WITH the memories of our wonderful Inland Voyage in May still vivid, we decided to share our adventure with those Club members who were not part of that happy band. So we devoted our annual Literary Lunch at the Hawes Inn to retrace the route in words, pictures and discussion. We compared the scenes and people of Stevenson’s time with those of today. In some rural areas little has changed: the Forest of Mormal, for instance, with its birdsong and patched sunlight, reflects Stevenson’s words precisely; Noyon Cathedral remains magnificent in spite of two wars, and we even picnicked beside the Royal Nautical Club’s compound at Willebroek.
The development of the towns, however, would have surprised Stevenson, and because it is not possible to visit that part of France without confronting the horrors of past battlefronts we also paid our own homage with actor Jack Shedden reading movingly at the canal bridge where poet Wilfred Owen died and at the giant crater named Balmoral in the Somme.
The RLS Club is known for its fine speakers at our annual luncheon. But last year we enjoyed one of those rare occasion when all three speakers were not only in top form but inspired. Well-known author, broadcaster, academic and literary guru Owen Dudley Edwards proposed the Toast to Robert Louis Stevenson. He was amusing, erudite, enthralling and the words and ideas flowed like a torrent. Councillor Jenny Dawe, leader of the City of Edinburgh Council at the time, and a Stevenson knowledgeable, has given us some memorable addresses, but on this occasion she surpassed herself in her reply to the Toast to the City. The historic New Club, reflecting Scottish tradition at its finest, has become our home in recent years and the setting and the speakers made it a special occasion to savour.
There were two presentations at the luncheon. Firstly, Ian Nimmo presented an RLS Club cheque to Chris Seiler, of the Colinton Community Conservation Trust, to help speed their project to create a statue of the boy Stevenson outside his grandfather’s church. Next moment a flabbergasted Ian, former RLS Club chairman, was being presented with a handsome quaich to mark his retirement from the Committee. The quaich bears Allan Breck’s words from Kidnapped: ‘Am I no’ a bonny fighter?’
We had all looked forward to Dr John Cossar’s address on Stevenson’s health and travels. As Foundation Vice Dean of the Faculty of Travel Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, we knew our RLS Club colleague would have plenty to say worth hearing. Dr Cossar has always been fascinated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s urge to travel in conjunction with his precarious health. But Jon riveted us in what was one of the finest presentations the Club has enjoyed. What drove Stevenson to travel? What health dangers did he encounter in such far-flung locations as tropical Samoa, the outback of California and the Davos Alps? How did he survive? What pre-travel health advice was available to him and how did that compare with modern times? Indeed, what was the medical perspective of Stevenson’s life? What drugs and treatments available today might have prolonged it. All our questions were answered in a Powerpoint presentation of words and slides that we didn’t want to end. And the discussions continued over lunch in the Tusitala.
Erraid is the tiny islet off the extremity of the Ross of Mull, Argyll, where David Balfour was shipwrecked in Kidnapped. Columba’s holy isle of Iona is visible only two miles away. RLS knew Erraid well because it was the shore station for the building of Dubh Heartach lighthouse by his father Tom, and Stevenson spent three glorious weeks there as an engineering student. The Erraid weather had been poor all week – real, soaking David Balfour weather in fact! – but on the day of our visit the sun shone upon us and distant Ben More stood out sharp and clear. What a wonderful occasion it turned out to be. We walked over to the island at low tide from Knockvoligan on the Mull mainland and were given splendid hospitality by the Findhorn Community, who are Erraid’s present guardians. The hospitality included homemade lunch from the produce of their garden, with home-made soup and warm bread and scones. After our ‘picnic’, one of the Findhorn Community members told us about the history of the islet and explained what life was like on Erraid today. We were conducted over the Stevenson cottages, once the base of the lighthousekeepers, including the Stevenson House, where RLS stayed. It is now a store for Erraid-made coloured candles. Ian Nimmo spoke about the Kidnapped, Memories of an Island and The Merry Men connection, and reminded us of the noise, hustle and bustle during Stevenson’s time on the island when Dubh Heartach Lighthouse was being built.
Then it was up to the top of the island to the old observatory, where the lighthouse makers could examine the weather 12 miles out on Dub Heartach’s killer reef of black rocks. At the top of the island we found the stone where David Balfour contemplated his plight, with those dramatic seascapes all around. Some of our members decided to make the descent to Balfour’s Bay, where David was washed ashore more dead than alive. But then it was a race against the tide to reach the Mull mainland before Erraid became an island again. Some of us got wet feet, while others with more dignity made the crossing on the Findhorn Community’s boat.
ARRGH!, Jim lad, you can lay to that, by thunder!” So actor Robert Newton as Long John Silver stamped his personality all over that classic old Treasure Island film from the 1950s. Newton starred alongside Bobby Driscoll as Jim Hawkins and the film was directed by Byron Haskin. In its day it was hailed as a Walt Disney swashbuckling masterpiece.
RLS Club members were able to watch again the classic old adventure over a glass of wine and supper at the Tusitala. Marks Steeds, up from Bristol for the occasion, fascinated us with his specialist knowledge about the film and Robert Newton, and Ian Nimmo recounted how Treasure Island came to be written in Braemar in the rain. A most enjoyable evening.
On a fine, bright day RLS Club members followed in the footsteps of Stevenson and his father from Newhaven along the Forth shore all the way to Cramond. With us was Club member Tae Nishida and her friend. They had flown specially all the way from Japan for the event.
It was on a similar walk to Cramond on 8th April, 1871, that RLS told his father that he wanted to give up his engineering studies and devote himself to writing. “A dreadful walk,” said RLS at the time. However, the decision was all-important to Stevenson’s writing future and his father met the “request with calm and was “wonderfully resigned”.
During our walk we stopped for readings and at various points of interest. Afterwards, we enjoyed a jolly lunch in the Cramond Hotel, where Ian Nimmo told us about Stevenson connections with Cramond.
RLS says of Cramond in St Ives – “We set off by way of Newhaven and the sea beach; at first through pleasant country roads, and afterwards along a succession of bays of a fairylike prettiness, to our destination – Cramond on the Almond – a little hamledon, a little river, embowered in woods and looking forth over a great flat of quicksand to where a little islet stood planted in the sea. It is a miniature scenery but charming of its kind.”
The House of Shaws of Kidnapped fame, the home of David Balfour’s Uncle Ebenezer, was in Cramond Parish, and is thought by some to be represented by the square three-storied Tower of the Palace of the Roman Catholic Bishops of Dunkeld in Cramond House grounds.
Did RLS know that the great-grand nephew of the ‘Red Fox’ in Kidnapped, Colin Campbell of Glenure, became assistant minister in the Free Church of Cramond?
We might have had more description of Cramond had RLS finished and published his story in Scots titled “The Devil on Cramond Sands”. This was one of his literary projects that came to naught. Stevenson once carved his initials on a Cramond Inn table, but it has long since disappeared.
In 1875 Stevenson took a canoeing craze. Mr George Lisle and Sheriff Scott Moncrieff in Miss Rosaline Masson’s book “I Can Remember Robert Louis Stevenson”, gave accounts of meeting RLS on Cramond island and at the Hawes Inn on his canoeing expeditions. Mr Lisle’s first meeting with RLS was on Cramond Island when on one afternoon of “brilliant sunshine and a strong west wind two canoes were seen by many anxious eyes struggling up the Forth from Granton in the teeth of the wind. The sea was washing over the tiny craft, but the occupants were very persevering and instead of running before the wind to Granton Harbour, they seemed determined to come to Cramond Island for shelter, although they were evidently becoming exhausted. At one time they appeared to be in such distress that two flags were run up the flagstaff at the cairn to let the boatman at Cramond know that he was urgently required. Soon, however, it was seen that the canoeists were in calm water and the SOS signal was withdrawn.
TWENTY-FIVE RLS Club members made an historic journey to France and Belgium to faithfully follow the canoe route of An Inland Voyage from Antwerp to Pontoise near Paris. We made it easy on ourselves by going by private luxury coach. It is 135 years since Stevenson and his friend, Sir Walter Simpson, created a stir at Antwerp docks as their canoes first kissed the water.
Our 21st-century Inland Voyage was no less eventful or exciting, although a luxury bus made it infinitely easier than paddling. What a wonderful time we had under the splendid leadership of committee member Ian Gardiner. Our journey cast new light on Stevenson’s marathon, we met interesting people, enjoyed readings and Stevenson-linked happenings.
We were guests at a Stevenson Festival and a glittering dinner in Paris with a military guard of honour. We took an elegant sail down the Oise, discovered a delightful Stevenson museum, and helped to promote a new Stevenson trail. The pictures give an idea of some of the happenings in which the RLS Club members were involved.
Report on the Inland Voyage
The report in the Robert Louis Stevenson Club’s Newsletter about our Inland Voyage read as follows:
The RLS Club’s May trip following the paddle strokes of RLS and Sir Walter Grindlay Simpson – as recounted in An Inland Voyage – was a journey for us of joy and wonder. Wonder at Stevenson’s stamina on what was a marathon exploration by canoe into the unknown and pleasure that we were doing it the easy way by luxury private coach – also into the unknown for most of us, and in the best of company. Ian Gardiner was our leader.
We set off from London Victoria in our distinctive yellow bus, which we later christened Canal Crusader. Our destination for the night was Antwerp and Canal Crusader quickly declared itself an explorer of great comfort under the skilful handling of our agreeable driver Karl, who turned out to be a real gem.
Antwerp is a big, handsome seaport, but we knew where the Arethusa and Cigarette first kissed the water, and here the tone of our whole journey was set.
With us was actor John Shedden, who brought the whole of An Inland Voyage to life with his readings so that we relived first-hand the Inland Voyage experience and shared the adventures of the two young men.
The following morning we visited the port’s magnificent cathedral close to the waterfront, awed by their collection of Rubens’ religious paintings. Then it was off along the River Scheldt, past Boom, along the Willebroek Canal, and we picnicked on the location of The Royal Sport Nautique, where RLS and Sir Walter received a surfeit of hospitality. It was no surprise that a canoe club still operates from the site.
Our destination that day was war-torn Maubeuge for two nights in the Shakespeare Hotel, which looked after us exceedingly well. From here we pushed out to various Stevenson locations along the route, including a delightful hike through the Forest of Mormal, where Dr Dora Cossar read Stevenson’s wonderful description and Felice Louf, of the Association Sur le Chemin de R. L. Stevenson, read the French translation. Here was one of those special moments among the tall trees, dappled sunlight playing on the earth, the birds singing, and Stevenson, Dora and Felice at their finest.
In contrast, we had a delightful walk along the Sambre and, sure enough, there were a few canoeists still skimming the waters. The Stevenson connection is remembered in the village of Pont-sur-Sambre with a large displayboard showing RLS’s route, and we walked beside the river thinking of Stevenson and Sir Walter paddling hard on our left.
We moved to the little village of Etreaupont, excellent accommodation and cuisine in the Hotel Le Clos du Montvinage and were fussed over by Madame. Etreaupont is the home of singer and songwriter Francoise Eberle and his wife Genevieve, who along with Stephane Mazot, had organised a Stevenson Festival of music, singing and story telling especially for us. There was also a fine exhibition of canoeing in the much lighter crafts of today.
The concert proved another memorable evening. Francoise and his daughter were in top form and delivered to a full house. A song about Robert Louis Stevenson was included and John Shedden gave a splendid rendering of how RLS was arrested during the Inland Voyage (published later in Across the Plains). It was received with great applause, although likely most of the French audience didn’t understand a word.
We were always aware we were traveling through attractive country where French history was forged: Romans, Charlemagne, John Calvin, kings of France, Marie Antoinette and Napoleon all stepped on this stage, which was devastated by two world wars.
Indeed, two of the most poignant moments of our journey were at the canal where poet Wilfred Owen was killed and John Shedden read his Anthem for Doomed Youth, and at the Somme John held us spellbound with Dulce et Decorum est, delivered on a bright, peaceful spring day among fair meadows that once were killing fields.
We had a piece of good fortune at the little village of Alaincourt. We knew there was a small museum there reflecting An Inland Voyage, but the museum was closed because of a public holiday. However, when it was discovered we were the Robert Louis Stevenson Club news traveled fast and in no time the curator and Deputy Mayor kindly opened the museum for our eyes only. What a find! RLS has been treated royally in Alaincourt. There is a replica Cigarette, a giant map, an excellent film and the contents of RLS’s travel bags.
Things seem to happen when the RLS Club go traveling. In Compiegne we had a memorable evening in the restaurant of a six-foot-six former French rugby giant, who treated us munificently with French-style jest, and the Auld Alliance was restated several times. We left his restaurant with much waving of an enormous tricolour and friendship pledged forever.
Then in Paris we had another special happening. We were guests of The Royal British Legion, the Paris branch, who were celebrating their 90th anniversary at the Ecole Militaire. It was our Ron Glen who had us included in this glittering occasion, with a guard of honour, swords drawn, drinks on the lawn, dinner to follow and later dancing to a 17-piece band. We ensured our tartans were flashing bravely because Scotland and the RLS Club were also on parade. But it was Komiko Koiwa, our Japanese Stevensonian, having flown in from Yokohama, who had the heads turning in her national dress.
Yet for many of us perhaps the most enjoyable element of the trip was the serene, elegant sail along the River L’Oise at Pontoise, glass in hand, an excellent, leisurely luncheon served with style and watching life slowly unfold along the river – just as RLS had done before us. We could have sailed on forever.
As our journey drew to an end, it became clear that the RLS Club’s visit also had an important, positive outcome. As we travelled the route we helped draw together all the small villages and towns associated with An Inland Voyage. We took the opportunity to convene a meeting of the Robert Louis Stevenson European Cultural Route group, and all the communities could see at a glance the commercial success that the Association Sur le Chemin de R. L. Stevenson had brought to the Cevennes through RLS’s Travels with A Donkey.
As Canal Crusader turned north towards the Channel Tunnel those little villages and towns were meeting for the first time as a group to see how RLS and An Inland Voyage could help them in the same way. We left France feeling uplifted – and that RLS had delivered to us another memorable journey.
‘That this house believes that Fanny (Osbourne) was a suitable wife for Robert Louis Stevenson.’
That was the nub of the lively debate in before a large gathering of RLS Club members in the Tusitala, Edinburgh – and the debate has rather gone on ever since.
We were treated to two first class presentations by Mr Ian Gardiner and Dr Mitchell Manson of strong opposing views based on deep knowledge and research and Club members made major contributions to the debate from the floor.
Had they been pugilists, Mr Gardiner would have been seen as packing a hefty wallop, delivering telling blows with great skill on a strategy of attack, while Dr Manson was an accomplished defensive fighter, smothering the punches when he could, and delivering some powerful shots of his own.
Was Fanny a suitable wife? It was decided by moderator Sheriff Gordon Shiach, along with the two protagonists that no vote would be taken.
Maybe that was a wise decision. The passing years have rendered the reality of the marriage in perspective almost impossible to achieve. Speculation and bias, sometimes based on faulty ‘evidence’, has muddied the ground on what from the first was a volatile relationship. Stevenson, too, would not have been an easy husband.
The winner? RLS Club members are highly capable of making up their own minds. A word about the referee: he was a true professional.
The Great Debate has gone round the world by CD starting the arguments all over again in America, Australia and France.