The Real Robinson Crusoe

He was a pirate, a hothead and a lout, but castaway Alexander Selkirk—the author's ancestor inspired one of the greatest yarns in literature

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Lower Largo’s tribute to its famous son consists of one bedroom-size exhibit room at the Crusoe Hotel, where there are some artifacts and photographs of the Juan Fernández Archipelago, site of his marooning, and a curious outdoor statue of Selcraig on Main Street, dressed in goatskins, looking out to sea as though he had lost a golf ball.

Even Scots seem perplexed by the statue. There’s no museum, no informational display. They stare at it, take a photograph and keep walking. “I think it’s absolute madness that the Crusoe connection is not promoted more,” says Stewart Dykes, owner with his wife, Lesley, of the Crusoe Hotel. “We’ve got something here every bit as big as the Loch Ness monster.”

Selcraig’s unseemly past in Lower Largo is not exactly a literary mystery. The limited amount of factual material about the spirited lad has been mined numerous times, from the early 1800s to 1939 and R. L. Megroz’s The Real Robinson Crusoe. The past four years have seen the publication of three distinct and well-researched books.

One of the oldest accounts, 1829’s The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, by John Howell, describes the mariner as “spoiled and wayward,” made only worse “by the indulgence of his mother, who concealed as much as she could his faults from his father.” Selcraig’s mother, Euphan Mackie, apparently believed that Alex, as the seventh son, was blessed with luck and should be encouraged in his dreams of going to sea. His father, John, wanted the lad to stay home and help with his tannery and shoemaking business, creating a simmering dispute that caused so much “domestic strife and bickering,” Howell writes, that John threatened to disinherit Alex.

Virtually all of these accounts lean heavily on one source, the records of the church (or kirk) elders at the Largo Kirk, known as the Kirk Session Minutes, which I found at the St. Andrews University Library.

On a spitting gray day, I went to the basement of the library, where two very proper women in the special collections department had me stow my bags, briefcases and ballpoint pens, and issued me a No. 2 pencil. I sat at a blond wood table with gooseneck reading lamps as a librarian placed before my incredulous eyes not rolls of microfilm, but the actual Kirk Session Minutes, marked 1691-1707, in a rebound brown cover about 13 inches long and 8 inches wide.

The unlined pages were like beige parchment, stiff though hardly brittle, with slight water damage that had darkened and frayed the edges. Amazingly, I was allowed to handle them without gloves, which, the librarian explained, actually tend to make readers more clumsy and more likely to tear delicate pages.

To the untrained eye, the crowded and tiny brown script seems unreadable, full of mystifying Old Scottish curlicues and words like “dry nieffells”—apparently a bare-knuckles brawl—but here and there you can decipher a punishment handed out for illicit “fornication,” or the one from August 25, 1695, that reads, “Alex[ande]r Selchcraig, son to John Selchcraig” was summoned to appear before church elders for his “Undecent carriage in ye church.” (That would be the imposing gray-stone, 12th-century church that still dominates the neighboring village, Upper Largo.) Two days later, the records state that Alex, then 19, “did not compear [appear] being gone away to ye sea: this bussiness is continued till his return.” It’s unclear exactly where Alex sailed off to, or precisely when he returned, but London-based biographer Diana Souhami suggests that he left with a Scottish colonizing expedition to what is now Panama.

By November 7, 1701, he was in trouble again. His kid brother, Andrew, made the mistake of laughing at him when he accidentally took a drink of salt water out of a can. Alex beat Andrew with a wooden staff, which ignited a family row that led to Alex’s assaulting his father, his brother John, and even John’s wife, Margaret Bell.

Days later Alex “compeared befor the pulpit and made acknowledgment of his sin . . . and was rebuked in face of the congregation for it, and promised amendment in the strenth of the lord, and so was dismissed.” But evidently Alex was fed up with Lower Largo.


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