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The Real Robionson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in 1719, tells the story of a man shipwrecked on an island, forced to rely on his own resources for survival. Far less famous than the fictional character is the Scottish man who inspired Defoe’s story – Alexander Selkirk...

Selkirk, seventh son of a shoemaker, was born in Largo – on Fife’s east coast - in 1676. As a young man, in his late teens, he chose to go to sea, a career which seemed to suit his somewhat wild temperament – the local kirk (court) called him to appear twice, the second time due to a family quarrel...

Selkirk’s castaway adventure began in 1704, when on a ship captained by William Dampler. The two men did not see eye to eye – Selkirk believed that Dampler’s management of ship and crew was poor, and therefore asked that the captain let him remain on the uninhabited island of Más a Tierra (sometimes called Aguas Buenas), one of the Juan Fernández islands.

At first the Scot who had exiled himself through his own choice thought rescue would be imminent, but he ended up remaining on the island for over four years. He became very familiar with the book he had with him – the bible. He hunted goats for food, and as his clothes fell apart used goat skins for clothing. During his time there a Spanish ship landed, but the Spaniards believed this wild man to be their enemy and chose to shoot at him rather than ask after his true nature; luckily Selkirk, familiar with his terrain, was able to escape this unexpected danger and the Spaniards left without snaring their quarry.

Rescue eventually came in the form of a British ship, four years and four months after Selkirk was first marooned on his island. Although he did go home to Scotland Selkirk had been forever changed by his solitary existence, and he returned to his first love, the sea; he was working for the Royal Navy when he died of fever in 1720.

Today the island that Selkirk stayed on has been renamed Robinson Crusoe Island. Alexander Selkirk was truly alone, without the companionship that the fictional character gained during his long island stay (in Defoe’s book Crusoe stays on his island for twenty-eight years).

The excellent long running radio programme Desert Island Discs asks famous people to choose music they would take with them if they were to end up on a desert island on their own. They are allowed two books – Shakespeare and the Bible – and one luxury. Thus centuries after Selkirk’s adventures people are still fascinated by the challenge of what really matters, what they would really want to keep, on a tropical island with no other human company.


Robinson Crusoe is a classic of English literature, a bestseller which caught the imagination of the people of the time. I found it interesting to read the book again recently as an adult – it is densely written, but well worth reading should you get the chance.


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