”
The New Year festive season in Edinburgh is listed in the book, ‘1,000 Places to See before you Die,’ attracting thousands of global visitors to join in the Hogmanay Street Party with music and fireworks.
For RLS too, it was “the great national festival, a time of deep carousel, musicians, whisky and shortbread, singing Auld Lang Syne”.
He remembers student days at Edinburgh University enjoying “heroic snowballing – skating and sliding on Duddingston Loch – reminiscent of the iconic painting of Reverend Robert Walker by Henry Raeburn (c.1795).
While he is fond of the city streets and sociable lifestyle, he would often escape to the rural tranquility of the Pentlands, Fairmilehead for a walk beside rivers and rolling hills, “a bouquet of old trees, a white farmhouse, the bleating of flocks… a field of wild heathery peaks”.
After many journeys far and wide, Robert Louis Stevenson left his family home in 1887 for the last time, sailed to New York, toured America and from San Francisco he and his wife Fanny chartered a schooner to cruise the South Seas. In 1890 they settled on the island of Upolo where he adopted the Samoan name, Tusitala, the Teller of Tales.
Stevenson would never forget his emotional attachment to the city of his birth, as he wrote in this memoir of Picturesque Notes.
“ There is no Edinburgh emigrant, far or near, from China to Peru, but he or she carries some lively pictures of the mind, some sunset behind the Castle cliffs, some snow scene, some maze of city lamps, indelible in the memory.”
Note: I would like to suggest that a decorative ribbon bookmark would enhance the design and the leisurely experience of reading these classic books by Manderley Press.
The addition of photographs and imagery in this feature are to offer background information and colourful illustration only.