Robert Louis Stevenson’s former residence is a glum affair, not least because it was completely destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.
The day I visit is blue skies and October sunshine, but Skerryvore is cast in a shiver. Pines loom over the miserable ruins, given time to grow and overgrow since the bombsite was turned memorial garden 60 years ago.
RLS’s time in Dorset was not unhappy, but still plagued by ill health. I walk the stone path that steps through the house, foundations laid bare. Past the kitchen, down the hall, to the study and the drawing room. With their backs to the road, two graffiti-scarred wooden benches sit either side of what would have been his back door. You can imagine RLS writing at his desk in the bay window, looking out to the ceaseless sea.
On one of the benches a dishevelled man rolls a cigarette, between sips of a can beside him. He sits as he’d sit in his living room at home and sticks to his work while I kneel and read the stone inscribed to RLS’s memory. It tells me that the house, Skerryvore, was named after the tallest lighthouse in Scotland, built by the writer’s uncle.
A man-sized stone replica of the lighthouse stands as an appropriately nautical memorial for the man who wrote that “the proudest moments of my life have been passed in the stern-sheets of a boat”.
RLS only spent three summers at Skerryvore, but still found time to write both The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Kidnapped. He never felt the chill of an October here, wintering more salubriously in the Alps, and after that hattrick of summers he left for good, freed from the shackles of Europe by the death of his father. RLS’s doctor urged a climate more suited to his health, and he did not hesitate.
I walk forty paces around RLS’s garden, pulling my shirt collar up as I do. I peer through the thick pines, across the scar of Alum Chine to a haphazard cliff garden on the slopes opposite. The smell is heavy damp. I know why he flew south for winter. I finish my short circuit and return to the lighthouse memorial. The dishevelled man is still rolling his tobacco.
The other bench is dedicated to another Scot, a Glaswegian. Perhaps he wished to be remembered alongside his countryman, believing he’d found a kindred spirit in the sutherlands. But with what alacrity RLS moved on, following those stern-sheets for Colorado, Hawaii and the South Seas.
Seven years after leaving Dorset, RLS died pulling the cork from a bottle of wine at his estate on Western Samoa – not exactly as he wished, but satisfactorily enough.
“I wish to die in my boots; no more Land of Counterpane for me. To be drowned, to be shot, to be thrown from a horse – ay, to be hanged, rather than pass again through that slow dissolution.”