SCOTTISH to the marrow, Francophile, anti-Calvinist, international traveller, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) crossed America and went into the South Pacific, breaking new ground and crossing new seas, developing the meaning of “Scottish literature” with his prophetic visions of an approaching century of division and disaster.

Yet the energy and delight of his writing are perennially infectious. Like no other writer, Stevenson conveys the pleasures of childhood’s energy, appetite, movement, growing pains and growing strengths.

Yet his children encounter the viciousness of adulthood. Jim Hawkins comes to understand that Long John Silver is a murderer. The long journey of Kidnapped (1886), taking the reader around and then across Scotland in a geographical exploration that has allowed generations of readers to follow the map to places we have never actually visited, even on our doorstep, is not only exhilarating but also discomforting. Friendship is at the heart of the book, but parting is its conclusion.

Stevenson is an author of major significance whose concern with the relationship between the worlds of child and adult is a central and prophetic theme of modernity. In the early 21st century, in the “developed” world, largely through commercialism and advertising, mass media encourages a wide acceptance of the priorities of glamour and fashion, neon and glitz, stimulating appetites for self-indulgence and vanity. Sport, film and television “celebrities” are highly prized and paid, and the priorities of childish gratification are almost unconsciously endorsed in western society, while the serious and adult matter of the arts is dangerously and generally trivialised. This is not to undervalue or ignore the extent to which the arts are supported by governments, educational and public institutions, but rather to note a gulf between the financial rewards of “the entertainment industry” and the hard work demanded by great art. We live in dangerous times and Stevenson is their prophet.

He stands at a curious turning point in modern literature: in the tradition of fiction, he seems much more modern and contemporary than the great Scottish and English novelists of the 19th century, from Hogg, Scott and Galt to Dickens and George Eliot.

He is an eloquent essayist and man of letters, a travel writer, a letter writer, a writer of children’s fiction and genre fiction, a writer for the periodicals, popular mass media journals in which fiction was serialised for international consumption, most notably trading skilfully in techniques of mystery and suspense. In Stevenson’s moment, children’s fiction, adventure fiction, Gothic fiction, exotic romance, literal accounts of travel, essays and belles lettres, were flourishing. He can be as meticulous as Henry James when it comes to the artifice of writing and as direct as Jack London in dealing with personal experience and action. He was an aesthetic stylist who wrote thrillingly. His work repudiates the developing presumption of separating “high” art from “mere” entertainment which Modernism was to confirm.

For Stevenson, the art of the writer is balanced against the experience of society in different social classes, different geographical, cultural and religious locations. He explored the idea of cultural relativism, beginning in Scotland’s capital city, where he became intimately familiar and at home in the spacious, light-filled streets and buildings of the new town, and the dark wynds and alleys of the old town. Yet such a simple dichotomy was not merely a polar opposition, but rather a double focus in a longer perspective: Stevenson was young in an Edinburgh where everywhere is old, from the prehistoric volcanic plug on which the castle sits to the 18th-century new town, one design for which literally laid out a street-plan in the form of the Union flag.

The long sea voyage and overland journey made by David Balfour in Kidnapped traverses Scotland geographically, historically and linguistically, delivering an account that works into itself conflicting points of view and commitments. The novel embraces a comprehensive, multi-faceted nation in a kaleidoscope of identities, and is driven by the hero’s uncomfortable, flawed, always sympathetic purpose and his evolving friendship with his companion Alan Breck Stewart.

Again, the story is of a complex association of childhood, innocence and ignorance with adulthood, knowledge, experience, skill and worldly wisdom, where foolishness is liable to intrude upon the adult’s as well as the child’s sensibility.

Stevenson’s poems might also be read in this way, the most famous collection, A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) evoking not only the delights of being young and small but also the fearful vulnerability of childhood. The poems as a whole explore dark, ambiguous, complex areas, as well as the pleasures of hope and the optimism of youth.

A line can be drawn from Scott through Hogg to Stevenson pointing forwards to the modern revitalisation of Scottish writing in the 1920s and 1930s, pre-eminently in MacDiarmid, Gibbon and Gunn. In that line, Stevenson’s position is fixed at the confluence of so many disparate and overlapping areas that it has sometimes been difficult to acknowledge his greatness.

Think of him in the company of other literary prophets of modernity, Oscar Wilde and Joseph Conrad. He was a good friend of Henry James, and used his names for the doubled “heroes” of The Master of Ballantrae (1889), Henry and James Durie. James thought highly of Stevenson’s work and read it, not as light fiction, but as serious, adult, morally profound enquiry. And in Scottish fiction, he is immediately contemporary with the novelists of the Kailyard, SR Crockett and Ian Maclaren, and their opponents, the anti-Kailyard novelists George Douglas Brown and John Macdougall Hay, and poets such as James (“BV”) Thomson and John Davidson, with his testaments of lonely outcasts. But Stevenson is his own singular self.

It was to SR Crockett that Stevenson wrote in spring 1888 from Saranac Lake, taking exception to Crockett’s self-styled address in a letter: “Don’t put ‘NB’ in your paper: put ‘Scotland’ and be done with it. Alas, that I should be thus stabbed in the home of my friends! The name of my native land is not North Britain, whatever may be the name of yours!”

No Scottish writer understands more deeply the relativity of cultural identity, how different people are, in different parts of the world, travelling as he did from Scotland to England and France, to America and across America, and finally into the Pacific to Samoa, where he died at the age of forty-four and is buried, still revered by Samoan people as “Our writer — our writer in eternal residence.”

His writing in the South Seas marks a further development. It’s most evident in the story The Beach of Falesa and the novel, The Ebb-Tide (1894), and in a number of other stories, letters, historical and topographical accounts, anecdotes of the people of the Pacific islands. He came to know the priorities and ways of life of three kinds of people: the indigenous people of the islands, the people who lived on the beach (neither wholly indigenous nor wholly incomers but familiar transients in a commerce of exchange and compromise), and the administrative, colonial authorities.

Stevenson himself was an outsider to each one of these three groups but he knew them all closely, and was intensely aware of the cultural checks and balances of the situation. His forensic detachment and intense sympathies in this circumstance are prophetic of early 20th-century modernism. Stevenson might be seen in a constellation with Herman Melville and others whose central themes of empire, innocence and guilt were forged through the experience of the Pacific world, far beyond anything familiar in Scottish literature of earlier generations. Yet it is a coherent oeuvre, reflecting back on his Scottish experience just as his Samoan home Vailima invites us to read back and see Scott’s Abbotsford in a new light. His life was cut short but it was filled with achievement.

His commitment to writing was declared when he was twenty-one. He decided with conviction. His family was austere — his father a lighthouse engineer — and in childhood, Stevenson was often unwell. His imagination was a major resource that ran counter to the practicalities of his family’s professional work. Accounts of travel in Belgium and France were followed by fiction. Treasure Island was first serialised in 1882 before book publication in 1883. Three years later, Kidnapped was well received by critics and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (also 1886) became an international best-seller.

Already the core of his achievement was clear: the boy’s adventure-story genre Treasure Island is a revelation as childhood encounters the duplicity and murderous ambiguities of the adult world. Jekyll and Hyde was to take that revelation to its darkest depths.

NEXT WEEK Alan Riach looks at how the murderous tale of Jekyll and Hyde foreshadows the extremes of childish appetite and adult powerso terribly familiar in the 21st century. Here’s a foretaste, as Dr Jekyll considers the fatal question of what follows the dissociation of his “two selves” from each other with a scientific potion that engenders his transformation into his horrendous evil self:

“[H]e thought of Hyde, for all his energy of life, as of something not only hellish but inorganic. This was the shocking thing; that the slime of the pit seemed to utter cries and voices; that the amorphous dust gesticulated and sinned; that what was dead, and had no shape, should usurp the offices of life. And this again, that that insurgent horror was knit to him closer than a wife, closer than an eye; lay caged in his flesh, where he heard it mutter and felt it struggle to be born; and at every hour of weakness, and in the confidence of slumber, prevailed against him, and deposed him out of life.”