The big three. Or, maybe it’s The Big Three. Either way, it’s impossible to exaggerate their influence on literature the world over.
Located in Edinburgh, Scotland, in an area of Old Town called Lawnmarket, is a place that celebrates them as they deserve to be celebrated. The Writers’ Museum is all about Scottish writers Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, and Robert Burns.
Inside the museum you’ll find many collections – books, manuscripts, notes, portraits, and personal items like Burns’s actual writing desk, the rocking horse Scott used as a child, and Stevenson’s wardrobe, which was made by the infamous Deacon Brodie, whose life might have been the inspiration for Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
When I started writing the Scottish Bookshop mysteries, I’d, of course, heard of the writers, studied them some along the way, though it wasn’t until the last few years that I’ve given them more focused attention, doing deeper dives into their lives, their own personal journeys.
Before 2020, I hadn’t read Robert Louis Stevenson’s most well-known story about good and evil. After finally reading the novella, my first impression was that though the language was dated, it was still, unquestionably, an intriguing read. Imagine that Jekyll and Hyde wasn’t a part of our everyday lives, our vernacular for good and evil coexisting in one person. We all know the twist – now. But back when it was first published, readers didn’t have the tools we have to share details quickly and easily. It was a huge hit and is still being read and enjoyed, even though spoiler alerts have long expired. However, for me, what’s more interesting is the story behind the story.
Stevenson wrote it in three days, having dreamt it, waking his wife because of the terror the nightmare gave him. Though he’d been interested in good and evil, he now had a story. Some do say that the real-life Deacon Brodie, a craftsman by trade, who had access to his customers’ homes and was hanged for theft in Lawnmarket on October 1, 1788, was the inspiration for the story. However, there might have been another one – a man named Eugene Chantrelle, a French teacher who lived in Edinburgh and killed his wife. Chantrelle lived near Stevenson – some say they were “drinking buddies” – and it is also said that the author followed Chantrelle’s story closely, all to way to his hanging in 1878. Jekyll and Hyde was published in 1886.
Sir Walter Scott was born in 1771. He was a poet, playwright, historian, and the “Inventor” of historical fiction. He was also a judge and a legal administrator by profession. It could be said that Scott’s childhood bout with polio is what ultimately formed his writing voice and turned him into the author that he became. To improve his condition, he was sent in 1773 to live in the rural Scottish Borders at his grandparents’ home. Here he was taught to read by his aunt Jenny Scott, learning from her the speech patterns and many of the tales and legends that are found in much of his work. Possibly, were it not for his illness, he might not have become such a successful and legendary writer.
Robert Burns and his works play a big part in my most recent Scottish Bookshop mystery, The Burning Pages. Of the three greats, to me he’s the most compelling. Burns (Rabbie) was quite the character. Born into the most austere of conditions, during his short life, he never did achieve enough fame to give him much of a fortune. He wasn’t the best of men, having fathered children outside of his marriage, and probably enjoying whisky more than he should have, but he certainly had a way with words. His poetry is still engaging. Before writing The Burning Pages, I read Burns’s poem Tam o’Shanter for the first time. Though it’s written in the Scots language and difficult to get through quickly, with that reading, I understood why he was one of the Scottish literary GOATs. In fact, many of us celebrate him every year – his words were the inspiration for the lyrics of Auld Lang Syne.
Toward the end of his life, his political leanings got him in some trouble. It is said he became despondent. He would go for long horse rides, often in inclement weather, which probably exacerbated a heart condition. He couldn’t do anything part way, and it is speculated that the “habits of intemperance” – an inability to do anything less than full-on – contributed to his death at the young age of thirty-seven.
It’s impossible for me to fully understand what these men, all the citizens of Scotland in fact, went through those centuries ago, but I’m grateful for any of the literature from that time, always intrigued by the mysteries and nuances that come together to make a writer’s life and help me see the world through their eyes, even if only for a short time.
There is so much to see and do in Edinburgh. If you’re lucky enough to visit, don’t forget to add the Writers’ Museum to your to-do list.
Thanks to my readers and to CrimeReads for letting me stop by today.
Featured image: Alexander Nasmyth, 1825,
Princes Street with the Commencement of the Building of the Royal Institution