I recently became aware of The Stevenson Way - a long walk in the footsteps of 'Kidnapped.'
It appeals to me on many levels, not least because it seems like a real wilderness walk. In these times when everything is mediated and marketed, such a journey (not one I could ever make) gives me some hope that History, Adventure and Romance in Scotland are not dead. It also shows what can be done. Similar adventure walks could be established in the Galloway hills and countryside of Crockett country. I've been banging on about this for long enough. Some of the ground work has been done with my works 'Discovering Crockett's Galloway' and I'm simply scunnered by the fact that despite 'Literary Tourism' becoming a 'big thing' in Galloway now, Crockett still seems largely off the map.
Beyond Galloway, a conversation with ‘a friend I’ve yet to meet’ (Kenny) who is about to embark on The Stevenson Way but has plans for other island adventures, got me thinking about Crockett’s islands Suliscanna and Fiara. A quick bit of Googling made me realise these are ‘fictional’ renditions – and whetted my interest as to where ‘in reality’ they might be. The question is… what Scottish islands are they based on? Crockett generally bases his fiction fairly closely on fact. However, that’s an adventure to come… for now here are the textual references:
Suliscanna is first mentioned in the story ‘The Glistering Beaches’ in Bog,Myrtle and Peat (1895) and it becomes a main setting in Lochinvar (1897.)
Since Bog Myrtle and Peat is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year it seemed only right to append the story. You can find it below. N.B. Lochinvar (the first Crockett book I read in 1996) is the sequel to Men of the Moss Hags – also celebrating its 125th anniversary. (More about it in August/September)
The map below puts me in mind of 'Kidnapped' and comes from the inside of Lochinvar.
THE GLISTERING BEACHES
For wafts of unforgotten music come,
All unawares, into my lonely room,
To thrill me with the memories of the past--
Sometimes a tender voice from out the gloom,
A light hand on the keys, a shadow cast
Upon a learned tome
That blurs somewhat Alpha and Omega,
A touch upon my shoulder, a pale face,
Upon whose perfect curves the firelight plays,
Or love-lit eyes, the sweetest e'er I saw.
It was clear morning upon Suliscanna. That lonely rock ran hundreds of feet up into the heavens, and pointed downwards also to the deepest part of the blue. Simeon and Anna were content.
Or, rather, I ought to say Anna and Simeon, and that for a reason which will appear. Simeon was the son of the keeper of the temporary light upon Suliscanna, Anna the daughter of the contractor for the new lighthouse, which had already begun to grow like a tall-shafted tree on its rock foundation at Easdaile Point. Suliscanna was not a large island—in fact, only a mile across the top; but it was quite six or eight in circumference when one followed the ins and outs of the rocky shore. Tremendous cliffs rose to the south and west facing the Atlantic, pierced with caves into which the surf thundered or grumbled, according as the uneasy giant at the bottom of the sea was having a quiet night of it or the contrary. Grassy and bare was the top of the island. There was not a single tree upon it; and, besides the men's construction huts, only a house or two, so white that each shone as far by day as the lighthouse by night.
There was often enough little to do on Suliscanna. At such times, after standing a long time with hands in their pockets, the inhabitants used to have a happy inspiration: ‘Ha, let us go and whitewash the cottages!’ So this peculiarity gave the island an undeniably cheerful appearance, and the passing ships justly envied the residents.
Simeon and Anna were playmates. That is, Anna played with Simeon when she wanted him.
‘Go and knit your sampler, girl!’ Simeon was saying today. ‘What do girls know about boats or birds?’
He was in a bad humour, for Anna had been unbearable in her exactions.
‘Very well,’ replied Anna, tossing her hair; ‘I can get the key of the boat and you can't. I shall take Donald out with me.’
Now, Donald was the second lighthouse-keeper, detested of Simeon. He was grown-up and contemptuous. Also he had whiskers—horrid ugly things, doubtless, but whiskers. So he surrendered at discretion.
‘Go and get the key, then, and we will go round to the white beaches. I'll bring the provisions.’
He would have died any moderately painless death rather than say, ‘The oatcake and water-keg.’
So in a little they met again at the Boat Cove which Providence had placed at the single inlet upon the practicable side of Suliscanna, which could not be seen from either the Laggan Light or the construction cottages. Only the lighter that brought the hewn granite could spy upon it.
‘Mind you sneak past your father, Anna!’ cried Simeon, afar off.
His voice carried clear and lively. But yet higher and clearer rose the reply, spoken slowly to let each word sink well in.
What the private sting of the discriminative, only Simeon knew. And evidently he did know very well, for he kicked viciously at a dog belonging to Donald the second keeper—a brute of a dog it was; but, missing the too-well-accustomed cur, he stubbed his toe. He then repeated the multiplication table. For he was an admirable boy and careful of his language.
But, nevertheless, he got the provision out with care and promptitude.
‘Where are you taking all that cake?’ said his mother, who came from Ayrshire and wanted a reason for everything. In the north there is no need for reasons. There everything is either a judgment or a dispensation, according to whether it happens to your neighbour or yourself.
‘I am no' coming hame for ony dinner,’ said Simeon, who adopted a modified dialect to suit his mother. With his father he spoke English only, in a curious sing-song tone but excellent of accent.
Mrs. Lauder—Simeon's mother, that is—accepted the explanation without remark, and Simeon passed out of her department.
‘Mind ye are no' to gang intil the boat!’ she cried after him; but Simeon was apparently too far away to hear.
He looked cautiously up the side of the Laggan Light to see that his father was still polishing at his morning brasses and reflectors along with Donald. Then he ran very swiftly through a little storehouse, and took down a musket from the wall. A powder-flask and some shot completed his outfit; and with a prayer that his father might not see him, Simeon sped to the trysting-stone. As it happened, his father was oblivious and the pilfered gun unseen.
Anna's experience had been quite different. Her procedure was much simpler. She found her father sitting in his office, constructed of rough boards. He frowned continuously at plans of dovetailed stones, and rubbed his head at the side till he was rapidly rubbing it bare.
Anna came in and looked about her.
‘Give me the key of the boat,’ she said without preface. She used from habit, even to her father, the imperative mood affirmative.
Mr. Warburton looked up, smoothed his brow, and began to ask, ‘What are you going to do—?’ But in the midst of his question he thought better of it, acknowledging its uselessness; and, reaching into a little press by his side, he took down a key and handed it to Anna without comment. Anna said only, ‘Thank you, father.’ For we should be polite to our parents when they do as we wish them.
She stood a moment looking back at the bowed figure, which, upon her departure, had resumed the perplexed frown as though it had been a mask. Then she walked briskly down to the boathouse.
Upon the eastern side of Suliscanna there is a beach. It is a rough beach, but landing is just possible. There are cunning little spits of sand in the angles of the stone reaches, and by good steering between the boulders it is just possible to make boat's-way ashore.
‘Row!’ said Anna, after they had pushed the boat off, and began to feel the hoist of the swell. ‘I will steer.’
Simeon obediently took the oars and fell to it. So close in did Anna steer to one point, that, raising her hand, she pulled a few heads of pale sea-pink from a dry cleft as they drew past into the open water and began to climb green and hissing mountains.
Then Anna opened her plans to Simeon.
‘Listen!’ she said. ‘I have been reading in a book of my father's about this place, and there was a strange great bird once on Suliscanna. It has been lost for years, so the book says; and if we could get it, it would be worth a hundred pounds. We are going to seek it.’
‘That is nonsense,’ said Simeon, ‘for you can get a goose here for sixpence, and there is no bird so big that it would be worth the half of a hundred pounds.’
‘Goose yourself, boy,’ said Anna tauntingly. ‘I did not mean to eat, great stupid thing!’
‘What did you mean, then?’ returned Simeon.
‘You island boy, I mean to put in wise folks' museums—where they put all sorts of strange things. I have seen one in London.’
‘Seen a bird worth a hundred pounds?’ Simeon was not taking Anna's statements on trust any more.
‘No, silly—not the bird, but the museum.’
‘Um—you can tell that to Donald; I know better than to believe.’
‘Ah, but this is true,’ said Anna, without anger at the aspersion on her habitual truthfulness. ‘I tell you it is true. You would not believe about the machine-boat that runs by steam, with the smoke coming from it like the spout of our kettle, till I showed you the picture of it in father's book.’
‘I have seen the lion and the unicorn fighting for the crown. There are lies in pictures as well as in books!’ said Simeon, stating a great truth.
‘But this bird is called the Great Auk—did you never hear your father tell about that?’
Simeon's face still expressed no small doubt of Anna's good faith. The words conveyed to him no more meaning than if she had said the Great Mogul.
Then Anna remembered.
‘It is called in Scotland the Gare Fowl!’
Simeon was on fire in a moment. He stopped rowing and started up.
‘I have heard of it,’ he said. ‘I know all that there is to know. It was chased somewhere on the northern islands and shot at, and one of them was killed. But did it ever come here?’
‘I have father's book with me, and you shall see!’ Being prepared for scepticism, Anna did not come empty-handed. She pulled a finely bound book out of a satchel-pocket that swung at her side. ‘See here,’ she said; and then she read: ‘After their ill-usage at the islands of Orkney, the Gare Fowl were seen several times by fishermen in the neighbourhood of the Glistering Beaches on the lonely and uninhabited island of Suliscanna. It is supposed that a stray bird may occasionally visit that rock to this day.’
Simeon's eyes almost started from his head.
‘Worth a hundred pounds!’ he said over and over as if to himself.
Anna, who knew the ways of this most doubting of Thomases, pulled a piece of paper from her satchel and passed it to him to read. It related at some length the sale in a London auction-room of a stuffed Great Auk in imperfect condition for one hundred and fifty pounds.
‘That would be pounds sterling!’ said Simeon, who was thinking. He had a suspicion that there might be some quirk about pounds ‘Scots,’ and was trying to explain things clearly to himself.
‘Now, we are going to the Glistering Beaches to look for the Great Auk!’ said Anna as a climax to the great announcement.
The water lappered pleasantly beneath the boat as Simeon deftly drew it over the sea. There is hardly any pleasure like good oarsmanship. In rowing, the human machine works more cleanly and completely than at any other work. Before the children rose two rocky islands, with an opening between, like a birthday cake that has been badly cut in the centre and has had the halves moved a little way apart. This was Stack Canna.
‘Do you think that there would be any chance here?’ said Anna. The splendour of the adventure was taking possession of her mind.
‘Of course there would; but the best chance of all will be at the caves of Rona Wester, for that is near the Glistering Beaches, and the birds would be sure to go there if the people went to seek them at the Beaches.’
‘Has anyone been there?’ asked Anna.
‘Fishers have looked into them from the sea. No one has been in!’ said Simeon briefly.
The tops of the Stack of Canna were curiously white, and Simeon watched the effect over his shoulder as he rowed.
‘Look at the Stack,’ he said, and the eyes of his companion followed his.
‘Is it snow?’ she asked.
‘No; birds—thousands of them. They are nesting. Let us land and get a boat-load to take back.’
But Anna declared that it must not be so. They had come out to hunt the Great Auk, and no meaner bird would they pursue that day.
Nevertheless, they landed, and made spectacles of themselves by groping in the clay soil on the top of the Stack for Petrels' eggs. But they could not dig far enough without spades to get many, and when they did get to the nest, it was hardly worth taking for the sake of the one white egg and the little splattering, oily inmate.
Yet on the wild sea-cinctured Stack, and in that young fresh morning, the children tasted the joy of life; and only the fascinating vision of the unknown habitant of the Glistering Beaches had power to wile them away.
But there before them, a mile and a half round the point of Stack, lay the Beaches. On either side of the smooth sweep of the sands rose mighty cliffs, black as the eye of the midnight and scarred with clefts like battered fortresses. Then at the Beaches themselves, the cliff wall fell back a hundred yards and left room for the daintiest edging of white sand, shining like coral, crumbled down from the pure granite—which at this point had not been overflowed like the rest of the island of Suliscanna by the black lava.
Such a place for play there was not anywhere—neither on Suliscanna nor on any other of the outer Atlantic isles. Low down, by the surf's edge, the wet sands of the Glistering Beaches were delicious for the bare feet to run and be brave and cool upon. The sickle sweep of the bay cut off the Western rollers, and it was almost always calm in there. Only the sea-birds clashed and clanged overhead, and made the eye dizzy to watch their twinkling gyrations.
Then on the greensward there was the smoothest turf, a band of it only—not coarse grass with stalks far apart, as it is on most sea-beaches; but smooth and short as though it had been cropped by a thousand woolly generations. ‘Such a place!’ they both cried. And Anna, who had never been here before, clapped her hands in delight.
‘This is like heaven!’ she sighed, as the prow of the boat grated refreshingly on the sand, and Simeon sprang over with a splash, standing to his mid-thigh in the salt water to pull the boat ashore.
Then Simeon and Anna ran races on the smooth turf. They examined carefully the heaped mounds of shells, mostly broken, for the ‘legs of mutton’ that meant to them love and long life and prosperity. They chose out for luck also the smooth little rose-tinted valves, more exquisite than the fairest lady's finger-nails.
Next they found the spring welling up from an over-flow mound which it had built for itself in the ages it had run untended. Little throbbing grains of sand dimpled in it, and the mound was green to the top; so that Simeon and Anna could sit, one on one side and the other upon the other, and with a farle of cake eat and drink, passing from hand to hand alternate, talking all the time.
It was a divine meal.
‘This is better than having to go to church!’ said Anna.
Simeon stared at her. This was not the Sabbath or a Fast-day. What a day, then, to be speaking about church-going! It was bad enough to have to face the matter when it came.
‘I wonder what we should do if the Great Auk were suddenly to fly out of the rocks up there, and fall splash into the sea,’ he said, to change the subject.
‘The Great Auk does not fly,’ said positive Anna, who had been reading up.
‘What does it do, then?’ said Simeon. ‘No wonder it got killed!’
‘It could only waddle and swim,’ replied Anna.
‘Then I could shoot it easy! I always can when the things can't fly, or will stand still enough.—It is not often they will,’ he added after due consideration.
Many things in creation are exceedingly thoughtless.
Thereupon Simeon took to loading his gun ostentatiously, and Anna moved away. Guns were uncertain things, especially in Simeon's hands, and Anna preferred to examine some of the caves. But when she went to the opening of the nearest, there was something so uncanny, so drippy, so clammy about it, with the little pools of water dimpled with drops from above, and the spume-balls rolled by the wind into the crevices, that she was glad to turn again and fall to gathering the aromatic, hay-scented fennel which nodded on the edges of the grassy slopes.
There was no possibility of getting up or down the cliffs that rose three hundred feet above the Glistering Beaches, for the ledges were hardly enough for the dense population of gannets which squabbled and babbled and elbowed one another on the slippery shelves.
Now and then there would be a fight up there, and white eggs would roll over the edge and splash yellow upon the turf. Wherever the rocks became a little less precipitous, they were fairly lined with the birds and hoary with their whitewash.
After Simeon had charged his gun, the children proceeded to explore the caves, innocently taking each other's hands, and advancing by the light of a candle—which, with flint and steel, they had found in the locker of their boat.
First they had to cross a pool, not deep, but splashy and unpleasant. Then more perilously they made their way along the edges of the water, walking carefully upon the slippery stones, wet with the clammy, contracted breath of the cave. Soon, however, the cavern opened out into a wider and drier place, till they seemed to be fairly under the mass of the island; for the cliffs, rising in three hundred feet of solid rock above their heads, stretched away before them black and grim to the earth's very centre.
Anna cried out, ‘Oh, I cannot breathe! Let us go back!’
But the undaunted Simeon, determined to establish his masculine superiority once for all, denied her plumply.
‘We shall go back none,’ he said, ‘till we have finished this candle.’
So, clasping more tightly her knight-errant's hand, Anna sighed, and resigned herself for once to the unaccustomed pleasure of doing as she was bid.
Deeper and deeper they went into the cleft of the rocks, stopping sometimes to listen, and hearing nothing but the beating of their own hearts when they did so.
There came sometimes, however, mysterious noises, as though the fairy folks were playing pipes in the stony knolls, of which they had both heard often enough. And also by whiles they heard a thing far more awful—a plunge as of a great sea-beast sinking suddenly into deep water.
‘Suppose that it is some sea-monster,’ said Anna with eyes on fire; for the unwonted darkness had changed her, so that she took readily enough her orders from the less imaginative boy—whereas, under the broad light of day, she never dreamed of doing other than giving them.
Once they had a narrow escape. It happened that Simeon was leading and holding Anna by the hand, for they had been steadily climbing upwards for some time. The footing of the cave was of smooth sand, very restful and pleasing to the feet. Simeon was holding up the candle and looking before him, when suddenly his foot went down into nothing. He would have fallen forward, but that Anna, putting all her force into the pull, drew him back. The candle, however, fell from his hand and rolled unharmed to the edge of a well, where it lay still burning.
Simeon seized it, and the two children, kneeling upon the rocky side, looked over into a deep hole, which seemed, so far as the taper would throw its feeble rays downwards, to be quite fathomless.
But at the bottom something rose and fell with a deep roaring sound, as regular as a beast breathing. It had a most terrifying effect to hear that measured roaring deep in the bowels of the earth, and at each respiration to see the suck of the air blow the candle-flame about.
Anna would willingly have gone back, but stout Simeon was resolved and not to be spoken to.
They circled cautiously about the well, and immediately began to descend. The way now lay over rock, fine and regular to the feet as though it had been built and polished by the pyramid-builders of Egypt. There was more air, also, and the cave seemed to be opening out.
At last they came to a glimmer of daylight and a deep and solemn pool. There was a path high above it, and the pool lay beneath black like ink. But they were evidently approaching the sea, for the roar of the breaking swell could distinctly be heard. The pool narrowed till there appeared to be only a round basin of rock, full of the purest water, and beyond a narrow bank of gravel. Then they saw the eye of the sea shining in, and the edge of a white breaker lashing into the mouth of the cave.
But as they ran down heedlessly, all unawares they came upon a sight which made them shrink back with astonishment. It was something antique and wrinkled that sat or stood, it was difficult to tell which, in the pool of crystal water. It was like a little old man with enormous white eyebrows, wearing a stupendous mask shaped like a beak. The thing turned its head and looked intently at them without moving. Then they saw it was a bird, very large in size, but so forlorn, old, and broken that it could only flutter piteously its little flippers of wings and patiently and pathetically waggle that strange head.
‘It is the Great Auk itself—we have found it!’ said Anna in a hushed whisper.
‘Hold the candle till I kill it with a stone—or, see! with this bit of timber.’
‘Wait!’ said Anna. ‘It looks so old and feeble!’
‘Our hundred pounds,’ said Simeon.
‘It looks exactly like your grandfather,’ said Anna; ‘look at his eyebrows! You would not kill your grandfather!’
‘Wouldn't I just—for a hundred pounds!’ said Simeon briskly, looking for a larger stone.
‘Don't let us kill him at all. We have seen the last Great Auk! That is enough. None shall be so great as we.’
The grey and ancient fowl seemed to wake to a sense of his danger, just at the time when in fact the danger was over. He hitched himself out of the pool like an ungainly old man using a stick, and solemnly waddled over the little bank of sand till he came to his jumping-off place. Then, without a pause, he went souse into the water.
Simeon and Anna ran round the pool to the shingle-bank and looked after him.
The Great Auk was there, swimming with wonderful agility. He was heading right for the North and the Iceland skerries—where, it may be, he abides in peace to this day, happier than he lived in the cave of the island of Suliscanna.
The children reached home very late that night, and were received with varying gladness; but neither of them told the ignorant grown-up people of Suliscanna that theirs were the eyes that had seen the last Great Auk swim out into the bleak North to find, like Moses, an unknown grave.
You can buy Bog Myrtle and Peat HERE paperback and HERE as an ebook.