John MacGregor (18252892) single-handedly created
a rage for what came to be known as "canoeing." His christened each
of his clinker-built, cedar and oak "canoes" "Rob Roy." Although the
Rob Roy's inflexible bulk eventually fell from favor, it put hundreds
of paddlers into the waters of Europe.
on supplies at Gravesend," wrote John MacGregor, firmly establishing
the jaunty tone that became his signature, "I shoved off into the
tide, and lit a cigar, and now I felt we had fairly started." Thus
begins the literature of sea kayaking and, indeed, of the sport
itself. Although the British Dictionary of National Biography identifies
MacGregor (18252892) as a philanthropist and traveler, this eminent
though forgotten Victorian single-handedly created a rage for what
came to be known as "canoeing."
Had MacGregor never been born, a Rudyard Kipling or a Robert Louis
Stevenson might have had to invent him. The son of General Sir Duncan
MacGregor who fought against Napoleon, John MacGregor was an adventurer
from the outset. As an infant, he was rescued along with his parents
from a burning ship in which they had set sail for India. MacGregor
tried to return the favor as a 12-year-old by nimbly slipping aboard
a lifeboat bound for a ship in distress off Belfast, Ireland. Because
of his father's reassignments, MacGregor attended seven schools
before graduating Trinity College, Dublin in 1839 with a degree
in mathematics. He later entered Cambridge, and subsequently studied
patent law. Even before his kayaking escapades, he'd traveled overland
through Europe, the Middle East, Russia, North Africa, Canada and
1865 MacGregor commissioned Messrs. Searles of Lambeth, England,
to construct to his specifications the first in a series of seven
clinker-built, cedar and oak "canoes," each of which he christened
Although MacGregor omits mention of the exact aboriginal lineage
of his boats, it is assumed they were based upon his observation
of such craft in Siberia and North America. The original Rob Roy,
a decked canoe that weighed 80 pounds and was equipped with a lug
sail and jib as well as a seven-foot double-bladed paddle, is now
preserved in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
It measures 15 feet long with a 28-inch beam, is nine inches deep,
and draws three inches. Although the Rob Roy's inflexible bulk eventually
fell from favor (the torch taken up 40 years later by Johann Klepper's
folding boat), it put hundreds of paddlers into the waters of Europe
and inspired the first circumnavigation of Tasmania.
Buoyant in every sense, MacGregor set off down the Thames, waving
merrily to astonished bargemen then venturing into the English Channel
where he joined a school of porpoises. The Rob Roy was then ferried
to Europe, where MacGregor explored rivers and lakes in France,
Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium. His account, A Thousand Miles
in the Rob Roy Canoe (1866), may have been that year's best seller.
"The object of this book," he wrote in his introduction, "is to
describe a new mode of travelling on the Continent by which new
people and things are met with, while healthy exercise is enjoyed
and an interest ever varied with excitement keeps fully alert the
energies of the mind."
the embodiment of this new independent traveler, MacGregor was impervious
to the blandishments of hired guides or the security of Cook's Tours.
He set off for the entire summer with a spirit stove, a wooden fork
and spoon (cunningly carved at opposite ends of the same stem),
one spare button, and nine pounds of luggage. While his kit might
be Spartan, fitting together "like the words in hexameter verse,"
MacGregor was an ardent creature of style. He decked himself out
in a gray flannel Norfolk jacket (garnished with six pockets), matching
trousers, canvas wading shoes, blue spectacles, and a straw boater-plus
a blue silk Union Jack for the boat.
say this six-foot-six vision of sartorial splendor enjoyed creating
an effect, whether in life or upon the page, would be an understatement.
Because his trips were widely publicized, shipping frequently altered
course for a closer look and ashore he received plentiful offers
of meals and lodging. Even when unrecognized, he precipitated a
mild sensation. "I drew along side [a small steamer on the Meuse]
and got my penny roll and penny glass of beer through the porthole,
while the passengers smiled, chattered, and then looked grave for
was it not indecorous to laugh at an Englishman evidently mad, poor
fellow?" Nor was he above an occasional prank. Paddling unseen below
the Danube's banks, he indulged a hearty chorus of "Rule Britannia,"
much to the bafflement of peasants cutting hay nearby. When all
else failed to get attention, at a Swedish wedding into which he
had politely blundered, he entertained guests by igniting a bit
of magnesium ribbon apparently carried for just such occasions.
he paused to form the Royal Canoe Club (H.R.H. Edward, Prince of
Wales, Commodore), subsequent expeditions followed hard upon one
another. He crossed the Channel and sailed up the Seine in a diminutive
yawl (christened, predictably, Rob Roy) at the invitation of Napoleon
III, to promote canoeing in France. That became another book in
1867. A tour of Scandinavia in the previous year resulted in Rob
Roy on the Baltic.
dumped all sorts of improbable information into Rob Roy on the Baltic,
making it a veritable collage of oddities: several maps, the music
to "The Swedish National Air," complete lyrics to "The Björneborgarnes
March," conjurer's tricks (guaranteed to delight children), and
a specimen restaurant menu (with prices). Appendices comment upon
the Danish missions and Prussian education. Another appendix is
devoted to discussing watertight aft hatches, drip-rings, lee boards,
outriggers and a set of bronze boat wheels. (He rejected the wheels
because paved roads were still rare and, very much a man of his
class, he could afford a few pennies for the local yeomanry to lug
his boat into town or portage it by ox cart.) MacGregor also executed
three dozen woodcuts, beginning with a dramatic frontispiece depicting
the Rob Roy catapulted skyward as a runaway horse and cart crash
through a fence. Though well drawn, the illustrations have a slightly
bizarre quality, an exaggeration that may or may not have been intended
by the artist, but which is delightful nevertheless. Another, reminiscent
of Max Ernst's surreal collages, depicts the boat transported on
a Norwegian railway conveyance powered "by cranks and treadles for
the feet, as a velocipede is worked, and to which vehicle there
clung as many persons as could hold it."
his prodigious energy, it is perhaps not surprising that MacGregor
often expressed himself in the first- and third-person plural: "All
hands were piped on deck by the boatswain at an early hour, and
the last pair that came up were told off to scrub ship and wash
clothes. Meanwhile, the head cook of the Rob Roy (an ignoramus)...mixed
water and oatmeal, and had a round tin plate heating on the flame
whereon the mixture was poured. It steamed, it set, it dried hard;
and then he removed the plate from the fire, but alas! The cake
would not come off the tin-plate until it was torn away with struggles
and a knife; and then all the lower part of the brown cake was covered
with bright tin-gone was my only hope of breakfast; for even salt
air does not enable you to digest sheet metal."
the dog he planned to take along disappeared, he unleashed one of
his worst puns, ruing the canine's absence because he wouldn't be
able to write, "my bark is upon the wave." Yet despite these lapse
and some awkward punctuation, a late 20th-century reader can glide
through whole chapters lulled by the utterly familiar: tedious head
winds, generous tail winds, fog, makeshift campsites and curious
onlookers. MacGregor carries us thirty or more miles a day, chattering
on about encounters with ferocious bed bugs, logjams or a perilous
tow from a Dutch cutter. These are balanced with sedate pleasures
like fishing or Miss Kjerstin, farmer Svenson's lovely daughter,
who modestly serenaded him on the guitar while he sketched her portrait.
however, snagging on some detail, we awake with mild shock and remember
that all this took place before the Great War, before the internal
combustion engine or household electricity. A
window abruptly opens on a harbor full of gaff-rigged work boats,
a steamboat that blows a cylinder in a gale, or one of John Ericsson's
fearsome ironclad gunboats. Streets clatter with horse-drawn carriages
while, on the green, Bismarck's troops drill or practice marksmanship.
Where he may try our patience is in his religious asides. A thwarted
vocation for missionary work led MacGregor, who styled himself the
"Chaplain of the Canoe," to distribute reams of Protestant tracts
to surprised bystanders, and to make less than generous remarks
concerning the "benighted" members of the Roman Church. Overall,
his rectitude is not overbearing, and takes a back seat to his proselytizing
the gospel of the canoe.
his crossing the four-mile stretch of the Baltic into Denmark, however,
we encounter a prime candidate for judicious editing: "The Rob Roy,
carried through Copenhagen, of course attracted a great crowd, and
the head waiter (being a man of sense) conducted her upstairs, where
the ball-room was allotted for a boat-house, and there the canoe
rested gently on an ottoman." This may be the briefest sample of
what, after reading his three kayaking books, one comes to think
of as the Rob Roy's mandatory "triumphal reception" into town. Whether
set in a busy Scandinavian city or a muddy Prussian hamlet, this
interchangeable narrative staple soon becomes the most tiresome
device in MacGregor's repertoire. Nevertheless, there is one instance
where it reaches an amusing pinnacle.
his Middle Eastern expedition, The Rob Roy on the Jordan, Red Sea,
and Gennesareth (1869), he plunges down the Jordan noting with pride
how few European travelers ventured down the river's more remote
reaches. He quickly found out why. An entire village tumbled out,
brandishing rifles and casting stones. Several men dove in after
him and, although our hero valiantly swatted left and right with
his paddle, he was finally cornered in the shallows. Affecting nonchalance,
a cocked pistol concealed under his knees, he noted, with characteristic
understatement, that "their patience was on the ebb."
subsequent scene reads like John Cleese playing "The Man Who Would
be King" as a Monty Python skit. "A dozen dark-skinned bearers,"
writes MacGregor, "lifted the canoe and her captain, sitting inside,
with all due dignity graciously smiling," up the bank amid loud
shouting, and deposited them inside the tent of the local sheik.
Remaining in his boat, MacGregor doffed his pith helmet, and blithely
informed his host that he "would rest at his tent until the sun
was cooler." The startled sheik summoned his counselors. After threats
and counter-threats, a couple of surreptitious bribes and much conferring
-in which MacGregor sat imperturbable, reading the Times-he was
eventually liberated by Harry, his well-armed, fast-talking interpreter.
The book is MacGregor's most exotic and, despite his studied composure,
the expedition clearly had its share of real crocodiles and brigands.
incarnation of the Rob Roy used on this trip was modified with a
removable aft deck, allowing its owner to rig a canvas tent fly,
drop mosquito netting, and sleep aboard. MacGregor tried out this
arrangement along the newly opened Suez Canal, doing his best to
remain solitary, as, in that neighborhood, "any man with five francs,
or supposed to have them, is worth killing." He remained unmolested
except for a jackal who "would neither leave me in peace nor come
near enough to be shot." In his inimitable way, he continued down
to the Red Sea, particularly tickled by an incongruous cup of coffee
offered him afloat, accompanied by a pair of silver tongs for the
sugar. Finally, after steaming on to Beirut, he trudged overland
through a foot of snow outside Damascus to find the source of the
Jordan. He concluded his adventure shortly after 12 contemplative
days on the Sea of Galilee musing on the life of Jesus.
his writings certainly encouraged numerous amateurs to get their
keels wet, there was yet another side to MacGregor. His passion
for philanthropy led him to donate the proceeds of all of the Rob
Roy publications to charitable causes like the Shipwrecked Mariners'
Society and the National Lifeboat Institution. He also co-founded
the Ragged-School Union's Shoe-Black Brigade, which sought employment
for destitute children. Combining two improbable interests, he raised
money for charity by giving public lectures, hamming it up on stage
with the Rob Roy, doing quick changes into his canoeing outfit (or,
after the Jordan expedition, into a burnoose) and reappearing to
wild cheers. Ironically, almost 140 years later - amid a worldwide
explosion of kayaking - the man once anointed the "patron saint
of canoeing" has been reduced to a footnote. MacGregor's works,
decades out of print, lie mostly in the hands of collectors and
antiquarian booksellers. I found copies slumbering in the closed
stacks of the Peabody Essex Museum (in Salem, Massachusetts) and
the Boston Public Library. Time had not been kind to them, nor,
in the latter institution, was the attendant who delivered the volumes
with a mighty thump that resounded painfully down the reading room's
vaulted ceiling. Bindings cracked, folded maps tore along ancient
creases, dog-eared corners fell like withered leaves. Yet, the contents,
the story, MacGregor's indefatigable enthusiasm and wit, have weathered
well. If we dare to think of kayaking as having a literature the
way fishing does, then MacGregor is our Izzak Walton.
recently read Paul Theroux's Happy Isles of Oceania, I felt I had
bounded from one end of kayaking's literary bookshelf to the other.
To MacGregor's credit, that leap requires far less adjustment for
the armchair kayaker than one might suppose. Despite their very
different sensibilities, I could easily imagine MacGregor and Theroux
happily switching boats. Their interests are not that different,
nor their insistence upon travel on their own terms, their mixed
feeling about their fame, their curiosity about their hosts tempered
by impatience with some of their hosts' customs. MacGregor's digressions
on the shortness of Danish beds, the deceitfulness of Prussian customs
agents, and the behavior of English people abroad, find a certain
correspondence in Theroux's mutterings about Kiwi politicians and
efforts to "toktok" Pidgin English recall MacGregor's amusing attempts
at communication. He gamely passed a phrase book back and forth
with his Swedish hosts until a learned doctor arrived for tea and
they discovered a language in common: "We talked Latin," MacGregor
notes, "with that circumlocutory elegance which a very slow remembrance
of it involves, like pumping water out of a very deep well, with
very little in the bucket when it comes up, and not much at the
personalities, each might be the perfect antidote to the other.
A good dose of MacGregor's cheery, indomitable, stiff upper lip
can create an absolute yearning for Theroux's misanthropy, angst
and soul-searching, and, perhaps, vice versa, but, while Theroux's
work is still with us, where will we find MacGregor? Let me confess
that I conceived this entire sketch as an introduction to an imaginary,
deluxe, lavishly illustrated, amply edited and thoroughly portable
MacGregor. Now where is the publisher?