I am a crime writer with a definite weakness for museums. My kids have been taken on educational outings to each of Edinburgh’s many museums. Entire family holidays have been based around my desire to visit a particular museum (Bovington Tank Museum – it was totally worth the 800-mile round trip.) I enjoy museums so much, I even invented one as a murder location in one of my novels – and if anyone wants to make the Edinburgh Museum of Plagues and Pandemics a reality, I’ll be first in the queue.
Given my profession it will come as no surprise that one of my favourite places is the Edinburgh Writers’ Museum. It focuses on the three greats of Scottish literature: Rabbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. In this post, I hope to give you a flavour of the museum, and why I love it so much.
One of the many joys of museums is that they are often housed in amazing buildings, and this is certainly the case here. Lady Stair’s House was a seventeenth century merchant’s property, located in a huddle of tenements just off Edinburgh’s historic High Street. After passing through a number of hands, the property was eventually gifted to the local authority and since 1907 has housed the Museum.
Tall and thin, the building has been adapted over the years with several wings being demolished and a baronial turret being added. The resulting structure is a mass of quirks both inside and out, including this wonderful seventeenth century burglar alarm (pictured)!
Each floor of Lady Stair’s House is given over to one of the writers. The ground floor houses the life and works of Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s foremost poet. Key exhibits include his writing desk, a cast of his skull, and, of course, lots of examples of his work and his music.
Moving upstairs, the first floor showcases the works of Sir Walter Scott. This is the second celebration of him in the city, as he is one of the few writers in the world to have his very own monument, which is located in Princes Street Gardens. For those with a strong enough constitution to tackle the twisty turret stairs, at the very top of the Lady Stair’s House you can find the printing press on which the famous Waverley novels were printed.
My personal favourite of the authors is honoured in the basement. Brought up on a diet of Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and A Child's Garden of Verses, I found the Robert Louis Stevenson section a delight. The exhibits focus on both his time in Edinburgh, and his later years in Western Samoa.
In one corner of the room there is a large red wood cabinet which once belonged to the Stevenson family. The significance of the piece lies in its maker – one William Brodie, Deacon of the Incorporation of Wrights, and a member of Edinburgh’s Town Council. Deacon Brodie was infamous in Edinburgh for being a respectable man during the day, and a burglar by night. He was eventually hanged for his crimes (on a scaffold of his own design), and legend has it that he was the inspiration for one of RLS’s most famous works – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
I will leave you with one last story from the Museum. Several years ago, a number of cultural organisations in Edinburgh were anonymously gifted book sculptures. Their creator, whose identity remains unknown, used the leaves of different books to create a series of diorama. The Museum’s sculpture features a scene from Jekyll and Hide, created from the pages of Ian Rankin’s second novel, Hide and Seek (pictured). This seems a wonderful way to pay tribute to Scotland’s more modern authors, while acknowledging the debt we all owe to the works of the past.
I hope you have enjoyed this virtual tour. There is lots more information about the building and its exhibition in the links below.
The Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh https://www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk/venue/writers-museum
Lady Stair’s House: https://ewh.org.uk/iconic-buildings-and-monuments/lady-stairs-house/
The Edinburgh Book Sculptures: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-30697553
Death at the Plague Museum: https://www.lesleykelly.co.uk/books
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Lesley Kelly is a crime writer from Edinburgh, Scotland. She has worked in the public and voluntary sectors for the past twenty-five years, dabbling in poetry and stand-up comedy along the way. Her Health of Strangers series, crime novels set against the background of a (fictional) pandemic are published by Sandstone Press. She lives in Edinburgh with her husband and two sons.