Robert Louis Stevenson: From Scotland to Samoa

Take a glimpse into the mind behind 'Treasure Island' and learn how Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson experienced life to the fullest - and furthest - extent possible

By National Library of Scotland

Stevenson R.L. Por. 1850-1894 (1885)LIFE Photo Collection

Today, Robert Louis Stevenson is remembered as one of Scotland’s most beloved authors

Although he is most often associated with children’s fiction such as 'Kidnapped' and 'Treasure Island', his talent spanned across travel writing, historical novels, poetry, music, and essays.

Stevenson R.L. Por. 1850-1894 (1885)LIFE Photo Collection

Growing up in Edinburgh, Stevenson was afflicted with severe childhood illnesses

This left him frail and prone to sickness throughout his life. In his early years, he was often too poorly to leave his childhood home (pictured below and right). Given this, it might seem surprising that Stevenson grew up to become one of the most well-traveled writers that Scotland has ever produced. 

'Young Night Thought' (1885) by Stevenson, Robert Louis, 1850-1894National Library of Scotland

In fact, it is Stevenson's own reflections on his early life which show this period as the catalyst for his creative spark.

Written when he was in his 30s, 'A Child's Garden of Verses' (1885) revolves around Stevenson's memories of childhood play and imagination.


However, its poems are also tinged with notes of Stevenson's early suffering, as a result of his chronic illnesses.

"I see the people marching by,
As plain as day, before my eye."

These poems suggest that the time the young Stevenson spent bed-bound actually helped to sharpen his observational abilities.

With only his own thoughts and the tales of his nurse to occupy him, he soon developed superpowers of invention.

When his health prevented him from playing and exploring like other children, Stevenson leaned further into his imagination -- where there were no physical barriers to hold him back.

'The Land of Counterpane' (1885) by Stevenson, Robert Louis, 1850-1894National Library of Scotland

Similarly, in 'The Land of Counterpane', Stevenson muses upon what he later referred to as "my sufferings when I was sick, … and the unnatural activity of my mind after I was in bed at night."

"I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill..."

Sickly though he might have been, Stevenson's mind could take him to more exciting worlds than his own. These colorful recollections of childhood imagination speak volumes about the keen observer, traveler, and storyteller Stevenson would become.

'An Inland Voyage' frontispiece (1878) by Crane, Walter, 1845-1915National Library of Scotland

In 1878, Stevenson published his first book: 'An Inland Voyage'.

The short travelogue tells the story of his canoe journey through France and Belgium in 1876, accompanied by his friend Sir Walter Grindlay Simpson.

This ornate first edition frontispiece, illustrated by Walter Crane, shows Stevenson and Simpson travelling on a river as part of their journey...

... while the river-god Pan, who is known to cause trouble for travelers, looks on from a concealed spot in the reeds.

Throughout the tale, Stevenson is referred to as 'Arethusa' and Simpson referred to as 'Cigarette'. Although the pair are occasionally taken for travelling salesmen, they encounter a rich variety of colorful characters and idyllic places.

As a result of its charms, the book is well-regarded today as quintessential travel literature.

'Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes' frontispiece (1879) by Crane, Walter, 1845-1915National Library of Scotland

A year later, Stevenson published his account of his 12-day hike through a mountainous region of South Central France, accompanied by a temperamental donkey named Modestine.

'Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes' (1879) widened both his travel and economic horizons. Not only did he further satisfy his desire to see the world, but the money earned from ‘Travels’ and his other early work gave Stevenson an opportunity to gain financial independence from his parents.

"The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints." - 'Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes' (1879)

Stevenson’s rousing account of his time in the Cévennes even inspired travelers that were to come after him. The GR70, a footpath which runs through the region, is fondly known today as ‘The Robert Louis Stevenson Trail’.

'Our Little Walk Along the Quays' (1899) by Paget, Walter, 1863-1935National Library of Scotland

"There are no foreign lands. It is the traveller only who is foreign."

After his first forays into travel writing, Stevenson's unique perspective on life and adventure came to the fore in his fiction for younger readers, in which his child protagonists were thrown into a series of wild escapades.

Young Folks Paper featuring 'Kidnapped' (1886) by Young Folks PaperNational Library of Scotland

The success of Stevenson's adventure stories are likely the reason that he is most recognized as a children’s and young person’s author.

Stevenson became well-known through the children’s literary magazine 'Young Folks Paper', which was notable for having first published a number of his novels in serial form -- including 'Treasure Island' and 'Kidnapped'.

Stevenson's characters traveled far and wide throughout the course of their adventures.

Due to the daring acts and thrilling incidents of his tales, his young readers were often left on a cliffhanger -- desperately waiting to get their hands on the next issue of the story.

'Kidnapped' begins with 16-year old David Balfour, who sets out to make his uncle's introduction after being orphaned. However, his ordeal begins when he discovers his uncle has sold him to the captain of a slave ship about to set sail for America.

During his escape, David meets Scottish rebel Alan Breck and the two are flung together in a dramatic adventure through the Scottish Highlands.

Map of 'Treasure Island' (1883) by Stevenson, Robert Louis, 1850-1894National Library of Scotland

'X marks the spot'?

Action-packed stories like 'Kidnapped' and 'Treasure Island' allowed Stevenson's love of adventure to shine through in his work. While the original 'Treasure Island' map drawn by Stevenson was lost in transit, a similar version (right) has appeared in every copy of the novel since its publication in 1883. Many real islands are rumoured to have inspired the famous fictional one, including Norman Island in the Caribbean Sea (below), which Stevenson is thought to have learned about from a sea-faring relative.

'Our Little Walk Along the Quays' (1899) by Paget, Walter, 1863-1935National Library of Scotland

Probably the most famous of all Stevenson's works, 'Treasure Island' is widely considered to be a children's book, but its emotional depth and clever narrative can be appreciated by all ages.

At least some of the novel's enduring popularity is down to the human appeal of its characters: the most famous (or perhaps infamous) of these being the cunning and complex pirate Long John Silver.

The novel tells the story of a young innkeeper's son, Jim Hawkins, who is swept up in a pirate crew's mission to recover a prize of buried treasure. Considered a classic 'coming-of-age' tale by many, it is a tale of peril, morality, and mutiny.

Stevenson's vibrant imagination is responsible for the most common images we associate with pirates today:

✓ tropical islands with hidden treasure
✓ parrot companions
✓ the dreaded 'Black Spot'

... and, of course, scheming pirates with missing legs.

'Catriona' title page (1893) by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1850-1894National Library of Scotland

"Fiction is to the grown man what play is to the child; it is there that he changes the atmosphere and tenor of his life."
- Robert Louis Stevenson

By putting young characters like Jim Hawkins and David Balfour front and centre in his adventure stories Stevenson had, in a way, redressed the isolation and boredom of his own childhood.

Now 'a man of the world', he had overcome his physical ailments and set his stories to paper, sparking the imaginations of the children who came after him.

R. L. Stevenson in Samoa. (1912) by Patrick, John, 1830?-1923National Library of Scotland

"To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life."

In the 1890s, Stevenson explored the eastern and central Pacific and eventually established a home on the Samoan island of Upolu.

Stevenson R.L. Por. 1850-1894 (1850/1894)LIFE Photo Collection

The Samoan climate suited Stevenson and he remained in good health during his last years, which he spent at Vailima.

At the time of his death in 1894, he had travelled as far from his childhood home in Edinburgh as geographically possible.

Stevenson R.L. Family Or Groups (1885)LIFE Photo Collection

Stevenson's last works in Samoa, including 'The Ebb-Tide' (1894) and the unfinished 'Weir of Hermiston' (published posthumously in 1896), show him at the height of his literary maturity and introspection.

In fact, Stevenson's Pacific writing was so articulate and perceptive that the Samoan locals came to know him as 'Tusitala', translating to 'teller of tales'.

“Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

The above quote is from 'Requiem': Stevenson's own poem which, by his own request, adorns his headstone in Samoa.

Through the force of his will and his imaginative genius, Stevenson had confounded lifelong bodily frailties to become not only a 'teller' or an observer, but an explorer of sorts too.

The legacy he leaves to Scotland, the Pacific, and everyone who reads his work today is one of a world-travelling literary hero.

Credits: Story

If you would like to find out more about Robert Louis Stevenson's life or his other works, you can search online at The National Library of Scotland website or visit the resources below:

National Library of Scotland - Robert Louis Stevenson mini-site, with selected works available to read online

Robert Louis Stevenson website

This exhibit was researched and put together by Lauren McCombe (Google Arts and Culture Intern, National Library of Scotland), with assistance from James Mitchell, (Rare Books Curator. National Library of Scotland)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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