September 21st, 2016 ~ Vol. 85 No. 37
Looking Back - John Kinnear
Katie Agnes and Alexander Selkirk
Looking Back
John Kinnear / Internet
1837 publication on - The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk - The Real Robinson Crusoe.
I am monarch of all I survey;
My right there is none to dispute;
From the centre all around to the sea
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
From The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk
by William Cowper
As a young boy I was blessed to be able to spend time with a remarkable woman who lived to just five months short of 104 years of age. She was my maternal grandmother, Katie Agnes McInnis, and her story is one I promise I will share someday to its fullest.

For now I will tell you that she came from a long line of Scottish immigrants that first landed in Nova Scotia (New Scotland) over 250 years ago. The Faudaich nan Gaidheal (Scottish Highland Clearances) that began in 1762 forced many Gaelic families off of their ancestral lands. The sailing ship Hector was one of the first of many of these immigrant ships and landed near Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1773 with 189 settlers on board, most of which were from the Isle of Skye. The lineage of my grandmother, Katie Agnes, has been traced back six generations to Alexander Beaton of Skye. Alexander’s three sons Donald, John and Alexander fought in the heartbreaking Battle of Culloden and Alexander is her three times great grandfather.

Enough said about that. Suffice to say the fine tradition of Gaelic songs and verses were brought with these first immigrants, carried down to her generation and dozens of these wonderful stories were committed to memory by her. That Katie Agnes could, up until her passing, recite or sing them to her many offspring was in itself an amazing feat. For me there was one particular poem that has steadfastly remained in my memory but it was only until a discovery at a recent family reunion that I decided to come to understand its meaning. In an old family scrap book being passed around at the gathering I discovered a faded hand-written letter in which someone had penned the words to this poem and so began my research.

On many occasions family would cajole Katie Agnes into doing the singing version of some of these poems and it is the particularly moving poem entitled: “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk” that I and my sister chose to come to understand further. I can see Katie Agnes clearly, even now, 32 years after her passing, head bowed, eyes closed, as she concentrated on singing/reciting, in her wonderful Gaelic brogue, these eight lines from the 56 line long Solitude of Alexander Selkirk poem.
“I am out of humanity’s reach,
I must finish my journey alone,
Never hear the sweet music of speech;
I start at the sound of my own.
The beasts that roam over the plain
My form with indifference see.”
They are so unacquainted with man,
Their tameness is shocking to me.
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As I dug deeper it came as somewhat of a surprise to me what the thrust of those now infamous lines were. The poem was written by William Cowper and published in 1782 and is his reflection on the subject of Alexander’s self imposed solitude, something Selkirk endured for four years and four months as a castaway on a remote island.

To understand how this came to be one must go back into Selkirk’s life history and retrace how he wound up on that remote Juan Fernandez archipelago, 420 miles off the coast of Chile. It seems that Selkirk, born in 1676 and the seventh son of a shoemaker and tanner from Largo, Scotland, was an unruly sort and chose to join a buccaneering expedition in 1703 to the South Seas during the War of the Spanish Succession. At the time England and Spain were at war and Selkirk joined the expedition of privateer William Dampier heading to the South Seas to raid and attack foreign enemies. Selkirk was by then a fairly accomplished sailor and wound up being ship’s master on the Cinque Ports, a companion ship to Dampier’s ship St. George.

In September 1704, after managing to round the always treacherous Cape Horn, they conducted some successful raiding. It was shortly after that that Cinque Ports Captain Stradling chose to abandon Dampier and set out on his own. Stradling then brought his ship to an island on the Juan Fernandez archipelago known as Mas a Tierra for a mid-expedition restocking of fresh water and supplies. Selkirk, being the ship’s master, felt that the Cinque Ports was in serious need of repairs and was not sea worthy and chose to stay on the island instead of rejoining the seriously leaking ship.

Selkirk was landed on the island with some personal effects and as he watched the crew row back to the Cinque Ports, regretted his decision, but they chose to ignore his calls and left him there. It turned out Selkirk has chosen wisely as the Cinque Ports eventually foundered off the coast of Columbia and its crew were captured by the Spanish and endured harsh imprisonment in Peru.

Selkirk’s early days on the island were apparently painful and at first he prayed for rescue and suffered from loneliness and remorse at his decision.

Eventually he was driven inland by hordes of raucous mating sea lions and found life much easier there with more food (meat and milk) readily available, from feral goats introduced by earlier sailors. Selkirk became resourceful, crafting a knife from a barrel hoop and building himself two huts and harvesting such things as wild turnips, cabbage leaves and dried pepper berries. He fashioned clothes from the goatskins and contented himself by reading from his bible.
continued below ...
Eventually he became somewhat content with his lot and I found that the following comments published by John Howell in 1841 spoke to his acceptance of his situation. They read: “Having food in abundance, and the climate being healthy and pleasant, in about eighteen months he became easy in his situation. The time hung no longer heavy upon his hands. His devotions and frequent study of the Scriptures soothed and elevated his mind: and this, coupled with the vigor of his health, and a constant serene sky, and temperate air, rendered his life one continual feast. His feelings were now as joyful as they had before been sorrowful.”
During his 52 month sojourn on the island two ships came to anchor both of which were Spanish and being a Scottish privateer Selkirk knew if he was caught his fate would be grim and so chose to hide himself. Eventually in 1709 a privateering ship named Duke piloted by none other than Dampier and a sister ship Duchess landed a party on the island. They were met by an almost incoherent Selkirk who helped their men fend off scurvy by capturing goats to help restore their health.

The expedition leader Woodes Rogers was impressed by Selkirk’s physical vigour and peace of mind and observed: “One may see the solitude and retirement from the world is not such an insufferable state of mind as most men imagine, especially when people are fairly called or thrown into it unavoidably, as this man was.”

After his rescue Alexander Selkirk returned to privateering and eventually completed the around-the-world voyage by the Cape of Good Hope as sailing master of the Duke. He landed back in England in 1711 having been away eight years. He died of yellow fever in 1721 and was buried at sea.

Accounts of Selkirk’s story were published in 1712 by Woodes Rogers and a year later by Richard Steele but probably the most remarkable end result of his story has an interesting twist. It has long been recognized that Daniel Defoe’s: The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719) drew heavily from Selkirk’s experience and in fact served as a model for his fictional character.

So the lines I was so fascinated by from the poem by my remarkable grandmother recited to me so long ago mean so much more to me now as I contemplate the Scot Selkirk, alone in the middle of nowhere, adjusting to his life of solitude. While Cowper may have framed Selkirk’s isolation fairly negatively it appears from other observations of his demeanor that there is something to be said for one’s detachment from others and that it definitely led to a level of self awareness for Alexander Selkirk.
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September 21st ~ Vol. 85 No. 37
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