BOOK REVIEW / Making merry before muckle hell: 'Complete Short Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson' - ed Ian Bell: Mainstream, 20 pounds

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STEVENSON once said: ' 'Tod Lapraik' is a piece of living Scots; if I had never writ anything but that and 'Thrawn Janet' still I'd have been a writer.' No one was ever more of a writer than he was, and this is never more apparent than when he writes short, and in Scots. On the grounds that it forms part of a novel, 'The Tale of Tod Lapraik' has been omitted from these two volumes of the complete short stories. It would have been better to have put it in.

His writings in Scots (together with his writings in English) were denied a place in at least one of the accounts of the Scottish literary tradition which appeared in the middle of this century - a time when the term 'romance' could be used as a reproach, and Stevenson be seen as playful, juvenile and commercial. In recent times, much of the talk about him has been biographical; tempers have risen over the assessment of his strong-willed, manly American wife. But there are signs, with the centenary of his death approaching, that his work may be due for a revaluation.

His adolescent quarrel with a pious father and with Edinburgh respectability was pursued and compounded in his writings, and the short stories carry many marks of the Stevenson family romance. Here are the alternating rebellion and 'just submission' of a disaffected 'loyal son'. The stories in Scots - a Scots which harks back to the Covenanting past and to a severity of outlook witnessed in his early days - are in some degree submissive and nostalgic, for all their elements of pain and of the grotesque. The admirable Stevenson contained a glamorous ailing expatriate who loved to think of his youth, and was haunted by these Covenanters.

Two of the best-known stories here are in English, though set for adventure's sake in a windswept rural Scotland. They were written at the end of the 1870s. In both of them, fathers are consigned to the sea, and an intervention by some sinister Latins is withstood. Holed up behind the shutters of a golf club-like 'pavilion on the links', in the story of that name, are the narrator's future wife, her crooked financier father - who has had in mind a Stevensonian transfer to 'one of the islands in the South Pacific' - and a Byronic, misogynistic suitor for her hand, with whom the narrator, a gentleman gypsy, engages in dark and stressful skirmishes. Members of an Italian secret society, the Carbonari, welshed on by the father, arrive to shout 'Traditori]' through the shutters - or as a misprint has it at one point, 'Tradiotre]' An even more chilling cry.

In the second of these stories, a father, whose daughter is wooed by the narrator, runs amok in a frenzy of loot-lust directed at the ships that keep foundering on the rocks beside his shieling, to the din of the breakers known as the Merry Men, which supply the story with its title. There he goes, this pious puritan, dashing from moor to headland; down on the beach a Spaniard has been nosing about in search of an Armada hulk. Both of these narrators resemble Walter Scott's 'mediocre heroes', so called by the Marxist critic Lukacs; such heroes can also be called the negative capabilities proper to a certain sort of romance. More frankly mediocre is the narrator of 'The Enchantress', who tells of his surrender to a woman whose motive for marrying him proves rather less rich and strange than it has promised to be: the belle dame sans merci is intent on the terms of her inheritance.

'Tod Lapraik' is a serious work of the superstitious imagination, wonderful for its pictorial intensities. The scene is the Bass Rock off the Lothian coast, where Covenanters have been held prisoner and a holy man from the history books is shown performing a miracle of revenge on a reprobate who has been heard to laugh. Tod Lapraik, a weaver, godly and greasy, departs from his ample body to perform feats of aerial wickedness. In the form of a gull he almost pecks through the rope from which a poor fellow dangles down a cliff face. 'This thing is nae bird,' thinks the poor fellow. Tod then appears on the Rock to execute a wild ecstatic dance. He is like the mini-skirted witch in 'Tam O'Shanter'. He is having a ball - until he is shot down by a silver bullet. These bad people are as merry as they are mean; 'Nae doubt they burn for it in muckle hell, but they have a grand time here of it, whatever] - and the Lord forgie us]'.

Stevenson's Scots conveys the pleasures of severity, but it also conveys that you have to go to the bad if you want to have a good time. It can sometimes seem self- conscious and nostalgically self-indulgent, but it has a humour and a power of expression which will be enjoyed for as long as there are those who can 'read Scots' - others, he said, would be baffled. The demon gull and the demon dance are masterstrokes, and Tod Lapraik's double life and wicked ways present a more commanding image than any of the delinquencies that come about when - in Volume Two of this collection - Dr Jekyll turns into Mr Hyde.