The Goatskin Buccaneer

“Our pinnace (rowing boat)return’d from shore, and brought abundance of craw-fish with a man cloth’d in goat skins, who looked wilder than the first owners of them.”

It is a classic start, is it not? I have always been told that to open a novel one must have an irresistible hook; a reason not to put it down, but to fork out the necessary cash to carry it home instead. This must qualify amongst the top ten best openers of all time.

And the writer is not – as some well-read types might at first surmise – Daniel Defoe.

The man who wrote Robinson Crusoe may well have met the wild goat-man when the latter returned to civilisation. There are dark unfounded rumblings that Defoe may even have plundered the goat-man’s diary whilst telling him the story could not possibly sell. But this is probably just malicious tittle tattle.

Defoe started far more prosaically: “I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull.”

Dull, dull, dull.

No: today’s openning words come from Woodes Rogers, dashing buccaneer and sea captain, contemporary of the goat man who -it must be owned – was once an officer on a ship. Rogers wrote about his encounter with his much-altered fellow seaman in a book which got him out of quite a financial hole: A Cruising Voyage Round the World (1712).

Alexander Selkirk, he was, before the goats claimed him as their own.

He was not a particularly nice chap. His story, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, might begin: “I was born in Largo, Fife, the seventh son of a shoemaker; and I was a bold bad boy.”

He was summonsed to appear before the kirk session for the crime of ‘indecent carriage ‘ in church. He ran away to sea before the court date, but returned from his voyage only to fall foul of the authorities once more. His brother set down a tankard of salt water: Selkirk thought it was fresh and took a huge swig.

The laughter which ensued was not to Alexander’s taste and soon a pistol was held to his brother as he demanded satisfaction. Back before the church authorities, he received a strong rebuke.

Surely, then, the buccaneering profession, with its sanctioned piracy, was the perfect route for Selkirk. Yet the arguments continued as he set out as master of the privateer Cinq Ports, which was travelling together with The George. The two boats parted ways amid a whiff of mutiny in which Selkirk was probably involved; and later, he argued with the ship’s captain, insisting the Cinq Ports was unseaworthy.

Thus he sealed his fate.

He told the Captain he would rather leave the ship than sail in her: and so he was set down on an uninhabited island.

Selkirk changed his mind, of course, immediately, and pleaded with the boat to come back: but the Captain had become inexplicably, albeit temporarily, deaf.

Rogers’ account tells of how the recalcitrant Scot avoided Spanish sailors, even when they landed on the island. Of how unappetising the fish and pimento were without bread and salt; of the shoes which wore out, and the feet which became accustomed to running around the island so that five years later, post-goats, when he tried to put shoes on once more, his feet became swollen.

The goats were both dinner and best friends, alongside the cats who – tamed using goat’s meat – kept the uppity rats at bay. He used to have little dances with the goats and the cats, there on the island. He wore a coat and a cap made out of goat skins, but it did not seem to put his dance partners off much.

The sailors remarked his speed at hunting the goats. Agile, he was: and that was a problem the day a fiendish goat led him off the edge of a precipice. He plummeted down and the goat broke his fall: but he was bruised and battered, and lay there at the bottom of the cliff for 24 hours before hauling himself back to shelter.

Buccaneers rescued him, eventually: and when they offered him a dram of whisky he refused because he had been drinking only water for five years. He was barely intelligible, talking in ‘half-words’.

Did it change this wild child?  Certainly he would sing psalms and pray on the island, but the habit fell away when he left. His biography hints at bigamy later in life.

A phrase was attributed him by Sir Richard Steele: its provenance is questionable.

Yet it sums up his life rather well: ‘I am now worth 800 Pounds,” Selkirk is reputed to have said, ” but shall never be so happy, as when I was not worth a farthing.”


The image is mine: a gorgeous mediaeval salt cellar from the 1520s, now living at the V&A museum’s mediaeval gallery. Made a century or more before Selkirk’s adventure, it nevertheless reminds me of him vividly.


49 thoughts on “The Goatskin Buccaneer

  1. I often wonder what sort of men they must have been, to go off sailing in those tiny boats, so many never to return home. Obviously not those press-ganged into it, but those who took to it voluntarily and returned to the sea over and over.

  2. One wonders at the bother on seeing his borther returned
    ” —but returned from his voyage only to fall foul of the authorities once more. His brother set down a tankard of salt water: Selkirk thought it was fresh and took a huge swig.”

    Nice brotherly thing to do?

    Maybe he was a scape-goat?

  3. Not sure he was a bad boy really – the 1600s were rough violent times – he was a product of them – easily riled perhaps and that brother didn’t help – probably planned it, to get all his parents loot for himself! – cynic moi? Nah!

    But hey what a fellow to survive a desert island, hide from the enemy and dance with the goats – what a man – he may have been a little crazed at rescue (of course)- solitude is the worst torture for a social animal – I find I have a liking for this bad bold boy – he was bold. Thanks.

    1. Indeed, Alberta: are so right about the 1600s. Have you been following the run-up to ‘Shakespeare’s Restless World’ on Radio 4? The director of the British Museum draws us int his world through objects. In a telegraph interview he comments on a rapier and dagger found in the silt of the Thames: “One of the great problems of Elizabethan London is knife crime among the upper classes. There is constant brawling with swords and knifes. Laws are passed but there is no proper police force so they can’t be enforced. As you walk to and from the theatre, you are quite likely to see people fighting. So to an Elizabethan audience, Romeo and Juliet is not about adolescent love: it is about what knife crime does to a society and the failure of the authorities to control it.”

      Rough violent times indeed. Maybe Selkirk was just Joe Average.

    1. Thank you! So glad you’ve commented. I’ve just been over to read about your beautiful island, and am simply drawn in by that beautiful writing style of yours. A perfect piece of virtual travel…

    1. It does. It just looks like real treasure, something those buccaneering ships might have plundered. It has a tiny well at the front which was filled with salt and the whole put in front of the VIP at any gathering.

    1. Oh, Brett, a huge compliment, thank you: I am delighted to read something by people who are happy to step away from everyone’s preconceived notions. I shall print this out and stick it on my fridge! Thank you!

    1. Ah, if only it were mine, Andra; the nuns who were part of my upbringing used it all the time. ‘Bold’ meant lary, forward, insolent. I always loved the bold boys and coincidentally, I married one.

  4. Ah, I wondered about the image – past gorgeous, that salt cellar! I agree, the first line of Rogers’ book is grabbing, but the title wouldn’t likely lead me to it… 😀

    1. No; truth accepted, Ruth. It is actually only the first line of the account, sone way into the book, I think, so I’m cheating really. Publishers must simply have been a lot less fussy in those days 🙂

  5. You are so right–I most definitely would think Defoe. I like the description “wild goat-man.” i wonder if these stories with the lush archaic language will lose relevance before long. I hope not! Debra

  6. Rather like Tom Hanks in Castaway . . . swap out “goat” for “coconut.” 😀

    I’ve decided that I do NOT want to live on a deserted isled . . . cannibals, or no.

  7. I’ve a penchant for bold, bad boys…perhaps that is why I’m still single…tra la la ~ In all seriousness, fascinating. An apt reminder, too, to lead in with a smashing first line.

  8. I have wondered what would happen to our powers of speech if we were to have no-one to speak to for years on end – obviously no parallel with riding a bicycle if Selkirk’s state is anything to go by

  9. Interesting tale – makes me wonder what would be done in this century if sailors knew of a person living in such a way. Would they leave him be?

    I think knowing that salt cellar was part of the more-people, fewer-goats population would be enough to bring me back.

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