“Anstruther is a place sacred to the Muse [. . .] and I have there waited upon her myself with much devotion. This was when I came as a young man to glean engineering experience from the building of the breakwater. What I gleaned, I am sure I do not know; but indeed I had already my own private determination to be an author; I loved the art of words and the appearances of life; and travelers, and headers, and rubble, and polished ashlar, and pierres perdues, and even the thrilling question of the string-course, interested me only (if they interested me at all) as properties for some possible romance or as words to add to my vocabulary”
(RLS, “The Education of an Engineer: More Random Memories” in Across the Plains with Other Memories and Essays [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], pp. 189-90).
In 1867, RLS began his studies at Edinburgh University in the family business – lighthouse engineering. In the summer of 1868 he visited the harbour works at Anstruther and Wick to learn more about the practical side of the job.
He wrote about these experiences in “The Education of an Engineer” (1888), later included in Across the Plains (1892), stating: “What I gleaned [about lighthouse engineering], I am sure I do not know; but indeed I had already my own private determination to be an author” (“The Education of an Engineer”, Across the Plains, [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], p. 189).
Indeed, at Anstruther, Stevenson was preoccupied by his writing. From 1 – 31 July 1868 RLS lodged with a man called Bailie Brown at Cunzie House on Crail Road. You can see the house in these images, as well as the plaque that commemorates RLS’s stay there.
While at Anstruther, RLS also visited Pittenweem (probably on 19 July 1868), a nearby village. He went to Pittenweem Church, where he was impressed by the unique architecture.
RLS visited Lochcote House (home of Charle’s Baxter’s family), near Bathgate in c. 25-27 July of 1879. He spent the weekend there with Baxter, and the two lunched at the Royal Hotel in Bathgate.
“My dipping paddle scarcely shakes
The berry in the bramble-brakes;
Still forth on my green way I wend
Beside the cottage garden-end”
(RLS, “The Canoe Speaks”, Underwoods, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Swanston edn, vol xiv [London: Chatto and Windus, 1911], p. 69).
According to Eve Blantyre Simpson in The Robert Louis Stevenson Originals (1912), her brother, Walter Grindlay Simpson and RLS would often go canoeing on the Firth of Forth.
Walter Simpson (or “the Bart.” as he is referred to in the text) and his brothers kept their canoes at Granton, where they would boat and swim.
According to Eve Simpson: “R.L.S. had taken passage on a double canoe with the Bart. They coasted up to the Hawes Inn, Queensferry” (The Robert Louis Stevenson Originals (New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons, 1912), p. 83).
Simpson’s work gives an interesting account of RLS’s friendships with Walter Simpson, Charles Baxter and Bob Stevenson. Her chapter “Comrades and Canoes” talks about RLS’s love of being on the water.
RLS planned a canoe trip along the Firth on 19 April 1879, but was forced to cancel due to poor weather: “Canoeing quashed by return of winter armed at all points” (Letter from RLS to Bob Stevenson, April 1879, from The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol ii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p.318).
“The sea, being ‘fanged with hideous stones’ – like Cologne – and otherwise marred, does not make up for Swanston”
(From RLS to his mother, written from Leven on 26 July 1868, from The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol i [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 135).
While staying in Anstruther in July 1868 as part of his “education of an engineer”, RLS visited Leven. A seaside town in Fife, Leven was also the home of Dr John Balfour, Stevenson’s maternal uncle. RLS’s letters show that he stayed in Leven on 19 and 26 July.
RLS also visited the mansion Newton Hall in the village of Kennoway (near to Leven), probably on 25 July 1868.
“The place was created seemingly on purpose for the diversion of young gentlemen. A street or two of houses, mostly red and many of, them tiled; a number of fine trees clustered about the manse and the kirkyard, and turning the chief street into a shady alley; many little gardens more than usually bright with flowers; nets a-drying, and fisher-wives scolding in the backward parts; a smell of fish, a genial smell of seaweed; whiffs of blowing sand at the street-corners; shops with golf-balls and bottled lollipops; another shop with penny pickwicks (that remarkable cigar) and the London Journal dear to me for its startling pictures, and a few novels, dear for their suggestive names: such, as well as memory serves me, were the ingredients of the town”
(RLS, “The Lantern Bearers”, Across the Plains with Other Memories and Essays [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], pp. 206-07).
When RLS was a child, the Stevenson family often summered in North Berwick, Scotland. At the time, the small fishing village overlooking the Firth of Forth was a holiday resort. The Stevensons visited it, as well as Bridge of Allan and Peebles in the summer, for both Stevenson’s own health and his mother’s.
Stevenson had holidays here, first staying with his uncle David in 1860, and then in the autumn of 1865, July of 1866 and September of 1870, staying with his parents at ‘Rockend’ on the east bay (the letters suggest that he also came in the autumn of 1867). Here he would meet up with holidaying boys of his own age and his slightly older cousin Bob.
You can read more about RLS’s memories of North Berwick in his essay “The Lantern Bearers” (1888), later included in Across the Plains (1892).
Visitors to North Berwick can see the house where RLS stayed and explore the landscape which was the setting for “The Pavilion on the Links” (1880) and part of Catriona (1893).
In Catriona, David was imprisoned on the Bass Rock, an island off of North Berwick. David Stevenson, RLS’s cousin, built the lighthouse that stands on the island in 1902.
RLS also wrote about the Bass Rock and Tantallon Castle in “The Lantern-Bearers”, indicating how they sparked his imagination:
‘This choice piece of seaboard was sacred, besides, to the wrecker; and the Bass, in the eyes of fancy, still flew the colours of King James; and in the ear of fancy the arches of Tantallon still rang with horse-shoe iron, and echoed to the command of Bell-the-Cat”’
(Across the Plains; with Other Memories and Essays [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], p. 207-08)
“As we had first made inland, so our road came in the end to lie very near due north; the old Kirk of Aberlady for a landmark on the left; on the right, the top of the Berwick Law; and it was thus we struck the shore again, not far from Dirleton. From north Berwick west to Gillane Ness there runs a string of four small islets, Craiglieth, the Lamb, Fidra, and Eyebrough, notable by their diversity of size and shape.”
“Fidra is the most particular, being a strange grey islet of two humps, made the more conspicuous by a piece of ruin; and I mind that (as we drew closer to it) by some door or window of these ruins the sea peeped through like a man’s eye. Under the lee of Fidra there is a good anchorage in westerly winds, and there, from a far way off, we could see the Thistle riding”
(Catriona, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, Swanston edn, vol xi [London: Chatto and Windus, 1911]).
The Fidra Lighthouse was built in 1885, and was designed by RLS’s cousin David Stevenson.
In “The Lantern Bearers”, RLS describes how he climbed the Berwick Law.
North Berwick and Stevenson Today
The residents of North Berwick still celebrate RLS’s time in the village. In 9-19th June 2006, they held the Robert Louis Stevenson Festival, North Berwick. The festival included Stevenson workshops, a musical and even a treasure hunt.
“There was a crashing run of sea upon the shore, I recollect, and my father and the man of the harbour lights must sometimes raise their voices to be audible. Perhaps it is from this circumstance that I always imagine St Andrews to be an ineffectual seat of learning and the sound of the east wind and the bursting surf to linger in its drowsy classrooms and confound the utterance of the professor”
(RLS, “Random Memories – Contributions to the History of Fife”, in Across the Plains: with Other Memories and Essays [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], p. 174).
You can read about Stevenson’s memories of St Andrews in “Random Memories – Contributions to the History of Fife” (1888), later included in Across the Plains (1892).
RLS travelled to St Andrews with his father in 1863 to oversee the harbour lights there.
Photos courtesy of Alan Marchbank