Occasionally, just occasionally, usually on doctor’s orders, we lift the hatch and haul our fibrous limbs into the sun just to see what’s happening in the world. Recently, we took ourselves off on what was billed as a ‘Robert Louis Stevenson walk’. Organised by the same team who campaigned for Edinburgh to be granted the first UNESCO City Of Literature franchise, the walk was conceived as part of the ‘One Book – One Edinburgh’ campaign. Was it only February when we were all reading Kidnapped – or at least pocketing one of the 25,000 free copies? So it was, since when the City Of Literature Trust has been a wee bit quiet. Rumours of its death however are exaggerated if, like June’s rain, persistent. Late in that same month, we signed up for the RLS walk, eager to tread the same cobblestones where Stevenson’s size eights dallied long ago.
Exercise of the mind, exercise of the body – what better way to exert one’s self on a cold summer’s evening? Beforehand we speculated on just where we would be going. Obviously we’d be passing 8 Howard Place down in Canonmills, the house where Stevenson was born in November 1850. Further up we come to 17 Heriot Row, where Stevenson’s childhood unfolded, and outside of which there still stands the old gas street light which inspired his poem, ‘The Lamplighter’. It was probably asking too much to include on the itinerary Colinton Manse, the Water of Leith location where RLS’s grandfather lived and whose garden was said to have inspired A Child’s Garden of Verses. But surely to honour the author of The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, we’d have to drop in on one of his old drinking haunts – the Rutherford Bar on Drummond Street or Bannerman’s perhaps? It sounded a trek but our boot heels were newly shod and ready to be wandering.
It didn’t quite pan out that way however. The Stevenson walk did not require much walking and if we were feeling cruel we might add there wasn’t much more Stevenson involved either. Starting in the Makar’s Court outside the Writer’s Museum on the High Street, the stroll circled round to Advocates Close, up to Parliament Square and St Giles, dipping down to the Grassmarket before concluding in Greyfriars Cemetery. The Calvinist keep-fitter in us was disappointed. Even Stevenson at his most tuberculotic could have strolled round that circuit without winding himself.
A guide led the way, stopping regularly to dole out more helpings of RLS lore to the group who’d signed up for the walk. The talk was roughly chronological, though prone to reversals and accelerations. After learning of Stevenson’s truncated career as a lawyer outside the entrance to the advocates’ library at Parliament Square, within a matter of seconds and steps we were transported to St Giles and the end of the author’s life. Obviously a stop-off in Samoa was unrealistic but we wouldn’t have minded seeing the plaque dedicated to RLS inside St Giles.
But no, we were shepherded down to the Grassmarket to the spot where once public hangings made such good sport. This was judged a fit spot on which to tell us about the UNESCO City Of Literature campaign to get Edinburgh reading – make your own joke. In practice, we listened while the guide told us about the comic book adaptation of Kidnapped. Free copies of that were handed out too, to school children, rather negating the work done to get kids reading Stevenson himself. As a measure of his prestige we were told that the artist responsible normally designs Star Wars comics. Nuff said.
One must pause to say the guide did a good job reciting the tour spiel, such as it was, entirely from memory. If we were a little perturbed by her admission that she had read Kidnapped but only in chunks, never straight through, we had to bear in mind that the admission to the walk was a humble £3.
The City Of Literature team have faced criticism for a lack of imagination in promoting Auld Reekie’s bookish credentials. It is more in sorrow than in anger then that we sighingly point out that this Robert Louis Stevenson walk, which certainly has potential as an idea, is executed in a manner that would have disappointed that old swashbuckler, Stevenson himself. We charitably choose to believe that they don’t think tourists and book lovers are willing to put in the footwork to make this a walk worthy of its name rather than its organisers couldn’t be bothered confecting something a bit more professional. Either way though, they underestimate their audience – and not for the first time.