Blog #56: A Gothic Lighthouse: Virginia Woolf and Sir Walter Scott

“Gradually all my presents have arrived—Fathers Lockhart came the evening I wrote to you—ten most exquisite little volumes, half bound in purple leather, with gilt scrolls and twirls and thistles everywhere, and a most artistic blue and brown mottling on their other parts. So my blinded eyesight is poring more than ever over miserable books—only not even you, my dear brother, could give such and epithet to these lovely creatures

Feb 24, 1897, letter to Thoby Stephen (L1: 4)

“Beached the Isle of May in the evening ; went ashore, and saw the light an old tower, and much in the form of a border-keep, with a beacon-grate on the top. It is to be abolished for an oil revolving-light, the grate-tire only being ignited upon the leeward side when the wind is very high. Quaere–Might not the grate revolve ? The isle had once a cell or two upon it. The vestiges of the chapel are still visible. Mr. Stevenson proposed demolishing the old tower, and I recommended ruining it a la picturesque—i. e. demolishing it partially. The island might be made a delightful residence for sea-bathers.

“On board again in the evening : watched the progress of the ship round Fifenoss, and the revolving motion of the now distant Bell-Bock light until the wind grew rough, and the Landsmen sick. To bed at eleven, and slept sound.

“30th July. Waked at six by the steward : summoned to visit the Bell-Rock, where the beacon is well worthy attention. Its dimensions are well known; but no description can give the idea of this slight, solitary, round tower, trembling amid the billows, and fifteen miles from Arbroath, the nearest shore.

from Scott’s 1814 “Lighthouse Diary” in Lockart’s Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott

In her biography of Virginia Woolf, Hermione Lee makes mention of Virginia’s reading Lockhart’s Life of Scott and finding “his diary of a voyage to the lighthouses on the Scotch coast.” Introducing To the Lighthouse for the Oxford edition, David Bradshaw mentions “Sir Walter Scott, who came to the island during his tour of Scottish lighthouses in 1814.” Neither Lee or Bradshaw, however, provide any detail about Scott’s Scottish lighthouse diary, although Bradshaw does suggest that the diary may have played a part in Virginia’s decision to use a Skye setting for her novel.

Scott’s diary records a six week cruise in 1914, as a guest on a ship visiting lighthouses on the Scottish coast, from Leith to Greenock, with stops at islands such as the Isle of May, Skye, the Isle of Eigg, Iona, Staffa, Arran, and Pladda Island. The writing for the most part is vivid, with a keen eye for detail, rugged coastal scenery, lighthouses, caves, social conditions and customs, folklore, and Scottish history, the bloodthirstier the better. At the same time, Scott is often empathetic in describing the hardships of the people, particularly as they were affected by the clearances and by changes in agricultural practices. There is also frequent mention of various Scottish conflicts and massacres, and the very real danger to the yacht from American privateers.

The diary must have made a vivid impression on the now fifteen year old Virginia. She mentions her “beloved Lockhart” repeatedly in letters and diary, and in early 1902 she offers to send the volume containing Scott’s lighthouse diary to Violet Dickinson (L1: 49). Many details from the diary would have stayed with her, and several can be connected to To the Lighthouse. One such detail is Scott’s visit to Macallister’s cave on Skye, of which a detailed, rather romantic account is given. Macalister and his boy may owe some of their surname to Sir John Macalister (or his brother), yet given Virginia’s polysemous propensities, the Macalister name should also be traced to Scott’s cave.

Scott was a cave enthusiast, and as well describing Macallister’s cave he describes several other caves in detail. Among such caves are the cave of Staffa (a cave already made famous by the renowned botanist, Sir Joseph Banks), Smowe cave, and the Cave of Egg. It is the latter cave which connects most dramatically and most disturbingly to To the Lighthouse. Not only does Scott show great relish in describing the massacre of the Macdonalds by the Macleods, he goes on to say that, from among the bones still littering the floor of the cave, “I brought off, in spite of the prejudices of our sailors, a skull, which seems that of a young woman.” Later in the diary, he refers to the skull again, in terms which bring Coleridge’s mariner to mind:

“I learn incidentally, that, in the opinion of honest Captain Wilson, I have been myself the cause of all this contradictory weather. ‘It is all,’ says the Captain to Stevenson, “owing to the cave at the Isle of Egg,’—from which I had abstracted a skull. Under this odium I may labour yet longer, for assuredly the weather has been doggedly unfavourable.

Exciting yet disturbing reading for the young Virginia. Cam’s fear of the boar’s skull acquires new resonance when read against the Egg island atrocities and Scott’s subsequent insensitive behaviour in making a trophy of the young woman’s skull. Scott’s lighthouse diaries cast a gothic rather than romantic light on the shaping of the novelistic and political imagination behind To the Lighthouse.

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