Swanston Cottage

Swanston Cottage is hidden within “a bouquet of old trees” in this old postcard. (Photo provided)

“Blows the wind today, and the sun and the rain are flying —

“Blows the wind on the moors, today and now

“Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups are crying,

“‘My heart remembers how!’

“Gray, recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,

“Standing Stones on the vacant, wine-red moor,

“Hills of sheep, and the howes of the silent vanished races,

“And winds, austere and pure!

“Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,

Hills of home! And to hear again the call —

“Hear about the graves of the martyrs the pee-wees crying,

“And hear no more at all.”

“Home Thoughts from Samoa,” R.L. Stevenson

“Howes” are valleys or hollows, while “whaups” and “pee-wees” are birds. Stevenson’s occasional use of Scottish slang is still a stumbling block for some readers who might be looking for something new in the old. The poem itself came about spontaneously, as RLS was writing a letter from his home in the South Seas to S.R. Crockett in Scotland. Crockett was a minister-turned-writer who attained a degree of success with about 40 books, most of them novels. He looked up to Stevenson like a student to his master. The Stickit Minister and Some Common Men was one of his hits, in Scotland. The dedication in it reads, “To Robert Louis Stevenson of Scotland and Samoa, I dedicate these stories of that grey Galloway land, where, about the graves of the martyrs, the whaups are crying–his heart has not forgotten how.”

Stevenson’s chronic case of homesickness flared up again after reading Crockett’s dedication which transported him in his mind, back to his “hills of home,” the other place where he longed to be, on the other side of the world. His stepdaughter, Belle, wrote in her book “This Life I’ve Loved”:

“He described the despair he felt when told he could never go back to London, to his home in Bournemouth; he would never see his native city again. He was sentenced to exile for the rest of his life.”

The “hills of home” to be specific, were the Pentland Hills, a pleasant landscape just west of the Edinburgh city limits, full of scenery and history. Scottish people are renowned for their passion about their own history, none more so than Robert Louis Stevenson, who found ways to use it in many of his books, including The Master of Ballantrae, written in Saranac Lake (the first half).

From an early age Stevenson had an active interest in the history and folklore of Scotland. Allison Cunningham, “Cummy,” his childhood nurse, had Calvinistic inclinations and stimulated her boy’s imagination with true tales of the Covenanters and the “Killing Time”–the 17th century religious wars between Scots and the Royal Crown. At 16, Louis published his first book or pamphlet with the help of his father’s money. “The Pentland Rising” depicts events in 1666, when the Westland Covenanters were defeated by English Dragoons at Rullion Green in the Pentland Hills. Only 100 copies were run and his father Thomas Stevenson, withdrew them almost immediately. Today they are so rare that collectors have forgotten about them; however, the Saranac Lake collection includes an Anderson’s LTD 1925 special edition copy of “The Pentland Rising,” word for word, commissioned by Col. Walter Scott, president of the Stevenson Society of America. It’s literally pocket-size with a pretty plaid cover.

Another magnet for Louis in the Pentlands was Glencorse Church, or, rather, its stone ruins, which were already being reclaimed by nature when Louis liked to go there, during his walks in the hills. In a letter to S.R. Crockett a few months before he died, he asked Crockett to “Go there and say a prayer for me: ‘moriturus salulat! See that it’s a sunny day … stand on the right-hand bank just where it goes down into the water, and shut your eyes, and if I don’t appear … well, it can’t be helped.”

Of course, Glencorse Church got into Stevenson’s fiction. Grave robbers dig up a corpse in its churchyard in The Body Snatcher for the back door business they did with dissectors at the university. A real grave at Glencorse Church is for Charles Cotier de Dunkerque, a French P.O.W. who died on Jan. 8, 1807. Experts still debate if his headstone was or wasn’t the seed that begat “St. Ives,” the story of a fictional Napoleonic prisoner of war, set in the Pentlands. Stevenson’s last novel, “Weir of Hermiston,” hailed as his masterpiece, uses Glencorse Church for a classic scene of love at first sight. “St. Ives” and Weir of Hermiston are unfinished works thanks to the fatal stroke that struck down the invalid author from Scotland on Dec. 3, 1894.

“Picturesque Notes on Edinburgh” is R.L. Stevenson writing at length about his hometown, built on a volcanic ridge and founded by the Romans. It would be incomplete, he must have thought, without a tour of the city’s backyard natural playground, the Pentlands, and one place in particular, according to Stevenson “upon the main slope of the Pentlands … a bouquet of old trees stands round a white farmhouse; and from a neighboring dell you can see smoke rising and leaves rustling in the breeze. Straight above, the hills climb a thousand feet into the air. The neighborhood is clamorous with the bleating of flocks; and you will be awarded in the grey of early summer mornings by the barking of a dog, or a voice of a shepherd shouting to the echoes. This, with the hamlet lying behind unseen, is Swanston.”

If from Glencorse Church you walk over the nearby hill, you will come to Swanston Cottage, the starting point of Stevenson’s self-guided tours into the hills. Swanston Cottage was the brainstorm of Edinburgh’s city magistrates. They had bought the property for the numerous springs on it and then built their waterhouse and put in their pipes. Then someone had the idea to build a large cottage for rental or whatever and the others consented. Swanston Cottage was built and in 1867, it was Thomas Stevenson, the father of then 16-years-old Robert Louis, who leased it for the next 14 years, plenty of time for his son to soak it all up into his writer’s head.

Summer after summer, RLS could be found in Swanston, exploring his hills of home, always with his pen and notebook, not unusual for a writer. Swanston Cottage was perfectly situated as a center from which to wander among all the hills and valleys within a day’s journey. Pastoral is the essay that came out of Louis to own, in his own way, everything he liked about the place. The human star in the piece is John Todd, professional sheepherder with amazing dogs. Stevenson used to take his own dog, Coolin, with him. The young city boy and the shepherd met when the latter set his dogs on the intruders for disturbing the sheep. John Todd became the “roaring shepherd” on account of his high-volume yell from a hilltop: “C’way oot amang the sheep!” They became friends, of course. The Stevenson charm had worked effortlessly again and for John Todd, it meant immortality in literature.

Thomas Stevenson’s lease on Swanston Cottage ran out in 1881, a year before “Treasure Island” hit the stands. The cottage today is still much as it was, only improved with modern amenities. It has continued to be used by successive tenants. Some of them don’t like the attention they get from Stevensonphiles, standing out in the road and walking all around taking pictures. Swanston Cottage is a designated Stevenson Trail site. Such tenants put up “PRIVATE!” signs while others take them down and don’t mind occasional visitors. Admirers of RLS generally seem to be enlightened, intelligent people with open minds and good will to all and some of them are rich.

A prime example is Lord Charles Guthrie, MP, a friend of RLS from university days and much, much later a British Representative of the Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake. He wrote his own Robert Louis Stevenson book, a copy of it is in the society’s museum library. Charles welcomed Stevenson enthusiasts into Swanston Cottage from the day he moved in, in 1908. He would serve them tea and show them his own collection of RLS artifacts, featuring a rifle, spurred riding boots, letters and photos, even a lock of his hair given him by Stevenson’s childhood nurse, Allison Cunningham, “Cummy,” dedicatee of “A Child’s Garden of Verses.”

Lord Guthrie was a donor to the Saranac Lake collection, too, mainly in the form of books and photographs. Here, he will get the last word from his book “Robert Louis Stevenson,” and it is the last sentence in his book:

“One thing is certain: the day will never come when Swanston Cottage will lose interest for the lovers of Robert Louis Stevenson.”


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