Meet Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson

Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson - Scotland's Myth Makers

Scotland's writers Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson shaped the modern myths about Scotland and its heroes. Plan an itinerary around the sites that inspired them.

Even if you don't think you've ever read a book by one of Scotland's three literary giants, Scott, Burns and Robert Louis Stevenson, or seen a film based on their work, you have probably fallen under their spells without even knowing it.

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 distant Scottish ancestors had a clan tartan? You can thank Sir Walter Scott for inventing - or at least reviving the concept of clan tartans.

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.

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The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

Robert Burns
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

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 kerflooey.

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 the city'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.

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Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott, 1771 - 1832. Novelist and poet
National Galleries of Scotland / Getty Images

Sir Walter Scott, who wrote in the late 18th and early 19th century, was lauded in his lifetime, for his 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. The house and garden are open from March through November and the visitor center and restaurant are open year round.

Stays and Weddings

One wing of the house is even available for overnight stays - what a treat for literary groupies. The Hope Scott Wing, once home of Scott's granddaughter, is available as a vacation rental for up to 15 people. Bed and breakfast accommodation is also sometimes available.

And, you can get married there! Imagine the tartan wedding, the groom in a kilt, the pipers piping in the happy couple.  Visit the Abbotsford website to find out more.

Just Up the Road

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.

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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. 

At the time of writing (March 2016) the Stevenson House website seemed to be down for construction. Try ringing on +44 (0) 131 556 1896.

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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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