“Just a castaway, an island lost at sea, oh
Another lonely day, with no one here but me, oh
More loneliness than any man could bear
Rescue me before I fall into despair, oh”
The Police, Message In A Bottle
He was a pirate, a hothead and a knuckle-dragger. He was also the archetype of what we have come to consider the essence of the castaway.
Born in 1676, Alexander was the seventh son of a prosperous tanner and cobbler, John Selcraig, from Lower Largo, a Fife fishing village, across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh, then a bustling metropolis of thirty thousand people. The small Scottish town had a fifteen-foot wide main street, lined by ancient sandstone row houses, with orange pantiled roofs and crow-stepped gables. His mother, Euphan Mackie, shielded him from the discipline of his father, who believed that Alex was ‘spoiled and wayward,’ and had planned for him to join his shoemaking business. Her overprotection resulted in a simmering ‘domestic strife and bickering,’ that only reinforced the young man’s innate quarrelsome and unruly dispostion.
On August 25, 1695, the church elders at the Largo Kirk recorded that ‘Alexr Selchcraig, son to John Selchcraig’ had been summoned to appear for his ‘undecent carriage in ye church.’ Two days later, the elders further noted that the nineteen year-old ‘did not compear being gone away to ye sea: this bussiness is continued till his return.’ Alexander had fled with a Scottish colonizing expedition to Panama, on the ill-fated Darien Disaster.
He didn’t fare much better on his return. In 1701, when his brother, Andrew, made the mistake of laughing at him, after tricking him into drinking seawater out of a tin, Alex beat him with a wooden staff. This ignited a family row that resulted in a further assault on his father, his brother, John, and even John’s wife, Margaret Bell. Once again he was ‘compeared befor the pulpit and made acknowledgment of his sin . . . and was rebuked in face of the congregation for it, and promised amendment in the strenth of the lord, and so was dismissed.’ But Alex, ‘a bit of a bastard, more respected in his absence than in his presence,’ was fed up, and decided to join the English privateers being recruited against French and Spanish interests, a new opportunity derived from the War of the Spanish Succession.