Vintage Stevenson at the Tusitala
‘I am interested in all wines and have been all my life,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson – and more than 70 people shared his enthusiasm when they gathered at the Tusitala restaurant in Edinburgh for an exploration and tasting of wines with a connection to the Napa Valley in California.
Stevenson devoted an entire chapter of his book The Silverado Squatters to his honeymoon stay in the valley on the slopes of Mount St Helena (pictured) directly after his marriage to Fanny Osborne in San Francisco in May 1880, opening with the words: ‘The scene of this little book is a high mountain…’
And some of their experiences were relived at the Tusitala where club members Margaret and Jim Wilkie, co-owners of the restaurant, laid on a tasty three-course dinner to accompany some Californian wines introduced by Toby Segouin from Forth Wines. The five separate wines were not all from California but included a couple from the Old World which Stevenson missed out on savouring because of the ravages of Phyloxerra on European vineyards during the second half of the 19th century.
The wine tasting was the idea of Club committee member Ailene Hunter, who contributed to the evening with a reading from The Silverado Squatters along with Jack Shedden and Peter Berry, who at the end of a convivial evening led the company in a toast to Stevenson with a recital of his poem Auld Reekie, written the year before his death in Vailima in 1894.
All of us raised a glass of Schramsberg wine from the Napa valley (the premium sparkling wine in the USA) to his memory and to ‘Auld Reekie, still and on!’ – J. Mitchell Manson
CONGRATULATIONS are due to our dedicated band of RLS volunteers at the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh – they’ve just been nominated for a Museums and Heritage award for customer service. The volunteers can be found in the Stevenson rooms in the basement of the museum, where they assist customers and share their considerable knowledge and enthusiasm about Robert Louis Stevenson.
These eleven volunteers are invaluable to the museum, and always do their utmost to ensure that every visitor to the venue has a special experience. They frequently receive letters from visitors and groups, thanking them for their efforts and praising their customer service – and comments in the visitor books are similarly glowing.
The other nominees for the customer service award are: The National Trust Wordsworth House and Garden in Cockermouth, Cumbria; the Rayleigh Windmill at Rayleigh in Essex, run by Rochford District Council; Preston Park Museum and Grounds, run by Stockton on Tees Borough Council, and Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire, featured in Channel 4’s The Mill: Fact v Fiction.
The winner will be announced in London on May 14.
It might have been his 163rd birthday, but Robert Louis Stevenson remained forever young as his work was brought to life anew by members of the Club founded in his honour. For Edinburgh’s third RLS Day celebrations on November 13, the Club staged an all-day reading of his short stories and poems at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.
The man himself arrived in effigy from 17 Heriot Row, courtesy of John Macfie, in a taxi whose driver must have spent the next week telling his fares: ‘I had that Robert Louis Stevenson in the back of my cab the other day…’ Meanwhile Louis and his ‘minder’ were met at the centre by author Louise Welsh, who had kindly agreed to start our event with a reading of Thrawn Janet.
The mither tongue remained much to the fore as Jack Shedden and Peter Berry gave a lively selection of Stevenson poems in Scots before Jeremy Hodges sank into the comfy chair to read A Lodging for the Night. Jack then gave us a haunting rendition of Ticonderoga, followed by a world premiere – the first dramatisation of two comic Fables by Jack and Peter. And the drama continued as Tina Moskal from North Berwick acted every character in The Tale of Tod Lapraik – including the solans.
Actors Jack Shedden and Peter Berry in full flow at the Scottish Storytelling Centre (l), No shortage of readers for A Child’s Garden of Verses (r)
A selection of sensuous love poetry, delivered without too many male blushes, led into the macabre short story The Body Snatcher before the two main ensemble events. A Child’s Garden of Verses still holds a special place in many hearts and there was no shortage of volunteers to read their favourite poems.
Perhaps more ambitious was the reading of the long short story The Pavilion on the Links, but eight stalwarts rose to the challenge, with Ailene Hunter taking charge in the absence of Jeremy – who had a prior engagement enjoying afternoon tea at 17 Heriot Row, where he reprised his club talk on The Lost Loves of Louis.
At the Storytelling Centre, the afternoon continued with Jack and Peter performing the story Markheim, followed by some poems on the subject of drink including Neil Ross lamenting the alcoholic Death of John Adam, Clerk of Court, while Mitchell Manson delivered a spirited Scotsman’s Return from Abroad.
After another ballad, Christmas at Sea, the full and varied programme concluded with poems of farewell, ending with Requiem. Many happy returns, Louis.
It was a moment for Stevenson lovers everywhere, but especially in the author’s childhood second home of Colinton. On October 26, 2013, Edinburgh author Ian Rankin finally took the wraps off the new statue of the boy Lewis and his Skye terrier Coolin outside Colinton Kirk.
‘It’s great to see this statue here, and to see Stevenson as a boy with his wee dog,’ said Rankin. ‘It reminds me of the Groucho Marx quote: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend; inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Colinton should already be a tourist attraction. It’s a lovely bit of secret Edinburgh and it would be great if Stevenson helped bring people out here now.’
The statue is the work of Scottish sculptor Alan Herriot, who said: ‘A big difficulty was that there are actually not many pictures of him at that age. The one that we did find of him sitting next to his father was very stern and Dickensian – but we used other images to try to get the likeness as near to him as we could.’
Author Ian Rankin takes the wraps off the new statue of RLS and his dog at Colinton (l), Sculptor Alan Herriot did careful research to get a good likeness for the statue (r)
While most of the £34,000 cost of the statue was raised locally, with support from other groups including the RLS Club, there is still a shortfall of £2,500. More funds are needed also to create ‘A Walk with RLS’ – a steel arch leading to a series of plaques on the walls running from Bridge Road to the statue outside Colinton Parish Church and onwards towards Colinton Dell. The plaques will illustrate A Child’s Garden of Verses and the project has received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, but a further £5,000 is still required.
Donations can be sent to The Treasurer, Colinton Community Conservation Trust, 42 Pentland Avenue, Edinburgh, EH13 0HY. To donate online email: firstname.lastname@example.org
A curious sense of kinship united RLS with Robert Burns and the young poet Robert Fergusson, the ‘poor, white-faced, drunken, vicious boy that raved himself to death in the Edinburgh madhouse’. The special relationship between the ‘Three Robbies’ was commemorated anew this month as the tradition of laying a wreath on Fergusson’s grave in Edinburgh’s Canongate Kirkyard was revived.
The Scottish Arts Club took the lead, requesting members of the RLS Club and the Robert Burns Society to meet for the simple graveside ceremony at 11am on Wednesday, October 16, the anniversary of 24-year-old Fergusson’s tragic death in the Edinburgh Bedlam in 1774.
Stevenson identified strongly with the young poet: ‘Ah! What bonds we have – born in the same city, both sickly, both vicious, both pestered, one nearly to madness, one to the madhouse, with a damnatory creed; both seeing the stars and the dawn, and wearing shoe-leather on the same ancient stones, under the same pends, down the same closes… You will never know, nor will any man, how deep this feeling is; I believe Fergusson lives in me.’
Fergusson was buried in a pauper’s grave, but Burns later paid for a headstone to be erected. A century later, Stevenson expressed a wish to pay for a refurbishment, although the plan never came to fruition. But in recent years the grave has been refurbished with funding from the Scottish Parliament, and the RLS Club helped to pay for the iron railing around the site.
On a bus christened The Black Arrow in honour of Stevenson, 26 members of the Club winged their way homeward after a successful visit to Saranac Lake on a journey of good fellowship, exploring the life and legacy of RLS. Their journey had begun where Stevenson’s did in New York, when he arrived by immigrant ship in 1879 and then again as an international celebrity in 1887, seeking respite from illness in the clear, cold air of Saranac where he would write the first chapters of the Master of Ballantrae. The New York rooming house at 10 West Street where Stevenson spent his first night in 1879 after being processed as an immigrant at Castle Gardens is no more, but the view from Battery Point was fascinating and an evocative reading by John Shedden caught the sense of occasion.
From New York the party took the train to New Haven, Connecticut, for a visit to Yale University’s unrivalled Beinecke Library collection of Stevenson manuscripts and memorabilia, from which items chosen by Club members had been made available for inspection.
All aboard the Black Arrow for the RLS Club trip to Saranac Lake (l), The Stevenson Cottage at Saranac, with Ian Nimmo on the verandah where RLS first imagined The Master of Ballantrae (r)
On returning to New York with appetites whetted for more Stevenson study, the group visited the Pierpont Morgan Library, where items they were able to see included The School Boys Magazine, hand-written by the 12-year-old Louis in 1863. While in New York the group also enjoyed a private visit to the exclusive Century Association club to see Stevenson items donated by the author’s step-grandson Austin Strong – and were ceremonially piped out onto 43rd Street with a bagpipe version of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy!
It was time now to leave the sophisticated city and make tracks for the wilds of Saranac, where Stevenson spent the winter of 1887-8. The party travelled by train on the route he took along the Hudson to Plattsburg. From there, two minibuses arranged with masterful efficiency by tour organiser Mitchell Manson took the pilgrimage on to Saranac Lake.
The Stevenson Cottage at Saranac, where RLS and his family spent the winter of 1887-8, is a mind-boggling treasure house of material arranged throughout the rooms and on all the walls. Because of its small size, we split into two groups and took turns to view the cottage and the nearby Trudeau Laboratory, which entirely fascinates with the saga of how TB came to be diagnosed with scientific accuracy and treated with clinical efficiency.
Next day was one of fellowship and conviviality as we took part in the Open House Meeting of the Stevenson Society of America, held in the garden of the cottage. We were welcomed to the Gathering by the skirl of the pipes, entertained with songs inspired by RLS, delighted by Scottish airs (and Harry Lauder songs) by a fiddler of consummate ability, amused by a spirited rendition of the Address to a Haggis, and touched by the singing of all the verses of Auld Lang Syne. This, we realised, was another aspect of RLS – a man to inspire joy for his own work, but also for the Scottish roots he represents.
Jack Shedden entertains the combined meeting in the garden of the cottage (l), A big thankyou from Ian Gardiner and Mitchell Manson to Stevenson Cottage curator Mike Delahant (c), Club members had the chance to get their hands on their favourite RLS manuscripts (r)
From the other side of the Atlantic, the Robert Louis Stevenson Club, organised by Ian Nimmo, brought Highland legend to the Gathering with a haunting rendition of The Ballad of Ticonderoga, recited by John Shedden to rapt attention. Ailene Hunter read the poem Winter, which was written at Saranac, and Alan Marchbank sang Sing Me a Song of a Lad that is Gone, Stevenson’s lament for his lost youth spent on a happy sailing holiday in the Western Isles with his friends Walter Simpson and Charles Baxter.
Mitchell Manson then presented the Stevenson Society of America with a wooden quaich which he filled with Talisker whisky and, after John Shedden had recited some lines from Stevenson’s The Scotsman’s Return from Abroad – ‘The king o’ drinks as I conceive it, Talisker, Isla or Glenlivet!’ – the bowl was passed around the company. Mitchell also presented a letter conveying greetings from RLS Club Chairman John Macfie to the Society’s President, and Ian Gardiner made a personal presentation of a drinking cup to Mike Delahant, the cottage curator, with the group’s thanks for all he had done to make our visit so enjoyable.
After leaving Saranac by Black Arrow for Boston, our remaining RLS highlight was the Houghton Library at Harvard University, where the curator, Leslie Morris, gave a talk and allowed us to carefully examine gems from the collection. Such were the RLS highlights of our tour – the fun, laughter, and friendship enjoyed by all must be left to the imagination! – Alan Marchbank
The Land of Counterpane was on display at the Scottish Parliament with the arrival in September of the Great Tapestry of Scotland for a three-week exhibition. The 143 metre tapestry features a panel created in honour of Robert Louis Stevenson as one of Scotland’s greatest writers. He is pictured in bed, surveying the ‘pleasant Land of Counterpane’, with a scene from Kidnapped, including a view of the island of Fidra. The tapestry will now be touring various locations around Scotland.
Club members were saddened to hear of the death of former chairman Anne Gray, who had a direct link to Robert Louis Stevenson through cousinship. Anne was an enthusiastic and true Stevensonian with a range of RLS connections and friendships around the world, and her contagious enthusiasm drove the Club. Through her kindness and generosity, Smeaton, the East Lothian home she shared for many years with her beloved husband George, became a home-from-home for RLS club members and Stevenson functions.
Anne was a Dale, and her East Lothian forebears were cousins of RLS, who mischievously named Tam and Black Andie Dale after them when he wrote his novel Catriona. All Louis’s byways in East Lothian were familiar to Anne, and following in his footsteps was her pleasure. At low tide and in thick sea fog she splashed on to David Balfour’s Kidnapped islet of Erraid, off Mull, and discussed the Appin Murder on the spot where the ‘Red Fox’ met his end.
She hiked in the Cevennes in the hoofprints of Modestine, visited the artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing, where RLS met Fanny Osbourne, and was guest of honour at an Inland Voyage RLS festival in northern France, delightfully recorded in our Newsletter as Travelling With Granny by her journalist granddaughter Louise. And, of course, Anne strolled the palm-fringed beaches of Samoa like Stevenson before her.
The opening of the Stevenson Room at the Hawes Inn gave her much satisfaction. She talked about Stevenson in schools, to large and small organisations of every kind, and held beach picnics at Seacliffe, where RLS had also enjoyed Dale hospitality. When Sir Sean Connery unveiled Alexander Stoddart’s dramatic statues of Alan Breck and David Balfour in Edinburgh, Anne was on the platform beside him. As one wag put it at the time: ‘Who is that big guy standing beside Anne Gray?’
Anne’s last splendid gesture to RLS was the private commissioning of statuettes of Alan and David by the acclaimed Edinburgh sculptor Jill Watson for display in Anne’s much-loved Smeaton-Hepburn garden. Her passion for Stevenson brushed off on all who knew her and no one has done more to fulfil the club’s objectives, promoting RLS and his writing worldwide. Anne lived Stevenson – Ian Nimmo