Thursday, 20 February 2014

The Magic of Robert Louis Stevenson

When asked what my favourite book is these days I would have to confess that I don't actually have any single book which I would claim as the holder of that title. There are simply far too many books which I love to pick any single book out and set it above all others.

I could however list authors whose books never fail to enthral and entertain. Among them, and in no particular order, would be Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels, Ian Rankin and the Rebus tales, and yes I was heavily influenced to set in my books in Edinburgh through him although 250 years earlier than Inspector Rebus, Lyndsey Davis and her wonderful Roman mysteries with Marcus Didius Falco, Irvine Welsh, Wilbur Smith whether it is his historical fiction or the 'modern' tales set in more recent times, Michael Crichton, Nigel Tranter and many, many others.

Now if I was to add the independent authors who I have discovered over the last few years since allowing myself to explore the hidden gems allowed by KDP/Amazon the list grows at an alarming rate. A very brief list of new authors that I particularly enjoy would include names such as Trish Marie Dawson, KS Haigwood, Kevin Hammond, Shiralyn J Lee, Bon Rose, Lucinda Brant, and the wonderfully talented authors who contribute to this blog. These are only a few which I would recommend but there are dozens more out there to be discovered and loved.

Right! So much for these days. What about when I was younger?

This is a much easier question to answer as one author stands out head and shoulders above all others for me when I was a child. Robert Louis Stevenson. The son of a family better known for its lighthouse designs than literature, he was born in Edinburgh in 1850 and died tragically young at the age of only 44 on the Samoan island of Upolu. While his family built beacons to guide the sailor safely home RLS wrote books which still serve as beacons guiding the reader to fantastic adventures.

I was given a hardback copy of Treasure Island when I was eight years old and despite the plain red faux leather cover it appealed to me straight away. Illustrated with several colour plates depicting pirates and old sailing ships I wanted to dive straight in. And that is exactly what I did. Every book deserves a great opening line and Treasure Island has one of the very best ever set down -

Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen 
having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, 
from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, 
and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, 
I take up my pen in the year of grace 17__ and go back to the time when 
my father kept the Admiral Benbow Inn and the 
brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodging under our roof.

Instantly you are placed there in the tavern with the mysterious scarred sailor and wonder what the story can possibly be about this island and its unknown treasure. Treasure Island is one of those books which all writers of historical fiction aspire to match. Its cast of characters have entered the popular imagination and there can be few people who can't instantly picture the figure of Long John Silver in their own mind whenever they hear his name. The book has been adapted for the big screen an incredible number of times from Robert Newton's masterful portrayal of Silver right through to the Muppets adventures on the island and even on spaceships in the depths of space. This is in no small measure due to sheer number of stand-out scenes which fill the book from cover to cover.

Yes, if you had asked me at the age of ten what was the best book ever written I would have replied Treasure Island without even pausing for thought...but then I discovered Kidnapped!

Suddenly the tales of English country gentlemen and dastardly pirates in the Caribbean paled in comparison with a full blooded adventure set right here in my own country, Scotland! For probably the first time I was reading about places I knew and had visited personally in something other than a history text book at school. Edinburgh Castle, South Queensferry, Hawes Inn, Culross, Rannoch Moor! These were all places I had visited but suddenly I was looking at them in a wholly new light. No longer were they simply beautiful places to visit for a day trip in a car but they lived and breathed on the page before my eyes.

The adventures of David Balfour after his betrayal by the villainous Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws soared before my ardent eyes with the grace and power of a Scottish eagle over the high mountains of the Highlands. The heroic, if flawed, Alan Breck Stewart and his mentions of the murderous battle of Culloden only drew me further in and suddenly I began to view Scottish history not as something dry and dull which my teacher droned at us in class but as something vital, something alive and which burned with passion and real flesh and blood. Stevenson was one of the authors who creates a spectacle so vividly with his words that you can feel yourself shivering on the cold shores of an island off the west coast of Scotland or breathing the peat smoke of the fire in Cluny's Cage and then hiding below a gorse bush on the wilderness of Rannoch Moor while a party of English Dragoons scour the landscape for you.

Other than the scenes set in the majestic Scottish Highlands the scenes which had the greatest appeal for me were those set in Edinburgh. Auld Reekie is a city which lives in my heart and that draws me back to her embrace time after time. Some may see her as a being like a woman with an elderly face that relies on the days of her youth to attract admirers but all those who have experienced the pleasure of her company and come to know her can see that beneath the facade she is still beautiful, still young and vibrant, with a lust for life and a passion for all that life has to offer. To walk the streets of Edinburgh is to walk in the footsteps of history. From Robert the Bruce to Mary, Queen of Scots, to Bonnie Prince Charlie, to Walter Scott and Stevenson himself, you will see the sights and breath the same air as they did. From the tourist hotspots on the Royal Mile to the hidden gems in quiet backstreets there is so much she offers to both the local and visitor alike. That is why I love her and place her above all others.

So there you have it. My contribution to what our inspirations and favourite books are. If you have read either or both of these books I am sure you will have enjoyed them every bit as much as I have repeatedly and if you haven't, then I would urge you to do so at the earliest opportunity!

For book give-aways and more general chat please visit us at our Facebook page. 

Stuart Laing is the author of The Robert Young of Newbiggin Mysteries.

 His blog can be followed at 


  1. I just finished reading "Under the Wide and Starry Sky" about RLS and his wife, Fanny. I really enjoyed it! They were very colorful characters! Of course I love his books, too; especially "A Child"s book of Garden Verses!"

  2. "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped" form a strong part of my childhood, not through the reading, but through the series that were shown on the BBC TV during the 1950s, They are set firmly in my childhood memories. Thank you for nudging my recollections of those times Stuart.