Robin Scott-Elliot’s Finding Treasure Island, weaves a gripping narrative around the boy and the hand-drawn map that inspired the epic 19th-century tale

Words: Libby Norman

Robert Louis Stevenson’s yarn about sea travels and pots of gold is so embedded in culture that it defines how we visualise pirates, buccaneers and the rest. Robin Scott-Elliot has long been a huge Stevenson fan, but this one’s not his favourite. “I love Kidnapped, which I read several times as a child,” he says. “Treasure Island suffers because it has become – a bit like Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – so well-known it is like a cliché. You know, the pirate with one leg, ‘Arrgh’…”

What piqued Scott-Elliot’s interest though was reading about the origins of Treasure Island. It all began on a holiday in Braemar, in the Scottish Highlands, when Stevenson’s American-born stepson Sam (aka Lloyd) was sitting staring out of the window at the rain. “Boredom, that’s how Stevenson began to write the story,” he says. “He drew this map. I just loved that idea – it really caught with me straight away and I thought, ‘that’s a really good starting point for a story’.”

Treasure Trail – Robin Scott-Elliot's gripping new mystery
Sam, Stevenson’s American-born stepson

The familiarity of the situation was not lost on him. “This is great for anyone who has grown up in Britain – or who has been on holiday in Britain – when it pours with rain and you’re there, staring out of the window.” Finding Treasure Island – written for the 8-12 age group – is constructed as if it were Sam’s missing memoir. In true adventure style, there’s a mysterious meeting in Paris uncovering the long-buried text. The story itself centres on a map, plus there’s treasure to hunt down in the Highlands hills and a charismatic girl called Jen who ignites Sam’s spirit of adventure, and ultimately gives him courage and resolve.

Scott-Elliot, a sports journalist for some two decades, was inspired to switch to writing children’s books by his two daughters. He’d started out with a book for adults and they begged him to write something for them when he’d finished. He always used to invent stories for them anyway – often on long car journeys from London up to visit relations in Mull. Now Scott-Elliot and his family live in Helensburgh and his daughters are teenagers. He still runs plots by them. “You have to be able to get a story into a sentence or a short paragraph and if you can’t get it into that then the story has probably not worked. I say to them, ‘I’ve got an idea’, and they usually roll their eyes, but then they listen. You can tell, even as you’re halfway through, if it works.”

Treasure Trail – Robin Scott-Elliot's gripping new mystery
Finding Treasure Island is set in the Scottish Highlands, where Stevenson began his epic tale by drawing a map

His passion for telling stories is matched by his interest in the less well-trammelled bits of history. “The stories that are beyond kings and queens and treaties – if you look for them, they are there and they are great stories to tell.” Weaving real history into a novel presents its own issues though – where does the real person stop and the fictional hero begin?

In researching the novel, Scott-Elliot learned a lot about Sam Osbourne. “The real Sam is a very interesting and quite sad character,” he says. Sam’s father was a larger-than-life figure who would disappear on goldrushes and other wild adventures. “There’s one story about him – they were told he had been crushed to death by a bear, which was a great way to go but turned out not to be true and he popped up again.”

“Boredom, that’s how Stevenson began to write the story. He drew this map – I just loved that idea”

His mother Fanny was also strong personality, with her own successful magazine writing career, and she eventually tired of her husband’s wild ways. She left US shores for Europe, meeting Robert Louis Stevenson in Paris. “She was also a really divisive character – a lot of Stevenson’s friends couldn’t stand her. I don’t think she was particularly maternal, and his dad wasn’t particularly paternal, so I think Sam latched on to Stevenson.” Later, Sam would travel with his stepfather and write books with him – also one about him. Scott-Elliot found the book in an American university library. “He clearly worships him.”

All of this larger-than-life history couldn’t be fitted into Finding Treasure Island, but it’s there as a context and certainly shaped the novel’s young hero. “When you’re a teenager, whatever your life as a teenager, you still have an optimism,” he says. “I see Sam as a character who’s desperate to fit in. He’s desperate to find a family and a place.” Sam’s love of the Scottish Highlands – and his yearning for adventure – makes a convincing fictional prelude to the adventurous real life to come.

A Robert Louis Stevenson With King Of Hawaii
Robert Louis Stevenson with King Kalākaua of Hawaii

This story encourages readers to find out more. Scott-Elliot has included archive pictures of the real Sam Osbourne and the stepfather he so adored. “The dream for all my stories is that when children finish, they think, ‘I’d like to find out a little bit more about this’.” Certainly, there’s a whole lot more to discover. Readers might also go on and read Treasure Island or Kidnapped – even Jekyll and Hyde. “One of the extraordinary things about Stevenson, and why perhaps he wasn’t put on the pedestal he deserves, is that he wrote for children as equals. And he was one of the first writers to do that.”

Scott-Elliot began imagining his story about the boy staring out of the window shortly before lockdown. He had planned to visit the real cottage where Stevenson began Treasure Island (you can stay there, it’s now a holiday cottage), but fate intervened. There was, however, a curious coincidence as he and everyone else sat at home staring out of windows. “When lockdown started one of the first things the BBC put on their education website was an audiobook of Treasure Island,” says Scott-Elliot. “There were already two adult versions up on BBC Sounds.” This, he believes, sums up Stevenson’s gift as a storyteller. “Stevenson has got more people into reading in the last century than certainly any other Scottish writer – and he’d be up there with most British writers.”

As for that hand-drawn map that led on to Treasure Island, it is who knows where. Actually, Robin Scott-Elliot has a theory on that. He suspects it might be languishing somewhere in an American university library, just waiting to be uncovered by a modern-day treasure hunter.

* Finding Treasure Island, by Robin Scott-Elliot is published by Pokey Hat, (Cranachan Publishing, £7.99).

Further reading: Cressida Cowell’s magical series