Stevenson, the Highlands and a story under every stone
by Jamie Jauncey

Published: Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

The first edition of Kidnapped sits on my desk. It’s slightly shabby now, but when it was published in 1886, its dark green cloth cover and gold lettering would have glowed with the promise of what lay inside. The first surprise would have been its folding map, titled:

SKETCH of the CRUISE of the

BRIG COVENANT And the probable course of


The very way the red lines bestrode the deep gouges of sea-lochs and wound among the stark contours of the mountains would have left one in no doubt that this was to be adventure of a high order.

Today, each time I pick up the book I think of Robert Louis Stevenson holding an identical copy, flicking through the pages with long pale fingers, fretting about the reception that would greet his latest work. It feels like a 120-year old talisman with the power to summon him to my side, his vast imagina-tion and love of story spilling almost palpably from the rough-edged, hand-cut pages.

This treasure came to me through my mother’s family. Her great-uncle, an extraordinary individual called RB Cunninghame Graham, knew Stevenson in Paris in 1877. “Don Roberto”, as my great-great uncle was known, was a fellow author; an aristocrat who helped Keir Hardie found the Labour Party; an adventurer and horseman and lover of South America, of whom his friend, the novelist Joseph Conrad, said: “When I think of Cunninghame Graham I feel as if I have lived all my life in a dark hole without seeing or knowing anything”. A character, in fact, worthy of Stevenson’s cre-ation, although that is another story …

I was born in 1949, a biblical ninety-nine years after Stevenson. I grew up in his Edinburgh, among the fine Georgian houses of the New Town, the gardens and crescents with their spring crocuses and pungent autumn bonfires. Both Great King Street, where we lived until I was two years old, and our next flat, in Forres Street, where my father con-tinued to keep his advocate’s chambers for many years after we had moved to the country, were within walking distance of Stevenson’s childhood home at 17 Heriot Row.

Had his ghost haunted the New Town of my early child-hood, it would have found much that seemed familiar. The streets were still cobbled and I remember the pride I felt at the manly clatter of my first pair of leather-soled shoes on the granite setts. Gas lamps hissed above the pavements. A woman with a barrel-organ drawn by a Shetland pony turned her handle for pennies under our tall windows. Rag-and-bone men clopped by on their carts, and when the wind blew from the south the thick smell of malt and hops drifted up from the city’s breweries, as it had done for more than a century. This was the palette from which my first years of life were coloured, although today they seem almost sepia.

Then, in a manner of speaking, I was kidnapped. In September 1957, just before my eighth birthday, I was plucked from the genteel comfort of the New Town and dispatched to a large, foursquare stone house on a windy promontory at Dunbar, thirty miles away down the east coast, where the draughts whistled through the dormitory windows and there was nothing but salt to put on our porridge.

Incarcerated there with fifty other boys, I might have longed with all my being for the familiarity of Forres Street’s high-ceilinged rooms, the view across Moray Place and out over the Firth of Forth to the hazy hills of Fife. But in a private part of my imagination the place I went to was the Highlands.

My father’s parents lived in Perthshire, and we visited them often. We travelled to Wester Ross in the far north-west on holidays. The journey to my other grandparents, on the Clyde, took us along the edge of the Trossachs and past Loch Lomond. The grandeur and romance and melancholy of the Highland landscape had already lodged deeply in my con-sciousness; and although the Scots on both sides of my family were Lowlanders, I felt a powerful affinity for all things Highland. To this day, the scent of freshly split pine logs and the treacly reek of peat make my heart lurch.

The romance of Scottish history, though little yet of its misery, had also worked its way into my imagination. We knew about Bonnie Prince Charlie and Culloden, and the idea of being chased through the heather by Redcoats had been firmly planted in my mind by songs and stories. When the ultimate Jacobite adventure finally came my way, I was, so to speak, ripe for plucking.

I don’t now recall whether I first read Kidnapped, or had it read to me, or heard it adapted for the radio, but I was ten or eleven at the time and it gripped me at once and without remorse. Even the names of the characters had a peculiar reso-nance, for there were Balfours and Stewarts and Campbells at my school, latter-day kinsmen of Davie and Alan Breck and the Red Fox; and I knew well that these families were not just intricately bound up with the great events of Scottish history, but deeply connected with the landscape that Stevenson described, and which I also knew: from the brackeny Borders valleys of Davie’s childhood, to the still, birch-fringed lochs of Alan Breck’s Appin, to the great Campbell stronghold of Inveraray Castle.

Closer to home, meanwhile, there was Uncle Ebenezer Balfour (did Stevenson borrow that miserly first name from Dickens?) and all the horror of his unfinished staircase. On a stormy night, how little it took for the grim House of Shaws and our darkened, gale-battered east-coast mansion to become one in my imagination. As for the moment when Davie realises that he has been tricked by the wicked old man and is to be sold for labour in the plantations of Carolina, his feelings of abandonment and despair plucked madly at my heart strings.

By this time we had moved from Edinburgh to my grand-parents’ house. Here it was the hills of western Perthshire, Ben Chonzie and Ben Halton and Ben Vorlich, that dominated the skyline and my imagination. I missed them terribly when I returned to rolling, red-earthed East Lothian at the end of each holidays, and the thought of them lent extra poignancy to tales of the Highlands.

The move north brought with it a new holiday activity. I began going out with my father on shooting expeditions. Now, instead of looking at the hills, I spent long days walking into them. Like Davie and Alan, albeit as pursuers rather than pursued, we laboured across shelterless shoulders with freez-ing rain stinging our cheeks and dripping down the backs of our necks, or sweltered in August heat that had us longing for the next burn where we could fling ourselves down in the dusty, honey-scented heather and lap up the cool water from cupped hands. Sometimes, just as Davie cursed Alan during their flight across the moors, I cursed my father for pushing me close to what felt like the limits of exhaustion.

During one holidays I was taken on an educational cruise run by the National Trust for Scotland which almost exactly followed the route of the brig Covenant, leaving from South Queensferry on the Forth, where Davie was put to sea against his will, and sailing all the way round the coast of Scotland to land at Greenock on the Clyde.

By the time we had left Stornoway and were through the Minch I had got over my seasickness and sat on deck to watch the hills of Assynt and Torridon, Knoydart and Morar slide by in brilliant sunlight, gulls clouding our wake. Happily, the Dunera, a retired troop ship, did not founder off the coast of Mull but made it safely to harbour in Greenock.

What I didn’t know then was that Stevenson’s father had taken him on an almost identical trip in 1869 in the Northern Lighthouse Board’s steamer Pharos V. This had provided much of the material for the sea voyage in Kidnapped, including the unusual scene of eviction he witnessed as the Pharos took on board a party of emigrants who, almost half a century after the end of the clearances proper, were being moved off their land to make way for a deer forest.

Nor did I know that, in a further curious twist, my own father would later serve for seven years as one of the Commissioners for Northern Lighthouses and make the annual trip in the Pharos VIII to inspect those lonely outposts and bring cheer to the keepers (none of whom today remain, for the very last of Scotland’s 212 lighthouses, including all those built by Stevenson’s grandfather and uncle, was auto-mated in 1998).

Back on land, it seemed to me that with their rich, asso-nant Gaelic names, the hills were starting to become like people I knew, the shrouding mist and dark woods, tumbling, rocky rivers and humpbacked Wade bridges, their personal belongings. Their individuality was all the more pronounced for the emptiness of the landscape in which they loomed. But it hadn’t always been so.

Stevenson set Kidnapped in 1751, five years after the cata-strophic end of the Jacobite uprising at Culloden. It was, in effect, the beginning of the end of Highland society. But although Hanoverian repression and desperate poverty were already conspiring to drive people from the land, there would still have been crofting “townships” in the glens through which Davie and Alan fled; while higher up, the hills would have been dotted with sheilings where folk went with their beasts for the summer grazing.

By the time Stevenson himself came to know the Highlands, however, the clearances were complete, Victoria had already been ensconced at Balmoral for several years, and North Britain had become a place where industrialists with social aspirations developed grouse moors and deer forests and entertained guests in baronial lodges.

The management of the Highland landscape as a huge empty recreation ground had begun, and the absence of civil-isation would certainly have encouraged Stevenson to dramatise what he found there. For like all Victorians, he rev-elled in the melodramatic notion of the sublime, the thin line upon which one thrillingly confirmed one’s own existence: a pace forward and nature would overwhelm one with terror, a pace back and she would transport one with delight. So, for example, Davie, the Lowlander, speaks of Appin being “full of prodigious wild and dreadful prospects”.

Here we differ. I have felt that sense of awe in nature, but never in the Highlands. They can be beautiful, bleak, desolate, enfolding, enchanting, unforgiving – people die in the Scottish hills every year, and it pays to be respectful of the shifting weather, the knife-edged ridges, the treacherous, scree-clad slopes. But for all that, I have always found some-thing comfortingly familiar about even the gloomiest, most sheer-sided west coast glen.

What I found more unsettling, as I grew older and came to know more of it, was the history that everywhere in the Highlands seeps from the peat and wreaths the hilltops. One summer evening in my teens, I walked out to a remote bothy in the hills with my best friend, David as it happens. We spent the night there and I hardly slept a wink for the sound of voices on the wind.

Stevenson undoubtedly heard them too. The voice of James Stewart of Duror, hanged in chains at Ballachulish after his wrongful conviction by a jury of Campbells for the murder of the King’s factor, Colin Campbell of Glenure, the Red Fox; a murder almost certainly committed at the instigation, if not the hand, of his kinsman Alan Breck. Or of the fugitive Jacobite chieftain Cluny Macpherson hiding out in his “cage” high up among the distant crags of Ben Alder. Or of Robin Oig, son of the outlaw Rob Roy Macgregor, playing the pipes on the Braes of Balquhidder.

These were the real voices and places around which Stevenson wove his story, writing it in tautly-framed instal-ments for serialisation in Young Folks magazine. From the very first hearing, its energy and rhythm entered my bloodstream and lodged there.

Stevenson wrote Kidnapped in Bournemouth at the house he named Skerryvore, after the most beautiful of all the family lighthouses. I wrote my first three novels in London; and it’s obvious to me now that they all feature journeys of either quest or pursuit through mountainous landscapes. Perhaps one cultivates a stronger sense of place in absentia.

A year after Kidnapped was published, Stevenson left England on the journey that would end in his death in Samoa, seven years later, in 1894. He was only forty-four. My own self-imposed exile lasted just short of twenty years and on my return, aged forty-one, I deliberately planted myself and my family off the beaten track in a gentle glen in Highland Perthshire.

During the seven years we spent there I underwent the complicated experience of rediscovering a Scotland vastly changed in some respects, as a country on the brink of politi-cal devolution; scarcely changed at all in others, as our view of the fortress-like Beinn a’ Ghlo, and the forty miles of wilder-ness beyond it, constantly reminded me.

Being among the hills again, hearing the river at night through our bedroom window, re-awoke that sense of history as something omnipresent in the landscape, and with it returned the narrative pulse. It was a kind of unconscious preparation for my fourth novel, Blackriggs, which strongly echoes Kidnapped as young John MacNeil and the child known to him only as Ninian flee through the Cairngorm and Monadhliath mountains in a troubled Scotland of the near future. It seems more than coincidence that, after a tortuous journey of its own, the book should finally have found a pub-lisher in the week before I sat down to write this essay.

As I look north now, I have to ask myself whether it is pos-sible to view the landscape before me as something distinct from what I know to have taken place in it. For it seems as if Stevenson’s own story and the story of Davie and Alan, my story and the story of John and Ninian, are all interwoven as strands in the greater story of what it means to be Scottish and to have fallen under the spell of the Highlands. I believe it is impossible to be in love with the Highlands without being in love with narrative; and when these hills and glens provide the backdrop for one’s own life, one cannot ignore the sense of being part of their unfolding tale.

No matter how empty this beautiful, proud, mournful country may sometimes seem, there’s a story under every stone. And if you can’t find one, or be part of one, you have to make one up for yourself.

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