He was the wayward 17th century mariner who served as the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.
Now, nearly 300 years after the novel’s publication, a retired solicitor is hoping to track down a long lost will in the hope of shedding light on the adventurous life of Alexander Selkirk.
Selkirk was the castaway who spent four and a half years marooned on the Chilean island of Más a Tierra, an ordeal which prompted Defoe to put pen to paper.
After being rescued, Selkirk returned to his home in the Fife fishing village of Lower Largo before heading to London. However, his wanderlust soon lured him back to sea, before he succumbed to a tropical disease aboard HMS Weymouth off the west coast of Africa in 1721. He was 45.
History has remembered Selkirk as a reckless and combative philanderer, but with a new exhibition devoted to the sailor set to open in Kirkcaldy this month, Brian Wood believes there is more to him than meets the eye.
In 1978, Wood was practising as a legal conveyancer when he acted in the sale of a property in Lower Largo. While looking through old title deeds, he came across a weathered will. The single page document had been made out by one “Alexander Selcraig, Mariner, now residing in London” and made reference to “my property in Largoe”. Wood said: “I had no doubt that this was Selkirk’s will. It was dated in the 1700s.”
Intrigued, Wood learned the property’s owner, a Mrs Jardine, was married to a lineal descendant of Selkirk’s brother, and had visited Más a Tierra, later renamed Robinson Crusoe Island.
Wood made a duplicate of the will, but the copy has faded to the extent that it is no longer legible. He remembers the reference to a property, which may have been Selkirk’s birthplace – a thatched cottage in the village’s Main Street – which was knocked down in the 19th century.
The will, Wood says, could offer a unique insight into Selkirk’s motivations. After returning to Lower Largo, the mariner was newly wealthy thanks to his £800 share of the Manila galleon. While in Fife, he met a dairymaid, Sophia Bruce, with whom he eloped to London, before casting her aside to join the Royal Navy. “It’s a part of history,” says Wood, from Kirkcaldy. “The will was consistent with him leaving for London. It may have been inducement to make sure the girl got his estate – or even that she didn’t.”
Wood cannot remember to whom he passed the will, but hopes that it is “somewhere out there”. He added: “These kinds of old deeds have no further significance in most cases. Some solicitors pass them on to clients, others bin them. It may still be in a lawyer’s office somewhere.”