I’m excited to introduce my first post in our Museums of Edinburgh series. I thought it appropriate to start with a museum that captures the stories of three of Scotland’s- and Edinburgh’s- most famous writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and, my personal favourite, Robert Louis Stevenson.
I fancy myself a writer, and I like to tell stories. However, my first love was reading. I read vociferously as a child and as much as I can as an adult. Therefore, The Writers’ Museum is a wonderful place to visit- to inspire writers and captivate readers.
You can find the Museum tucked away in Lady Stair’s Close within the aptly named Lady Stair’s House. According to the Museum, the house was built in 1622. Different well-off families lived there until it was given to the city in 1907 for use as a museum. If you visit the Museum, make sure to take the time to appreciate the beautiful house that has its own fascinating history.
Now, guests can explore the Museum as they wish, but I think it fitting to start our journey on the ground floor with that ever-so famous Scot- Robert Burns (1759-1796). The Museum provides a nice biographical overview on Burns and his time in Edinburgh. It was fascinating to read just how much time he spent in the city that influenced his writings. Ultimately, it was his time in Edinburgh that ignited his passion for Scottish songs and ballads and his true love of Scotland.
The Museum has different items that are connected or even belonged to Burns. Some of my favourites include a sword-stick which belonged to him while he was an excise officer in Dumfries, a plaster cast of his skull (I love a little forensic anthropology), and the pièce de résistance- the writing desk used by Burns until his death in 1796. It’s a simple but elegant desk and it’s fun to close your eyes and imagine the celebrated writer labouring over his ever-lasting odes to our great and beautiful country- Scotland.
Not to be outdone, if you head up to the first floor of the Museum, you will find the Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) room. Here you bear witness to the international impact Scott had on the world and his ability to tell others about Scotland and Scottish history.
As you explore the Scott room, it quickly becomes obvious the incredible intelligence and wit that he had and his genius (and I really dislike how in modern language that word is mis/over- used but, be assured, very appropriate when discussing Sir Walter Scott). After all, he learned Italian, Spanish, read Latin and Greek, and taught himself Gaelic and Norse!
For those looking for Scott artefacts, you won’t be disappointed. Some of my highlights were- his chessboard and men, his pipe, his rocking horse toy (make sure to read about the touching detail that makes this toy special and specific to Scott), and a first edition of Waverley; or, ‘Tis Sixty Years Since.
As we continue our journey through The Writers’ Museum, I’ve saved what I consider the best for last- the rooms devoted to Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). Heading down into the basement of the Museum (mind your head and step), you find a wonderful area highlighting the life of the Edinburgh-born writer.
Now for those of you who’ve been reading our blog since the beginning, you know of my love for Robert Louis Stevenson. He was mentioned in my first post and again in my Lorimer post. And now I have the pleasure of telling you about where you can find more delightful information on Stevenson in Edinburgh.
Of course, I’ve adored Stevenson since my childhood when I was fortunate to be spellbound reading his books- Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. But I think what interests me more as an adult is exploring his more anthropological and cultural side (I love social and cultural anthropology as I studied it at university- so I’m a bit biased). But Stevenson’s travel writings on Belgium and France are certainly ethnographic in style and I appreciate that.
In fact, it’s important to point out that the Museum highlights how travel was a central theme in Stevenson’s life. Certainly, I see it as a main “character”. In this day and age of political turmoil, maybe we would all benefit from Stevenson’s idea that, “we all belong to many countries”.
The two rooms that house Stevenson’s artefacts are filled with a great collection of his personal belongings as well as touching family/personal photographs. You find items from his childhood including the headboard of the bed in which he was born, and, even more interestingly, a mahogany cabinet that was in Stevenson’s childhood room built by Deacon Brodie. I will revisit Mr. Brodie in a future blog post as his story is one that will captivate you- it certainly did for Stevenson (sit tight- more to come). Of course, if you visit Edinburgh, you can always join one of our wee walks where we can show and tell you all about his life here.
For all you adventurers and explorers, you will be thrilled to know the Museum does an excellent job of highlighting Stevenson’s life in the Pacific Islands- most significantly his life in Samoa. There are pictures of his time on the island as well as personal artefacts such as his riding boots, spurs, crop, and hat.
It was particularly interesting to find out that Stevenson’s Samoan name given to him by the locals was Tusitala- which means “The Story Teller”. It’s obvious that he truly loved his life in Samoa as it benefited his poor, respiratory health, but also his mind and soul. However, his love for Scotland and Edinburgh were with him to the end as evidenced by his last, unfinished novel, Weir of Hermiston.
I think that one of the quotes that the museum highlights in the Robert Louis Stevenson exhibit sums up the feeling that visitors get from all three of these wonderful Scottish writers and cultural icons: “For that is the mark of the Scot of all classes; that he stands in attitude towards the past unthinkable to Englishmen, and remembers and cherishes the memory of his forbears, good and bad; and there burns alive in him a sense of identity with the dead even to the twentieth generation”.
One can’t help but love Edinburgh and Scotland even more after a visit to The Writers’ Museum. I highly recommend a visit to this free museum (donations are accepted) so that you can get some charming glimpses into the lives of Burns, Scott, and Stevenson. But you will also see how the Museum and city nurture other writers that have come since and influence our great city in more recent times. They look to the past but also the future and this is a heartening perspective to witness.
If you would like to learn and see some of the places and locations where these three authors lived and wrote about- please book one of our private walking tours.
After all, whether you were born in Scotland or not, this country and certainly the city of Edinburgh will stay with you as it did for our three Scottish protagonists.
Until next time- continue to Explore & Discover!