The spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson is a thread that runs throughout Fairmilehead. It’s almost impossible to look at any aspect of the district without stumbling across his tracks. Even the local restaurant uses his adopted Samoan name Tusitala – “teller of tales”.
Stevenson’s father and grandfather were well known as designers and builders of lighthouses in the most inhospitable waters around the Scottish coast. Louis trained as an engineer atEdinburghUniversity, and might have joined the family business but for chronic ill-health: he had a weak chest and a permanent cough, and may have suffered from tuberculosis. For whatever reason, his heart wasn’t in engineering and, much to his parents’ dismay, he soon turned to writing.
Every summer from 1867, when Louis was 15 years old, the family stayed in Swanston Cottage, and for many years Louis either lived there or would walk from the family home in Heriot Row to see his friends. Nowadays, coming out of town, you can pick up his “Path to Swanston and the Pentlands” at Fly Walk, at the northwest end ofBraidburnPark.
The path runs through the park – which at that time was the meadows of Comiston Farm – and just after the junction with Oxgangs Avenue swings left into the oddly-named Cockmylane. Leading on past the old Comiston Springs water collection cistern and round the walled garden of Comiston Farm House, Cockmylane soon crosses White Lady Walk – where according to Stevenson “a belated carter beheld a lady in white, ‘with the most beautiful, clear shoes upon her feet,’ who looked upon him in a very ghastly manner and then vanished”. Nowadays the path itself vanishes, into the bungalows of Caiystane, before re-joining the old track at Swanston Road.
Oxgangs covers an area of about 13 acres – an “oxgang” was the area an ox could plough in a year – and Louis knew them well. Within the district were various small hamlets which are recalled in streetnames like Fordel, Auchingane, and Gallowlee. Stevenson’s father was friendly with the farmer at Oxgangs Farm, and Louis was a frequent visitor. He wrote many of the poems which later appeared in A Child’s Garden of Verse while perched in branches of the old cedar tree in the courtyard of the building. The farmhouse became Oxgangs Police Station in 1959.
But of course it is with Swanston that Stevenson is most closely linked. Swanston Cottage, where the family stayed, was built by the City Corporation in 1761 as a simple waterman’s cottage for the town’s new water supply from Swanston Springs. About 70 years later it was enlarged, eventually becoming a substantial two storey house, with a slate roof and bow windows. The house and the hills around, climbing “a thousand feet into the air”, provided the material and the inspiration for much of Louis’s writing until the end of his life – proof, if ever it were needed, that you can take the boy out of Fairmilehead, but you’ll never take Fairmilehead out of the boy.