In 1870, RLS (aged 20) leaves for Erraid and stays there for three weeks, as part of training for lighthouse engineering. He’ll celebrate the island in his novel Kidnapped and in his essay Memoirs of an Islet. He reports his trip from Edinburgh to Erraid, during which he meets Samuel Bough, the famous Carlisle painter of landscapes and sea ports.
In this year, RLS is treasurer of the Edinburgh University Conservative Club.
H.C. Fleeming Jenkin (1833-1885) is a famous electrical engineer working on submarine telegraph cables, and RLS’s professor of Engineering at Edinburgh University in 1868. RLS will write a passionate ‘Memoir’ of Jenkin in 1887.
The Lighthouse, by R.M. Ballantyne, is an account of the building of the Bell Rock lighthouse by RLS’s grandfather, printed in 1865.
[Dots between square brackets indicate cuts made by Sir Sidney Colvin. For full, correct and critical edition of this letter, see Mehew 1, 83].
To his parents (Colvin 1912, pp. 6-13)
Earraid, Thursday, August 4th, 1870.
My dear Mother,
I have so much to say, that needs must I take a large sheet; for the notepaper brings with it a chilling brevity of style. Indeed, I think pleasant writing is proportional to the size of the material you write withal.
From Edinburgh to Greenock, I had the ex-secretary of the E.U. Conservative Club, Murdoch. At Greenock I spent a dismal evening, though I found a pretty walk. Next day on board the Iona, I had Maggie Thomson to Tarbet; Craig, a well-read, pleasant medical, to Ardrishaig; and Professor, Mrs., and all the little Fleeming Jenkinseses to Oban. […]
At Oban, that night, it was delicious. Mr. Stephenson’s yacht lay in the bay, and a splendid band on board played delightfully. The waters of the bay were as smooth as a mill-pond; and, in the dusk, the black shadows of the hills stretched across to our very feet and the lights were reflected in long lines. At intervals, blue lights were burned on the water: and rockets were sent up. Sometimes great stars of clear fire fell from them, until the bay received and quenched them. I hired a boat and skulled round the yacht in the dark. When I came in, a very pleasant Englishman on the steps fell into talk with me, till it was time to go to bed.
Next morning I slept on or I should have gone to Glencoe. As it was, it was blazing hot; so I hired a boat, pulled all forenoon along the coast and had a delicious bathe on the beautiful white beach.
Coming home, I cotoyai’d my Englishman, lunched alongside of him and his sister, and took a walk with him in the afternoon, during which I find that he was travelling with a servant, kept horses, et caetera. At dinner he wished me to sit beside him and his sister; but there was no room. When he came out he told me why he was so empressé on this point. He had found out my name, and that I was connected with lighthouses, and his sister wished to know if I were any relative of the Stevenson in Ballantyne’s Lighthouse. All evening, he, his sister, I, and Mr. Hargrove, of Hargrove and Fowler, sate in front of the hotel. I asked Mr. H. if he knew who my friend was. “Yes,” he said; “I never met him before: but my partner knows him. He is a man of old family; and the solicitor of highest standing about Sheffield.” At night, he said, “Now if you’re down in my neighbourhood, you must pay me a visit. I am very fond of young men about me; and I should like a visit from you very much. I can take you through any factory in Sheffield and I’ll drive you all about the Dookeries.” He then wrote me down his address; and we parted huge friends, he still keeping me up to visiting him. […]
Hitherto, I had enjoyed myself amazingly; but to-day has been the crown. In the morning I met Bough on board, with whom I am both surprised and delighted.
He and I have read the same books, and discuss Chaucer, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Fletcher, Webster, and all the old authors. He can quote verses by the page, and has really a very pretty literary tast. Altogether, with all his roughness and buffoonery, a more pleasant, clever fellow you may seldom see. I was very much surprised with him; and he with me. “Where the devil did you read all these books?” says he; and in my heart, I echo the question. One amusing thing I must say. We were both talking about travelling; and I said I was so fond of travelling alone, from the people one met and grew friendly with. “Ah,” says he, “but you’ve such a pleasant manner, you know – quite captivated my old woman, you did – she couldn’t talk of anything else.” Here was a compliment, even in Sam Bough’s sneering tones, that rather tickled my vanity; and really, my social successes of the last few days, the best of which is yet to come, are enough to turn anybody’s head. To continue, after a little go in with Samuel, he going up on the bridge, I looked about me to see who there was; and mine eye lighted on two girls, one of whom was sweet and pretty, talking to an old gentleman. “Eh bien,” says I to myself, “that seems the best investment on board.” So I sidled up to the old gentleman, got into conversation with him and so with the damsel; and thereupon, having used the patriarch as a ladder, I kicked him down behind me. Who should my damsel prove, but Amy Sinclair, daughter of Sir Tollemache? She certainly was the simplest, most naïve specimen of girlhood ever I saw. By getting brandy and biscuit and generally coaching up her cousin, who was sick, I ingratiated myself; and so kept her the whole way to Iona, taking her into the cave at Staffa and generally making myself as gallant as possible.
I was never so much pleased with anything in my life, as her amusing absence of mauvaise honte: she was so sorry I wasn’t going on to Oban again: didn’t know how she could have enjoyed herself if I hadn’t been there; and was so sorry we hadn’t met on the Crinan. When we came back from Staffa, she and her aunt went down to have lunch; and a minute after up comes Miss Amy to ask me if I wouldn’t think better of it, and take some lunch with them. I couldn’t resist that, of course, so down I went; and there she displayed the full extent of her innocence. I must be sure to come to Thurso Castle the next time I was in Caithness, […] and Upper Norwood (whence she would take me all over the Crystal Palace) when I was near London; and (most complete of all) she offered to call on us in Edinburgh! […] Wasn’t it delicious? – she is a girl of sixteen or seventeen, too, and the latter I think. […] I never yet saw a girl so innocent and fresh, so perfectly modest without the least trace of prudery.
Coming off Staffa, Sam Bough, who had been in huge force the whole time, drawing in Miss Amy’s sketch-book and making himself agreeable or otherwise to everybody, pointed me out to a parson and said, “That’s him!” This was Alexander Ross and his wife. […]
The last stage of the steamer now approached, Miss Amy and I lamenting pathetically that Iona was so near. “People meet in this way,” quoth she, “and then lose sight of one another so soon.” We all landed together, Bough and I and the Rosses with our baggage; and went together over the ruins. I was here left with the cousin and the aunt […], during which I learned that said cousin sees me every Sunday in St. Stephen’s. Oho! thought I, at the “every.” The aunt was very anxious to know who that strange, wild man was (didn’t I wish Samuel in Tophet!). Of course, in reply, I drew it strong about eccentric genius and my never having known him before, and a good deal that was perhaps “strained to the extremest limit of the fact.” […].
The steamer left, and Miss Amy and her cousin waved their handkerchiefs, until my arm in answering them was nearly broken. I believe women’s arms must be better made for this exercise: mine ache still; and I regretted at the time that the handkerchief had seen service. Altogether, however, I was left in a pleasant frame of mind.
Being thus left alone. Bough, I, the Rosses, Professor Blackie, and an English parson called M., these people were going to remain the night, except the Professor, who is resident there at present.
They were going to dine en compagnie and wished us to join the party; but we had already committed ourselves by mistake to the wrong hotel, and besides, we wished to be off as soon as wind and time were against us to Earraid. We went up; Bough selected a place for sketching and blocked in the sketch for Mrs. R.; and we all talked together. Bough told us his family history and a lot of strange things about old Cumberland life; among others, how he had known “John Peel” of pleasant memory in song, and of how that worthy hunted.
At five, down we go to the Argyll Hotel, and wait dinner.
Broth – “nice broth” – fresh herrings, and fowl had been promised. At 5.50, I get the shovel and tongs and drum them at the stair-head till a response comes from below that the nice broth is at hand. I boast of my engineering, and Bough compares me to the Abbott of Arbroath who originated the Inchcape Bell. At last, in comes the tureen and the hand-maid lifts the cover. “Rice soup!” I yell; “O no! none o’ that for me!” – “Yes,” says Bough savagely; “but Miss Amy didn’t take me downstairs to eat salmon.” Accordingly he is helped. How his face fell. “I imagine myself in the accident ward of the Infirmary,” quoth he. It was, purely and simply, rice and water. After this, we have another weary pause, and then herrings in a state of mash and potatoes like iron. “Send the potatoes out to Prussia for grape-shot,” was the suggestion. I dined off broken herrings and dry bread. At last “the supreme moment comes,” and the fowl in a lordly dish is carried in. On the cover being raised, there is something so forlorn and miserable about the aspect of the animal that we both roar with laughter. Then Bough, taking up knife and fork, turns the “swarry” over and over, shaking doubtfully his head. “There’s an aspect of quiet resistance about the beggar,” says he, “that looks bad.” However, to work he falls until the sweat stands on his brow and a dismembered leg falls, dull and leaden-like, on to my dish. To eat it was simply impossible. I did not know before that flesh could be so tough. “The strongest jaws in England,” says Bough piteously, harpooning his dry morsel, “couldn’t eat this leg in less than twelve hours.” Nothing for it now, but to order boat and bill. “That fowl,” says Bough to the landlady, “is of a breed I know. I knew the cut of its jib whenever it was put down. That was the grandmother of the cock that frightened Peter.” – “I thought it was a historical animal,” says I. “What a shame to kill it. It’s as bad as eating Whittington’s cat or the dog of Montargis.” – “Na-na, it’s no so old,” says the landlady, “but it eats hard.” – “Eats!” I cry, “where do you find that? Very little of that verb with us.” So with more raillery, we pay six shillings for our festival and run over to Earraid, shaking the dust of the Argyll Hotel from off our feet.
I can write no more just now, and I hope you will be able to decipher so much; for it contains matter. Really, the whole of yesterday’s work would do in a novel without one little bit of embellishment; and, indeed, few novels are so amusing. Bough, Miss Amy, Mrs. Ross, Blackie, M. the parson – all these were such distinct characters, the incidents were so entertaining, and the scenery so fine, that the whole would have made a novelist’s fortune.
My dear Father,
No landing to-day, as the sea runs high on the rock. They are at the second course of the first story on the rock. I have as yet had no time here; so this is α and ω of my business news. Your affectionate son