Six members represented the RLS Club on a dual-purpose journey to Grez-sur-Loing, where Stevenson met Fanny at the artists’ colony there south of Paris. Their objectives were (1) to follow RLS’s footsteps in a 25km anniversary hike through the Forest of Fontainebleau from Barbizon to Grez. Pat and Ian Gardiner, and Ian Nimmo joined 800 other walkers to successfully complete the mission. Three pipers and a drummer, kilts swinging, marched us out in style – and the kilties were all Frenchmen.
The second objective was to take part in the inaugural meeting of a French-led initiative to identify Stevenson trails throughout Europe and examine means to develop them. M. Thomas-Penette, director of the European Institute of Cultural Routes, explained EC money could be available and offered us his advice. Rosemary Johnston and Grace Nimmo acted as interpreters and Mark Steeds and Fiona, from Bristol, spoke about the Long John Silver Trail. The two Ians led the Club delegation, and identified several RLS walking routes, including the Kidnapped Trail, the Ayrshire winter’s walk, House of Shaws to the Hawes Inn and around North Berwick and Cramond
The RLS Club is examining the possibility of a creative writing competition for Scottish schools in conjunction with Napier University. Committee member Gillean Arjat has produced a working paper with fellow committee member David Reid, both former teachers, after discussion with James Robertson, the distinguished Scottish novelist and currently writer in residence at Napier University, and Napier’s Professor Linda Dryden. The working guidelines have been completed. The competition would include both prose and poetry. If the competition goes ahead sponsorship will be sought.
Stevenson’s happy memories of his grandfather’s Colinton manse and garden will be reflected in a statue of RLS as a boy in front of the old kirk at the end of a trail of plaques down the Long Steps. The plaques will carry lines from A Child’s Garden of Verses.
There have been changes on the RLS Club Committee: Mr Ian Nimmo is handing over the organisation of Club events to committee members Mr Ian Gardiner and Dr Mitchell Manson. Ian will continue to edit the Newsletter and lend support wherever it is needed. Mrs Ailene Hunter has taken over as minutes secretary from Mrs Gillean Sommerville-Arjat.
The specially-designed birthday cake to celebrate RLS’s 160 years created a talking point at our annual luncheon last November in the New Club. Most members gave it a cursory glance as they arrived, then moved on fooled. They thought it was a pile of displayed books. The masterpiece was the creation of the Edinburgh Cake Shop, who surpassed themselves. And the cake tasted as good as it looked.
Duncan Nimmo (8), from Freuchie, has become the youngest member of the Robert Louis Stevenson Club.
We returned to the Hawes Inn at South Queensferry for our Literary Lunch with memories of David Balfour, nasty Uncle Ebenezer, Captain Hoseason and David’s lawyer Mr Rankeillor, of Kidnapped fame, playing out their roles all around us. It had been decided that we would relive our wonderful Fontainebleau expedition for those who were on it and share our memories and experiences with those members who were unlucky enough not to have been with us. Dr Alan Marchbank had prepared a Powerpoint presentation for us in his own inimitable fashion as we followed RLS’s footsteps (see May). One of the unexpected highlights was, of course, the little playlet using Stevenson’s words outside the jail where he had been held in Chatillon-sur-Loire. It was clear then that Actor John Shedden and Rex Homer had a winner on their hands and they further proved it at the Hawes to the great entertainment and amusement of all. Alan Marchbank’s presentation was punctuated by the same readings that had been aired in France on location and if anything they were even more telling second time around.
One of the pleasant aspects about the Literary Lunch in the Hawes Inn’s boardroom is that once the proceedings are over it is only a few paces to lunch. There were 43 members present and most stayed on to eat and chat well into the afternoon.
We have been lucky in the RLS Club over many years that we have attracted some celebrated speakers to toast Stevenson with authority at our annual luncheon. This year the celebrated actor Dr John Cairney proposed the toast to RLS and held us in thrall with his address, one moment having us in stitches with his humourous stories, the next he was deadly serious and speaking from the heart with the actor’s inside knowledge of character. His story of how as a small boy he came to RLS’s city by accident on his own on the back of a lorry and looked around wide-eyed at the Castle and the Old Town high above had us in fits and there were so many hilarious false endings that we lost count before he became serious again. We knew from his academic studies and his book on Stevenson that John Cairney would give us something different and memorable – and he most certainly did. Roger Craik QC, handsomely proposed the toast to Edinburgh with wit, reminiscence and affection and Councillor Deirdre Brock, the Deputy Lord Provost, who had done her homework on RLS, replied in kind. RLS Club chairman Mr John Macfie presided.
Our Annual Luncheon in recent times has been held in the New Club on Edinburgh’s Princes Street overlooking Edinburgh Castle and its name belies its longevity. The New Club is among the foremost in Britain, with a splendid collection of Scottish paintings and artworks and exudes Scottish tradition and heritage. We enjoyed all the elements of our day.
The study of a particular Stevenson book or poem is normally held in Heriot Row with our Book Group, but among our ranks we have a Master of Ballantrae expert in Nigel McMurray and he had us enthralled with his knowledge about both the book and RLS. Nigel showed us depths and depths to The Master that many of us had not appreciated. He took us on a grand tour of The Master of Ballantrae country, from Ballantrae and Durrisdeer to Glen Finnan and India and New York State. He introduced us to all the characters as if they were friends or acquaintances, and there were depths and depths to them, too, some of them real people around which RLS had woven his fiction. He explained, as in Kidnapped, that although Stevenson remained true to the accuracy of history and geography, he never allowed them to stand in the way of his story. The Master was clearly a large step in Stevenson’s development of characterisation and his depiction of the brothers, particularly the demonic Master, is second only to Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in his portrayal of the duality that lurks within us all. In a story of unremitting depression, the reader’s sympathy lie first with the young brother Henry, yet by the end we are regarding him in a very different light, while The Master is eventually looked upon more favourably. And so Stevenson’s emerging genius plays with our emotions and credibility. The Master of Ballantrae made the critics at the time see Stevenson in a different perspective as he confidently blended two writing genres – the boys’ adventure-type story like Treasure island and Kinnapped with a full-blown, deadly serious adult novel – and he won new respect. Nigel’s slides were all-encompassing, detailed, pertinent and revealing. It was an outstanding presentation.
The idea for The Master of Ballantrae was born in Saranac Lake in New York State where the first of the writing began. The RLS Club has been considering a visit to Saranac in 2012 and even a trip to Ballantrae. Nigel’s presentation has made us examine these destinations with renewed enthusiasm.
The duel . . . The Master lies prostrate, run-through by the sword of his younger brother. It is a dreadful scene. But is The Master really dead?
RLS readers mostly associate North Berwick with Catriona and the Bass Rock, where David Balfour was kidnapped for the second time and held captive by James More MacGregor’s clansmen. In Catriona the scene on the Gullane sands and the Bass are so finely drawn, so atmospheric and so accurately described that David Balfour, Tod Lapraik and Andy Dale could be real people. The authenticity is due entirely to the fact that RLS knew the area so well and since childhood. He had family and friends in North Berwick and many happy days were spent in their company. The Dales remain a notable farming family in the area. The town and surrounds feature in other RLS writings.
In September the RLS Club had a memorable visit to North Berwick, which was hosted and masterminded by June Douglas Hamilton and Rex Homer – and led by none other than RLS himself, otherwise known as Vincent Guy, who acted as narrator. He was at the very top of his form. We arrived for coffee at the County Hotel for a briefing, before RLS took us on a tour of the RLS sites with the weather beaming upon us. By the old kirk we went, Stevenson’s ‘castle’, where he played as a child, the Black Rock, the Stevenson’s house on the sea front, the harbour, Tod Lapraik’s haunts and all the time The Bass was keeping watch offshore. We returned to the County for a splendid Victorian high tea, but first we were regailed by a Robert Louis Stevenson concert specially prepared by the extraordinary Flying Aspidistras choir. They were in excellent voice and gave us a quality rendering of songs of travel, including RLS’s The Vagabond. Tina Moskal performed Tod Lapraik –‘performed’ is the exactly correct description – and you will never hear it better delivered. Wonderful!
Earlier, during our tour of the town, Club members helped with appropriate readings on appropriate RLS sites and Ian Gardiner and Mitchell Manson became Lantern Bearers for the day with telling readings from Stevenson’s past. Two important readings were at the harbour where Rex Homer took on the guise of Thomas Stevenson and Ian Nimmo was Robert Stevenson. These readings were letters to North Berwick’s Council and Magistrates, the Stevensons having been commissioned to improve North Berwick’s harbour. The importance of these letters was that they had only recently been discovered and this was a world’s first public unveiling of them. Among the many fine readings from Vincent Guy – that will not be easily forgotten – he recited The Wind from the harbour wall, the words ringing out high and low, while the rest of us couried below giving ourselves to the moment.
That evening a party was held in Rex Homer’s house with some of North Berwick’s finest performers giving of their best in a very varied impromptu go-as-you-please that involved musicianship, singing, readings and recitation to mostly an RLS theme. After all that had gone before it was a magical evening, rich in atmosphere and laden with RLS.
Mountain guide Ian Logan was the inspiration for the new long-distance hike The Stevenson Way and after the successful launch (see May) he promised to share his experiences and future plans with Club members. The 230-mile route follows the footsteps of the Kidnapped heroes through some of Scotland’s most magnificent landscape – across Mull, Appin, Rannoch Moor, and by Balquhidder and Stirling all the way back to Edinburgh. It now forms an important element of the Stevenson Cultural Routes in Europe partnership, in which the RLS Club plays a leading role. The Stevenson Way is the brain child of RLS Club member Ian Logan, who will act as a guide.
To mark the launch a special film was made telling the Kidnapped story and background, showing the route in detail, and discussing RLS. The RLS Club was privileged to be given the first showing of the film at the Tusitala.
Throughout the RLS Club has given strong support and former chairman Ian Nimmo, author of Walking with Murder on the Kidnapped Trail, gave help and advice.
Further details from Ian Logan on www.stevensonway.org.uk
The AGM was held again this year in the Advocates’ Mackenzie Building , Old Assembly Close, on Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile, with Chairman John Macfie presiding (see the Chairman’s report on separate file). The various speakers reported that membership was stable, the Club is financially secure, and that we are indeed a very lively group with a wide-ranging events programme.
This year we added to the AGM’s interest with a highly-successful sale of RLS-related books, including the eight-volume set of the Booth and Meyhew RLS letters, and a complete set of the Tusitala edition, along with other sought-after titles. Some good bargains were picked up, with proceeds going to boost Club funds.
A long time ago we discovered that the hardy RLS Club members who have followed in Stevenson’s footsteps in tropical Samoa, across the Donkey Trail in the Cevennes, up California’s coast and mountains, and throughout Scotland, are not deterred by heat, wind or rain. Just as well, because our walk following part of RLS’s old route from Heriot Row up to their summer home at Swanston began wet to say the least. We set off from Greenbank Park, and there was much to see and comment upon, talk about and quote all along the way: from ghostly white ladies to Edinburgh’s early water supply, and we were therefore ready for coffee and warm jam scones at the Swanston Golf Club, where we had some very fine and appropriate readings from RLS. And the rain went off! But we were not content merely to have reached RLS’s destination.
After further readings at Alison Cunningham’s old cottage, still with her initials above the door, and at the Stevenson’s Swanston summer house, large and attractive looking up to the Pentlands, we decided to head for Colinton, where some of RLS’s happiest days were spent at his grandfather’s manse. We were also ready for lunch and the Spylaw Tavern, in old Colinton village, was ready for us. The sun was out and all agreed it was a delightful RLS event, and we had hardly noticed the rain.
May saw us heading back to France to visit Fontainebleau and its surrounds, including Grez-sur-Loing, and all the places associated with RLS’s time there: The Hotel Chevillon, Grez’s ancient church, the picturesque bridge – so much of it familiar through the work of celebrated artists, including Fanny Osbourne herself. Based in Melun, we visited delightful Barbizon, and had afternoon tea in the hotel Bas Breau, where Stevenson stayed. We follow in his footsteps through the Forest of Fontainebleau and visited the jail at Chatillon-sur-Loire, where RLS was arrested and interrogated as a Prussian spy. With the help of actor John Shedden and Club member Rex Homer we recreated the drama at the same old jail using Stevenson’s own words. We had receptions in our honour, jolly picnics, experienced local food and fine wines, sipped sweet champaigne like RLS in Chatillon-sur-Loire, and we cruised the Seine in luxury.
It was a wonderful experience from start to finish under the leadership of Ian Gardiner, who organised everything along with his wife Pat.
The report in the RLS Club’s Autumn Newsletter read as follows:
When we decided on Fontainebleau in May part of the interest was undoubtedly the opportunity to visit the artists’ colony at Grez-sur-Loing where Stevenson met his future wife Fanny.
It was in the artists’ Hotel Chevillon with his cousin Bob that RLS made that startling entry through the window, and was welcomed so joyously, as later recounted by Lloyd Osbourne. Unquestionably, Bob and Louis were the ‘It’ people in the colony at that time.
Some of us had previously peeped into the little hotel, speaking almost in whispers so not to disturb the present-day artists and writers. This time we arrived after completing the Stevenson Fountainbleau Forest walk to be greeted by bagpipe music and much waving of the saltire. We were given the kind of friendship welcome afforded Stevenson, with a splendid reception and buffet in our honour.
Our Grez friends, Jean Le Vot, who oversees the colony, and Christophe Ligere, who worked so hard on our behalf to organise our trip, could not have been kinder. Jean told us in detail about RLS’s time at Grez and the fascinating story of the community.
Already we had discovered that highlights abounded on this visit. Indeed, it was one big highlight from start to finish, masterfully planned by Ian Gardiner.
We made our base in Melun in the very pleasant Hotel Grand Monarque, complete with tennis court. It was central to our intended Fontainebleau journeyings following two separate RLS visits – with Bob to Grez and with Sir Walter Simpson.
There is an excellent reason why so many artists are attracted to the area – it is a paradise of meadows, woodlands, rivers, picturesque villages, magnificent churches, historic stately homes and castles. We decided to experience splendour first, and visited the extraordinary Castle Vaux-le-Vicomte, a dramatic reminder of France’s days of power and influence on the grand scale. That afternoon we went to the fascinating Collegiate Church of Champeaux, dating back to the 12th century, a lesson here in Gothic architecture and where some of the great theologians of the Middle Ages came to study.
But the artists’ town of Moret-sur-Loing was calling us, and the artists were out in numbers along the river bank. What a vision! What a beautiful town! It was here we appreciated the true worth of our remarkable guide Mary Joe, a character-and-a-half – so we immediately adopted her. It was in Moret that Stevenson and Simpson procured and christened the canal barge The Eleven Thousand Virgins of Cologne, built by master carpenter M.Mattras. They celebrated with several glasses of sweet champagne – and so did we!
While we were in that part of Fontainebleau, we stopped off to see the former studio of Rosa Boheur, recognised as one of the world’s finest painters of horses. Her old studio is now a museum to remind us of her genius and we duly paid homage.
Chatillon-sur-Loire and RLS’s incarceration there had caught our imagination – and what a day that turned out to be, as recorded on page one. But throughout our Fontainebleau wanderings we were appreciating RLS readings in situ, which gave the whole trip a sense of reality and atmosphere.
The friendly Mayor of Chatillon, Emmanuel Rat, had laid on a reception for us at the Town House. He presented the RLS Club with a fine commemorative plate, which will now go on display in the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh.
You can’t go to Fontainebleau without also visiting Fontainebleau Palace. It is, of course, breathtaking. Some of us had previously been there, but apart from the set tour, it is also a place to visit on your own, to find a corner for quiet contemplation, in the gardens or in some hidden alcove – and consider France at the height of its might.
The splendid oak Forest of Fontainebleau was also calling us. We decided to follow Stevenson’s 15-mile route in two stages: the first from the ‘chocolate box’ village of Barbizon, home of another famous artists’ colony, through peaceful, cathedral-quiet woods to Recloses, with the sun smiling down upon us. Then it was back to Barbizon’s finest hotel, Bas Breau, where Stevenson stayed, for an exceedingly enjoyable afternoon tea in the gardens as he did.
The walks were not taxing, just a stroll in the best of company, as one Club member commented. The second day took us from Recloses to Grez, by the old church featured in one of Fanny’s paintings, and the bridge over the Loing, above the Hotel Chevillon, is now almost a Grez symbol.
After all that – how do you end such a carefree, active, jolly and memorable trip with another highlight? Easy. You plan a luxury cruise down the Seine with a luxury meal aboard. And that’s what we did.
The centre of the village of Grez-sur-Loing in Fontainebleau, south of Paris, is almost unchanged since Stevenson’s day. This, of course, is where Stevenson met his future wife Fanny Osbourne, who was part of the colony of artists’ based in the Hotel Chevillon. Grez changed RLS’s life for ever. What was life like in the colony? Who were the Grez artists, who included the Glasgow Boys? RLS Club member Dr Tom Kennedy gave us a timely and fascinating glimpse into the Grez experience just before the Club’s visit to the Fontainebleau area, when we stepped inside the Hotel Chevillon to see it for ourselves.
Dr Kennedy Powerpoint presentation focused on the Grez artists and their work, concentrating on the Scots who were drawn to that most attractive area of forests, rivers, towns, villages and farms to express themselves in the outdoors. He told their story amusingly, but with great insight, and gave us new dimensions of knowledge about their work. Dr Kennedy also touched on RLS and Fanny, which started discussion into their relationship and marriage and how Fanny Osbourne rated as an artist. Lunch followed at the Tusital.
What better place to begin our 2012 RLS Club programme than in RLS’s old home at No 17 Heriot Row, courtesy of our chairman John Macfie and his wife Felicitas. These are delightful ‘At Home’ occasions of chat, discussion and readings over a glass of wine. This time we asked members to bring their favourite RLS poem or a short extract from one of his works – and read it to us. We also discussed our busy monthly events programme.
This was another sophisticated literary evening among friends and we were all conscious that this house was where Stevenson spent much of his childhood and youth and grateful to the Macfies for allowing us to invade it.