The Writers' Museum occupies Lady Stair's Close, a magnificent building originally constructed in 1622 and subsequently expanded on a number of occasions, most notably in 1700. It was restored in 1897 and returned to what was assumed to be its original 1622 configuration. It is known as Lady Stair's Close because ownership passed in the 1720s to Elizabeth Dalrymple, Dowager Countess of Stair, a lady with a personality strong enough for her to be remembered in the name of both the building and the close in which it stands.
You reach Lady Stair's Close through narrow passageways descending north from the Lawnmarket, the upper part of the Royal Mile, or ascending from North Bank Street, the uphill continuation of The Mound. What you find is a fascinating building whose longest dimension appears to be its vertical one. The entrance is via a door leading into the stair turret at the corner, and from there via a spiral staircase to the main floors of the museum. What is particularly fascinating are the echoes in the structure of the sorts of ornate castles being built in parts of the Scottish countryside in the 1600s: though only up to a point, as this is without doubt an urban building.
The Writers' Museum celebrates the lives and works of three of Scotland's best known writers: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. None of these authors had direct links with the building, but Burns lived nearby in Baxter's Close on his arrival in the city in 1786, and both Scott and Stevenson were born in Edinburgh.
The entrance to Lady Stair's Close can give the impression you are entering a building with fairly cramped accommodation. A short trip of half a turn of spiral staircase soon makes clear this is far from the case. At the heart of the museum is the double height great hall, a space that is all the more impressive because it is so unexpected. The hall comes complete with a balcony running around two sides, which allows a number of viewpoints from which to fully appreciate it.
In keeping with the triple focus of its theme, The Writers' Museum comes with three distinct, and distinctly themed, areas, each looking at the life and work of one of the authors covered. The lower floor, reached by descending the spiral stair from the entrance, has several rooms looking at the life and work of Robert Louis Stevenson. Pictures on the walls complement artefacts in glass cases to give an impression of the man who produced some of the best loved adventure stories of all time.
The rear of the main floor, beyond the shop and reception, is devoted to Sir Walter Scott. Here you can find things like a collection of his walking sticks, his bonnet, and his wallet. At the far end of the hall is an area furnished to represent Scott's dining room at 39 Castle Street in Edinburgh, complete with his dining table. Also on view is Scott's chess set and the rocking horse he used as a boy.
An upper part of the building houses a recreation of the Ballantyne press, said to be one of the presses on which the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott were printed by James Ballantyne.
Robert Burns is celebrated in a series of rooms on the west side of the building. The idea of distinctive theming for each author works particularly well here, and the life and work of a man who could have achieved even more if he had not died so young is beautifully presented, together with statues of Burns and one of Highland Mary, one of the (very many) pretty ladies who took his eye and were his main weakness as well as the inspiration for much of his creative life.
Lady Stair's House was presented to the City of Edinburgh in 1907, and opened to the public in 1913, displaying a variety of collections relating to the city. In 1932 much of the collection moved to Huntly House on Canongate, to become what is now the Museum of Edinburgh. In 1955 Lady Stair's House was used to house a growing collection of memorabilia about childhood being gathered by Patrick Murray, and in 1957 this had grown so large it also moved out to form the separate Museum of Childhood, at 42 High Street. Material about Burns and Scott had been housed in Lady Stair's House from 1907, and the Stevenson collection joined them in 1962.
Outside the museum is Makar's Court a growing national literary monument. This is a peaceful public space (as peaceful as public spaces get in the heart of Edinburgh's Old Town, anyway) in which flagstones have been inscribed to commemorate the city's literary heritage.