April 23


Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes

I’m re-reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s lyrical study of his home city, Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes, first published in 1879.

Stevenson presents Edinburgh with an unerringly precise eye, but his prose is just as remarkable as his account of the city. I find myself constantly stopping and sighing, the actual city forgotten, upon the discovery of another wonderful paragraph or phrase.

This is Stevenson’s comment on the weather:

But Edinburgh pays cruelly for her high seat in one of the vilest climates under heaven. She is liable to be beaten upon by all the winds that blow, to be drenched with rain, to be buried in cold sea fog out of the east, and powdered with the snow as it comes flying southward from the Highland hills. The weather is raw and boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and a downright meteorological purgatory in the spring. The delicate die early, and I, as a survivor, among bleak winds and plumping rain, have been sometimes tempted to envy them their fate.

I love this.

Edinburgh, for many years, was confined to its castle and high hill, and so the city built upwards, everyone living above each other’s heads. As the city, in the 18th century, spread outwards, the rich and powerful left the old city for newly built private homes, and the grand suites which they abandoned were split up into many family rooms.

Stevenson describes what one of these ancient tenement towers, a land, has come to:

In one house, perhaps two-score families herd together; and, perhaps, not one of them is wholly out of the reach of want. The great hotel is given over to discomfort from the foundation to the chimney-tops; everywhere a pinching, narrow habit, scanty meals, and an air of sluttishness and dirt. In the first room there is a birth, in another a death, in a third a sordid drinking-bout, and the detective and the Bible-reader cross upon the stairs. High words are audible from dwelling to dwelling, and children have a strange experience from the first; only a robust soul, you would think, could grow up in such conditions without hurt.

It’s Stevenson’s knack for the particular, I think, that makes his prose so routinely delightful, the gift for perceiving united with the gift for re-constructing that reality in such surprising, echoing sentences.

It was a grey, dropping day; the grass was strung with raindrops; and the people in the houses kept hanging out their shirts and petticoats and angrily taking them in again, as the weather turned from wet to fair and back again.

I especially like “angrily,” here.

Nor is the town so large but a holiday schoolboy may harry a bird’s nest within half a mile of his own door. There are places that still smell of the plough in memory’s nostrils. Here, one had heard a blackbird on a hawthorn; there, another was taken on summer evenings to eat strawberries and cream; and you have seen a waving wheatfield on the site of your presence residence.

Best wishes,



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  • Many thanks for this post.

    As a frequent visitor to Edinburgh, I never stop marvelling how it has become such a international’ tourist trap’. Your post makes me wonder how a latter day Stevenson would portray the garish shops and eating houses hiding medieval allays and the still provincial feel of a small city in a small country.

    • I do wonder how earlier writers would deal with the self packaged nature of so much contemporary reality. Now when you go to a famous place, it speaks back to you, tells you how to see it. Then it tries to sell something.

  • I love this sort of book–it’s a window onto a past we can’t otherwise experience. Sounds like something to add to my reading list. Thanks!

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