R.L.S. in Perthshire.
The visit of R.L.S. with his wife and parents, to Perthshire in 1881, although brief, led to the writing of some of his most brilliant stories. Beforehand, he had instructed his father, Thomas Stevenson, 'If we are to come to Scotland, I will have fir-trees, and I want a burn, the firs for my physical, the water for my moral health'. He was then thirty-one years old, married to a divorced American, Fanny Osbourne, ten years his senior and with a grown boy named Lloyd. (Both he and Fanny took immense interest in the literary work of R.L.S. and left memoirs of the writer which I quote from later.) Mr. and Mrs. Stevenson senior, a couple with very strict religious beliefs, had at first been deeply shocked by the marital status of their only son's wife. But when Robert brought Fanny home from America to meet his parents they capitulated, accepting her with gentle kindness and warmth.
They all went north to Pitlochry at the beginning of June, and for some weeks in that neighbourhood R.L.S. enjoyed a sudden upsurge of health and creative energy, which allowed him to spend hours at the spinning of tales now classed among his best. He also wrote many letters. In one to his friend Edmund Gosse, sent from Pitlochry, where a few days were spent at Fisher's Hotel, he says: 'My dear Weg, Here I am in my native land, being gently blown and hailed upon, and sitting nearer and nearer to the fire. A cottage near a moor is soon to receive our human forms'.
The cottage to which Stevenson refers is in the hamlet of Kinnaird beyond Moulin on the road to Kirkmichael. The front wall now carries a plaque commemorating the stay of R.L.S. under its roof. Having left Pitlochry and moved into the Kinnaird cottage, R.L.S. wrote of it to Sidney Colvin in glowing words. 'We have a lovely spot here; a little green glen with a burn, a wonderful burn, gold and green and snow-white, singing loud and low in different steps of its career, now pouring over miniature crags, now fretting itself to death in a maze of rocky stairs and pots; never was so sweet a little river. Behind, great purple moorlands reach to Ben Vrackie. Hunger lives here, alone with larks and sheep. Sweet spot, sweet spot.'
From below this crust of peaceful sweetness certain geysers produced by the suppressed genius loci seem to have surged up into the writer's mind, rocketing his imagination to heights of horrific drama which neither Gosse nor Colvin could have guessed at after reading the serene description of Kinnaird.
Some time before the 'Tusitala' collected edition of Stevenson's works was issued by Heinemann in 1924, Fanny Stevenson, who died in 1914, set down on paper her recollections of life at the cottage. 'In a vague quest for "a house . . . a burn within reach; heather and a fir or two" we came upon Kinnaird Cottage near Pitlochry, where Professor Blackie, a picturesque and well-known figure in Scotland, had been in the habit of spending his vacations. For some reason the cottage was vacant during the summer of 1881; we were very glad indeed to engage it, though our landlady and her daughter, who were to attend to our domestic affairs, made it plain to us that we were not to be considered in the same breath with the eccentric professor. The cottage possessed more advantages than my husband had demanded when he agreed to go with his people to the Highlands, for it stood only a few yards from a wonderful burn.
'Although it was the seventh of June when we moved into the cottage, as yet we had nothing but cold rains and penetrating winds; and in all innocence (this being my first season in this beautiful and inclement region) I asked when spring would begin. "This is the spring", said my mother-in-law. "And the summer", I inquired, "when will the summer be here?" "Well", returned my mother-in-law, "we must wait for St. Swithin's Day; it all depends on what kind of weather we have then". St. Swithin's Day came and went in a storm of wind and rain. "I am afraid", confessed my mother-in-law, "that the summer is past, and we shall have no more good weather". And so it turned out. Between showers she and I wandered over the moor and along the banks of the burn, but always with umbrellas in our hands, and generally returning drenched.
'My husband, who had come to the Highlands solely for the sunshine and bracing air, was condemned to spend most of his time in our small, stuffy sitting-room, with no amusement or occupation other than that provided by his writing materials. The only book we had with us, two large volumes of the life of Voltaire, did not tend to raise our spirits. Even these, removed by my husband's parents one Sunday as not being proper Sabbath Day reading, were annexed by the elder couple, each taking a volume. Thrown entirely on our own resources for amusement, we decided to write stories and read them to each other; naturally these tales, coloured by our surroundings, were of sombre cast.'
In his booklet R.L.S. in Athole, the late T. Crouther Gordon refers to the landlady at Kinnaird Cottage, Mrs. Sim, who possessed a remarkable fund of stories about suicides, ghosts, resurrectionists and other macabre characters. Several times during his stay Stevenson asked her to divert him with these, the two of them seated snugly beside a blazing fire, oblivious of the dreich weather outside. Mrs. Sim's daughter Helen (afterwards Mrs. Craig of Kilmelford in Argyllshire) used to enjoy recounting her youthful memories of Stevenson. She thought, not without reason, that the old tales, some of them handed down in her mother's family for generations, had helped to inspire the work of their famous visitor while he lodged under their roof.
R.L.S. wrote enthusiastically to Sidney Colvin, 'My dear Colvin, The Black Man and Other Tales. Thrawn Janet. The Devil on Cramond Sands. The Shadow on the Bed. The Body Snatchers. The Wreck of the Susanna. This is the new work on which I am engaged with Fanny; they are all supernatural. Thrawn Janet is off to Stephen [Spender], but as it is all Scotch he cannot take it, I know. It was so good, I could not help sending it'. Fanny Stevenson describes the writing of this eerie tale.
'As my husband was then writing only for our mutual entertainment without thought of publication, he put his first tale, Thrawn Janet, in the vernacular of the country. "I doubt if this is good enough for my father to hear", he said as he began reading it to me. But he took heart as he went on. That evening is as clear in my memory as though it were yesterday. The dim light of our one candle, with the acrid smell of the wick we forgot to snuff; the shadows in the corners of the "lang, laigh (low) mirk chamber, perishing cauld"; the driving rain on the roof close above our heads, and the gusts of wind that shook our upper windows. The very sound of the names -- Murdock Soulis, The Hangin' Shaw in the beild of the Black Hill, Balweary in the Vale of Dule -- sent a "cauld grue" along my bones.
'By the time the tale was finished my husband had fairly frightened himself, and we crept down the stairs hand-in-hand like scared children. My father-in-law's unexpected praise of Thrawn Janet caused my husband to regard it with more favour; and after a few corrections he began to feel he had really, as he said, "pulled it off".'
Stevenson's labours in that little cottage in Perthshire continued, a whole series of 'crawlers', as he called them, which during the holiday superseded all other literary interests in his mind. But private letters written by him to friends and acquaintances took a very different and wholly practical turn. Hearing that Professor Aeneas Mackay was soon to vacate the Chair of History at Edinburgh University, he wrote to Mackay saying that he would like to apply for the vacancy -- 'It would suit me -- if only I would suit it' -- and asking for support from the present occupant. R.L.S. explained that this being only 'a summer class' was a great attraction, suiting his health, and he added that it was perhaps the only hope he had of a permanent income -- [pounds]250 per annum. Next he sought a testimonial from his friend Edmund Gosse. That was promptly supplied, but Stevenson's application came to nothing.
In a covering letter Gosse complained of suffering from insomnia, to which, in July 1881 R.L.S. replied: 'Insomnia is the opposite pole from my complaint, which brings with it a nervous lethargy, an unkind, unwholesome and ungentle somnolence, fruitful in heavy heads and heavy eyes at morning. You cannot sleep; well, I can best explain my state thus: I cannot wake. Sleep, like the lees of a posset, lingers all day, lead-heavy, in my knees and ankles. Weight on the shoulders, torpor on the brain. And there is more than too much of that from an ungrateful hound who is enjoying his first decently competent and peaceful weeks for close upon two years; happy in a big brown moor behind him, and an incomparable burn by his side; happy, above all, in some work -- for at last I am at work with that appetite and confidence that alone makes work supportable'.
No doubt the lethargy was a hangover from two years of miserable ill-health and inability to work which had preceded his visit to Scotland. His view of those weeks in Perthshire is very different from the 'dreary' impression made on Mrs. Stevenson, who was wholly American, her reaction uninfluenced by any drop of Scottish blood.
In a note to his The Merry Men, Fanny described the sudden spurt of creative activity which R.L.S. enjoyed. 'For some time he had had it in mind to weave a thread of a story round the 'merry men' of Aros Roost off the Ross of Mull. The summer having apparently slipped past us without stopping, and the rain hardly ceasing after St. Swithin's Day, my husband had nothing to distract his attention from the work in hand, and The Merry Men was soon under way. The story itself did not come so easily as Thrawn Janet, and never quite satisfied its author, who believed that he had succeeded in giving the terror of the sea, but had failed to get a real grip on his story'.
Yet in a letter to Sidney Colvin, Stevenson himself wrote in a happy manner about it. 'I am working steady, four Cornhill [Magazine] pages scrolled every day, besides the correspondence about the Chair, which is heavy in itself. My first story, Thrawn Janet, all in Scotch, is accepted by Stephen; my second, The Body Snatchers, is laid aside in justifiable disgust, the tale being horrid; my third, The Merry Men, I am more than half through, and think real well of. It is a fantastic sonata about the sea and wrecks; and I like it much above all my other attempts at story-telling; I think it is strange; if ever I shall make a hit, I have the line now, I believe.'
When The Merry Men was issued in book form, R.L.S. included this 'Note' in a more pessimistic vein: 'The author sees in his work something very different from the reader; the two parts are incompatible; that unhappy man who has written and re-written every word with inky fingers, and then passed through the prolonged disgust of proof sheets, has lost all touch with his own literature. They are presumably the books he would like to read, since they are those he has been pleased to write; yet he can never read them. To him they speak only of disappointment and defeat, and are the monuments of failure . . . Yet there is an intimate pleasure hard to describe, and quite peculiar to the writer of imaginative work. It is in some sense the fulfillment of his life, old childish daydreams here have taken shape, -- poignant and vague aspirations'.
Happiness and hard work at Kinnaird Cottage came to a halt when Stevenson developed what he described as 'this copper-headed cold', with a recurrence of the haemorrhage which plagued him. 'My dear Colvin,--This is the first letter I have written this good while. I have had a brutal cold, not perhaps very wisely treated; lots of blood -- for me, I mean. I was so well, however, before that I seem to be sailing through with it splendidly. My appetite never failed; indeed, as I got worse, it sharpened -- a sort of reparatory instinct. Now I feel in a fair way to get round soon.' This was written at the beginning of August, 1881.
In a prefatory note to a volume of the 'Tusitala' edition of Stevenson's works, Fanny says that the continual cold rains had seriously affected her husband's health. 'By the doctor's orders we finally left Kinnaird Cottage and settled for a time in Braemar. The two stories were sent to the Cornhill Magazine, where Thrawn Janet was published in October 1881 and The Merry Men appeared serially from June 1882'.
R.L.S. very soon sent another letter to Colvin. 'Monday, August (2nd, is it?) -- We set out for the Spital of Glenshee, and reach Braemar on Tuesday. We shall be delighted to see you whenever, and as soon as ever, you can make it possible . . . 'I hope heartily you will survive me, and do not doubt it. There are seven or eight people it is no part of my scheme in life to survive -- yet if I could heal me of my bellowses, I could have a jolly life -- have it, even now, when I can work and stroll a little, as I have been doing until this cold. I have so many things to make life sweet to me, it seems a pity I cannot have that other one thing -- health. But though you will be angry to hear it, I believe, for myself at least, what is best. I believed it all through my worst days, and I am not ashamed to profess it now.'
Travel at the time was slow and tiring, whatever the weather was like. T. Crouther Gordon has described Mrs. Sim and her daughter Helen watching the Stevensons' departure from Kinnaird Cottage, as the carriage rattled over the rough moorland road down into Strathardle. Would the journey not have caused great fatigue to the sick man, and was it reasonable to expect better weather some twenty miles to the north in Braemar? In fact it proved to be just as bad, if not worse. Perhaps the doctor considered that any change would take the patient's mind off his ailments and so be therapeutic.
[Dawn MacLeod writes for Hortus and other garden periodicals. She is at present compiling a book, People in Perthshire, from which this article has been taken.]
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|Title Annotation:||writer Robert Louis Stevenson|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1994|
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