Robert Louis Stevenson, a famous Scotsman

Robert Lewis (later: “Louis”) Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh on 13 November 1850. His father Thomas, belonged to a family of engineers who had built many of the deep sea lighthouses around the rocky coast of Scotland. His mother, Margaret Isabella Balfour, came from a family of lawyers and church ministers. In 1857 the family moved to 17 Heriot Row, in Edinburgh’s New Town. At the age of seventeen, he enrolled at Edinburgh University to study engineering, with the aim of following his dad in the family firm. However, he abandoned this and made the compromise of studying law. He “passed advocate” in 1875 but did not practice, since by now, he knew he wanted to be a writer. In the university’s summer vacations he went to France to be in the company of other young artists, both writers and painters. A turning point in Stevenson’s personal life came when he met the woman who would become his wife, Fanny Osbourne, in September 1876. She was a 36 year old American who was married (although separated) and had two children. Stevenson and Osbourne began to see each other romantically while she remained in France. In 1878, she divorced her husband, and Stevenson set out to meet her in California (the account of his voyage would later be captured in The Amateur Emigrant). The two married in 1880, and remained together until Stevenson’s death in 1894. The 1880s were notable for both Stevenson’s declining health (which had never been good). He suffered from hemorrhaging lungs caused by tuberculosis and writing was one of the few activities he could do whilst confined to bed. In this bedridden state he wrote some of his best loved fiction, Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886), Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and The Black Arrow (1888).

As a lad I enjoyed his books, still do by the way, they never age! Here are some of my favourites; Treasure Island, written in 1883 tells of Jim Hawkin’s boyhood adventure on a quest for buried treasure. The story opens at Jim’s father’s inn, the Admiral Benbow. A wild seaman, Billy Bones, comes to stay, bringing with him a large sea chest. The fantastic Master of Ballantrae – 1889 begins in 1745 and is narrated by Mackellar, the loyal, often meddling steward to the respected Durie of Durisdeer family, did you see Errol Flynn portray the Master in the old movie? Fab! The Black Arrow, 1888 set during the Wars of the Roses (1453-1487). These were a series of civil wars between the houses of Lancaster and York who were fighting for the English throne. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1886 many a film has been made of this. And my all time favourite, Kidnapped, 1886, set in Scotland just after the ’45 Jacobite rebellion and is narrated by the teenager David Balfour (the name ring any bells?). The recently orphaned David leaves to seek his fortune with his relatives, the Balfours of the House of Shaws. Possibly the worst film made,  dodgy actors with dodgy accents David Niven and the old cockney spy himsel’ Mick Caine, terrible casting (worse again, did you see that movie starring John Wayne as Ghengis Khan?). The poster above shows scenes not to be seen in the movie! It’s about time this was re made with a good Scots actor, Rabbie Carlyle maybe?

Historical Note: The Jacobite Rebellions were a series of uprisings between 1688 and 1746 in which Scots fought to reinstate the House of Stewart to the throne after they were deposed in 1688 in favour of Mary II and William of Orange. The Jacobites continued to fight to crown, until their final defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Later, when Colin Campbell, “the Red Fox”, a government factor over Stewart lands was murdered in 1752 in Appin, a certain Alan Breck Stewart was the chief suspect, although the real murderer is still unknown. However, when Alan escaped, James Stewart, the Stewart chief’s half-brother, was tried, convicted (by a Campbell Judge and Campbell jury) and hung for the crime. We point this location out when on tour near Ballachulish.

HE INVENTED THE SLEEPING BAG taking a large fleece-lined sack with him to sleep in on the journey through France described in his book Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.” For the record, his six foot square sleeping sack was made of “green waterproof cart cloth and blue sheep’s fur within”.  When he was living in America in 1878 and pursuing the unhappily married Fanny Vandegrift Osbourne, Stevenson lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He was lonely and in poor health and whilst in Tubbs Hotel he had trouble with a bleeding mouth and rotten teeth. A local dentist removed all his teeth and fitted him with false wooden replacements. He married Fanny shortly afterwards.

Catriona (also known as David Balfour) is a novel written in 1893 as a sequel to Kidnapped. It tells the further story of the central character David Balfour. The book begins precisely where Kidnapped ends, at 2 PM on 25 August 1751 outside the British Linen Company in Edinburgh, Scotland. Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894). A literary celebrity during his lifetime, Stevenson now ranks among the 26 most translated authors in the world. Get reading! Paul McLean, Perth 2019