Fans set to follow where author RLS and his donkey led

It was a spirited adventure through ruined châteaux, chestnut groves and blankets of yellow broom, with an obstinate donkey called Modestine his one, reluctant companion.
Puy-en-Velay, southern France, where RLS enthusiasts will gather prior to the trek. Photograph: GettyPuy-en-Velay, southern France, where RLS enthusiasts will gather prior to the trek. Photograph: Getty
Puy-en-Velay, southern France, where RLS enthusiasts will gather prior to the trek. Photograph: Getty

But the wanderlust that compelled a young Robert Louis Stevenson to traverse 120 miles of the uplands of southern France also produced one of his most beloved works, inspiring generations of his readers to “travel for travel’s sake”.

Now, to mark the 140th anniversary of the trip that gave the world Travels With A Donkey In The Cévennes, scores of Stevenson’s admirers are set to follow in his – and Modestine’s – wake.

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The Caravan of the Donkeys festival will unite Scottish and French devotees of the writer over the course of a fortnight-long series of events.

Starting on Saturday, they will retrace the trail blazed by Stevenson for his slender travelogue, regarded today as a pioneering classic of outdoor literature.

From art exhibitions and Scottish country dancing through to parades featuring droves of donkeys decorated in pom-poms by French schoolchildren, the organisers hope to create a “festival” atmosphere in the remote areas visited by Stevenson.

Janet Darne, who lives in Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille, where the writer set off in the autumn of 1878, is among those co-ordinating the trek. Even 140 years after Stevenson’s visit, she says the affection for him is strong.

“Stevenson led such an adventurous life, travelling all over the world, and yet it was also a tragic life because of how he died so young,” she said. “I think that endeared him to people in France, as well as the fact he was a Scot.”

Stevenson journeyed alone through the long-distance route, which snakes through the départements of Haute-Loire, Ardèche, Lozère and Gard, deep in the Massif Central.

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Nowadays, up to 7,000 people make the trip each year, thanks to the Sur le Chemin de Robert Louis Stevenson association, which has promoted the trail for the past two decades.

Among those attending the opening weekend of the Caravan of the Donkeys is Sir Christopher MacRae, a retired British ambassador whose postings included Islamabad, Tehran, Baghdad and Beirut.

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He first read Travels With A Donkey In The Cévennes as a 17-year-old. Now 81, he is well versed in its origins. As well as trying to get over the heartbreak of his lover, Fanny Osborne, returning to her husband, MacRae believes the young Stevenson had simpler motivations.

“He was skint and needed money badly,” MacRae explains. “He was hoovering up information along the way and putting together ideas for the book. I don’t think it was sordid to be so mercenary – he was trying to become a professional writer.”

Ian Logan, project manager for the Stevenson Way, the long-distance walking route based on Kidnapped, will also be travelling to France, complete with kilt and Saltire.

“Stevenson loved the lifestyle of France, its art movement and the history of the Camisards,” he said. “He wrote about the place so evocatively. It’s just a shame he’s more cherished abroad than he is in his homeland.”