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Three Literary Heroes of Scotland

A Tour of Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson Sites


Our modern ideas of Scotland were largely shaped by her three most important early writers, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. Even if you don't think you've read their work, you have probably fallen under their influence.

If you've ever, for example, used the expression, "The best laid plans of mice and men..." you're quoting directly from the Burns poem, To a Mouse. Wondered whether your distance Scottish ancestors had a clan tartan? You can thank Sir Walter Scott for that. And as far as Robert Louis Stevenson is concerned, every boy's dream of finding a pirate's hidden treasure map probably stems from his classic tale, Treasure Island.

All the most important landmarks associated with these writers are within a short drive of either Glasgow or Edinburgh. If you are visiting Scotland, you can fit them all in within just a few days.

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

Burns Museum in Alloway, Ayr
Visit Britain

In 2009, viewers of Scottish Television voted Robert Burns (known affectionately as Rabbie Burns or Robbie Burns) as the Greatest Scot (note - not the greatest Scots writer or greatest Scots poet, but simply the greatest Scot.)

The son of a poor tenant farmer, born in Alloway, south of the west coast city of Ayr, Burns was educated by his father and by tutors but was basically unschooled. Despite a lack of formal education - or perhaps because of it - Burns words are everywhere. We all sing at least some of the words of Auld Lang Syne every New Year's Eve. Bob Dylan once said the Burn's poem, A Red, Red Rose was the biggest influence on his own verses. And his line, "The best laid schemes o' mice and men gang aft agley", from To a Mouse not only forms the title of the John Steinbeck novel and subsequent film and play, but has become a common expression when things go all keflooey.

In 2010 the National Trust for Scotland opened the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, incorporating the Alloway cottage where he was born with a shiny new, family-friendly museum. There you can examine some of the most important collections of his work, the pistol he was packing when he worked as a tax collector, a lock of his hair and a variety of child-pleasing interactive exhibits. You can also explore the Burns Memorial Gardens and see the hump-backed Brig o' Doon, over which his hero Tam o'Shanter was forced to flee.

The museum, about 35 miles south of Glasgow (but only about 7 miles from Gatwick's Prestwick Airport) is open year round. Visit the museum website for current opening times and prices, and to find out more. The clever website even has a Parents' Survival Guide.

Sir Walter Scott

The Scott Monument, Edinburgh
Bernt Rostad

Sir Walter Scott, who wrote in the late 18th and early 19th century and was lauded in his lifetime, with an output of more than two dozen novels plus several volumes of long narrative poems and stories.

The Scott Monument in Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens is the tallest monument to a writer in the world, standing at more than 200 feet. If you are up to climing the 287 step spiral staircases to the top you can enjoy amazing views of the city and the surrounding countryside. Along the way, look for 64 statues of Scott's characters.

Scott's densely written novels fell out of favor and by the mid 20th century were rarely read, except by students. Yet the stories - Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, The Lady of the Lake, the Heart of Midlothian and the Bride of Lammermoor are familiar from films, opera and adaptations. Even our modern notion of the English hero Robin Hood is said to derive from Robin of Locksley, a character in Ivanhoe.

Scott was very taken with the romantic image of the highlander and many believe that our modern concept of traditional "Scottishness" - the wearing of clan tartans, the stag hunts after the Monarch of the Glen and so forth - was actually invented by Sir Walter Scott. Certainly, many of the baronial mansions built in the 19th century were influenced by Scott's home Abbotsford, a fantasy medieval castle filled with baronial arms, stained glass and gothic artwork.

Abbotford, near Melrose, is about half an hour from Edinburgh in the Scottish Borders. It is currenly undergoing extensive renovations and will open to the public again in July 2013. At that time, one wing of the house will be available for overnight stays. Meanwhile, the Abbotsford Visitors Center, with exhibits about the author, a restaurant, a shop and access to many local countryside trails, is open and free. Visit the Abbotsford website to find out more.

Scott is buried in Dryburgh Abbey, one of the great border abbeys of Scotland. On the road between Abbotsford and Dryburgh, stop and admire Scotts View, an expansive view of the Eildon Hills, a strangely shaped row of volcanic plugs. According to the story, Scott's horse was so accustomed to stopping here while Scott admired the view that while pulling the hearse to Scott's funeral, the horse stopped as usual as though giving Scott one last look. Read more about Scott's View in my Great Scenic Drives in Britain.


Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson
Getty Images

You probably know that this Edinburgh born writer created Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and A Child's Garden of Verses. But did you know he is credited with inventing the sleeping bag? Stevenson took a fleece lined bag to sleep in while researching researching Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes about a walking trek in France.

From the age of six until he left for California in 1880 (where he nearly died of malaria and then married an American woman), Stevenson lived at 17 Heriot Row in Edinburgh. The house, now appropriately known as The Stevenson House, is privately owned and operates as a venue for meetings and private events. There are also two rooms - a twin and a double - that can be booked for a bed and breakfast stay. Visit the website to find out about staying.

You can also see what other travelers thought via TripAdvisor, but judging from the reviews I read, very few of the guests seemed to know what an illustrious house they were staying in.

The Writers Museum, Edinburgh

You can find out more about all three of Scotland's literary heroes in the Writers Museum, off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Each of the little museum's three floors is devoted to one of the writers. Displays are eccentric and idiosyncratic. You can, for example, admire Stevenson's riding boots, the printing press on which Scott's Waverley Novels were printed or a cast of Burns' skull. One poignant object is a ring given to Stevenson by a Samoan chief (Stevenson died in Samoa). The ring is engraved with the world "Tusitala" which apparently means "teller of tales."

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