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Alexander Selkirk, the Original of Robinson
LEXANDER SELKIRK, the undoubted
original of Defoe's celebrated character, Robinson Crusoe, was born in the year 1676, in the village of Largo, on the southern coast of Fife, in Scotland. John, the father of Alexander, was a thriving shoemaker, who lived in a house of his own, which has since been pulled down, at the west end of the town. He seems to have been a man of strict temperance, respected for his steady and religious character, and, like the majority of the Scottish parents at that time, a severe disciplinarian in his family. The name of his wife, the mother of our hero, was Euphan Mackie, also, it would seem, a native of Largo, and reported by tradition to have been the very contrast of her husband in her parental conduct—as yielding and indulgent as he was rigorous. In the case of Alexander, however, there was a special reason why Mrs. Selkirk should prove a kind and pliant mother.
Not only was she considerably advanced in years at the time of his birth, but, by a chance not very common, he was her seventh son, born without an intermediate daughter, and therefore destined, according to an old Scottish superstition, to come to great fortune, and make a figure in the world. Mrs. Selkirk, good, easy woman, firmly believed this, and made no doubt that her son, Sandie, was to be the great man of the family. He was therefore her pet; and the greater part of her maternal care, in respect to his education, consisted in confidential discourses with him by the fireside when the rest of the family were absent, and in occasional consultations how they should screen some little misdemeanor from the eyes of his father.
Young Selkirk was a clever enough boy, and quickly learned all that was taught at the school of his native town. Besides reading, writing, and arithmetic, he is said to have made considerable progress in navigation-a branch of knowledge likely to be of some repute in Largo, not only on account of its being a sea-coast town, with a considerable fishing population, but also in consequence of its having been the birthplace and property of Sir Andrew Wood, a distinguished Scottish admiral of the preceding century, whose nautical fame and habits must have produced considerable impression on it.
At all events, whether owing to the ideas he received at school, or to the effect on his mind of the perpetual spectacle of the sails in Largo Bay, and of his constant association with the Largo fishermen, Selkirk early determined to follow a seafaring life. Either out of a disposition to let the boy have his own will, or as thinking the life of a sailor the likeliest way to the attainment of the great fortunes which she anticipated for her son, his mother favored his intention; his father, however, opposed it strenuously, and was anxious, now that his other sons were all settled in life, that his youngest should remain at home, and assist him in his own trade.
This, and young Selkirk's wayward and obstinate conduct, seem to have kept him and his father perpetually at war; and a descendant of the family used to show a walkingstick which the old man is said to have applied to the back of his refractory son, with the affirmation, “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool's back.” Notwithstanding the boy's restless character, respect for his father's wishes kept him at home for a considerable time: a father's malediction being too awful a thing for even a seventh son to brave with impunity.
The first thirteen years of Selkirk's life coincide with the hottest period of the religious
persecutions in Scotland. He would be about three years of age at the time of the assassination of Archbishop Sharp, which took place at not a very great distance from Largo; and the chief subject of interest, during his boyhood, in Fife, as in the other counties of Scotland, was the position of the Church; then filled by Episcopalian and indulged clergy, greatly to the disgust of the people. What part old Selkirk and his family may have taken during the time when it was dangerous to show attachment to Presbytery-whether they professed themselves Covenanters, or whether, as is more probable, they yielded a reluctant attendance at the parish church-can not be ascertained; but the following entry in the parish records of Largo, referring to the year 1689, immediately after the Revolution had sealed the restoration of Presbytery in Scotland, will show that if they did attend the parish church, it was not out of lukewarmness to the popular cause, or affection for the established clergyman: “Sabbath, 1689.-Which day, the minister being obstructed in his duty, and kept out of the church by a great mob armed with staves and bludgeons, headed by John Selkirk, divided what money there was among the poor, and retired from his charge." John Selkirk, who thus signalized himself by heading the mob for the expulsion
of the conforming clergyman, was the eldest brother of our hero, who, however, is reported himself to have testified his enthusiasm by flourishing a stick with the other boys. This outburst of Presbyterian zeal freed Largo from the unpopular clergyman, and in a short time in it, as well as in the other parishes of Scotland, the Presbyterian rule was re-established.
One of the first youths in Largo to experience the stricter discipline of Presbytery, whose restoration he had celebrated, was Alexander Selkirk. His high spirits, and want of respect for any control, led him, it would appear, to be guilty of frequent misbehavior during Divine service; for under date the 25th August, 1695, is the following entry in the parish records : “Alexander Selcraig, [the ancient mode of spelling Selkirk,] son of John Selcraig, elder, cited to appear before the session for indecent conduct in church.” This seems to have been more than our hero, now in his nineteenth year, could submit to. The elder's son to appear before the session, and be rebuked for laughing in church! Within twenty-four hours after this terrible citation the young shoemaker was gone; he had left Largo and the land of kirk-sessions behind him, and was miles away at sea.
When the kirk-session met, they were obliged to be content with inserting the following paragraph