Treasure Island pipes pay tribute to Stevenson Scots and Samoans celebrate author's centenary

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The Independent Online
IT WAS still dark when the singing began by candlelight. In the distance a cock crowed and the murmur of the surf drifted up from the Pacific far below. A century to the day after Robert Louis Stevenson was buried on a mountain in Samoa, a choir o f local children had gathered high on a plateau before dawn to sing his requiem: `Under the wide and starry sky, Dig the grave and let me lie. . .'

They were standing at the entrance to the Ala Loto Alofa (Road of Loving Hearts), a dirt track skirting Stevenson's home beneath his tomb. It was hacked through dense tropical forest by Samoan chiefs a few months before his death, in gratitude for his friendship during a civil war and their subsequent imprisonment. Now it was lined with children, each holding a candle to guide visitors from overseas to a trail through a rainforest to Stevenson's grave near the summit of Mt Vaea. As we passed by, they murmured "Talofa" (Loving greetings).

Older children were stationed along the mountain path to assist the elderly and infirm on what is a strenuous hike even for fit youths. At the tomb, college pupils were waiting with refreshments. And while waiting for everyone to arrive, they gave an impromptu performance of Samoan songs. The white concrete sarcophagus, bearing Stevenson's requiem and his eulogy to his wife whose ashes are interred with him, was adorned with bright yellow hibiscus flowers, fronds of palm leaves, and rows of candles.

There was no fixed programme. A Scotswoman silently read from a book of Stevenson quotations. Another placed a sprig of white heather from the Pentland Hills on the tomb. The Scottish actors John Cairney and John Shedden recited his requiem in full.

As dawn broke, a lone piper played "Flowers of the Forest" on a set of pipes made in Scotland four years before Stevenson's death. And as the last notes of the Jacobite lament died away, a little girl in a pink frock stepped forward to place her candle on the tomb. Filoi Navilaau is a heart-stoppingly pretty child, and her face was radiant as she paid her tribute to the writer who led her to a place she calls Moto O Oloa (Island of Treasure).

The ceremony was the simplest and most moving event in a week of centenary celebrations on the South Sea island where Stevenson spent most of the last five years of his life. During his sojourn on Samoa, RLS delighted the natives by taking up his pen in a quixotic crusade against the colonial intrigues of Germany, Britain and the United States.

He admired the Samoans, and in return they became devoted to the man they called Tusitala (Writer of Tales). When he died, an old chief eloquently expressed their grief: "Our beloved Tusitala. The stones and the earth weep."

The legend of Tusitala became part of Samoan folklore. When three American businessmen offered four years ago to restore Vailima, his Samoan home, it provided a stimulus and a focus for the centenary festivities.

They began with a fancy-dress parade along the waterfront of the agreeably dilapidated little capital, Apia. The official opening of Vailima as a literary museum was enlivened by Samoan fire-dancers leaping and whirling on the lawn to the throb of nativedrums. It concluded with a lyrical mime of Stevenson's life by a magnificently tattooed chief accompanied by a choir crooning in Samoan.

The American connection had raised misgivings among Stevensonians when it was learnt that the leader of the Vailima project was Rex Maughan, a millionaire who had served as a Mormon missionary in Samoa. A few years ago, Mr Maughan bought the Southfork Ranch featured in Dallas, and turned it into a kind of theme park where visitors can watch re-enactments of the shooting of JR.

Reports that Mr Maughan was planning to build a cable-car to Stevenson's tomb, and install mechanical dolls of the author and his family at Vailima raised howls of protests. Neither scheme has materialised, Mr Maughan having conceded that they were inappropriate.

To his credit, the $2m restoration of the two-storey wooden mansion he has largely funded is admirable. With the exception of an irrelevant sign above the main entrance proclaiming ``Villa Vailima'', and a bad portrait of RLS with blue eyes (his eyes were brown), the refurbishment has been as authentic as possible.

There have been discordant notes behind the scenes. A personality clash deprived Mr Maughan of Stevenson artefacts from a private collection in Hawaii; a local contractor who was dismissed during the renovation work is suing him for £400,000; and the Samoan head of state (who officially owns the building) is said to be dissatisfied with the apartments afforded him in a wing of the house added after Stevenson's death.

The children who illuminated the way to Stevenson's tomb last week with their candles and smiles, were blissfully unaware of such disputes. A century on, they transformed a dirt track high on their island home once more into the Road of Loving Hearts. Nomore fitting or enchanting tribute could be imagined for the romantic wanderer who regarded Polynesians as "God's sweetest works".