FP100: No. 1

Statue of Alexander Selkirk, Lower Largo
Statue of Alexander Selkirk, Lower Largo

Alexander Selkirk

On the side of a cottage in Lower Largo stands the statue of Alexander Selkirk marking where he way born.

Was he really the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe?

Born in the village in 1676 to a shoemaker and tanner, Selkirk was somewhat of a rebel in his youth and was summoned to come before the Kirk Session on August 27, 1695 aged 19, but ran off to sea before he could appear.

He then became engaged in buccaneer-style expeditions to the South Seas hoping to make his fortune through privateering and he effectively legalised piracy on the King’s enemies against Spanish vessels off the coast of South America.

Within a few years his skills at navigation led to his role as Sailing Master on the ‘Cinque Ports’, a sixteen gun, ninety ton privateer.

The expedition was a disaster from the outset.

The captain of the ship was a tyrant and after a few sea battles with the Spanish, Selkirk feared the ship would sink.

So, in an attempt to save his own life he demanded to be taken ashore on the next island they encountered.

That led to Selkirk becoming a castaway on the uninhabited island of Más a Tierra - known today as Robinson Crusoe Island - over 400 miles off the west coast of Chile in September 1704.

He took with him a little clothing, bedding, a musket and powder, some useful tools, a Bible and tobacco.

At first, Selkirk simply read his Bible to pass the time while he awaited rescue.

But it soon became clear to him that the rescue wasn’t going to happen any time soon.

He then resigned himself to a long stay on the island with only rats, goats and feral cats for company.

For Selkirk, there was no “Man Friday,” to interact with.

Selkirk began to make life there much more habitable by building a shelter to sleep in.

After several years of isolation, two ships soon drew into the island’s bay.

Selkirk rushed to the shore positive that the time had come for him to be rescued at long last.

But he realised perhaps a little late that both the ships were Spanish.

Their landing party fired, forcing him to flee for his life although he managed to evade capture and the Spaniards eventually departed.

Nearly five years later, on February 5, 1709, two British privateers dropped anchor offshore.

Alexander lit his signal fire to alert the ships, who sent a rather astonished landing party to find a ‘wildman’ dressed in goat skins.

Remarkably the privateers’ pilot was William Dampier, who had led the Selkirk’s original expedition and was able to vouch for the ‘wildman’.

Selkirk had spent four years and four months of isolation on the island, yet seemed stable when he was found.

The experience had, in fact, saved his life.

From the William Dampier, he learnt that he had been right to leave the ‘Cinque Ports’, which had sunk off the coast of Peru with all of its crew drowned except the captain and seven men, who had survived only to be captured and left to rot in a Peruvian jail.

Selkirk then re-embarked on his career as a privateer and within a year he was master of the ship that had rescued him.

In 1712 he returned to Scotland £800 richer, and surprised his family as they worshipped at the Kirk in Largo.

They had long given him up for dead and were astonished that he was alive, let alone standing before them in his fine gold and lace clothes.

In 1713 he published an account of his adventures which were fictionalised six years later by Daniel Defoe in his now famous novel, ‘Robinson Crusoe’.

Selkirk, however, could never really adjust to life on land, and, in 1720, a year after he was immortalised by Defoe, he joined the Royal Navy only to die of fever off the coast of Africa.

The statue in Largo was created by Edinburgh-born sculptor, Thomas Stuart Burnett in 1885.

As well as the Alexander Selkirk statue, there is a sign post at the harbour pointing in the direction to the island where he was a castaway.