The young Robert Louis Stevenson enjoyed playing on a swing hung on a branch of a yew tree in the garden of Colinton Manse in Edinburgh. He went on in his life as a writer to refer to the yew in his poetry.
As autumn particularly begins to take hold each year, various events are traditionally held in Edinburgh to celebrate the life, loves and works of the Scottish literary genius Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894) in the lead up to his birthday which was on 13th November. He was christened as Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson but around aged 18 he dropped the name Balfour (a family associated with yew trees) and changed the spelling of Lewis.
His best known and globally popular works include Treasure Island, Kidnapped, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and A Child’s Garden of Verse. When a child he spent many summer holidays at Colinton in West Lothian, now a suburb of Edinburgh, where his maternal grandfather was a minister of Colinton’s parish church, dedicated to St Cuthbert. This was built in 1650, though Christian history at Colinton dates back to 1095 when the church of Halis was founded by Ethelred, the third son of Malcolm III and Queen Margaret.
When he was at Colinton, the young Robert enjoyed playing on a swing hung on a branch of a yew tree in the garden of Colinton Manse, a private location. The yew is still there, with a girth of 357 cm measured at 100 cm high (SYTHI 2018). It was noted in Kirk Sessions minutes of 1630 (1). This means the yew is ancient (at least 400 years old) if it was worthy of note at that time and predates the building of the nearby church in 1650 but by how many years is not knownv . The remains of the swing, consisting of old brackets on the branch from which it swung are still there. A modern swing, though fixed in position, has been attached to them in memorial to Stevenson’s childhood experience here.
That this yew was particularly dear to Stevenson is reflected in ‘To Minnie’ from A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) when he writes:
“ A yew, which is one of the glories of the village. Under the circuit of its wide, black branches, it was always dark and cool, and there was a green scurf over all the trunk among which glistened the round, bright drops of resin.”
The yew also inspired Stevenson to poetry and features in ‘the Manse’ from Memories and Portraits (1887):
“Below the yew – it is still there –
Our phantom voices haunt the air
As we were still at play,
And I can hear them call and say,
How far is it to Babylon?”
Needless to say this yew is a living and moreover ancient witness to the early life of one of Scotland’s premier literary giants. We can only speculate what influence this yew may have had on the formative years of what was sadly to be a comparatively brief life due to serious chest and breathing conditions.
Hard by the yew a modern building has been constructed resulting in the loss of many of its upper branches. However, the Yew is in good condition and continues to thrive. It is fortunate it was not felled to make way for the building, but the connection to Robert Louis Stevenson meant it was preserved as best as possible to be a living memorial to the great man and his immortal works.
Another yew stands in the garden of the manse which may be contemporary with its more famous companion, however, further investigation is necessary.
(1) Donald R., Stokes, J. and Ogilvie, J.: Heritage Trees of Scotland, Forestry Commission and Tree Council, 2006.