Edinburgh History Insights #2: 17 Heriot Row, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Childhood Home

At 17 Heriot Row stands the former childhood home of one of Edinburgh’s greatest writers – Robert Louis Stevenson. Stevenson is most well known for writing classic novels such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as for his pioneering travel writing. To this day, Stevenson remains one of the 30 most translated authors of all time.

RLS - One Of Edinburgh's Greatest Sons

Stevenson first moved to this refined house with his parents when he was only 6 years old. A sickly, frail child, Stevenson’s parents thought the south facing property, with lots of natural light and good ventilation, would help relieve some of the young boy’s health problems. Proximity to the Queen Street Gardens, which you can see directly across the street from the house, and the fresh air of the New Town, were also thought to be beneficial for the young child.

However, Stevenson remained house bound for long periods while growing up, especially in the winter months, and his childhood illnesses would leave him exceptionally thin and frail even as an adult. The American novelist Henry Adams even compared Stevenson’s appearance to “a bundle of sticks in a bag”.

Not suited to outdoor pursuits, Stevenson read and wrote compulsively while growing up in the house, reading the Bible from cover to cover while not yet in his teens, and publishing his first piece of writing, an essay on the covenanter’s rebellion, aged just 16.
Many of the authentic period features of this Georgian house, which was constructed between 1802 and 1806, still remain. At the foot of the front steps is a well preserved Georgian gas lamp, while fine wraught iron balustrades frame the lower portion of the first floor windows.

Stevenson refers to both of these features in a poem he wrote many years after leaving Edinburgh:

“The Shadow of the balusters, the shadow of the lamp,
The shadow of the child that goes to bed –
All the wicked shadows coming, tramp, tramp, tramp
With the black night overheard”

Stevenson returned to 17 Heriot Row as an adult to attend to his dying father. After the funeral, which Stevenson could not attend due to ill-health, he left Heriot Row and Edinburgh for good, voyaging around the world until finally dying of a stroke in 1880, aged just 44 years old. He was buried at Mount Vaea in Samoa, where he had spent his final years.

Yet today Stevenson’s tales live on, and many of them take inspiration from the sights, sounds and stories he would have picked up living here in Edinburgh as a child and young man. Even the character Dr Jeykll, it is said, was based on the real 18th century case of a one Deacon Brodie. Brodie was a respected businessman by day, but by night he was a robber and murderer. He led this double life for many years before being caught and hanged, and this idea of a dual personality is what first inspired Stevenson’s thrilling psychological novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

17 Heriot Row, like most houses in the surrounding streets, was built from local Craigleith sandstone, light grey in appearance. On the upper floors the facade has been given a smooth ashlar finish, while the basement flat, traditionally used as servant’s quarters, is rough and rock faced. Today, both the house and the basement flat are used as private residences, though the house offers two rooms to let on a bed and breakfast basis, and can be hired as a venue for dinners and functions.

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