Pulling, hauling, and tugging for dear life

The MacDonald father and son are engineers attached to the Stevenson firm and in charge of the harbour works at Wick.

Willie Traquair is one of RLS’s 50 cousins and playmate at Colinton Manse, the residence of RLS’s maternal grandfather.

RLS’s father, Thomas,  is on a business visit to west Scotland, together with his wife Margaret Isabella and Mary Warden, Thomas’s niece, just sightseeing.

[Dots between square brackets indicate short cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full transcription of this letter see Mehew 1, 62, dated Sept. 18, Friday].

To his mother (Colvin 1911, pp. 21-22)

My dear Mother,

The last two days have been dreadfully hard, and I was so tired in the evenings that I could not write. In fact, last night I went to sleep immediately after dinner, or very nearly so. My hours havebeen 10-2 and 3-7 out in the lighter or the small boat, in a long, heavy roll from the nor’-east. Then the dog was taken out, he got awfully ill; one of the men, Geordie Grant by name and surname, followed shoot with considerable éclat; but, wonderful to relate! I kept well. My hands are all skinned, blistered, discoloured, and engrained with tar, some of which latter has established itself under my nails in a position of such natural strength that it defies all my efforts to dislodge it. The worst work I had was when David (MacDonald’s eldest) and I took the charge ourselves. He remained in the lighter to tighten or slacken the guys as we raised the pole towards the perpendicular, with two men. I was with four men in the boat. We dropped an anchor out a good bit, then tied a cord to the pole, took a turn round the sternmost thwart with it, and pulled on the anchor line. As the great, big, wet hawser came in it soaked you to the skin: I was the sternest (used, by way of variety, for sternmost) of the lot, and had to coil it – a work which involved, from its being so stiff and your being busy pulling with all your might, no little trouble and an extra ducking. We got it up; and, just as we were going to sing ‘Victory!’ one of the guys slipped in, the pole tottered – went over on its side again like a shot, and behold the end of our labour.

You see, I have been roughing it; and though some parts of the letter may be neither very comprehensible nor very interesting to you, I think that perhaps it might amuse Willie Traquair, who delights in all such dirty jobs.

‘Illustrative diagrams’ of the harbour works, drawn by RLS at the end of the letter.

The first day, I forgot to mention, was like mid-winter for cold, and rained incessantly so hard that the livid white of our cold-pinched faces wore a sort of inflamed rash on the windward side.

I am not a bit the worse of it, except fore-mentioned state of hands, a slight crick in my neck from the rain running down, and general stiffness from pulling, hauling, and tugging for dear life.

We have got double weights at the guys, and hope to get it up like a shot.


What fun you three must be having! I hope the cold don’t disagree with you. I remain, my dear mother, your affectionate son,

R.L. Stevenson



R. Anderson, ‘Wick’s Black Saturday in 1848’, 1885 [www.ambaile.org.uk]

Storm at Wick Bay, 2012

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