RLS in the Highlands and Islands


In the highlands in the country places,
Where the old plain men have rosy faces,
And the young fair maidens
Quiet eyes;
Where essential silence cheers and blesses,
And for ever in the hill-recesses
Her more lovely music
Broods and dies.

O to mount again where erst I haunted;
Where the old red hills are bird-enchanted,
And the low green meadows Bright with sward; And when even dies, the million-tinted,
And the night has come, and planets glinted,
Lo, the valley hollow
Lamp-bestarred!

O to dream, O to awake and wander
There, and with delight to take and render,
Through the trance of silence,
Quiet breath;
Lo! for there, among the flowers and the grasses,
Only the mightier movement sounds and passes;
Only winds and rivers,
Life and deat

(RLS, “XV: In the Highlands”, in Songs of Travel, Swanston edn, vol xiv [London: Chatto and Windus, 1911], pp. 228-29)

On this page you will find information about RLS’s travels to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, including details about Attadale, Ballachulish, his Cruise on the Heron, Erraid, and other islands in the Inner Hebrides, Inverness, Kingussie, Oban, his visit to Orkney and Shetland on the yacht Pharos, Rothesay, Strathpeffer, Thurso, and Wick.

Attadale, Strathcarron

“The scenery about here is certainly jolly. There is a valley behind the house, Attadale Valley, in fact; which is as perfect as it can be; and many of the hills are of a very fine shape”

(Letter from RLS to his mother, c. 7 August 1880, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol ii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 179).

In early August 1876, RLS visited Attadale, on Loch Carron in Strathcarron (he left Edinburgh on 31 July). He stayed with his Edinburgh University professor, Fleeming Jenkin, and the Jenkin family. Shortly afterwards, RLS left for the canoe trip with Walter Simpson that he would later describe in An Inland Voyage (1878).

Ballachulish

“It was the last of many journeys with my father. It was the first time I had travelled with him since we were at all on a footing of equality”

(Quoted in The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol iii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 330).

From 8-16 June 1882, RLS and his father visited Lochearnhead, Ballachulish (near Lochaber) and Oban. RLS was planning to write an article on the Appin murder (Colin Campbell, “the Red Fox”, and government factor over Stewart lands was murdered in 1752 in Appin. Alan Breck Stewart was the chief suspect. When Alan escaped, James Stewart, the Stewart chief’s half-brother was tried, convicted and hung for the crime) and hoped to find inspiration in these places. Although the article was never written, RLS did use the Appin murder in Kidnapped (1886).

Cruise of the Inner Hebrides on the Heron

“This healthy jolly open air life is the fountain of youth to me. I scull boats and pull ropes and steer the boat and do all manner of things”

(Letter from RLS to Fanny Sitwell, 25 July 1874, from The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol ii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 37)

From 22 July – 24 August 1874, RLS and his friend Walter Simpson cruised the Inner Hebrides on the yacht Heron. Both RLS and Simpson slept at one end of the cabin. The men sailing with them, Stout and Barclay, slept at the other. During the trip, the men lived mostly on tinned provisions.

Around 23 or 24 July, they were in Rothesay on the Isle of Bute and by late July they had reached Oban. In mid-August, the Heron was in the waters just off Glenelg, a village on the Sound of Sleat between the Isle of Skye and the Scottish mainland.

By 18 August, RLS and Simpson were at Portree on the Isle of Skye. RLS was less than enthusiastic about the island: “Pictures of Skye enclosed. They look well enough on paper, but in reality they are hatefully bleak and cold: they make my heart sick” (Letter from RLS to Fanny Sitwell, 18 August 1874, from The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol ii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 40).

During the trip RLS wrote many intense and unhappy letters to Fanny Sitwell, although he was much more positive in his correspondence with his mother. RLS felt strongly about Mrs Sitwell during this period, and his letters show how much he confided his deeper and more personal feelings about his life to her.

Dunoon

“No later than yesterday, seated in a coffee-room here, there came into the tap of the hotel a poor mad Highland woman. The noise of her strained, thin voice brought me out to see her. I could conceive that she had been pretty once, but that was many years ago. She was now withered and fallen looking. Her hair was thin and straggling, her dress poor and scanty”

(RLS, “A Retrospect: A Fragment Written at Dunoon, 1870”, The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson, vol xiv [New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1912] p. 482).

According to J.R. Hammond in A Robert Louis Stevenson Chronology (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1997), RLS visited Dunoon in the autumn of 1865. During this period he had a series of private tutors who would accompany him when the Stevenson family travelled to popular resorts for health reasons (including Dunoon, Rothesay, Torquay, Bridge of Allan, North Berwick and Peebles).

From 26 April – 3 May 1870 RLS visited Dunoon again. You can read more about his visit in his fragmentary essay, “A Retrospect” (1896). According to this fragment, he met with a woman in his hotel (see the quotation above) who uncannily predicted that he would visit America and travel on the seas.

During his 1870 visit, RLS also went to Rosemore house on the outskirts of Dunoon (now ‘Parklea’, 142 Auchamore Road). He recalled how he had stayed there as a child, but when he visited as an adult he was disillusioned with what he found: when he was young his imagination could make any place magical, but he “can no longer 
see satyrs in the thicket, or picture a highwayman riding down the lane. The fiat of indifference has gone forth: I am vacant, unprofitable” (“A Retrospect”, p. 488).

Erraid and other Islands in the Inner Hebrides:

“The lighthouse settlement scarce encroached beyond its fences; over the top of the first brae the ground was all virgin, the world all shut out, the face of things unchanged by any of man’s doings. Here was no living presence, save for the limpets on the rocks, for some old, grey, rain-beaten ram that I might rouse out of a ferny den betwixt two boulders, or for the haunting and piping of the gulls. It was older than man; it was found so by incoming Celts, and seafaring Norsemen, and Columba’s priests”

(“Memoirs of an Islet”, in Memories and Portraits [London: Chatto and Windus, 1911], p. 72).

On 1 August 1870, RLS left Swanston for Greenock and Oban, bound for Erraid. He spent three weeks on the islet for the construction of the Dhu Heartach lighthouse (the lighthouse, designed by David and Thomas Stevenson, was constructed between 1867-1872): this was part of his training as an engineer. While on the islet, RLS also visited Skerryvore. This lighthouse, the tallest in the U.K., was built by his uncle Alan Stevenson between 1838 and 1844.

The details of RLS’s journey to Erraid are as follows: on 1 August he arrived in Greenock, spending the night. The next day, he boarded the steamer Iona, which took him to Ardishaig. At Ardishaig he boarded a steamer through Crinan Canal, then took a boat bound for Oban. From Oban (where RLS stayed the night), a steamer took RLS around the Sound of Mull to the Isle of Iona. At Iona, RLS disembarked and travelled from the island to Erraid.

Stevenson’s journey to Erraid was quite eventful. For example, RLS’s Edinburgh University professor, Fleeming Jenkin, and his family, were also on board the Iona. In addition, when he stayed the night at Oban, RLS hired a boat to pull himself along the coast. He also visited Staffa (an island 10 kilometers off of the Isle of Mull). While on Iona, he dined at the Argyll Hotel. During his tour of Erraid and other islands in the Inner Hebrides, RLS also met his friend Edmund William Gosse for the first time.

You can read more about Stevenson’s impressions of Erraid in “Memoirs of an Islet”, first published in Memories and Portraits (1887).

RLS also used Erraid in his fiction: in Kidnapped (1886), David Balfour is stranded on Erraid because he thinks it is an island. He spends a couple of cold and miserable days eating raw shellfish before he learns that Erraid is an islet – when the tide changes he can simply walk to the mainland.

In Stevenson’s “The Merry Men” (1882), he used Erraid again, this time as the fictional island Aros.

Inverness

“Today Fanny and I leave Strathpeffer for Inverness, and all of us should be in Edinburgh three days from now”

(Letter from RLS to Bob Stevenson, 13 September 1880, The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol ii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 100).

RLS, his wife and stepson Lloyd went to Inverness on 13 September 1880. His parents joined them on 14 September, and by the 15th, the party had all returned to Edinburgh.

Kingussie

“I think I’ll send all my friends to Kingussie. I burn to write works of imagination for youth, and behold me harnessed to your pikter book and making No Way”

(Letter from RLS to W.E. Henley, c. 14 August 1882, from The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol iii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 346).

From 22 July – early August 1882 RLS stayed in a hotel at Kingussie. Sidney Colvin was also staying in the hotel, and together they worked on RLS’s short story the “Treasure of Franchard” (1883).

After leaving the hotel, RLS rented Spey View, a house in Kingussie. On 5 August, his wife and Lloyd joined him, and a couple of days later his mother and a few servants completed the party. The Stevensons stayed in Kingussie until early September, when RLS went to London.

Oban

“At Oban, that night, it was delicious. Mr Stephenson’s yacht lay in the bay, and a splendid band on board played delightfully. The waters of the bay were as smooth as a millpond; and, in the dusk, the black shadows of the hills stretched across to our very feet and the lights were reflected in long lines. At intervals, blue lights were burned on the water; and rockets were sent up. Sometimes great stars of clear fire fell from them, until the bay received and quenched them. I hired a boat and sculled round the yacht in the dark”

(From RLS to his parents, 4 August 1880, from The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol i [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 199).

For more on RLS’s travels to Oban, please see the sections on this page devoted to Ballachulish, the Cruise of the Inner Hebrides on the Heron and Erraid and other islands in the Inner Hebrides.

Orkney and Shetland on the yacht Pharos

“Dear Mamma, I herewith begin my journal letter, which is intended to contain an account, full, true and particular, of all my ‘sore journeying and perilous peregrination’ ”

(Letter from RLS to his mother, 18 June 1869, from The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol i [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 174).

As part of his “education of an engineer”, RLS toured the Orkney and Shetland islands on board the yacht Pharos with his father. Their trip lasted from 14-29 June 1869, during which period they inspected many lighthouses for the Northern Lighthouse Board. As he promised his mother (see above), RLS documented the journey in detail in his letters:

On 18 June 1869 RLS began his journey through Orkney and Shetland Islands. On the morning of the 18th, he arrive in Thurso by the Castleton Coach (which passed through Wick, Keiss and Castleton). He then visited Holburn Head lighthouse (designed by David and Thomas Stevenson and finished in 1862) on the Caithness coast.

He next went across the Pentland Firth, where he could see the Dunnet Head lighthouse (designed by Robert Stevenson and finished in 1831) on the right and the Cantick Head lighthouse (designed by David and Thomas Stevenson and finished in 1858) straight ahead. The party dropped anchor in Kirk Hope and inspected the Cantick Head lighthouse. Afterwards, they made their way towards Graemsay, passing Hoy on the right.

At midday on the 18th, they reached Graemsay Island, where they inspected the Hoy High and Hoy Low lighthouses (designed by Alan Stevenson and completed in 1851). From here, RLS reported that he could see Stromness.

In the afternoon, they arrived in Scapa Flow (a body of water in Orkneys). They disembarked and walked to Kirkwall to see the Cathedral there.

Late that night they began their journey to Shetland. On the way, they passed Fair Isle and Foula, with North Ronaldsay ahead.

On 19 June, the Pharos was in Shetland: “We are now fairly in Shetland – a fair, cold, day with a low, leaden sky such as I am told they have here all summer through: a bountiful provision of nature, but the way, as a very little sunshine would scorch their crops to nothing” ” (Letter from RLS to his mother, 19 June 1869, from The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol i [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 179).

In the morning of the 19th, they landed on Bound Skerry of Whalsay (probably to inspect the Whalsay Skerries lighthouse, which was constructed by David and Thomas Stevenson and completed in 1854).

After midday they inspected the North Unst lighthouse – also known as Muckle Flugga lighthouse (designed by David and Thomas Stevenson and completed in 1854). RLS reported that the lighthouse was in good order.

At night the Pharos arrived off Lerwick, between the Shetland mainland and the Island of Bressay. On Lerwick they visited Fort Charlotte.

On 20 June, the party was still moored off Lerwick. That day RLS visited Clickimin broch (RLS misspelt it as Klikomin – a broch is an Iron Age drystone structure with hollow walls) in Lerwick.

On mainland Orkney, RLS explored Maes-Howe (or Maeshowe). Maes-Howe is a chambered tomb from the Neolithic period uncovered in 1861. According to Stevenson: “there is I think something disgusting in the whole idea. I fancied the place swarming with little dirty devils talking outlandish jargon and brandishing their flint-head axes” (Letter from RLS to his mother, 20 June 1869, from The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol i [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], pp. 185-86).

On 21 June, RLS and his father visited Sumburgh Head lighthouse, which RLS sketched (Sumburgh Head lighthouse was designed by Robert Stevenson and completed in 1821).

In the afternoon of the 21st, the Pharos pulled in to Fair Isle. RLS commented: “The coast of the Fair Isle is the wildest and most unpitying that we have yet seen” (Letter from RLS to his mother, 21 June 1869, from The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol i [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 188).

On 22 June, the Pharos was in Thurso (or Scrabster) Bay. Shortly afterwards, Stevenson and his father made their way back to Edinburgh.

You can read more about RLS’s memories of the cruise in “The Education of an Engineer”, Across the Plains, (London: Chatto and Windus, 1892).

Rothesay, Isle of Bute

For more on RLS’s visits to Rothesay, please see the sections on this page devoted to Dunoon and the Cruise of the Inner Hebrides on the Heron.


Strathpeffer

“On Some Ghastly Companions at a Spa
That was an evil day when I
To Srathpeffer drew anigh,
For there I found no human soul,
But Ogres occupied the whole”

(Letter from RLS to Charles Baxter, c. 26 August 1880, from The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson, ed. by Bradford A. Booth and Ernest Mehew, vol iii [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], p. 95).

Shortly after returning to the UK (after their marriage and honeymoon in California), RLS and Fanny visited Strathpeffer with RLS’s parents and Lloyd. On the way there, they stopped at Blair Atholl, a village in Perthshire.

From 25 August – 13 September 1880, the Stevenson party all stayed at the Ben Wyvis Hotel, Strathpeffer. Strathpeffer was then a popular spa and health resort, less than twenty miles from Inverness. As his spoof poem (above) suggests, RLS found the other hotel guests a little trying. Nevertheless, the Stevensons did enjoy their stay. Around 27 August they visited Rogie Falls (a popular tourist attraction, even today) nearby.

Thurso

”My trip to Thurso took up so much of my time, that I have been rather remiss in my correspondence. I had good fun there. There was a Colonel M____, an awful swearer, who was very good fun; and five bagmen, with whom I dined the second day”

(Letter from RLS to his mother, 13 September 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. 146).

RLS was in Thurso in September of 1868 as part of his training to become an engineer. He stayed in the Royal Hotel in Thurso with his father on 9 and 10 September.

Stevenson was also in Thurso on 18 June 1869 (again in training to become an engineer) as part of the cruise he and his father took on board the Pharos of the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

Wick

“You can never have dwelt in a country more unsightly than that part of Caithness, the land faintly swelling, faintly falling, not a tree, not a hedgerow, the fields divided by single slate stones set upon their edge, the wind always singing in your ears and (down the long road that led nowhere) thrumming in the telegraph wires. Only as you approached the coast was there anything to stir the heart. The plateau broke down to the North Sea in formidable cliffs, the tall out-stacks rose like pillars ringed about with surf, the coves were over-brimmed with clamorous froth, the sea-birds screamed, the wind sang in the thyme on the cliff’s edge; here and there, small ancient castles toppled on the brim; here and there, it was possible to dip into a dell of shelter, where you might lie and tell yourself you were a little warm, and hear (near at hand) the whin-pods bursting n the afternoon sun, and (farther off) the rumour of the turbulent sea. As for Wick itself, it is one of the meanest of man’s towns, and situate certainly on the baldest of God’s bays. It lives for herring, and a strange sight it is to see (of an afternoon) the heights of Pulteney blackened by seaward-looking fishers, as when a city crowds to a review – or, as when bees have swarmed, the ground is horrible with lumps and clusters; and a strange sight, and a beautiful, to see the fleet put silently out against a rising moon, the sea-line rough as a wood with sails, and ever and again and one after another, a boat flitting swiftly by the silver disk.”

(RLS, “The Education of an Engineer: More Random Memories” in Across the Plains with Other Memories and Essays [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], pp. 192-93).

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). He also wrote about Wick in “On the Enjoyment of Unpleasant Places” in The Portfolio in 1875. You can read this essay in Essays of Travel (London: Chatto and Windus, 1905).

From 27 August – 10 October 1868, RLS stayed at the New Harbour Hotel in Pulteney, Wick (Pulteney was a fishing port of Wick). Stevenson and his father had come to inspect the lighthouse (probably Noss Head, a lighthouse near Wick designed by Alan Stevenson and completed in 1849).

Despite Stevenson’s general distaste for Wick, its weather, landscape, and engineering work, RLS did have the pleasure of going diving. The experience made him feel a “fine, dizzy, muddle-headed joy” and “It was one of the best things I got from my education as an engineer” (“The Education of an Engineer” in Across the Plains with Other Memories and Essays [London: Chatto and Windus, 1892], p. 201).

In November 1868, RLS wrote his cousin Bob Stevenson and reminisced about an earlier trip to Wick he had taken. RLS remembered taking a journey on the Wick Mail on the road from Wick to Golspie with his father. The journey had been in three stages: Lybster, Berriedale and Helmsdale.

On 17 June 1869, RLS was briefly in Wick (and at the New Harbour Hotel) again. Wick was the first stage of the journey through the Orkney and Shetland islands with his father on board the Pharos.

Kidnapped image from the 1948 edition illustrated by Dudley D. Watkins. Photos courtesy of Alan Marchbank