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Edinburgh and The Lothians
Chapter XVII - Three Edinburgh Masters and a Visitor

CERTAIN of the great men of Edinburgh, as David Hume and Adam Smith, have no tang of the place in their work, others reflect it but slightly. Thus Burns never has his Edinburgh as he has his Ayrshire, but three writers of genius, all poets, though the prose of two of them is before their verse were born here, lived here the best years of their lives, and were Edinburgh to the very marrow of their bones. These were Robert Fergusson, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburgh is writ large in what they did, and the city has not been unmindful. Scott has his monument in Princes Street, R. L. S. is honoured in St Giles, and if as yet it is only the simple stone in the Canon-gate Churchyard that commemorates Fergusson, the man who raised it marks it as memorable.

Fergusson was born on 5th September 1750 in Cap and Feather Close, which climbed from the valley to the High Street, whereabouts the southern approach to the North Bridge now stands. He was at school in Niddry’s Wynd, a certain Phelp giving him there his first instruction. Afterwards he went to the High School, and so was familiar with High School Wynd and High School Yards, and the old building to the south of Edinburgh, where Scott also did, and Stevenson did not, to his openly-expressed regret, study, though it could only have been in its successor on the Calton Hill, since before Stevenson’s time the old place had become an Infirmary, and in one form or. other it has so remained. He was afterwards at school in Dundee and at college at St Andrews, but still a lad he returned to Edinburgh and lived in Warriston’s Close with his mother. That close to-day is but a dreary back entrance to warehouses, and yet its memories brighten for us its dull ways. Fergusson was mainly employed in the Commissary Clerks’ office in Parliament Close; his pay was small. He died, 16th October 1774, in the madhouse hard by the Bristo Port, and you remember he was buried in the Canongate Churchyard. He was a member of the Cape Club that met in Craig’s Close. These are the places that you would seek if you tracked his footsteps, but all Edinburgh was his province. At which of its endless taverns had he not drunk, in which of its numerous closes had he not sought shelter or friendship? His work is not large in bulk, and much of it is English and entirely futile, but when he wrote Scots the matter was far other. The Daft Days, The King’s Birthday in Edinburgh, Hallow Fair, The Sitting of the Session, The Rising of the Session, Leith Races, To the Tron Kirk Bell, Mutual Complaint of Plainstanes and Causey are the chief of the poems in which he pictured the life of the place; but it is the life of the tavern and the street, lewd, dirty, drunken, witty. What higher things there were in philosophy or divinity, or clean life or deep thought, were not for this poor lad of genius, for genius true and unmistakable was there.

"I smell you in the dark," said Johnson to Boswell in those same streets; you smell Edinburgh in Fergusson. He dwells with a positive relish on that muck heap, he is warm and cosy in it, and though he professes to object you see his easy tolerance. Poor infirm lad! he is only comfortable by some warm tavern fire. He died young, but it seems he had done his life’s work. What more could he have said of Edinburgh, and of what else could he have written to any purpose? You have the wit and merriment and all the varied life of eighteenth century Edinburgh brought before you; you know how the stones felt under the feet, and the ladies ogled, and that "black banditti," the City Guard, browbeat and bullied.

Scott is a greater name, and his localities are briefly these. The College Wynd, formerly the Wynd of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Field, as noted, still exists in fragment. Scott was born at the west side of the Wynd head on the 15th August 1771. A tablet in Chambers Street indicates the whereabouts. Scott’s father removed to No. 75 George Square in 1776, and here was his Edinburgh residence till 1797, when he went to 39 Castle Street. That is the east side of the northern half of the street, and here he was for twenty-six years, and what temporary residences he had elsewhere it is not worth while to inquire. He studied at the Old High School and the University; and it was in Old Greyfriars Church that the beginning of his first romantic love-story took place. As an advocate he trod the floor of the Parliament House, and he sat there for long years as Clerk of Session. He it was, as I have told, who restored Mons Meg to the Castle, and rediscovered the Scots Regalia. Also there is the Assembly Rooms in George Street, where on the 23rd February 1827, at the Theatrical Fund Dinner, the open secret of the Waverley Novels was laid finally bare, to all. But this is only part of his contact with his native town. He above all other men took pleasure in her stones, her very dust was dear to him. "No funeral hearse crept more leisurely than his landau up the Canongate, and not a quaint falling gable but what recalled to him some long-vanished memory of splendour or bloodshed, which by a few words he set before the hearer in the reality of life." Scott made the most of great advantages, his powers of mind were not diverted to far-off themes. The romantic history, life, scenery of Scotland were ere his coming practically untouched as stuff for letters, and he used them so as to leave but the fragment to those who came after. The English wars, the Reformation, Mary Stuart, the Killing Time, the Porteous Mob, the ‘45—but why recall them? Carlyle spent his energies in "the Valley of the Shadow of Frederick," as his wife called it; and John Knox was calling, as he still calls, for an interpreter of genius. Scott took what was at his hand and found in the common incidents of his country’s history themes of undying romance. What pictures we have! There is Jeanie Deans and Davie Deans, and Saddletree and his cronies in the Heart of Midlothian; the border hills and town taverns in Guy Mannering; the incidents of legal life in Redgauntlet; the delightful opening of the Antiquary in the High Street; the Ball at Holyrood and the White Horse Inn in Waverley; Holyrood again and Lord Seton’s lodgings in The Abbot; the meetings of the Privy Council in Old Mortality. Then there is the delightful Mr Chrystal Croftangry in his Chronicles of the Canongate, with his accounts of the Sanctuary; and My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror tells the legend of Lady Stair with admirable local setting.

I need not turn the pages of Marmion to quote the famous view of the city as seen from Blackford Hill, nor shall I repeat the stirring numbers of Bonnie Dundee; his love and devotion are summed up in one line—"My own romantic town." Fergusson tells you but one phase of eighteenth-century Edinburgh, but Scott gives it in many ages, in many aspects, and in many ranks.

I pass to the third. The Robert Louis Stevenson localities are 8 Howard Place, where he was born on 13th November 1850; 17 Heriot Row, where he went in 1857; Mr Henderson’s School, which he attended in India Street; the Edinburgh Academy; the College, which he neglected with a regularity upon which he rather plumed himself. Like Scott he was a member of the famous Speculative Society, whose proceedings, by the way, are reflected on with considerable scorn by Lockhart in Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk. You note the Parliament House, where he made some little effort to practise as an advocate; the Lothian Road, over whose unlovely stones he tramped so often that he became a part of it. He hints they should call the great edition of his works not the Edinburgh but the Lothian Road edition. But like his predecessors he knew every hole and corner of Edinburgh, and not the place alone but round about it. Colinton, on the slope of the Pentlands, where his grandfather was minister; Swanston Cottage, near Colinton, which his father had for fourteen years, from May 1867, Portobello, Lass-wade, North Berwick were the objects of visits more or less prolonged. Fairmilehead, on the southern main road from Edinburgh, is memorable for the parable of the gauger with his flute. Halkerside and Allermuir and Caerketton were Pentland summits that he loved. And in another direction there is Cramond and Queensferry. Stevenson’s attitude to Edinburgh is peculiar. Weak-chested and sensitive, there was something terrible to him in the winter, in the spring, and often part of the summer, and he was in wild revolt also against the first rigid limitations of his life and of his family. He wanted to go his own way. The world has since said it was a very good way, but the world looks back, and the world is wise after the event. Looking forward we needs must confess all the probabilities were against the course he was taking. It was 99, or perhaps 999 to 1 that he was making a mess of things. How to see that he was a genius, and a successful genius, even as money spinner? As to Edinburgh weather, the New Town schemers quite forgot it was a thing to be reckoned with; they laid themselves open to squall, shower and blast in every way. These long, straight streets, these wide, patent squares, the elevation, the want of screen were a pressing invitation to Boreas and Pluvius. The old-time citizen could get up a close or dive into a tavern.

"Whan big as bums the gutters rin,
Gin ye hae catcht a droukit skin,
To Lucky Middlemist’s loup in,
And sit fu’ snug
Owre oysters and a dram o' gin,
Or haddock lug."

It was not only on account of the Auld Enemy of England but the Auld Enemy of Weather that the houses were crowded together in that queer shape in that queer place.

When Stevenson went away, especially during his last exile in the South Seas, he more and more turned with what finally became a passion of devotion to the town of his birth. "There are no stars so bright," he writes, "as Edinburgh street lamps. When I forget thee, Auld Reekie, may my right hand forget its cunning!" He moralizes to Mr Barrie: "How strange it is that that cold old huddle of grey hills from which we come should have such an attraction." He found Edinburgh excellent for material. His style, he vowed, was inspired by the old Covenanting writers. He could imitate them as to the manner born, witness Thrawn Janet and the tale of Tod Lapraik in Catriona. His Picturesque Notes is the classic picture of the place. You begin your study of Edinburgh with it as a matter of course. Deacon Brodie is pure Edinburgh. The stage, it seems, won’t have it or any of its fellows at any price, though distinguished actors have not always thought so, but they are good reading for all that. St.Ives, with the French prisoner and his escape and adventures in the neighbourhood, is much concerned with Edinburgh and the places about it, and so are Kidnapped and Catriona. The dedication of that last book to Mr Charles Baxter is a masterpiece of graceful and pathetic allusion to Old Edinburgh days. Again, John Nicholson is entirely concerned with Auld Reekie. The Wrecker has a graphic scene in Greyfriars Churchyard, and in the unfinished Weir of Hermiston you have George Square, and the Justiciary Court, and the place of execution, to name but these. Touches of Edinburgh stray into most things, Stevenson wrote; even in the New Arabian Nights there is the opening episode of Francis Scrymgeour’s adventures. In an essay like Old Mortality reflections centre round the burial-ground on the Calton. Edinburgh was beautiful to Stevenson in the pale light of memory as it had never been in actual fact. He knew he would never return, even when he wrote :

"The voice of generations dead
Summons me, sitting distant, to arise,
My numerous footsteps nimbly to retrace,
And all mutation over, stretch me down
In that denoted city of the dead."

One figure of the town’s past had for him a strange fascination. That was Robert Fergusson, "the poor, white-faced, drunken, vicious boy that raved himself to death in the Edinburgh madhouse." He tells Mr H. B. Baildon that he meant to write on him, "him that went down—my brother, Robert Fergusson." And again, "my unhappy predecessor on the causey of Old Edinburgh." "I believe Fergusson lives in me," he said, and "so like myself." He told Mr Baxter he was inclined to dedicate the Edinburgh edition to one whom he calls elsewhere "the old Robin who was before Bums and the flood," and (not all in jest) "it really looks like the transmigration of souls." He set Mr Baxter to find out if the monument in the Canon-gate churchyard was in good condition; if not, he proposed to restore it, with an additional inscription. R. L S. must have forgotten the Bums’ Club and the Bums’ cult; the memorial is, in fact, continuously spick and span. Again, he is eager that a monument should be erected to Fergusson, "the true place (in my view) were the churchyard of Haddington." An odd statement! There is a tradition that the Rev. John Brown of Haddington, the old seceding divine, met Fergusson two years before his death in the churchyard, and so preached to him repentance and the life to come that Fergusson trembled and was horror-struck, if not repentant. The story is a mere myth; there is another of like character about David Hume and this same John Brown. In fact Sommers, his contemporary, friend and biographer, expressly contradicts the tale. He saw Fergusson immediately after the Haddington visit, and the poet said nothing about it. Fergusson, though at the end afflicted with religious melancholia, was altogether of the Cavalier party, like the other wits of the day. "Bluidy Mackenzie" was to him a perfect paragon.

"Whase laws rebellious bigotry reclaim’d;
Freed the hale land o’ Covenanting fools,
Wha aft hae fash’d us wi’ unnumber’d dools."

It is too soon to say where, exactly, time will put the ingenious R. L. S. If picture postcards and tourists’ haunts are a test, his fame grows apace. Few writers have greater charm, a more delicate, sensitive style, a stronger feeling for romance. We all know the famous phrase of the "sedulous ape?" However attained, the results were wonderful, yet he is often precious, and sometimes smells of the lamp. And this fine work produces a practical difficulty at its best, and even because of its best. The interest of the story hurries you along, the finish of the style bids you linger and savour each phrase; you feel as if too quick for digestion you had bolted a cunning banquet. You do not have that idea about Scott. Stevenson, and not he alone, has said the magician had no style. Save in one or two passages, as in Wandering Willie’s Tale, and that is "braid Lallan’," it is true enough; but how pleasant and comfortable to read! It is the easy coat and slippers as against the dress suit. You float on the current of the story, with no thought of the boat in which you sit. Hence Stevenson’s short stories impress one more than his long. Thrawn Janet and a Night's Lodging are before Kidnapped and Catriona, and even Treasure Island. Obviously, too, Scott had more knowledge of his theme than Stevenson. He took a broader and healthier interest in life, he paints with a larger brush and more powerful strokes. He is contented with the surface, and Stevenson always tried to look below. He is something of the philosopher and the moralist; he was terribly fond of preaching. All things considered, his Address to the Clergy and Laity of the Church of Scotland is an unblushing performance. The problem of the double life had in literature, at any rate, the greatest interest for him. He loved to preach a well-nigh evangelical sermon, and he loved to draw a well-nigh unadulterated villain.

I conclude these words on Stevenson with a personal reminiscence, Virgilium vidi tantum. I was the contemporary at college of R. L. S., but I only remember seeing him once, and under conditions rather ludicrous than remarkable. I belonged to a Society called the Edinburgh University Philosophical Society, which met once a week to discuss metaphysical questions. We were great on Hegel, whom none of us understood, which fact increased the interest of the discussion. Many of the members became great folk, a Cabinet Minister, a Law Peer, a shining light in the Kailyard School of Letters, professors, advocates and ministers too numerous to mention, and if others went down instead of up, they are now where Orpheus and where Homer are, and the rest is silence. In those distant days the most charming and alluring figure was James Walter Ferrier, son of Professor Ferrier of St Andrews, the well-known metaphysician. His career is told in a brilliant passage in the essay called Old Mortality; his epitaph is in Henley’s Hospital Rhymes:

"Our Athos rests—the wise, the kind,
The liberal and august, his fault atoned,
Rests in the crowded yard,
There at the west of Princes Street."

Then he seemed at the beginning of a brilliant and successful career. We all admired him. It was his turn to read us a paper. He chose a whimsical subject: "Was the human race produced from one pair of originals?" It meant sport and mischief, but we were too dull to see it. The hour came—and passed, and we sat in silence in one of the upper rooms of the College. At length in came Ferrier, urbane and rubicund, and more hilarious (we thought) than the occasion required. With him was a slim, pallid, unkempt, uncanny youth, also unreasonably hilarious, who threw himself carelessly on a seat and proceeded to consider us and our goings-on with mocking elfin mirth. Ferrier walked to the desk, pulled out a paper and began to read at a rapid rate. Now and again he paused to laugh heartily. His friend was ready chorus. We failed to discover the cause of this unseasonable merriment. The evening’s entertainment was soon over. Ferrier crumpled up his paper. He and his friend rushed together from the room, and with wild bursts of uncontrollable merriment clattered away down the echoing stone passages and stairs. I learned afterwards that the name of Ferrier’s friend was Robert Louis Stevenson. In this strange guise we had entertained an Angel of Light. I never saw him again.

And now a word as to the most famous visitor (unless, as some have thought, Shakespeare once strolled that way) Edinburgh ever had. Robert Bums enters the stage of Edinburgh on the 17th November 1786. He first lived in Baxter’s Close, an extinct alley of the High Street, now a cleared space. His other Edinburgh residence was St James’ Square, a little to the east of the Register House. Of the taverns he frequented, that of Dawnie Douglas in the Anchor Close, where the club called the Crochallan Fencibles had its meetings, and Dowie’s tavern, in Libberton’s Wynd, are the most noted. At Sciennes Hill House young Walter Scott had a look and a word from him for supplying the author of a quotation under a picture. In St John Street the Old Canon-gate Kilwinning Lodge of Freemasons crowned him as their poet-laureate. In General’s Entry, at the junction of Bristo Street and Potterrow was the residence of Mrs Maclehose, the Clarinda of his most passionate love songs. How he saw what was highest and lowest in Edinburgh, gatherings of divines and philosophers, "drucken writers’ feasts," ladies of rank and fashion, the Highland wenches of the Cowgate, is not here to be told, nor the story of his desperate flirtation with this same Clarinda. On 6th December 1791 he saw her for the last time. He was dead five years after, but she lingered far on into the next century. Scott saw her at her relative’s, Lord Craig’s, old and devout, and, as he almost brutally says, with no touch of her former beauty. Yet she was to survive Scott, who died on the 6th December 1831. Forty years after her parting with Bums she wrote, "This day I never can forget, parted with Burns in the year 1791, never more to meet in this world." How to forget, even after all those years, the eye that glowed like a live coal, the hand that even in health seemed to burn like fire? It was not till 22nd October 1841 that to her the end came. She was then eighty-three. Surely of all Edinburgh women the most pathetic, if not the most memorable.

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