‘This is a private house …’ says a small but noticeable addition to the doorbell of 17 Heriot Row in Edinburgh, the home for many years of writer Robert Louis Stevenson, his parents and their small entourage of servants. Thanks to the hospitality of current resident John Mcfie and his family, a private house, albeit a very special one, is what I was privileged to see last weekend at an event organised by the Robert Louis Stevenson Club.
When I joined the club a year or more ago, I knew it was a long shot (even without the additional obstacles of lockdown) that I’d ever be able to attend any of their meetings, and so when I saw this one was going to coincide with our planned trip to Scotland, let’s say I was probably first in the queue for a ticket!
The afternoon began with the unveling of a plaque opposite no. 17 to replace one badly eroded by time and weather and so it was on this pavement, as the information board was unveiled by the Mcfie daughters, that I had my first introduction to members of the RLS Club whom I had encountered only via email or through the club newsletter.
From here we progressed quicky to the interior of no 17 itself, a typical residence of Edinburgh’s New Town that to me would have been fascinating regardless of its former famous inhabitant. The echoing interior stair with its domed skylight, the gracefully proportioned rooms, the combination of historical and family mementos, demonstrated both its origins and its place at the heart of a modern family who are also happy to share their heritage with others. You can find many more photographs and additional information abut the Stevenson House here.
The event proper began in the first floor drawing room (originally the domain of RLS’ mother, Margaret Stevenson) with a medley of readings from RLS and his contemporaries, focusing on events that took place at Heriot Row and with a historical commentary by RLS’ biographer Jeremy Hodges. The final reading by John Mcfie described his experiences of moving to Heriot Row (aged ten), making use of its many quirky features, and playing host to a variety of visitors, including ourselves.
Then downstairs for a buffet lunch and a chance not just to take in the surroundings but to chat properly with a few of my fellow club members, from diverse walks of life and all with interesting stories to tell. My earnest hope is to be able to attend some future event and catch up with them again.
My mania for memorabilia was even satisfied by receiving my very own club centenary badge!
I’m aware of being both lucky and privileged to see inside this fascinating piece of literary and architectural history. There are ways in which anyone can visit, but if that’s out of the question, you can get the flavour of the place and what has been brought to it by the Mcfie family by reading John’s account which has been published in the Fortunate Voyager centenary anthology.
Robert Louis Stevenson continues to inspire people today from all walks of life, from writers and film-makers to academics, politicians and many other fellow travellers on life’s voyage. To celebrate the centenary of the Robert Louis Stevenson Club, a new book brings together tributes from 60 such travellers, including Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, crime writers Ian Rankin and Val McDermid, children’s author Michael Morpurgo, and Sir Paul McCartney, a Treasure Island fan since childhood.
Order a copy by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
The RLS club is based in Edinburgh but has an international membership. Find out more here.