“Ay, it’s an unco place, the Bass”
When I first moved to Scotland, over four years ago, we chose to find a place to live in one of the small coastal fishing villages of the East Neuk. Close enough to St Andrews for a short (and amazingly beautiful) commute each day, but far enough away to escape both St Andrews rents and the “Bubble,” the Neuk has been my home since. I still remember the first bright morning when I arrived, blearied-eyed from a trans-Atlantic flight, soaking in all of the amazing scenery on the drive from Edinburgh, and, after rounding the bend near Upper Largo, being completely enthralled with the sight of the three most identifiable landmarks of the eastern Firth of Forth: North Berwick Law, the Bass Rock, and the Isle of May. All of these are prominent on any clear day from the northern coast of the Firth, but the Bass Rock is incredible; it sits out in the water like a giant lump of clay, some days almost a looming, monolithic shadow over the coast of East Lothian, other days glowing in the golden sunset like a red-hot coal, and at other times frosted over (with gannet guano) like a giant doughnut in the water. It is an amazing geological site, and the sight of it welcomes me back home to the Neuk every time I crest the hill from St Andrews.
So, it is with just a bit of personal motivation that I decided to choose one of the few pieces of fiction which sets some of its action on the Bass Rock: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Catriona (1893). Like most boys of a certain age, I remember eagerly reading Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde over and over again; however, I have never had the chance or the excuse to try out his works of historical fiction. And so, I resolved to read for this blog a double-header, because one can’t really just read Catriona without having read the first (and truly only) adventure of David Balfour in Kidnapped (1886).
In hindsight, I would have much rather just read Kidnapped than both it and its rather tedious sequel. Kidnapped was an incredible page-turner, full of bloody sword battles, shipwrecks, constant pursuit, and unlikely companionship. I’ve read contemporary descriptions of Kidnapped which describe it as a “potboiler” which is just right; in fact Kidnapped reminded me at times of James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans (unlikely companions, flight across unknown lands, political intrigue, strange languages &c.). What I most enjoyed was the on-the-road relationship that develops between David Balfour and Alan Breck Stewart; not always a pleasant companionship, but an honest reflection of the toil and stress of being on the run, in an unknown and harsh place, where you can’t understand the people, with a decent and succinct ending to wrap it all up.
Catriona, on the other hand, needed to be served with a stiff cup of coffee or a splash of cold water in the face. Maybe I should’ve waited seven years between reading the two (the amount of time between publishing Kidnapped and Catriona), so that my interest in what might have happened to David Balfour had time to develop. I might have had more stomach to put up with the tediousness of David trying to navigate political entrapment, coming into his inheritance, and his almost immediate falling in love with the eponymous heroine. Indeed, it seems that as soon as David gets access to his inheritance and finds a bit of a jingle in his pocket the book gets incredibly boring. Gone are the flights through the heather, the relying on Highland kindness, the jumping of waterfalls and irritated conversations with Alan Breck Stewart. Instead they are replaced with David fawning over Catriona MacGregor Drummond, struggling to contain her father, and his inner struggle between morals over self-preservation.
However, there are sparks of the great pacing and high-adventure of Kidnapped peppered throughout its sequel. By the middle of the first section of Catriona our lead character is once again kidnapped and whisked away on a mini-adventure reminiscent of the beginning of Kidnapped.
And then, finally, we come to it:
“It is just the one crag of rock, as everybody knows, but great enough to carve a city from.”
Chapters 14-16 are set amongst the cliffs of the Bass Rock, as David Balfour is whisked away by his kidnappers and held in this remote outpost during the trial of James of the Glens. His time on the rock, bickering and bartering with Andie (Prefect, or keeper, of the Bass) for his escape was not unlike Kidnapped, David has learned his way around tricky conversations and has gotten himself out of a few tight spots. The characterisation of life on the Bass was great fun as well, including a fantastic scene where David, his kidnappers, and Andie witness a man-of-war, the Seahorse sail directly at the Bass Rock, turned broadside to the rock and open fire with all its guns on the rock in a bit of schoolboy fun. Stevenson’s depiction of life on the Rock is haunting:
“When the waves were anyway great they roared about the rock like thunder and the drums of armies, dreadful, but merry to hear, and it was in the calm days when a man could daunt himself with listening; so many still, hollow noises haunted and reverberated in the porches of the rock.”
These chapters also contain a lovely bit of Stevenson capturing a local Scottish folk-tale, “The tale of Tod Lapraik” which you can hear read here. This short adventure ends with David and Andie escaping the kidnappers aboard Tam Anster’s boat (Anster being the Scots for Anstruther).
From here, Catriona descends once again into David’s boring tale of courtship, education at Leiden, inheritance, &c. The tale only has brief sparks of its predecessor, largely when Alan Breck Stewart enters into the drama again. I’m glad to have read both of these books, Kidnapped will be one that I return to again, and Catriona for its characterisation of the Bass Rock, but I don’t think I’ll be recommending the latter anytime soon.
St Andrews copies of the first editions of these works couldn’t be any more different. Our copy of the first issue, first edition of Kidnapped is a recent arrival to our collection, in pristine condition, having been gifted by Anthony Martin in 2013. Our copy of the first edition of Catriona, however, has probably been in the University’s collection since it was published; it still has a list of borrower’s dates in the front and the spine and pages show signs of great wear (oh, those poor students!).