Performing at Heriot Row, the Stevenson family home In Edinburgh, was a long term aspiration for both Judy and me. This year we were invited to be the performers at an event to celebrate RLS’ birthday, November 13th., as part of the annual citywide celebrations.
The MacFie family opens its home in Heriot Row, in Edinburgh’s New Town, on that day for a different Stevenson-related event each year, and serves magnificent canapés and champagne during the evening. You can find out about their home here.
So that’s the background, but what was it like for us to perform in this setting?
On entry, up the steps from the street, as the front door opens, the history is palpable. The home has had very few different owners (I think four?) since the Stevensons sold it. It has been subtly modernised to make it a marvellous family home, yet hardly altered from the original 1805 building in its ‘feel’.
A couple of times during the show, in the upstairs drawing room, Judy and I became a little overwhelmed by the experience. Obviously, a husband and wife are quite finely tuned to each other’s mood, and I thought for a second at one point in the show, that Judy was going to falter. But she regained her composure and told me later what had happened. To realise, when she told the audience about the letter the 15 year old RLS had sent to his father about his health, from a spa in England, that Thomas would have opened and read that very letter standing in the drawing room close to where Judy was now standing, looking out over the darkened evening gardens opposite through those magnificent windows, was literally a breath-taking moment. One of several.
Earlier, I had a similar feeling standing outside that room before the show, tuning my guitar. Through the hallway, with the spiral staircase below and above me, echoed the sound of one of the family children playing upstairs in her bedroom. It felt as if this was the same sound which would have echoed through the house from RLS’s childhood bedroom more than 150 years before, the room where he had to spend so much time as a sickly child. The room where the young boy, confined to his bed, played with his toy soldiers, the inspiration for the poem ‘The Land of Counterpane’, which we would be singing in a few minutes. A lump came to my throat and I had to give myself a good talking to, as we started our concert.
For a show which we have performed many times in many places, and mostly without significant ‘error’, we definitely had a slight case of the heebie-jeebies that evening. We were both slightly ‘off our game’. We have continued to talk with each other about the interesting impact on us of singing, playing and performing in that space, and we continue to try to make sense of it, and to celebrate the opportunity we had.
A month earlier, we had played at Vailima, the Stevenson home in Samoa. In some ways, the experiences were similarly affecting, in some ways differently so. Why would that be?
For me, the feel of the Heriot Row house made it seem relatively unchanged from the Stevenson times. The fact that a family lives in it, the sounds of family life, of children and family members leading their lives around us, all made the step back to the Stevenson years not hard to make. In fact, they made it hard NOT to make that step back.
I don’t know for certain whether the Stevensons had concerts in that drawing room, but I’ll bet they did. It would certainly have been a waste of a beautiful acoustic room, if they did not! RLS was an inveterate whistle player, composer of whistle tunes, (in one letter from Sydney in 1890, he writes about pipe-playing and its importance to him, and signs himself 'The Unvirtuous Virtuoso’) and, if the photo from the Tahitian Celtic Club is anything to go by, he was a fiddle player too, and it is pretty certain he would have played music round the family piano in the drawing room at Heriot Row.
Altogether, it was a little difficult to remember we were in 2018, and that Fanny was not at any minute going to crash into the drawing room complaining to Thomas about the lack of internal plumbing in the house, as she did soon after her arrival, as the new daughter-in-law. Their lives there seemed so immediate and close.