All for nothing, except experience and dirty clothes!

In RLS’s biographical essay on his father, he’ll tell how in the end, at Wick, ‘the sea proved too strong for men’s arts, and after expedients hitherto unthought of, and on a scale hyper-Cyclopean, the work must be deserted, and now stands a ruin in the bleak, God-forsaken bay’.

The Russels are the family of Hamilton Russel, Sheriff of Caithness; his daughter Sara will die in 1872, aged 20.

Miss Rutherford is the daughter of the Superintendent Harbour Master at Pultneytown, Wick.

Cummy, RLS’s dearest nurse.

The Sutherlands, the proprietors of the New Harbour Hotel at Wick, where RLS is staying in the summer 1868.

The wreck of the Norwegian ship is reported in the local press.

The lines quoted in the account of the storm are from Psalms, 4, 93, 4.

‘Mr. T. S., I. C.’ stays for ‘Mr. Thomas Stevenson, Civil Engineer’ (RLS’s father).

[As always, dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full and correct transcription of this letter, see Mehew 1, 64].

To his mother (Colvin 1911, pp. 24-27)

Pulteney, Wick, Sunday, September 1868.

My dear Mother,

[…] Storm without: wind and rain: a confused mass of wind-driven rain-squalls, wind-ragged mist, foam, spray, and great, grey waves. Of this hereafter; in the meantime let us follow the due course of historic narrative.

Seven p.m. found me at Breadalbane Terrace, clad in spotless blacks, white tie, shirt, et caetera, and finished off below with a pair of navvies’ boots. How true that the devil is betrayed by his feet! A message to Cummy at last. Why, O treacherous woman! were my dress boots withheld.

Dramatis personae: père Russel, amusing, long-winded, in many points like papa; mère Russel, nice, delicate, likes hymns, knew Aunt Margaret (’t ’ould man knew Uncle Alan); fille Russel, nommée Sara (no h), rather nice, lights up well, good voice, interested face; Miss L., nice also, washed out a little, and, I think, a trifle sentimental; fils Russel, in a Leith office, smart, full of happy epithet, amusing. […] They are very nice and very kind, asked me to come back – ‘any night you feel dull: and any night doesn’t mean no night: we’ll be so glad to see you.’  C’est la mère qui parle. […]

I was back there again to-night. […] There was hymn-singing, and general religious controversy till eight, after which talk was secular. […] Mrs. Sutherland was deeply distressed about the boot business. She consoled me by saying that many would be glad to have such feet whatever shoes they had on.  […] Unfortunately, fishers and seafaring men are too facile to be compared with! This looks like enjoyment! better speck than Anster.

Breadalbane Terrace, Wick, ca. 1920

RLS’s last boots
[The Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh]

Wick Old Cemetery, the Rutherford family’s grave

Wick Old Cemetery, the Russel family’s grave

Wick Old Cemetery, Sara (no h) Russel’s grave

Wick Old Cemetery, the Sutherland family’s grave

I have done with frivolity. This morning I was awakened by Mrs. Sutherland at the door. ‘There’s a ship ashore at Shaltigoe!’ As my senses slowly flooded, I heard the whistling and the roaring of wind, and the lashing of gust-blown and uncertain flaws of rain. I got up, dressed, and went out. The mizzled sky and rain blinded you.

C D is the new pier.

A the schooner ashore. B the salmon house.

She was a Norwegian: coming in she saw our first gauge-pole, standing at point E. Norse skipper thought it was a sunk smack, and dropped his anchor in full drift of sea: chain broke: schooner came ashore. Insured: laden with wood: skipper owner of vessel and cargo: bottom out.

I was in a great fright at first lest we should be liable; but it seems that’s all right.

Some of the waves were twenty feet high. The spray rose eighty feet at the new pier. Some wood has come ashore, and the roadway seems carried away. There is something fishy at the far end where the cross wall is building; but till we are able to get along, all speculation is vain.

I am so sleepy I am writing nonsense.

I stood a long while on the cope watching the sea below me; I hear its dull, monotonous roar at this moment below the shrieking of the wind; and there came ever recurring to my mind the verse I am so fond of:

‘But yet the Lord that is on high

Is more of might by far

Than noise of many waters is

Or great sea-billows are.’

The thunder at the wall when it first struck – the rush along ever growing higher – the great jet of snow-white spray some forty feet above you – and the ‘noise of many waters,’ the roar, the hiss, the ‘shrieking’ among the shingle as it fell head over heels at your feet. I watched if it threw the big stones at the wall; but it never moved them.

Monday. – The end of the work displays gaps, cairns of ten ton blocks, stones torn from their places and turned right round. The damage above water is comparatively little: what there may be below, on ne sait pas encore. The roadway is torn away, cross-heads, broken planks tossed here and there, planks gnawn and mumbled as if a starved bear had been trying to eat them, planks with spales lifted from them as if they had been dressed with a rugged plane, one pile swaying to and fro clear of the bottom, the rails in one place sunk a foot at least. This was not a great storm, the waves were light and short. Yet when we are standing at the office, I felt the ground beneath me quail as a huge roller thundered on the work at the last year’s cross wall.

How could noster amicus Q. maximus appreciate a storm at Wick? It requires a little of the artistic temperament, of which Mr. T. S., C.E., possesses some, whatever he may say. I can’t look at it practically however: that will come, I suppose, like grey hair or coffin nails.

[…] Our pole is snapped: a fortnight’s work and the loss of the Norse schooner all for nothing! – except experience and dirty clothes. Your affectionate son,

R.L. Stevenson


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