TO adapt a line from Rupert Brooke, there is a corner of some foreign field that is forever Scotland. This field is to be found in Samoa, near Villa Vailima, the house Robert Louis Stevenson (RLS) built for himself and his family in 1890, but also in Samoan culture and consciousness, in the memory of his historical impact in defending the islands against imperialist depredations.

It was in Samoa that Stevenson was given the title Tusitala, the teller of tales, and his name crops up everywhere, in such matters as the annual Tusitala short story competition run by the Samoa Observer, the poetry-reading sessions newly established at Vailima or the portraits found in hotels and restaurants. It could be added that there is a brand of beer named Vailima. But that is only the surface.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the conversion of Vailima to a museum dedicated to Stevenson’s memory, an event celebrated on August 29 with the revelry once frequent at that venue, with poetry, song and speech. The Scottish Minister for Culture, Fiona Hyslop, sent a much-appreciated message of greeting looking forward to future co-operation between the two nations, a wish which was reciprocated by the hosts.

Stevenson himself arrived in Samoa in 1889 while cruising in the South Seas. He had no intention of making Samoa his home, and initially, he – and even more strongly his wife, Fanny – had no great admiration for Upolu, the principal island in the Samoan archipelago, or for its people.

In her diary, she denounced them as dishonest, and while RLS himself held no such views, he did write that other islands where they had stopped in their travels were more beautiful, as were their inhabitants. These views would change radically, and both came to love the land and its people.

The plan was to stop briefly to gather material on a recent outbreak of internal and international hostilities for a chapter in a book he planned on the way of life in Polynesia.

The nature of the book caused disputes between RLS and his wife, and his publisher. Fanny wanted a book of colourful images that would make money, and McClure, the American publisher, was in broad agreement.

He expected something along the lines of Travels With A Donkey, but RLS’s thinking had moved on and he aimed to produce what might today be called an academic work, studying the culture, beliefs and lifestyle of the people and the impact of the arrival of the white man. The book was never given a title and was referred to only as the Big Book, but what mattered was that he knew he was studying a civilisation, distinct from the western model but not mere primitivism. In the event, the work was never published in his lifetime, although a version was produced after his death.

RLS’s personal quest was for a place and climate more suited for his always delicate health, but he had an innate yen for travel, and early in life warned his mother that he would always be a nomad.

Some critics have found a tantalising, hidden significance in the verse in A Child’s Garden Of Verses about his bed being a boat.

There are other poignant poems in the same collection written from the perspective of a sickly child in Edinburgh, for instance the one which has him staring out the window to see Leerie the Lamplighter go by. I was told, somewhat unexpectedly, that this poem has become a favourite with schoolchildren in modern Samoa, who have never seen the New Town, or a gas lamp, and who are in robust health.

The National: : Samoa in the South Seas. Robert Louis Stevenson was not particularly impressed when he arrived but later fell in love with it: Samoa in the South Seas. Robert Louis Stevenson was not particularly impressed when he arrived but later fell in love with it

During their stop in Samoa, RLS was persuaded, largely by the American trader, Harry S Moors, that this was the ideal place for him to make his home. Fanny agreed – it is impossible to establish how reluctantly – that Samoa was where they should live their lives.

They both entered into the project heart and soul, purchasing 314¼ acres some miles inland from Apia, the capital, and there Vailima was built. While they continued their journey on the Janet Nicoll, Moors oversaw the construction work. They agreed plans for what would be the first two-storey house in Samoa. Fanny, who was an assiduous diary-keeper, gives an account of one of their young servants running excitedly up and down the staircase, something he had never previously seen.

Marie Fraser, a Scottish actress who paid them a visit, tells of another servant who was told to take a bucket of water to the upper floor but attempted to clamber up the drainage pipe, since he distrusted stairs.

Fanny was a keen gardener and botanist, and set about taming the land around Vailima. RLS. lent a hand and found the work surprisingly congenial.

‘‘Farming is amusing; literature, save in results, is intolerably stupid,’’ he said. ‘‘Nothing is so interesting as weeding.’’ His enjoyment occasioned in him the onset of a very Calvinist guilt, since when he stopped weeding to sit at this desk, he wondered if writing was real work and if he should not be out alongside his wife and servants engaging in physical labour.

Fortunately, he was able to appease his conscience on the moral value of writing fiction. He had deeper problems when he told his wife she had ‘‘the soul of a peasant’’. He may have meant it as a jovial compliment but she was deeply offended. She had artistic ambitions of her own and aspired to be more than a botanist, gardener or peasant.

FANNY was already a controversial presence in Stevenson’s life while the couple lived in London, and Alice James, sister of Henry James, described her as “Napoleonic”, while others used even more acerbic language.

She is the subject of several biographies in her own right, and one of the best remains that written by her sister, Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez, who says that “it was in Samoa that the word ‘home’ first began to have a real meaning for these gypsy wanderers”.

It is an intriguing notion. They had had houses before, in Davos, in Hyeres and in Bournemouth, but only in Samoa did they really set up a home, with all the deep emotional implications of the term. A home offers the community of family and affection, a sense of rootedness Stevenson had lacked, the sharing of values and culture.

These he found in Samoa. He even learned the language, and the first work of literature in Samoan was a translation of The Bottle Imp.

Vailima was, and in its restored state is, a magnificent building. The modern structure has two wings which were added later, but during Stevenson’s life there was only the central part. It was built entirely of wood, some imported, at Fanny’s insistence, from California. Stevenson regarded this as an extravagance, but he himself insisted that a fire-place be built in the main room.

There is nothing more redundant in the hot, clammy conditions of the South Seas, but he viewed the hearth as an indispensable, central point for a home. It was apparently lit only once, but the smoke failed to go up the chimney, so the experiment was not repeated. The very idea of an internal fire left Samoans bemused.

A slightly raised veranda with a railing runs along the front, and there are pictures of RLS and his family seated on the ground entertaining groups of visiting Samoan chieftains to the food and the drink, ava, which was the central element of any Samoan celebration.

The upper floor, where the bedrooms were, is fronted by a balcony, while on the ground floor the long room now houses a display of items which RLS had collected in Paris and elsewhere.

It was here the family dined and where in the evening the whole Vailima community gathered for the prayers which RLS. wrote. He had lost his own faith but his family and even more his servants were believing Christians.

However, if God is invoked, the thinking in these prayers is lofty rather than religious. He calls for Success, for Earthly Favours, as well as for Family, for Friends and for Self-Forgetfulness. These prayers are being set to music by Neil Adam and Judy Turner, an Australian couple who have already set some of Stevenson’s poetry to music, and who performed at the Silver Jubilee celebrations.

Stevenson was conscious that he had become a kind of clan chief, aided by the fact that the concept of clan was close to the Samoan notion of aiga, extended family, one of many resemblances between the Scottish and Samoan way of life which delighted him.

The number of servants varied at around 15, and he dressed them in Royal Stewart tartan. The Samoans are not one of the trousered peoples of this earth, and the basic garment for both men and women is the lavalava, which RLS translated, not inaccurately, as kilt.

His own family, including Fanny’s two surviving children, were also in residence, as was, astonishingly, his widowed mother Margaret, Aunt Maggie to all and sundry. They were all a highly literate lot. Lloyd Osbourne, for whom Stevenson had written Treasure Island in Pitlochry, became co-author of some later novels. Fanny produced books, and Aunt Maggie was an inveterate letter-writer and diary-keeper, so we have lively pictures of the comings and goings at Vailima.

LIFE was anything but secluded or joyless. RLS was a convivial host, even if sorely tried by uninvited guests. Scottish visitors to the island would inevitably make their way to Vailima, “like homing pigeons”, as he put it. Occasions such as birthdays, American Thanksgiving, the docking of British or American ships, the arrival of groups of Samoans on a malaga, an outing, provided the opportunity for a feast, Samoan style on the veranda, at which intimidating quantities of Samoan and European food were served, and songs sung.

The National: Last month’s anniversary dinner in SamoaLast month’s anniversary dinner in Samoa

Individual members of the community have attracted the attention of critics, biographers and social historians, but perhaps it is time more attention was paid to Margaret Stevenson.

For most of her life she lived in Edinburgh as the perfect Victorian, bourgeois housewife and loyal member of the Church of Scotland. There is no suggestion that her marriage was in any way troubled, and indeed RLS once wrote, to her dismay, that the children of lovers are always orphans, but her husband’s death was in an idiosyncratic way a liberation for her.

In her own being, she challenges stereotypes of the Victorian woman. She joined her son in America, was with them on the yacht which set off from California, and after returning briefly home, she made the journey to Samoa.

She brought her furniture with her, and the labour of hauling heavy Victorian sideboards and armchairs up from the harbour in Apia must have been gruelling. Sadly it was all dispersed after RLS’s death and none of it is now on site.

The house was deserted some time after Stevenson’s death in 1894. By his own wish he was buried at the summit of Mount Vaea, which overlooks Vailima. The men of Samoa worked all night to clear a path up the mountain which is not very high but is steep and overgrown with tropical vegetation. They tied themselves together with ropes to facilitate the labour of conveying the coffin to the top.

Fanny stayed on for a little but had no heart to remain. The house was first bought by a German trader, Gustav Kunst, who added one of the two wings to the house. It then became the home of the German colonial administrator when Germany became overlord of Samoa on the partition of the archipelago between Germany and the USA under the 1889 Treaty of Berlin, western imperialism at its most brutal.

When New Zealand invaded Samoa at the outbreak of the First World War, they met no resistance, and a New Zealand governor chose Vailima as suitable for his status. On independence, the new head of state moved in, but it did not find favour. It was rumoured that the ghosts of Fanny and RLS could be seen wandering along a corridor, and it is true that during their lifetimes, the woods around Vailima were believed to be the haunt of aitu, evil spirits.

Even RLS himself admitted, somewhat shame-facedly, that he had been frightened by odd and unsettling noises, so perhaps it was a case of mistaken identity.

The building was occasionally pressed into service by the Samoan government for state occasions, but these became evermore rare, and Vailima fell into a state of disrepair.

It was at this point that two men, James Winegar and Rex Maugham, arrived in Samoa as Mormon missionaries. Neither man had any previous knowledge of Stevenson or Samoa, but in addition to missionary work, they became involved in other campaigns, for instance to save a rainforest on the island of Savaii.

Both became passionately attached to Samoa, a common ailment on these beautiful islands. As Winegar puts it, “some people come to Samoa and discover Tusitala, others know of Tusitala and discover Samoa”. The decision of the Mormon Church to send him to Samoa changed his life. The two were also businessmen and Maugham is the magnate behind the world-wide aloe vera industry.

They became aware of the existence and decay of Vailima, which was then closed to the public, and they found that the building had been almost completely destroyed by two successive cyclones in 1990 and 1991.

PERHAPS the description of it as a “house” before the conversion work began is a euphemism, since Winegar says that when they started it was no more than “a pile of dust held together by multiple coats of paint”.

The roof had caved in but the walls were intact. It is no exaggeration to say that their efforts and philanthropic generosity have preserved Vailima from destruction. By an Act of the Samoan Parliament in 1992, a foundation was set up which took over the running of Vailima and 15 surrounding acres of land, which, however, remain government property.

The two men made the decision not to demolish and start from scratch, but they found extensive dry rot, and every board had to be examined one by one. Wood was again imported from California, and reconstruction was aided by a painstaking study of the many photographs taken when the Stevenson clan-family was in residence.

Vailima was officially opened as a museum 25 years ago, and has become a mecca for Stevenson lovers and casual tourists, as well as being recognised as an institution in Samoa. Winegar, now in his 80s, is president of the RLS museum foundation, with Margaret Silva as gracious manager and guide.

The National: Joseph Farrell (right) with James Winegar (centre), president of the RLS Museum Foundation and a local workerJoseph Farrell (right) with James Winegar (centre), president of the RLS Museum Foundation and a local worker

Work on the estate continues. The once lovely pool where Stevenson used to bathe is much diminished since the water has been diverted for a hydro project. The climb to the tomb, always laborious in the heat, was made more difficult by the absence of an established path since the contours of the slope were continually changed by tropical storms.

There was a proposal to introduce a cable car but this might have infringed the taboo placed on the mountain by chieftains of the islands to ensure that there was always birdsong around the grave of Tusitala, and in any case drew the ire of a doughty Edinburgh matron, still remembered with awe in Samoa, who threatened to come and carry the body back to Scotland if any such outrage were attempted.

In the last couple of years a New Zealand landscape artist, Chris Barnes, has overseen the construction of a staircase which has almost reached the top.

He leaves 24lb bags of material at the foot and invites pilgrims or keep-fit enthusiasts to carry one as they make the ascent.

If Robert Louis Stevenson found a stable home in Samoa, his imagination remained nomadic. His late work is set in an environment found on no standard atlas where Scotland and Samoa are positioned side by side.

It was in Samoa that he wrote Weir Of Hermiston, remembering his “own precipitous city”, but there he also wrote such masterpieces as The Beach Of Falesa and The Ebb-Tide.

These are stories which, wherever set, dramatise great moral conflicts and give voice to outrage on behalf of people who suffer injustice.

He is remembered in Samoa not only as Tusitala, but as the man who stood with them in the face of imperialist aggression. He denounced as “the most dismally stupid production of modern diplomacy” the first Conference of Berlin in 1889, where Germany, Britain and the USA met to settle the “Samoa question”. He was dead by the time of the second such treaty which severed eastern and western Samoa.

The terms of that settlement and the presence of traders who were there to exploit Samoan resources disrupted, as he stated openly in his little-read Footnote To History, life on the islands, and led to wars between the Samoans themselves, although warfare was not unknown previously.

In the struggle for supremacy in Samoa, he supported one chieftain, Mata’afa, as the man most suited to defend the country’s interests, and when he ended up on the losing side, Stevenson provided for him and his men in prison. In gratitude, they built on his estate the Road Of The Loving Hearts.