Up in Edinburgh recently, I had a walk around the Old Town and, after enjoying the view from Castle Rock and checking out St Giles’ Cathedral, I chanced upon the Writers’ Museum, located in a courtyard just off the Royal Mile.
Well, seeing as I occasionally volunteer at Dr Johnson’s House down in London (and had just chanced upon a pub close to the castle which has a plaque outside saying that Samuel Johnson had dined there with James Boswell in 1770), I had to go in and have a look around. The building itself is called Lady Stair’s House and dates back to 1622 (as can be deduced from that year being carved onto the lintel over the front door) although it’s named after a woman – the widow of the Earl of Stair – who bought it in 1719. Having restored it in the late nineteenth century, Lord Rosebery (briefly Prime Minister in the 1890s; Winston Churchill later quipped that he “outlived his future by ten years and his past by more than twenty”) donated it to the city of Edinburgh for use as a museum in 1907.
The museum is a delightful building whose three floors (accessed by two staircases, one a spiral and the other, main one having uneven stairs – an old anti-burglar trick) are devoted to three of Scotland’s most famous writers (two of whom were born in Edinburgh): Robert Burns (1759-96), Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894).
Burns, now regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, collected old folk songs from across Scotland (something that was being done by various writers across Europe at the time) as well as writing his own material, which includes ‘Auld Lang Syne’, ‘Address to a Haggis’ (as recited after the haggis is piped in at a Burns Night dinner) and that poem in which he says that the “best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” do something in the Scots dialect that I can’t pronounce although I do know that it translates as ‘often go wrong’. The artefacts of his in the museum include a cast of his skull (made when his widow, who outlived him by 38 years, was laid to rest alongside him) and a sword-stick – a slim sword concealed in a walking-stick, which he had because he worked as an exciseman as well as being a writer.
I’d already seen the Scott Monument on Princes Street, a large Gothic tower that I was not surprised to learn is the largest monument to a writer anywhere in the world (it is not far from Waverley Station, Edinburgh’s mainline railway station which I suspect is the only train station in the world that’s named after a novel). The museum has Scott-related items of a more personal nature, such as his childhood rocking-horse (with one foot-hold higher than the other, for he suffered from polio as a child) and a lock of his hair. I’ve often thought that Scott – who met Burns when he was 15 – is one of those writers I should read more of – I’ve only read two of his books; Ivanhoe many years ago, after watching a TV adaptation of it, while a couple of years back I made heavy work of Waverley. Scott, I was intrigued to learn, was made a baronet not for his writing but for finding the Scottish crown jewels (which hadn’t been used since the seventeenth century and were thought to have been lost), and he was also the man who co-ordinated George IV’s visit to Edinbugh in 1822, a spectacular affair that did much to establish tartan as a potent symbol of Scottish identity (it had previously been banned in the wake of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745) and only took three weeks to plan.
The part dedicated to Stevenson is in the basement. This contains a wooden cupboard, once owned by Stevenson’s father, that was made by no less a person than William Brodie, better known as Deacon Brodie, a notorious eighteenth-century public figure in Edinburgh; a respectable cabinet-maker, locksmith and city councillor by day (he had the title ‘deacon’ not out of anything to do with religion but because he was head of a trade guild), he was also a thief and a burglar (many of his victims being people who he had made locks for!) by night. The pub named after him on the Royal Mile, not far from where he was hanged in 1788, plays on this dichotomy by showing both sides of his personality on either side of the sign. Amost a century later, Deacon Brodie would serve as the main inspiration for Stevenson’s novella Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. There’s also some interesting information about Treasure Island (he came up with the map first, and worked the story around that). Although his literary reputation did for a time suffer at the hand of those snobs of the Bloomsbury Set, Stevenson’s legacy has been enormous – just think of how many stories derive from those two that I’ve mentioned! As for me, I’ve always meant to read some of his travel writing but, as with more Scott, it’s just something I don’t seem to have got around to.
There were some pictures of other Scottish writers on the walls; I was pleased to find a photograph of John Buchan, although the most impressive picture was the tapestry depiction of Burns, Scott and Stevenson.
Finally, there’s currently an exhibition at the Writers’ Museum devoted to a modern Scottish writer – Ian Rankin, for 2017 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Rebus books, the Edinburgh detective having made his first appearance in 1987’s Knots and Crosses. Rankin wrote that after having the idea of updating Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde into then-modern Edinburgh, which is why the reader is for a time led to suspect that the troubled detective is also the villain of the piece (and he could easily have been, for at the time Rankin had no plans to bring him back for more). I like the Rebus novels, to the extent that I made a point of seeking out the Oxford Bar when I was in Edinburgh last year, so I loved that there was an exhibition devoted to them at the museum.