17 Heriot Row by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

There is a small black notebook into which I look once or twice a year to refresh my memory of a carnal and spiritual pilgrimage to Edinburgh, made with Mifflin McGill (upon whose head be peace) in the summer of 1911. It is a testament of light-hearted youth, savoury with the unindentured joys of twenty-one and the grand literary passion. Would that one might again steer Shotover (dearest of pushbikes) along the Banbury Road, and see Mifflin’s lean shanks twirl up the dust on the way to Stratford! Never was more innocent merriment spread upon English landscape. When I die, bury the black notebook with me.

That notebook is memorable also in a statistical way, and perchance may serve future historians as a document proving the moderate cost of wayfaring in those halcyon days. Nothing in Mr. Pepys’ diary is more interesting than his meticulous record of what his amusements cost him. Mayhap some future economist will pore upon these guileless confessions. For in the black memorandum book I succeeded, for almost the only time in my life, in keeping an accurate record of the lapse of coin during nine whole days. I shall deposit the document with the Congressional Library in Washington for future annalists; in the meantime I make no excuse for recounting the items of the first sixty hours. Let no one take amiss the frequent entries marked “cider.” July, 1911, was a hot month and a dusty, and we were biking fifty miles the day. Please reckon exchange at two cents per penny.

L | s. | d

July 16 pint cider | | 4
1/2 pint cider | | 11/2
lunch at Banbury | 2 | 2
pint cider at Ettington | | 3
supper at Stratford | 1 | 3
stamp and postcard | | 2
| 4 | 31/2

July 17 Postcards and stamps | | 9
pencil | | 1
Warwick Castle | 2 | –
cider at the Bear and Baculus | |
(which Mifflin would call the | |
Bear and Bacillus) | | 21/2
Bowling Green Inn, bed and | |
breakfast | 3 | 2
Puncture | 1 | –
Lunch, Kenilworth | 1 | 6
Kenilworth Castle | | 6
Postcards | | 4
Lemonade, Coventry | | 4
Cider | | 21/2
Supper, Tamworth,
The Castle Hotel | 2 | 1
| 16 | 51/2

July 18 Johnson house, Lichfield | | 3
cider at The Three Crowns | | 4
postcard and shave | | 4
The King’s Head, bed and breakfast | 3 | 7
cider | | 2
tip on road[A] | | 11/2
lunch, Uttoxeter | 1 | 3
cider, Ashbourne, The Green | |
| | 3
landlord’s drink, Ashbourne[B] | | 1
supper, Newhaven House, | 1 | –
lemonade, Buxton | | 3

TOTAL L1 4 1

[Footnote A: As far as I can remember, this was a gratuity to a rather tarnished subject who directed us at a fork in the road, near a railway crossing.]

[Footnote B: This was a copper well lavished; for the publican, a ventripotent person with a liquid and glamorous brown eye, told us excellent gossip about Dr. Johnson and George Eliot, both heroes in that neighbourhood. “Yes,” we said, “that man Eliot was a great writer,” and he agreed.]

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That is to say, 24 bob for two and a half days. We used to reckon that ten shillings a day would do us very nicely, barring luxuries and emergencies. We attained a zealous proficiency in reckoning shillings and pence, and our fervour in posting our ledgers would have gladdened a firm of auditors. I remember lying on the coping of a stone bridge over the water of Teviot near Hawick, admiring the green-brown tint of the swift stream bickering over the stones. Mifflin was writing busily in his notebook on the other side of the bridge. I thought to myself, “Bless the lad, he’s jotting down some picturesque notes of something that has struck his romantic eye.” And just then he spoke–“Four and eleven pence half-penny so far to-day!”

Would I could retrogress over the devious and enchanting itinerary. The McGill route from Oxford to Auld Reekie is 417 miles; it was the afternoon of the ninth day when with thumping hearts we saw Arthur’s Seat from a dozen miles away. Our goal was in sight!

There was a reason for all this pedalling madness. Ever since the days when we had wandered by Darby Creek, reading R.L.S. aloud to one another, we had planned this trip to the gray metropolis of the north. A score of sacred names had beckoned us, the haunts of the master. We knew them better than any other syllables in the world. Heriot Row, Princes Street, the Calton Hill, Duddingston Loch, Antigua Street, the Water of Leith, Colinton, Swanston, the Pentland Hills–O my friends, do those names mean to you what they did to us? Then you are one of the brotherhood–what was to us then the sweetest brotherhood in the world!

In a quiet little hotel in Rutland Square we found decent lodging, in a large chamber which was really the smoking room of the house. The city was crowded with tourists on account of an expected visit of the King and Queen; every other room in the hotel was occupied. Greatly to our satisfaction we were known as “the smoking-room gentlemen” throughout our stay. Our windows opened upon ranks of corridor-cars tying on the Caledonian Railway sidings, and the clink and jar of buffers and coupling irons were heard all night long. I seem to remember that somewhere in his letters R.L.S. speaks of that same sound. He knew Rutland Square well, for his boyhood friend Charles Baxter lived there. Writing from Samoa in later years he says that one memory stands out above all others of his youth–Rutland Square. And while that was of course only the imaginative fervour of the moment, yet we were glad to know that in that quiet little cul de sac behind the railway terminal we were on ground well loved by Tusitala.

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The first evening, and almost every twilight while we were in Auld Reekie, we found our way to 17 Heriot Row–famous address, which had long been as familiar to us as our own. I think we expected to find a tablet on the house commemorating the beloved occupant; but no; to our surprise it was dark, dusty, and tenantless. A sign TO SELL was prominent. To take the name of the agent was easy. A great thought struck us. Could we not go over the house in the character of prospective purchasers? Mifflin and I went back to our smoking room and concocted a genteel letter to Messrs. Guild and Shepherd, Writers to the Signet.

Promptly came a reply (Scots business men answer at once).

16 Charlotte Square, Edinburgh.

26th July, 1911



We have received your letter regarding this house. The
house can be seen at any time, and if you will let us
know when you wish to view it we shall arrange to have
it opened.

We are,

Yours faithfully,


Our hearts were uplifted, but now we were mightily embarrassed as to the figure we would cut before the Writers to the Signet. You must remember that we were two young vagabonds in the earliest twenties, travelling with slim knapsacks, and much soiled by a fortnight on the road. I was in knickerbockers and khaki shirt; Mifflin in greasy gray flannels and subfusc Norfolk. Our only claims to gentility were our monocles. Always take a monocle on a vagabond tour: it is a never-failing source of amusement and passport of gentility. No matter how ragged you are, if you can screw a pane in your eye you can awe the yokel or the tradesman.

The private records of the firm of Guild and Shepherd doubtless show that on Friday, July 28, 1911, one of their polite young attaches, appearing as per appointment at 17 Heriot Row, was met by two eccentric young gentlemen, clad in dirty white flannel hats, waterproof capes, each with an impressive monocle. Let it be said to the honour of the attache in question that he showed no symptoms of surprise or alarm. We explained, I think, that we were scouting for my father, who (it was alleged) greatly desired to settle down in Edinburgh. And we had presence of mind enough to enquire about plumbing, stationary wash-tubs, and the condition of the flues. I wish I could remember what rent was quoted.

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He showed us all through the house; and you may imagine that we stepped softly and with beating hearts. Here we were on the very track of the Magician himself: his spirit whispered in the lonely rooms. We imagined R.L.S. as a little child, peering from the windows at dusk to see Leerie light the street-lamps outside–a quaint, thin, elvish face with shining brown eyes; or held up in illness by Cummie to see the gracious dawn heralded by oblongs of light in the windows across the Queen Street gardens. We saw the college lad, tall, with tweed coat and cigarette, returning to Heriot Row with an armful of books, in sad or sparkling mood. The house was dim and dusty: a fine entrance hall, large dining room facing the street–and we imagined Louis and his parents at breakfast. Above this, the drawing room, floored with parquet oak, a spacious and attractive chamber. Above this again, the nursery, and opening off it the little room where faithful Cummie slept. But in vain we looked for some sign or souvenir of the entrancing spirit. The room that echoed to his childish glee, that heard his smothered sobs in the endless nights of childish pain, the room where he scribbled and brooded and burst into gusts of youth’s passionate outcry, is now silent and forlorn.

With what subtly mingled feelings we peered from room to room, seeing everything, and yet not daring to give ourselves away to the courteous young agent. And what was it he said?–“This was the house of Lord So-and-so” (I forget the name)–“and incidentally, Robert Louis Stevenson lived here once. His signature occurs once or twice in the deeds.”


Like many houses in Auld Reekie, 17 Heriot Row is built on a steep slant of ground, so that the rear of the house is a storey or more higher than the face. We explored the kitchens, laundries, store-rooms, and other “offices” with care, imagining that little “Smoutie” may have run here and there in search of tid-bits from the cook. Visions of that childhood, fifty years before, were almost as real as our own. We seemed to hear the young treble of his voice. That house was the home of the Stevensons for thirty years (1857-1887)–surely even the thirty years that have gone by since Thomas Stevenson died cannot have laid all those dear ghosts we conjured up!

We thanked our guide and took leave of him. If the firm of Guild and Shepherd should ever see this, surely they will forgive our innocent deception, for the honour of R.L.S. I wonder if any one has yet put a tablet on the house? If not, Mifflin and I will do so, some day.

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In the evenings we used to wander up to Heriot Row in the long Northern dusk, to sit on the front steps of number 17 waiting for Leerie to come and light the famous lamp which still stands on the pavement in front of the dining-room windows:

For we are very lucky, with a lamp before the door,
And Leerie stops to light it as he lights so many more;
And O! before you hurry by with ladder and with light,
O Leerie, see a little child and nod to him to-night!

But no longer does Leerie “with lantern and with ladder come posting up the street.” Nowadays he carries a long pole bearing a flame cunningly sheltered in a brass socket. But the Leerie of 1911 (“Leerie-light-the-lamps” is a generic nickname for all lamplighters in Scotland) was a pleasant fellow even if ladderless, and we used to have a cigar ready for him when he reached 17. We told him of R.L.S., of whom he had vaguely heard, and explained the sanctity of that particular lamp. He in turn talked freely of his craft, and learning that we were Americans he told us of his two sisters “in Pennsylvania, at 21 Thorn Street.” He seemed to think Pennsylvania a town, but finally we learned that the Misses Leerie lived in Sewickley where they were doing well, and sending back money to the “kiddies.” Good Leerie, I wonder do you still light the lamps on Heriot Row, or have you too seen redder beacons on Flanders fields?

One evening I remember we fell into discussion whether the lamp-post was still the same one that R.L.S. had known. We were down on hands and knees on the pavement, examining the base of the pillar by match-light in search of possible dates. A very seedy and disreputable looking man passed, evidently regarding us with apprehension as detectives. Mifflin, never at a loss, remarked loudly “No, I see no footprints here,” and as the ragged one passed hastily on with head twisted over his shoulder, we followed him. At the corner of Howe Street he broke into an uneasy shuffle, and Mifflin turned a great laugh into a Scotland Yard sneeze.

Howe Street crosses Heriot Row at right angles, only a few paces prom No. 17. It dips sharply downhill toward the Water of Leith, and Mifflin and I used to stand at the corner and wonder just where took place the adventure with the lame boy which R.L.S. once described when setting down some recollections of childhood.

In Howe street, round the corner from our house, I often saw a lame boy of rather a rough and poor appearance. He had one leg much shorter than the other, and wallowed in his walk, in consequence, like a ship in a seaway. I had read more than enough, in tracts and goody story books, of the isolation of the infirm; and after many days of bashfulness and hours of consideration, I finally accosted him, sheepishly enough I daresay, in these words: “Would you like to play with me?” I remember the expression, which sounds exactly like a speech from one of the goody books that had nerved me to the venture. But the answer was not one I had anticipated, for it was a blast of oaths. I need not say how fast I fled. This incident was the more to my credit as I had, when I was young, a desperate aversion to addressing strangers, though when once we had got into talk I was pretty certain to assume the lead. The last particular may still be recognized. About four years ago I saw my lame lad, and knew him again at once. He was then a man of great strength, rolling along, with an inch of cutty in his mouth and a butcher’s basket on his arm. Our meeting had been nothing to him, but it was a great affair to me.

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We strolled up the esplanade below the Castle, pausing in Ramsay’s Gardens to admire the lighted city from above. In the valley between the Castle and Princes Street the pale blue mist rises at night like an exhalation from the old gray stones. The lamps shining through it blend in a delicate opalescent sheen, shot here and there with brighter flares. As the sky darkens the castle looms in silhouette, with one yellow square below the Half Moon Battery. “There are no stars like the Edinburgh street lamps,” says R.L.S. Aye, and the brightest of them all shines on Heriot Row.

The vision of that child face still comes to me, peering down from the dining-room window. R.L.S. may never have gratified his boyish wish to go round with Leerie and light the lamps, but he lit many and more enduring flames even in the hearts of those who never saw him.

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