It had been raining​ and the scent of jasmine hung over Moray Place. Most of the windows were dark and a notion of privacy seemed embedded in the stone. It must have been close to half past ten, because there was a sudden burst of fireworks over Edinburgh Castle – a nightly feast in August as the military tattoo concludes its parade. In his boyhood, Robert Louis Stevenson would sometimes be surprised while walking in the New Town to ‘see a perspective of a mile or more of falling street, and beyond that woods and villas, and a blue arm of sea, and the hills upon the further side’. I stopped at the corner of Howe Street and Heriot Row, where you are bound to feel the press of Stevenson’s young mind, for these are his ‘sleepy quarters’, his world of oil-lamps and dark coasts.

He lived at 17 Heriot Row, five floors of grey Georgian elegance facing the Queen Street Gardens, the dell of A Child’s Garden of Verses. Stevenson would dedicate that book to his nurse, Alison Cunningham, or Cummie, ‘the angel of my infant life’, whose ‘comfortable hand … led me through the uneven land’. To come from a family of lighthouse builders is perhaps to be recruited early to the cause of illumination and to fears of the dark, and we find the rudiments of Stevenson’s style in both, drawing on that special mix he found in his own father, ‘a blended sternness and softness that was wholly Scottish’. Thomas Stevenson was a curious but morbid man for whom darkness most immediately suggested the fiery regions of hell.

His only son suffered from a terrible cough – ‘I love my native air, but it does not love me,’ Louis wrote – and could often be found, at an early age, sitting up in bed wrapped in a shawl, crooning what he called his ‘songstries’ – prayers in blank verse. Before he’d seen the world, or even much of Edinburgh, he kept to his bed and painted in watercolours, or in words, the things in his mind. ‘Mamma,’ he is supposed to have said, ‘I have drawn a man. Shall I draw his soul now?’ The Presbyterian muse was never far from any nursery run by Alison Cunningham. A previous charge of hers, Walter Blaikie, recalled playing with the small RLS, the peely-wally sprite of Heriot Row. ‘Louis was particularly fond of anything dramatic,’ Blaikie wrote, ‘and his favourite game in our nursery was to play at church after the Scottish fashion. One child was minister and stood on a chair-made platform [and] Louis, who was fond of declamation, was generally the minister. Clad in some form of black drapery (probably Alison’s cloak) he would preach vigorously.’ (He also loved a game called mesmerism, in which he took the part of the victim.) Cummie almost certainly provoked the terrors that only she could soothe, but Louis was addicted like a Covenanter to her hellfire images, and without her care felt that he might have died in Heriot Row. ‘How well I remember her lifting me out of bed,’ he told his cousin Graham Balfour, ‘carrying me to the window, and showing me one or two lit windows up in Queen Street across the dark belt of gardens; where also, we told each other, there might be sick little boys and their nurses waiting, like us, for the morning.’

In Night Terrors: Troubled Sleep and the Stories We Tell about It, Alice Vernon argues the case for an entanglement between the nightmares we are bound to have and the stories we wish to relate:*

Dreams were sources of inspiration, the very foundations of fiction. But fiction could in turn provoke strange dreams, and thus the cycle continued. Robert Macnish, in The Philosophy of Sleep (1830), warned against the dangers of reading spooky stories before bed. ‘If, for instance,’ he says, ‘we have been engaged in the perusal of such works as The Monk, The Mysteries of Udolpho, or Satan’s Invisible World Discovered; and if an attack of nightmare should supervene, it will be aggravated into sevenfold horror by the spectral phantoms with which our minds have been thereby filled. We will enter into all the fearful mysteries of these writings, which, instead of being mitigated by slumber, acquire an intensity which they never could have possessed in the waking state.’

In his small bedroom, Louis was haunted by a peculiar shade of brown, ‘something like that of sealskin’, and his dream-nature became part of his talent (he called these creative nightmares his ‘Brownies’). Night terrors of intimate brutality might be expected to hasten a delicate literary style, but in RLS’s case the transit of phantasmagoria to a bold, sunny impressionism is startling. In ‘A Chapter on Dreams’, he described the process by which his Brownies became with time more ‘circumstantial, and had more the air and continuity of life’. He continues in the third person: ‘The look of the world beginning to take hold on his attention, scenery came to play a part in his sleeping as well as in his waking thoughts, so that he would take long, uneventful journeys and see strange towns and beautiful places as he lay in bed.’ He began to dream in sequence, ‘and thus to lead a double life – one of the day, one of the night – one that he had every reason to believe was the true one, another that he had no means of proving to be false.’

Time passes more intensely in dreams. It is an RLS hallmark, the quicksilver evolution of thought and the fabular turn, the victory of original perception. He was born with what he later called an ‘internal theatre’, a mode of production that serves to make the dramas of the mind visible. Stevenson’s work, almost alone among the Symbolists and first-rate prose writers of his day, seemed to involve a transfer of the spirit, imbuing the workaday world with fantastical energies and dimensions. His family would find Louis at his bedroom window at night, sending his imagination across the gardens like a beam from one of the family lighthouses, waiting for morning as the engineers must often have waited for calm. The boy was caught between the waking and the dreaming state; he yearned for the sleep he also dreaded, wherein the ‘horror of infinite distance and infinite littleness’ concertinaed through the landscape of his imagination.

Freud was six years younger than Stevenson, and there’s a glint of the unconscious in RLS’s prose, a hint of decay in the flower-scented tea, a touch of evil in the picturesque, that makes him modern, like Baudelaire or Wilde. It’s hard not to feel that his bedroom at Heriot Row was a diorama of sickly images. On the floor were pages from the illustrated newspapers, colouring-in books and religious texts. From the room he made the world as the room made him – all those stories! all those shadows! – and the spaces outside were simply playgrounds for the working out of his sentences. His task was to make it through the dark. ‘The whole sorrow of the night,’ he wrote, ‘was at an end with the arrival of the first of that long string of country carts, that in the dark hours of the morning, with the neighing of horses, the cracking of the whips, the shouts of drivers, and a hundred other wholesome noises, creaked, rolled and pounded past my window.’

A few weeks after that August night, I returned to Heriot Row and rang the doorbell. ‘Home of Robert Louis Stevenson, 1857-1880’ is carved into the stonework to the right of the door. From my own youthful reading, I had a strong notion of what the house would be like. I’d looked at photographs years before and could see in my memory the black marble fireplace, the Jacobean desk covered in inkwells and candlesticks, and surrounded by heavy volumes, the Victorian oil paintings above a little Arabic stool. I’d made a writer’s room in my own mind from the furnishings of Stevenson’s house, but now I was here, 150 years later, walking up the curling staircase and listening for distant coughs. The man who brought me into the drawing room – and sat me by a different fireplace and an old but different desk – was John Macfie, a tall and whiskery gentleman who lives there with his family. He poured me a whisky before sitting down in a red armchair beside the darkened windows. ‘At the front, in Louis’s bedroom, you get the punctuation of street noise,’ he said. ‘Noise is a key element in the Stevensonian imagination.’ He reminded me how grateful Louis was, in his teens, that the stairs were made of stone, allowing him to creep up to his room incognito, ‘pursued by fine arguments and sherry’.

Mr Macfie wore brown trousers and a cable knit sweater over a plaid shirt. He crossed his feet where he sat. He was wearing brown, elegant shoes. ‘I am the son and grandson of Edinburgh lawyers,’ he told me. His grandfather came to Edinburgh in 1895 from a farm on the Isle of Bute. His parents bought the Heriot Row house in 1971 for £19,500. ‘Largely because my mother fell in love with it.’ His father was in the habit of lunching in the New Club in Edinburgh, and heard, one day, that the house was for sale. Colin Hercules Mackenzie, who sold the house to the Macfies, was the international marketing director for J. and P. Coats yarn company; he was an old Etonian, a student of John Maynard Keynes at Cambridge and a lieutenant in the Scots Guards, who had lost a leg at the Somme. When the Friday morning came for Mackenzie to sell Heriot Row, he invited Macfie’s parents for sherry at 11.30. Macfie’s father was asked to add £1000 for the furniture, and got a mortgage for £12,000.

John Macfie was ten years old then. His mother loved ‘networking’, she was Irish, she loved talking and ‘got keyed into the Stevenson mafia’. Macfie came to understand that it was ‘part and parcel of being in the house that you did your thing for the network’. People would ring the doorbell to ask about Stevenson, and they still do. John remembers James Pope Hennessy turning up when he was writing his book about RLS. ‘He was busy turning down a knighthood at the time,’ Mr Macfie said. ‘And I think they were keen to give it to him in thanks for all he hadn’t written about Queen Mary.’ Macfie’s wife trained in the hotel school at Lausanne and worked at the Balmoral Hotel. Together, they decided to run Heriot Row as a place of corporate hospitality as well as a family home. These days, weddings, funerals and overnight stays add to the life of the house.

I went out to dinner that evening and the people I was with had a strong memory of Mr Macfie’s mother, a formidable Edinburgh character, they said. I was staying the night, and it was dark when I came back to my room at 17 Heriot Row, and climbed the steps with muffled tread, holding the banister and making my way among ghosts, including the ghosts of previous life-writers and archaeologists of style. For a moment, I stood at the front window looking over the gardens, the lamps still burning. In my pocket I had a letter written by RLS’s cousin Maud Babington. I was given it in the 1990s and it’s one of my treasures. In it, Maud discusses (with Frank Greene, her relative, who was also a relative of the future novelist Graham Greene) the possible meaning of RLS’s story ‘Will o’ the Mill’. The speaker in the story looks out too, on a whole life, over the broad plain that lies before him. ‘If he could only go far enough out there,’ it says, ‘he felt as if his eyesight would be purged and clarified, as if his hearing would grow more delicate and his very breath would come and go with luxury.’ I went to bed in Heriot Row and the story persisted in my mind, the scent of RLS’s style. I reached to the bedside table and checked the book. ‘He was suddenly surprised by an overpowering sweetness of heliotropes,’ the story says. ‘It was as if his garden has been planted with this flower from end to end, and the hot, damp night had drawn forth all their perfumes in a breath.’

There is an ink drawing by RLS of his room. It appears in a letter he wrote in 1873, when he was 22 and beginning to discover himself as a writer. ‘I must tell you that I have a new bookcase in my room,’ he says.

I am very proud of my room so I give a plan. The long Bookcase (A.A.A.) is only about 3 feet 6, so it is nice to sit on the top of, especially in the corner; for I have a thorough child’s delight in perches of all sorts. The Box is full of papers. Of course you see where I sit – on the chair that I have cross-hatched, shut in among books and with the light in front during the day and at my right at night.

His childhood played very far into his life, into his creativity, and many of his first ideas came from staring into the gardens below, and from going down to lie on the grass and think of impossible lands. The ‘island’ of Treasure Island began with the small pond in the gardens. ‘No child but must remember laying his head in the grass, staring into the infinitesimal forest and seeing it grow populous with fairy armies,’ he wrote.

Somewhat in this way, as I pored upon my map of ‘Treasure Island’, the future characters of the book began to appear there visibly in the imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on those few square inches of a flat projection.

After copying out that sentence, I stopped, put on my coat and walked to the gardens, gaining entry via my friend, the painter Alison Watt, who has a key. One of the trees was the colour of blood, thickly veined and knotted, its branches blocking our view of Heriot Row. The pond, with its little ‘island’ of sodden bracken and foliage, seemed stranded under the looming trees and the charcoal sky, but perhaps I was fixating on its former glories, when it was the subject of a young man’s feverish invention. We walked round the gardens and imagined how Edinburgh might have looked before the New Town was built. In his adult life, Stevenson often lived at the edge of tangled woods, as if their impenetrable nature and verdant, riotous existence suited his fictional turn of mind. Before leaving, I took a snap of his bedroom through a gap in the trees, imagining, through a smirr of rain, that I could see him in his nightshirt looking back.

His father was strung between the bogles of the church and the kelpies of free imagining. ‘One could almost see the struggle,’ Fanny Osbourne, Louis’s wife, wrote much later, ‘between the creature of cramped hereditary conventions and environment, and the man nature had intended him to be. Fortunately for my husband he inherited from his tragic father his genius and wide humanity alone.’ This was a telling-off from the American divorcee, who would, nonetheless, be scarcely more effective than Louis’s parents in demonstrating affection for him. Much of what he felt, in terms of love, he felt all his life for Cummie, a woman in the daily habit of pushing him towards ‘the high-strung religious terrors and ecstasies’ that drenched his dreams. He would later write an account of nurses, where he captures the true Alison Cunningham, that well-pressed Fifer, alone among the ‘quasi-mothers – mothers in everything but the travail and the thanks. It is for this that they have remained virtuous in youth, living the dull life of a household servant.’ But he loved her and she birthed more of his imagination than his mother did.

At Canonmills School, Louis was observed by a fellow pupil walking at Cummie’s side, ‘gaping at the universe’ (twenty years on he would write that his childhood was ‘a pleasing stupor’). He was bullied by the other boys for his strange appearance. He was ragged at Henderson’s, his next school, too, and James Milne recalled seeing him standing in the playground with the rim of his straw hat torn. He spent much time alone, and in the country, at Colinton Manse, where his grandfather lived, he used to hide under an old yew tree. One of his cousins described him putting his ear against the wall that divided the garden from the graveyard, declaring that ‘the spirits of the departed’ were speaking to him. For a writer who was to become such a sage of childhood – and who throughout his life, and afterlife, would be described as childish and childlike – it is remarkable how quickly he was rid of it. Childhood was a summer and then an autumn, and his innocence, such as it was, never impressed his friends’ parents as being of the genuinely innocent sort. ‘Mothers of my generation,’ one of them would say, ‘had an unacknowledged distrust of the thin, elfin lad with the brilliant eyes.’ It was as if his hunger for experience, a writer’s hunger, made him, to some, an unmanageable, inauthentic, over-watchful child. ‘What we lose in generous impulse,’ Stevenson writes in the essay ‘Child’s Play’, ‘we more than gain in the habit of generously watching others; and the capacity to enjoy Shakespeare may balance a lost aptitude for playing at soldiers. Terror is gone out of our lives, moreover; we no longer see the devil in the bed-curtains nor lie awake to listen to the wind.’

While he was at Edinburgh Academy, Stevenson is said to have fought a duel with another pupil, Bobby Romanes. ‘They had real pistols and real powder,’ according to a witness, Patrick Campbell, ‘but no real bullets – not even a charge of redcurrant jelly to add to the apparent tragedy of the encounter. No doubt Stevenson enjoyed this mimic warfare.’ The response of their teacher, D’Arcy Thompson, is not recorded, but probably involved the chief instrument of Scottish corporal punishment in Stevenson’s day (and mine) – the tawse. Leaving school, RLS was pleased to leave the daily fear of chastisement, and his devotion to playacting only increased, his wish to know the world he had dreamed of through the sun-comprehending glass.

‘Always there was some fresh weirdness in his imaginings of what had happened long ago,’ a contemporary at Edinburgh University said. Thrown by (and thrawn about) a number of religious and philosophical questions, Stevenson nonetheless enjoyed the democratic atmosphere at college. ‘Even when there is no cordiality,’ he wrote,

there is always a juxtaposition of the different classes, and in the competition of study the intellectual power of each is plainly demonstrated to the other. Our tasks ended, we of the North go forth as freemen in the humming, lamplit city. At five o’clock you may see the last of us hiving from the college gates, in the glare of the shop windows, under the green glimmer of the winter sunset. The frost tingles in our blood; no proctor lies in wait to intercept us; till the bell sounds again, we are the masters of the world; and some portion of our lives is always Saturday.

He was met with kindness at university, gaining a measure of liberal maturity, and was taken for a man of merit if not distinction. But as a student he would chiefly be remembered as a devoted truant. He plunked or dogged his classes and was scarcely to be found in lectures on Latin, Greek, engineering or law, sticking his head in at mathematics only because the tutor there could bring in the hangman, or some equivalent, if he didn’t. Professor Blackie, who taught Greek, once went so far as to say that he did not recognise Louis’s face. (‘None ever had more certificates for less education,’ the absent student would eventually admit.) Biographers have made too little of his pluming nonconformity. Oddly dressed in tight trousers, a velveteen jacket, an oversized bow tie and a fur cap, Stevenson was in no great hurry at Edinburgh to join the learned, though he wished to know the world and for the world to know him (he spoke excellent French but knew no grammar. The tutor liked him and let him away with it). He enjoyed drinking but had zero interest in sports, unless snowball fights may be counted (golf to him was as profitless as study). He spent his time writing poems, but at conversation he was sensational. He could make paintings or the Book of Job suddenly ‘live’ for his listeners, and they never forgot it. Despite what one friend called his ‘vagabond attendance’, Stevenson was awarded his degree and entered as an advocate, which pleased and surprised him, but in his head he was already travelling, a foreigner and a fugitive, honing his style with a strong Scots accent of the mind. ‘All through my boyhood and youth,’ he wrote, ‘I was known and pointed out for the pattern of an idler; and yet I was always busy on my own private end, which was to learn to write.’

Edinburgh was a constant fantasia of past and present. ‘I was wakened this morning by a long flourish of bugles and a roll upon the drums – the réveillé at the Castle,’ he wrote on 26 September 1873 to his friend Frances Sitwell.

I went to the window; it was a grey quiet dawn. A few people passed already up the street between the gardens, already I heard the noise of an early cab somewhere in the distance, most of the lamps had been extinguished but not all, and there were two or three lit windows in the opposite façade that showed where sick people and watchers had been awake all night and knew not yet of the new, cool day. This appealed to me of course with a special sadness; how often in the old times, my nurse and I had looked across at these, and sympathised!

The next day he lunched on omelettes and Burgundy with his cousin (he sometimes referred to him as his alter ego) Bob Stevenson, in a restaurant overlooking Princes Street. They argued about extinction, immortality and the non-existence of God. Imagining a world beyond his father’s belief, beyond the cold volcano of Edinburgh and its manners, was stimulating him into productivity. ‘Somehow, anyhow, I was bound to write a novel,’ he stated in the essay ‘My First Book’. ‘It seems vain to ask why. Men are born with various manias: from my earliest childhood it was mine to make a plaything of imaginary series of events; and as soon as I was able to write, I became a good friend to the papermakers … and still there shone ahead of me an unattained ideal.’ To RLS’s mind, most people don’t have even a bad novel in them.

For so long a time you must hold at command the same quality of style; for so long a time your puppets are to be always vital, always consistent, always vigorous. I remember I used to look, in those days, upon every three-volume novel with a sort of veneration, as a feat – not possibly of literature – but at least of physical and moral endurance and the courage of Ajax.

Lothian rains. Firth of Forth gales. There can’t be another writer in whom the local weather is more pleasingly instilled. ‘The delicate die early,’ he wrote,

and I, as a survivor, among bleak winds and plumping rain, have been sometimes tempted to envy them their fate. For all who love shelter and the blessings of the sun, who hate dark weather and perpetual tilting against squalls, there could scarcely be found a more unhomely and harassing place of residence. Many such aspire angrily after that Somewhere-else of the imagination, where all troubles are supposed to end.

But the distinctiveness of Edinburgh was to Stevenson a moveable and a copious feast. The London of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde feels so like Edinburgh because his home city was deeply ingrained in him and he carried it with him like a way of thinking. He entered it whenever he wrote a sentence, the rise and fall of his prose a secret reflection of tall chimneypots and small windows, cliffs and meadows, wynds and closes, laughing boys and tall professors, the complications of hearth and home working themselves out in the strange magic of his style. His talent was prodigious, but it never seems lavish, and there is always the feeling with his work that the reader is witness to common sense and boisterous enchantment lighting out for the territory. There is both classical proportion and Gothic romance: an Edinburgh of the mind. At the edge of every sentence he writes, you find the hum of intellectual gaiety and the echo of divine providence. The mixture is unmistakeable, and unmistakeably Heriot Row, a house turned inside out for the boy within. His writing style was on my mind as I climbed the stairs, spying the windows, observing the cornicing, believing as I made my way up that his vision was honed by the house itself.

He wrote a series of articles about Edinburgh for an art magazine called the Portfolio. ‘The feeling grows upon you,’ he writes in one of them,

that this profusion of eccentricities, this dream in masonry and living rock, is not a drop-scene in a theatre, but a city in the world of everyday reality, connected by railway and telegraph-wire with all the capitals of Europe, and inhabited by citizens of the familiar type, who keep ledgers, and attend church, and have sold their immortal portion to a daily paper.

He calls its inhabitants ‘chartered tourists’, but he was never less than one himself, still thinking at the end of his life about the breeze in Leith while writing Weir of Hermiston by a swamp in Samoa. For health reasons, and philosophical ones, Stevenson would go in search of the sun, for he was heliotropic, bound by nature and temperament to seek (or be) the flourishing flower made strong by the rains.

Heriot Row wasn’t the first house. He was born in a smaller dwelling at 8 Howard Place in Inverleith, near the Botanic Gardens. In September, for the first time in more than twenty years, the house came up for sale. Since being built in 1846 for Janet Buchanan Provand, it has had several owners, and was sold in August 2002 for £565,825 to the family who were selling it when I visited. The black ironwork of the gate spells out the letters RLS, and, beyond the blue front door, in the spacious porch, there is a plaster bas-relief of the Massacre of the Innocents. The asking price for the house was £1.2 million. The figure would have astonished Thomas Stevenson, who was described by one of his wife’s bridesmaids as a husband both ‘grave and scientific’. Their only child was born in the back room downstairs. His mother wrote to Thomas when he was on one of his lighthouse-building trips elsewhere in Scotland. ‘Good night sweet life,’ the letter closes, ‘think often of your own dear wee wife.’ In the solid grey house, in the crib downstairs, a little haunting machine was opening its eyes to the available light. I stood in his room and wondered how many children had come and gone since baby Louis had pawed the air.

Imagination is its own guarantor. No writer who is any good can be programmed by ideology, schools or scores, and the very best of them will coin the currency required for entry. As I write this now at my flat in Edinburgh, I can hear the single toll of the tram bell as it heads along Leith Walk. (The ‘ding’ is singular but not resonant. It is a recording of a bell, and there is no tintinnabulation, as Edgar Allan Poe named it, no lingering sound, because the recording cuts it off. The tram bell is like a bad music hall singer, always in the middle of a note.) If I pull the window up and lean out, I can see Calton Hill, and much nearer, at the top of my street, the corner of the building on Leith Walk that used to house Wilson’s, Alison Cunningham’s favourite newsagent, a shop that once stocked cardboard cut-out characters and scenes for a series known as Skelt’s Juvenile Drama. Stevenson was obsessed with them, and Cummie would take him to the shop every other Saturday, passing under my window. As much as the view across the private gardens, and as much as his idea of the worlds beyond, it was these dramas, ‘a penny plain and two-pence coloured’, that fired RLS’s imagination. They would always be Edinburgh to him, a furnace of the old and new and the richly improbable, Three-Fingered Jack, The Terror of Jamaica, The Forest of Bondy, The Smuggler, The Old Oak Chest, Aladdin. To him, they afforded a constant Christmas of foundling ideas and old standards, a lightning glance at pure storytelling, the spirit of his life’s enjoyment. The cardboard theatre in the window was like the ‘the silent theatre of the brain’. He went home to Heriot Row to apply his own paint, and something else: a yearning as big as the ocean, a need for the sun. ‘In this roll-call of stirring names you read the evidences of a happy childhood,’ he wrote, ‘and though not half of them are still to be procured of any living stationer, in the mind of their once happy owner all survive, kaleidoscopes of changing pictures, echoes of the past … That shop, which was dark and smelt of Bibles, was a loadstone rock for all that bore the name of boy.’

Cummie was obsessed with wrapping up well against the cold, getting ‘happed up’ as they say on the other coast, and treated every outing as if it were a journey to foreign parts, an expedition more than a stroll. I made my way up to Leith Walk, the tram bell sounding and rain threatening. Wilson’s newsagent is now a restaurant called Laila, its threshold enclosed in pink nylon roses. I had with me a book with a photograph of the shop taken as close as possible to Stevenson’s day, and the building is broadly unchanged. The three slanting steps up from the street are still there, and the half-hexagon shape of the frontage. I could see a dark patch on the stone where the old sign used to be, as well as the holes for the nails that held it in place. In my photograph a woman appeared to be standing at the shop window, looking in. The pages of the book began to flutter as I stood back to look up at the chimneys, glancing down at the photograph. Its shadows spoke about the amplification of reality. ‘What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once,’ Barthes wrote. ‘The photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.’ It seemed to make some sense of the boy’s mind and the ghosts at the various windows.

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