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Roger McCann

Writer | Blogger | Photographer

Articles - Robert Louis Stevenson


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A walk in Edinburgh

2019-07-08 07:02:42

Where five roads meet outside Haymarket Railway Station in Edinburgh a small forest of traffic lights controls the comings and goings of people and vehicles. From somewhere underground the wail of a train adds to the noise.

Yet minutes away from this kaleidoscope of activity, Palmerston Place offers an escape. St. Mary’s Episcopalian Cathedral dominates this part of Edinburgh’s New Town and immediately draws the eye. Two ladies, the Misses Walker, heirs of Sir Patrick Walker on whose land this part of the city was developed, left their fortune to the Episcopal Church on condition the money had to be used to build a cathedral for the diocese of Edinburgh. Twin spires at the western end of the building are accordingly named Barbara and Mary in their memory.

At the main entrance, intricate stone carvings are worth a close look while inside the church a daily choral service has been a tradition since 1879. The choir perfects its music in the nearby Song School, a modest building which blends with the surroundings to give little indication of the richness of the murals enlightening every inch of the inside walls by the artist Phoebe Anna Traquair (1852 – 1936).

Carry on down Palmerston Place to the bottom of the hill then turn left onto Belford Bridge. From here you can enjoy views over the river, the Water of Leith, before rounding the bend into Belford Road to seek out the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art housed in a former school building. It’s well worth finding the paintings by the Scottish colourists Francis Cadell, John Duncan Ferguson, Samuel John Peploe and G.L. Hunter .

Outside, the lawn in front of the gallery has been landscaped to a design by Charles Jenks. Called Landform, the stepped grass mound winds a way round pools of water that mirror the passing clouds overhead.

Across the road, the Dean Gallery is home to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Two. Here there are works by surrealist artists Pablo Picasso and Robert Penrose but most arresting is the sculpture entitled Vulcan1990 by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. This shiny metal figure standing nearly 30ft tall portrays a half man, half machine – a monument to the modern age. Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and blacksmiths, forged weapons for gods and heroes.

A path by the side of the lawn in front of the art gallery leads to an exit and, partially hidden by ivy, a doorway with steps leading down to the Water of Leith and the walkway which follows the course of the river. Though the city centre is only minutes away this is a green oasis enlivened by birdsong.

At Dean Village, new houses compliment the original stone buildings. Some of them, with crow stepped gables, were once meal mills, woollen mills or tanneries powered by the Water of Leith.

In turn, the river was used as an open sewer for waste. Now the mill buildings have been converted into sought after waterside homes and offices with something of the character of a rural hamlet remaining.

The Water of Leith also receives lots of attention. Work is on-going to improve the water quality, remove rubbish, protect wildlife and maintain the walkway from Balerno, south of Edinburgh, to the sea at Leith.

From Dean Village, a sign points out the continuation of the path under Dean Bridge built in 1829-31 to a design by Thomas Telford. Bridge traffic is constant but far below, beneath a supporting arch, little can be heard.

Further along the river bank, a Roman temple, an open rotunda, has pillars enclosing a statue of Hygeia, Greek goddess of health. She holds a large jar in one hand and in the other, an urn, tilted in the direction of a serpent that curls up the stump of a tree. This is St. Bernard’s Well.

From the late 1700s the supposed healing powers of the mineral waters were an attraction on the tourist trail. Though the well waters are not in use today, Stockbridge, hardly any distance from here, still caters for visitors.

This is a thriving area of the city with an air of confidence and the feel of a self-contained village. As well as a choice of cafes and pubs, there are fish, fruit and vegetable shops, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, a cheesemonger and florists all within a few yards of each other. Browse in a book shop before setting off up Glanville Place and further into the New Town of Edinburgh.

On reaching Howe Street turn right.

Like much of the New Town streets it is wide and handsome with the added bonus of a view northwards across a city roof- scape to a blue strip of River Forth and the coast of Fife.

Catch your breath half way up before turning left and walking along Herriot Row. Here the grey stone facades have not changed a great deal since Robert Louis Stevenson moved to No.17 as a boy in 1857.

Electric lighting has long since replaced the gas lamps Stevenson mentions in his poem The Lamplighter, yet it’s easy to imagine the sickly child peering out of his window at the lamp before the door as “Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more.”

Turning right onto Queen Street Gardens East leads to Hanover Street which continues over George Street where, in the intersection, a statue of George 1V on a pedestal commemorates the King’s visit in 1822 – the first by a British monarch to see his Scottish kingdom in 171 years.

The King had been sensationally dressed in flesh coloured tights and kilt and many others were impressed to follow his lead. Sir Walter Scott was the impresario behind this event and has since been celebrated and blamed for the popularity of tartan, bagpipes and clans.

From here on Hanover Street there is a splendid view of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art and Architecture and on the skyline, the towers of the New College of the Free Church of Scotland.

Before weaving through the crowds on Princes Street, grin or grimace eastwards in the direction of the monument and statue commemorating the writer Sir Walter Scott (you may like to climb to the top) then cross the bottom of The Mound with care to descend the steps down to Princes Street Gardens.

Pause at the Floral Clock then spend time enjoying the gardens and the best views of the great lump of volcanic rock topped by Edinburgh Castle.

First published in the Glasgow Herald

Further Information: www.cathedral.net

For Phoebe Traquair Song School Murals Tour

Cathedral Chorus Services with the Choir of St. Mary’s Cathedral

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Monterey and Robert Louis Stevenson

2017-02-22 11:39:33

Big Sur is a spectacular 90 miles of Californian coast. Henry Miller, the late American author, artist and one time resident, described it as "a region where one is always conscious of eloquent silence...the face of the Earth as the Creator intended it to look." It”s a protected habitat. Sea otters frolic where once they were trapped for their fur, while whales pass close by the shore on their annual migration.

Pacific Highway 1 snakes across and around Big Sur”s ocean battered headlands. In places, the seaward side of the road is bitten into by deeply gouged boulder strewn inlets. Sheer rock faces of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range threaten the landward side.

Negotiating the bends in this road fairly concentrates a driver”s mind. Passengers meanwhile, from car or touring coach, gape open-mouthed at the dramatic scenery or the sight of surfers delighting in the challenge of huge waves, which surge up the few small beaches.

When travelling this route from Los Angeles to San Francisco in a hired car we stopped off in Monterey. This was once a sleepy, Mexican Spanish town which developed important whaling and sardine industries. Now these businesses are defunct but the natural harbour and bay, the original attractions, still draw visitors.

Boat trips to catch fish, to scuba dive for ever closer encounters, to commune with sea birds or whales, sea lions and sea otters are on offer. While hang gliders and balloonists choose to drift in the sky above the blue water, other thrill seekers prefer free-falling with a parachute that allows a slowed down descent. For more mundane pursuits, the traffic free recreational trail bordering Monterey Bay appeals to joggers, cyclists, and those favouring roller blades.

We were content to build sandcastles on the beach and work up appetites before enjoying dinner with locally produced wines. Fisherman”s Wharf offers a choice of restaurants guaranteeing seafood “as fresh as it gets” from the catch of the day.

With the sea in front and mountains behind, Monterey seems to have been agreeable and inspirational for great literary figures. John Steinbeck, a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner in 1962, moved the few miles from nearby Salinas to Monterey in his early twenties. There, he gathered material for his novels, Sweet Thursday and Cannery Row. Where he once observed and wrote about the canning factories, the workers, the winos and other characters, there now stands the Monterey Bay Aquarium, considered one of the world”s finest. Cannery Row is now renamed Steinbeck Plaza, complete with a bust of the great man. It houses up- market shops, restaurants and art galleries. Steinbeck would probably not have been impressed.

Robert Louis Stevenson also travelled to Monterey. From Greenock, Scotland, “The Devonia” steamed down the River Clyde on 7th August 1879 to cross the Atlantic. "I am in fair spirits but a little off my nut," he wrote from the ship and was glad to arrive in New York some 10 days later.

He then crossed America by train from Jersey City to San Francisco. Yet another train, on a narrow gauge railway, took him south to Salinas. Finally, in ill health, worsened by the rigours of his journey, he was delivered by stagecoach to Monterey.

He endured all of this for love, or so he thought, thinking he was on his way to be married. But there would be no immediate fairy tale ending for Stevenson. His bride to be, Fanny Osbourne, was having second thoughts.

It was some time before Stevenson was well enough to appreciate his surroundings, saying - “on no other coast that I know shall you enjoy, in calm, sunny weather, such a spectacle of Ocean”s greatness, such beauty of changing colour, or such degrees of colour in the sound”.

Stevenson only stayed in Monterey for a few months, but left his mark. A private school is named after him and at nearby Pebble Beach, golfers playing the Spyglass Hill course tee off towards a hole called Blind Pew, fictional names from perhaps his most famous novel Treasure Island. Today, the town is much changed but some of the historical buildings remain from Stevenson”s time. The two storied adobe house where he lived is fronted by a flower garden. The property has been preserved in his memory and it”s enlightening to join a tour led through the house by a knowledgeable enthusiastic guide.

Seeing the author”s velvet jacket lying on his own bed alongside his other everyday furnishings is quite an eerie experience.

The "French House", as it was called locally was owned by a French-Swiss hotelier. He and his wife had a large family, so adding parts to the building to accommodate them all was an ongoing affair. Stevenson gave English lessons to some of the children in lieu of rent and also produced articles for the local newspaper. When he was not working he would roam the woods around the town or go further into the redwood canyons, still a popular pastime with hikers today.

Our guide through the French House was thrilled to learn we were Scottish and actually knew Stevenson”s Edinburgh haunts. She gave us directions for following another part of the author”s journey, to San Francisco.

From Monterey, Pacific Highway 1 northwards becomes progressively busier. The city”s one-way system is baffling, the lack of parking spaces maddening and the thought of wheel clamping or impounding, even worse. So, it was a great relief to be rid of the rented car and end that part of our journey.

RLS also concluded one journey and began another there. He finally married Fanny Osbourne in May 1880. A few months later, Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson began a return trip to Scotland by train and boat.

Hours before our own return to Scotland, we sat beside the galleon-topped memorial to the writer in Portsmouth Plaza on the edge of San Francisco”s China Town. In a chance meeting with a Chinese – American man, we discussed the author”s early life (born in Edinburgh in 1850) his Scottish influences including Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott and the fact that his books are still being read today.

First published in The Glasgow Herald

Further information: Robert Louis Stevenson”s tale of his trip to America”s west coast is called The Amateur Immigrant.

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