Getting Closer to RLS

Sunday Star Times Competition

October 2023

I wish I could say I’d met the great writer of “Treasure Island” but it would have had to be someone else in 1960s Edinburgh, that person in their 80s who had met Robert Louis Stevenson, about 1890 on the island of Samoa. I was thrilled enough though in the Swinging Sixties to meet someone who had imbibed with Dylan Thomas. More of that later.  

My mother had a collection of John Buchan novels, beautiful red books … well read too! I really enjoyed them, you’ll know “The Thirty-Nine Steps” I’m sure … at least seen one of the four films. Then there were Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, read heaps of them. I felt pretty close to both these writers in Edinburgh in the 1960s. RLS is famous also for his quotes. In fact, many people probably use one without knowing the writer: “It’s better to travel than to arrive.” To be more accurate in the way Stevenson wrote it:  “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour”. There are many other sayings from Stevenson’s writings, such as,  “The man who forgets to be thankful has fallen asleep in life.” Also, 

“Every heart that has beat strongly and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world.” Another one: “That man is a success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much”.

I imagine Stevenson enjoyed a drop, probably whisky, considering where he came from. Actually, not sure about that – he didn’t have a strong constitution, suffered ill health most of his life. However, he enjoyed smoking! Back then there would have been only health benefits! In fact, on doctor’s orders he left Edinburgh and its miserable, cold, damp weather in the long winters to spend the last four years of his short life in the warmth of Samoa. However, he managed a fair bit of travelling in his life, in spite of poor health. 

One of the greatest things he did was a 10-day walk in the Cevennes in the South of France, writing all about it in “Travels with a Donkey”. There are Stevenson tours in the Cevennes, you can trace his footsteps, the donkey’s hoofsteps. Her name was Clementine. The French peasant who sold her to Stevenson actually sold him a mule but he couldn’t tell the difference. Anyway, she was hellishly stubborn. It isn’t pleasant reading when Stevenson tries to get her to move. He was cruel to the poor creature but she survived the journey and went on to live out her life I hope forgetting RLS’s beatings. She certainly provided good story material. I often think lucky donkey … or mule … to have spent time with the great writer, even if there was mistreatment. I’d say it was quite a romantic undertaking to walk hills with a creature, no matter how stubborn. 

The idea of a Stevenson tour is attractive, but I’m not big on tours and being guided. I am possibly a bit of a loner. Nothing wrong with that. RLS was probably a loner, would have to be to write the way he did. One thing’s for sure, walking the Cevennes was a far cry from his Edinburgh childhood which he recalled sharply in his poems for children, especially one I recall when I was a child – that was “The Lamplighter”. I remember these lines well about the old lamplighter, Leerie lighting the lamp outside the boy’s Edinburgh window, old gas lamps in those days. My mother often read it to me, can hear her now:

For we are very lucky,

with a lamp before the door,

And Leerie stops to light it 

As he lights so many more,

And oh! Before you hurry by

With ladder and with light;

O Leerie, see a little child

And nod to him tonight! 

What a lovely poem for children! RLS had a light touch … so to speak. Stevenson’s writing gave me solace, a companion for life.

Living as a child in the deep countryside I had to make friends with books and writers, with fine writing, good stories, lovely poems … my childhood companions, you could say. I spent a lot of time on my own as an only child. Of course, I had my parents but I often yearned for someone my age to play with. So I made friends with writers like John Buchan, Jack London, Edgar Allan Poe, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle … also I remember Rider Haggard and his “King Solomon’s Mines”. My favourite was Stevenson, maybe equal with Jack London who lived his short life in California when he wasn’t sailing the high seas. RLS was a bit of an adventurer, too, travelled a lot, as I said. Jack London died in 1916, and in the mid-1960s I visited his harbour haunts in San Francisco; RLS died in 1894, and in the late 1960s I managed to get very close to where he spent the first half of his life. 

His family home was up for sale and I paid a visit as an interested buyer – no chance of doing that in my early twenties, I just wanted to imagine RLS being there, looking out the same windows, the same views through the eyes of the great writer. I like that kind of thing, a great exercise of the imagination.  

It was a lovely home on three or four floors, full of light, with its own gardens at the back. It was obvious the family had been well off. RLS’s father Robert Stevenson was an engineer, famous in Scotland for building the Bell Rock Lighthouse off the east coast. I think RL was supposed to follow in dad’s footsteps but he took Law for a time at university. The Stevenson lighthouse was a lifesaver, the rocks there being treacherous, so his dad became a hero. The great writer’s home was from age five to 28 at 17 Heriot Row in Edinburgh’s beautiful Georgian New Town.

It was totally amazing to stand and look out on the huge back gardens, seeing the same views as Stevenson did nearly 100 years before. He would have enjoyed the gardens, the hills and the same sight of sky. An interesting thing, the gardens contained a pond with a tiny island, and I thought surely the inspiration for “Treasure Island”. Also I learned that the lamps on the outside of the house were the originals, so the lamplighter poem came to mind.

I’m reminded now of my cousin, Billy who plays great old Rock’n’Roll for a living, he wrote a stage performance on Stevenson and his works, putting the show on at the Edinburgh Festival. He used an actor, playing the part of the writer, dramatising some scenes from the novels, and he managed to acquire the services of a well known Edinburgh comedian and TV personality, Ronnie Corbett, to do some of the readings and the linking commentary. Overall it was telling the story of Stevenson’s life and times, a musical homage. I couldn’t go to the show because I was living in Japan at that time in 1985. I like to think that Billy got very close to RLS in writing his “Flowers in the Rain” performance. 

I have a close friend in Australia. I was at Edinburgh university where he studied medicine and I did arty-farty Arts, involving a heap of reading and writing … maybe the reason I’m able to write this wonderful stuff now! Anyway, my friend Tom went to Samoa in 1986 – I like exact dates, perhaps a symptom or result of ageing, there being more time behind than ahead.

Tom told me that the locals still adored the great writer from Edinburgh. RLS was famous in his lifetime of 44 years, and he lived four years in Samoa. Then he was buried there, people coming from all over the world to visit his grave. Samoans revered him. 

Tom tried to stay at the old hotel eponymously named Aggie Grey – she had been born in Samoa in 1897, only a few years after RLS died, so they got very close to each other. As he was waiting in reception, Aggie, in her late 80s by this time, was  wheeled into the hotel foyer for purpose of entertaining the guests, many of whom knew of her and were pleased to see her. 

She managed to catch Tom’s eye, and lifted her stick to signal him over. He was intrigued and realised she wanted to speak, so he obeyed her summons. She croaked into his ear and he nodded vigorously, replying, “Thank you ma’am, we certainly will, we promise.” Aggie was wheeled away, looking pleased with her achievement.

Aggie had told Tom that she hadn’t been to Stevenson’s grave in a long time, loved the writer, but in her condition now wouldn’t be able to pay her respects again, so would Tom do her the honour of paying a visit, a kind of pilgrimage on her behalf? He was planning to go anyway, so he was more than able to accede solemnly to her request.

It turned out to be an unexpected hike of 30 minutes up the hill, Mount Vaea behind Stevenson’s house, now a museum. Tom told me it was a moving experience, seeing the writer’s grave amid palm trees and hibiscus, everything so tropical and lush, the sounds of honeyeaters, pigeons and bulbuls all around, such a far cry from his native St Andrews on the dreich east coast of Scotland, and also from RLS’s Edinburgh. He said there were sweeping views across Samoa and over the South Pacific Ocean. He sensed that Stevenson must have felt settled there, even so far from home, for the last years of his short life among the Samoans who loved him, conferring on him the native name, Tusitala, “Teller of Tales”, a sign of affection and thanks for the help and advice he gave them to improve their lives. 

Here’s an addendum to Tom’s tale – I was out and about recently one day here in the sub-tropical and international town of Kerikeri, New Zealand. I went into the Hospice store for cheap pet-food for our three rescue cats. The storeman there was an elderly gent with a strange accent, so I asked him where he was from originally. I was surprised to hear it was Western Samoa and he had come to Kiwiland on holiday when he was 18, and never looked back. Of course, he knew of Stevenson and told me he was called Tusitala – the way he said it I surmised wrongly that it was Pidgin English. Later, Wikipedia told me it was Samoan, a language RLS learned and wrote in. The storeman said that Stevenson’s old house and the land behind it, including the graveyard was now government owned. Then he said, “Aggie Grey came to Kerikeri several times to visit an aunt, a long time ago.” I could feel my mouth fall open.

A final word here on RLS in Samoa. He died, not writing, not in a bed or chair … he collapsed as he was straining to open a bottle of wine. It was great that he had written a poem for his gravestone, suitably called Requiem, half of it at the end of this story. 

Back in the 1960s I did a course in Scottish Literature. It was well put together with a quirkiness one would expect from some eccentrics involved with delivering Scottish Studies. I chatted to one of its luminaries, Hamish Henderson in a pub one time – that wee tale will be told soon. The course covered centuries of writers from early ballad writers (“makars” of poems) to the modern day, also “Waverley” by Walter Scott, and the 20th-century writers such as MacDiarmid and Lewis Grassick Gibbon. I recall enjoying “Confessions of a Justified Sinner” by James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd and also RLS’s “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. 

Stevenson lives on in Edinburgh in a fine museum, The Writers’ Museum, containing works and possessions from his old Edinburgh home. RLS shares the museum with Scott and Burns. It’s a great place with views over to Princes Street. The Stevenson collection joined the museum in the early 1960s, so it would have been often frequented by an American eccentric in our literature class – he paraded around the university dressed like his hero, RLS. 

One garb stood out. He wore what Stevenson decked himself out in to visit the whore houses of Edinburgh. The prostitutes all knew him and had a nickname for him: “Velvet Coat” because of the fine black jacket he wore. The American had a similar coat with lined edges and cuffs, white shirt and roughly knotted tie, and I recall a black walking stick to go with shiny black boots. You just have to Google images of RLS to see the American! I recall the student admirer had a beard and longish lank hair, even a face looking like Stevenson’s. Uncanny stuff!

I always thought it was strange that the student came to classes dressed like RLS, as if it would help him in his studies or as if RLS would have done anything like that … I mean a course in Scottish Literature. Stevenson trained himself to write his beautiful prose by practising imitating the various styles of his favourite writers. 

I mentioned at the beginning here, one Hamish Henderson, a Scottish poet working in the School of Scottish Studies. He would be the closest I’ve come to a great writer in the form of the famous poet Dylan Thomas. He had met DT some 15 years before, so maybe around 1950, or so. The centenary year of Dylan Thomas’s birth was only 10 years ago, in 2014 with much commemorating – he was Welsh, wonderful, eccentric and a great wordsmith with a sonorous reading voice. I wonder what RLS sounded like, the spoken voice a great way to feel closer surely. Dylan Thomas went to America several times on reading tours, actually dying there aged only 39. 

I met Prof. Henderson in a popular student pub near the Edinburgh Arts buildings; I had just arrived and was ordering at the bar. I got chatting to him about this and that, possibly I told him I was on the Scottish Literature course. Certainly I would have said I had written an essay on Dylan Thomas. He told me that he had met the Welsh Bard. I can recall that moment clear as a favourite poem. It took my breath away; I had to sip my pint reflectively; I wanted to ask so many questions but had to restrain myself, not wanting to invade his privacy because he often popped in for a quick pint or two, enjoying standing at the bar by himself. 

I also knew that he was quite a poet himself and had led a big life, so I didn’t want to overshadow this by asking too much about someone else, even if it was Dylan Thomas. After I recovered my composure, I asked what the great poet was like, and he said he was surprisingly both reserved and talkative, the centre of attention, everyone buzzing around him. He was definitely a character, drinking huge amounts. I wish I had asked Prof. Henderson about RLS, not that he could have said he’d met him, but I’m sure his insights into one of Scotland’s greatests would have been enlightening. I was pleased to have talked to the professor, himself a writer, a collector of old Scots folk-songs and a founder of the now huge international Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

To end on a very close encounter with a famous writer. I lived and worked in Japan a long time and made some interesting foreign friends there, one of whom had also lived in Paris. Charlie, a fellow Scot, was walking one day in the Jardin du Luxembourg when he recognised Samuel Beckett, also taking the air there. Charlie went up to him and said, “I like your work – your plays are great but your novels are shite!” They walked and talked for an hour! 

I do like stories about writers, lovely memories of such as RLS, helping me to relish interesting and humorous moments, lifting the present and making things better. People have said to me I should try getting closer to RLS by dressing like him, as the American student had done. Well, that suits some folk but I prefer to read RLS’s essays and appreciate his style, go to places in Edinburgh where he lived, walked, frequented, and also try to recount wee stories about his life, not forgetting the lifelong search for someone who met someone who knew the great writer who wrote this for his gravestone. 

Under the wide and starry sky

Dig the grave and let me lie; …

… Home is the sailor, home from sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.