Robert Louis Stevenson aka Velvet Jacket2nd Sep 2021
By Margaret Hubbard, Storyteller at Mercat Tours International
RLS, as he is affectionately referred to, was born in Edinburgh in 1850. He grew up in the New Town, in an austere household. It was not that he was not loved; it was just not what professional middle-class New Town parents displayed. The centre of his world was his nanny, Alison Cunningham.
Into the mix goes the fact that his father was a ‘Lighthouse Stevenson,’ a dynasty of engineers who managed seemingly impossible tasks. The family lived and breathed engineering. Little Robert had no interest. He was a dreamer who loved stories. He often went to the gardens opposite his home with his nanny. There he found a pond with an island at its centre, and his story of buried treasure was born.
The Stevensons were all very healthy and bemused by this boy who was regularly ill. It was a lonely childhood, perhaps best summed up in his own poem, ‘The Lamplighter.’ Waiting for the leerie to go by, he wills the man to look up and wave to him on the top floor of his oh so elegant home.
It was during his student years that Stevenson became acquainted with the Old Town. He traveled there to University and did not always return home for tea. He had found artists and thinkers at the university. He'd also found the drinking dens of the Old Town, teeming with laughter and fun, two elements missing at home.
The hard bitten inhabitants of the Old Town liked him, and teasingly referred to him as Velvet Jacket as smoking jackets were uncommon in the Old Town!
He would creep home quietly at night to avoid the displeasure of his parents, but the conflict increased, and eventually RLS left Edinburgh. He traveled, married, lived abroad, briefly came back to Britain, and eventually settled in Samoa, where he died in 1894.
He never settled back into Scotland's capital, his relationship with the city was too complicated. The creator of Jekyll and Hyde had, as his model, the city itself; one face respectable and the other wild and dangerous.
Were we to ask him which Edinburgh he preferred, he might struggle with the answer. He was born into one, but as a young adult was attracted to the other. Perhaps the answer is he belonged to both, which is how he was able to create the characters in his novels, and particularly their dialogue, so convincingly.