Bare, grey shores, grim grey houses, grim grey sea

In the summer of 1868 RLS is practising in the family firm, learning the engineering business. He goes to watch the works in progress first at Anstruther on the coast of Fife, and afterwards at Wick: the breakwater built there by the Stevensons will be wrecked by storms a few years later. In his essay ‘The Education of an Engineer’ (1888), he’ll call Wick ‘one of the meanest of man’s towns, and situate certainly on the baldest of God’s bays’.

[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full transcription of this letter see Mehew I, 55].


RLS in 1868, aged 18.

To his mother (Colvin 1911, pp. 16-19; Mehew 1, 55)

Wick, Friday, September 11, 1868.

My dear Mother,

[…] Wick lies at the end or elbow of an open triangular bay, hemmed on either side by shores, either cliff or steep earth-bank, of no great height. The grey houses of Pulteney extend along the southerly shore almost to the cape; and it is about half-way down this shore – no, six-sevenths way down – that the new breakwater extends athwart the bay. […]

Wick, Shore Lane.

The New Harbour of Wick, at about the end of the 19th century.

Wick habour in 1865, with more than 1000 boats for herring fishing.

A ‘grey house’ in Pulteney.

Wick, the ruins of Thomas Stevenson’s breakwater.

Wick, the ruins of Thomas Stevenson’s breakwater.

In Wick I have never heard any one greet his neighbour with the usual ‘Fine day’ or ‘Good morning.’ Both come shaking their heads, and both say, ‘Breezy, breezy!’ And such is the atrocious quality of the climate, that the remark is almost invariably justified by the fact.

The streets are full of the Highland fishers, lubberly, stupid, inconceivably lazy and heavy to move. You bruise against them, tumble over them, elbow them against the wall – all to no purpose; they will not budge; and you are forced to leave the pavement every step.

Wick harbour.

Wick, departure of fishing boats.

Wick, back with the herrings.

Wick, gutters at work.

Wick, gutters at work.

To the south, however, is as fine a piece of coast scenery as I ever saw. Great black chasms, huge black cliffs, rugged and overhung gullies, natural arches, and deep green pools below them, almost too deep to let you see the gleam of sand among the darker weed: there are deep caves too. In one of these lives a tribe of gipsies. The men are always drunk, simply and truthfully always. From morning to evening the great villainous-looking fellows are either sleeping off the last debauch, or hulking about the cove ‘in the horrors.’ The cave is deep, high, and airy, and might be made comfortable enough. But they just live among heaped boulders, damp with continual droppings from above, with no more furniture than two or three tin pans, a truss of rotten straw, and a few ragged cloaks. In winter the surf bursts into the mouth and often forces them to abandon it.

Wick, Tinkler’s Cave.

Wick, South Head, cave dwellers.

An émeute of disappointed fishers was feared, and two ships of war are in the bay to render assistance to the municipal authorities. This is the ides; and, to all intents and purposes, said ides are passed. Still there is a good deal of disturbance, many drunk men, and a double supply of police. I saw them sent for by some people and enter an inn, in a pretty good hurry: what it was for I do not know.

You would see by papa’s letter about the carpenter who fell off the staging: I don’t think I was ever so much excited in my life. The man was back at his work, and I asked him how he was; but he was a Highlander, and l need I add it? – dickens a word could I understand of his answer. What is still worse, I find the people here-about – that is to say, the Highlanders, not the northmen – don’t understand me. […]

I have lost a shilling’s worth of postage stamps, which has damped my ardour for buying big lots of ’em: I’ll buy them one at a time as I want ’em for the future.

The Free Church minister and I got quite thick. He left last night about two in the morning, when I went to turn in. He gave me the enclosed. l I remain your affectionate son,

R.L. Stevenson

Wick, view from the Church.

The Old Man of Wick, today.

This entry was posted in Letters, Robert Louis Stevenson and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Bare, grey shores, grim grey houses, grim grey sea

  1. rdury says:

    An amazing selection of photographs that really adds to our understanding of the letter. Congratulations!


  2. mafalda says:

    Thank you, Richard, Yours comments will be always welcome!


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