Lost in the myth: The real Alexander Selkirk

HE HAS become the defining image of the desert-island castaway: baggy fur claddings and musket, his hand shielding his eyes from the less-than-tropical sunlight as he scans the Firth of Forth over the rooftops of Lower Largo. This 1885 statue of Alexander Selkirk, the Fife village's prodigal son who was the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe, might easily be Crusoe himself, as less informed visitors presume him to be.

Alexander Selkirk – or Selcraig, as his family styled their name – was born in Lower Largo in 1676. It was 300 years ago next Monday that he was picked up by the British privateering vessel Duke, commanded by Captain Woodes Rogers, after spending four and a half years alone on Mas a Tierra, an island in the Juan Fernandez archipelago, 400 miles off Chile. Three centuries on, Rogers's account still makes riveting reading, describing his ship's pinnace, having landed on the island, returning "with a Man cloth'd in Goat-Skins, who looked wilder than the first owners of them".

Now Rick Wilson, an Edinburgh-based author and journalist (and former editor of the Scotsman Magazine), who believes that Selkirk's story has been obscured by the Daniel Defoe classic he inspired, has marked the anniversary with a book, The Man Who Was Robinson Crusoe. However, the character he evokes is no romantic hero, but a man described by his 1829 biographer John Howell as "soiled and wayward". Even today, Lower Largo may acknowledge its famous son, but it doesn't necessarily like him: "a rogue and a philanderer" is how one local describes him in Wilson's book.

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Having inspected the statue, built into a house on the village's Main Street where the Selcraig family cottage once stood, Wilson and I wander into a nearby caf and craft shop, where we ask one of its owners, Tessa Young, for a second opinion on the village's errant son. "Well, he wasn't a very nice man, was he?" she whispers conspiratorially. "He was cruel to his ladies." Selkirk seems to have been a disputatious character from the outset, and was indeed duplicitous when it came to relationships, leaving two widows fighting over two wills. In his book, Wilson, while commending his abilities as a navigator and a survivor, describes him as "selfish, egotistical, self-opinionated and ever-ready to pick a fight".

It was these characteristics that had got him landed on Juan Fernandez in 1704, after he'd fallen out with the captain of the English privateering vessel Cinque Ports (on which he was sailing master), pointing out forcibly, if justifiably, that the vessel's timbers were riddled with marine worm and she was leaking badly. The vessel, part of a privateering expedition led by the buccaneer and explorer William Dampier, dropped anchor off Mas a Tierra, where she underwent repairs. Selkirk considered these inadequate and told the captain so. The outcome saw him marooned on the island, accompanied by his seaman's chest.

He would stay there for four and a half lonely years, living off goats that had been introduced by earlier Spanish visitors. It would have been little consolation to him, even if he could have known, that the Cinque Ports indeed succumbed to its riddled timbers and sank, with the loss of most hands, a few weeks after its masts vanished from his horizon.

It was Selkirk's temper that caused him to quit his home village in the first place, at the age of 19, Wilson recounts. "It was the maledictions of the kirk, basically, but he wasn't getting on with his family either."

Parish records from 1695 record "Alexr. Selchraige" being summoned before the kirk session for "his undecent beaiviar in ye church". After being chastised he vanished off to sea, becoming an able-enough seaman to go privateering – which was effectively officially sanctioned piracy, as long as you confined your attentions to the enemy, at that time France and Spain.

Selkirk returned in 1701, only to land himself in further trouble after a violent family quarrel. Duly censured by the kirk session, he vanished back to sea and it would be 13 years before his return. Captain Rogers's ship, which rescued him, was part of another privateering expedition and soon Selkirk was proving his mettle to such an extent that he was given command over a captured Spanish vessel. Selkirk sailed it round the north of Scotland and down the east coast, past his native Fife, to London, as French naval activity made it too risky to take it through the English channel.

One Sabbath morning in 1714, the congregation in the parish kirk, a mile inland at Upper Largo, were taken aback by the arrival of an elegantly dressed stranger. According to Wilson, it wasn't until his mother gave a cry of recognition and rushed over to hug her long-lost son that the locals realised just who the dandy was. Selkirk's privateering had brought him an 800 share of booty – a small fortune in those days.

Standing outside Largo and Newburn Parish church today, glimpsing silver swathes of the Firth beyond the neighbouring cottages, you can still contemplate the gravestone of Selkirk's parents, its angel's wings almost weathered away.

But if Selkirk returned to Lower Largo a rich man, it didn't necessarily make him a contented one. He seems to have missed the solitude of his island, making fishing trips along the coast to the headland of Kincraig Point, which reminded him of Juan Fernandez, while in his parents' garden he constructed a cave for himself to which he frequently retired.

What he did like about the village, however, was a young milkmaid, Sophia Bruce, whom he took off to London, probably as his common-law wife. However, he abandoned her when he signed as a lieutenant with HMS Weymouth, becoming enamoured of Frances Candis, the landlady of a pub in Devon, and whom he married in St Andrews Parish Church in Plymouth. He made out one will in favour of Sophie, addressed to "my loveing and well-beloved friend" and another in favour of Frances, whom he decribed as "my welbeloved wife". After a legal wrangle, the Devon barmaid claimed all Selkirk's wealth and property after he died of yellow fever off West Africa in 1721. The hapless Fife dairymaid vanishes from our ken.

A leading question is whether Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, ever actually met the man who inspired what remains one of the world's most widely read books. Defoe consistently denied this, but Wilson reckons that circumstantial evidence points to an encounter between the celebrated Scots mariner and the English novelist, pamphleteer and journalist in Bristol, after Rogers brought Selkirk back there. One famous Bristol pub, the Llandoger Trow, claims the pair met there, though Wilson reckons a stronger case lies with two long-gone inns, both in Castle Street, the Cock and Bottle, where Selkirk lodged, and the Star, in which Defoe took lodgings around the same time. "The Star was where all the witty banter was, and people like Selkirk and Defoe would surely have gone there," he argues, "and they were living in the same street." Also, he adds, Defoe was a friend of the essayist Richard Steele, who did interview Selkirk.

Selkirk's papers or journal are much referred to in 19th-century accounts, but have never been traced. One theory is that they passed into the hands of the then Duke of Hamilton – whom Defoe would almost certainly have known from his time as an English government agent in Scotland during the run-up to the Union of Parliaments. Someone who certainly believed this was Selkirk's mercenary widow, Frances, who petitioned the duke for the journal's return. There is no record of an answer.

"I think it's possible that he was given the papers by Selkirk for research," Wilson speculates. "(He] didn't want to admit he was getting this help, but perhaps just wanted to keep them and, being broke, as he generally was, perhaps wondered who might be interested in buying them, such as the Duke of Hamilton. That's maybe an unfair charge, but it's also a theory that seems to stick quite well."

Today in Lower Largo, the Crusoe Hotel makes the most of both literary and factual connections, with its Alexander Selkirk room hung with informative panels about the village's famous son and a solitary concrete footprint covered by a glass panel nodding to the Crusoe tale. In real life, however, Selkirk never had the luxury of a Man Friday.

• The Man Who Was Robinson Crusoe, by Rick Wilson, is published on 16 February, 12.95.

EXTRACT

Captain Woodes Rogers describes rescuing Selkirk in 1709, in his book A Cruising Voyage Round the World, as reproduced in The Man Who Was Robinson Crusoe:

"Feb 2… Immediately our Pinnace return'd from the shore, and brought abundance of Craw-fish, with a Man cloth'd in Goat-Skins, who look'd wilder than the first Owners of them. He had been on the Island four Years and four Months, being left there by Capt Stradling in the Cinque-Ports; his Name was Alexander Selkirk a Scotch Man, who had been Master of the Cinque-Ports, a Ship that came here last with Capt Dampier, who told me that this was the best Man in her; so I immediately agreed with him to be a Mate on board our Ship. 'Twas he that made the Fire last night when he saw our Ships, which he judg'd to be English…

He had with him his Clothes and Bedding, with a Firelock, some Powder, Bullets, and Tobacco, a Hatchet, a Knife, a Kettle, a Bible, some practical Pieces, and his Mathematical Instruments and Books. He diverted and provided for himself as well as he could; but for the first eight months had much ado to bear up against Melancholy, and the Terror of being left alone in such a desolate place. He built two Hutts with Piemento Trees, cover'd them with long Grass, and lin'd them with the Skins of Goats, which he kill'd with his Gun as he wanted, so long as his Powder lasted, which was but a pound; and that being near spent, he got fire by rubbing two sticks of Piemento Wood together upon his knee. In the lesser Hutt, at some distance from the other, he dress'd his Victuals, and in the larger he slept, and employ'd himself in reading, singing Psalms, and praying; so that he said he was a better Christian while in this Solitude than ever he was before, or than, he was afraid, he should ever be again."