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A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe by J.…

A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe

by J. MacGregor

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The original canoe-touring book, which inspired RLS and thousands of others to have kayaks built and set off around Europe on their own "inland voyages", no doubt to the annoyance of fishermen, millers, lock-keepers and railway porters across the Continent...

MacGregor is a genuine Victorian eccentric. His writing isn't as smooth and professional as Stevenson's, but he writes with tremendous passion, energy and self-confidence. He is a fierce advocate of the pleasures of canoe travel (one of which, as with so many outdoor activities, is clearly the pleasure of boasting about the discomforts you have endured). He is utterly unembarrassed at all times—if he gets stuck somewhere, or arrives in a strange town after everyone has gone to bed, he simply sings at the top of his voice until some curious person comes to see what's going on. Where Stevenson goes on for about three chapters about the indignity of being mistaken for a commercial traveller, MacGregor just doesn't care. He loves impressing journalists and small boys with the oddity of his means of transport, and he is pleased when people come to gawp at him because they've read about his journey in the papers.

Unlike Stevenson, he makes practically no attempt to give us standard tourist descriptions of places and sights: the book is all about the practical business of travelling by canoe and how he and the people he meets react to that. Where we get scenery, it is there to show us how different the world looks from the water, not because travel books are supposed to have scenery.

MacGregor was clearly a competent draughtsman as well as a writer: his illustrations, worked up from the pencil sketches he made during his tour, and done in a droll Victorian style rather reminiscent of Thackeray, give the book a lot of its charm. When we see the way he caricatures himself in the illustrations, it's hard to take offence at the occasional brashness of the text.

He's a bit less aggressive in his Evangelicalism than in his later sailing book, but he's still pretty confrontational about it. His minimal luggage for a three-month trip still includes a bundle of tracts to be handed out to all and sundry, and it gives him something to be proud of when foreigners are puzzled that he doesn't travel on Sundays: if he's somewhere without a protestant church, that gives him the opportunity to pen a satirical account of whatever antics the ludicrous Roman Catholics are getting up to. The spirit of George Borrow was plainly alive and well in mid-Victorian Britain. ( )
1 vote thorold | Jul 2, 2012 |
John MacGregor ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_MacGregor_%28sportsman%29 ), outdoor writer and distant relative of Scottish folk hero and outlaw Rob Roy, designed and built a sort of hybrid canoe / kayak with a sail and kayaking paddle which he named the "Rob Roy". He then paddled through the rivers, lakes and canals of Germany, France and Switzerland, portaging between waterways on a cart or on trains. This was a completely novel idea for the time, traveling alone, by water, in a boat so light it can be carried, and it fired popular imaginations across Europe. His account of the journey became a best seller read by royalty and laymen alike, attracting newspaper attention and crowds along the route.

"A Thousand Miles" was written as both an account of the journey and a sort of travel guide for those wishing to follow in MacGregors wake. Indeed, fellow Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson was so enthralled by MacGregors trip, he soon made his own in a Rob Roy, which he wrote about in "An Inland Voyage", Stevenson's first published book. One can profitably find comparison between MacGregor and Stevenson's accounts, Stevenson being the genre imitator, but superior in writing quality.

MacGregor's account has a degree of Victorian optimism that is refreshing, not unlike Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days", the world is an Englishman's oyster with new and exciting modes of transportation making outdoor expeditions available to everyman. At times his account becomes journal-like and banal, commenting on every town, supper and rapid he comes across, and there is no central narrative other than the curious mode of travel and incidental encounters - but for learning about the details of European life in the 1860s and the zeitgeist of the time it is an authentic and pleasurable journey that was influential.

A scanned illustrated first edition is available online:

There were many later editions, I think up to nine, that had additions including a map, discussions of the Prussian War etc.. the success of "A Thousand Miles" would spur Macgregor to take many more voyages and write other travel accounts of his trips in the Rob Roy. ( )
  Stbalbach | Jun 5, 2007 |
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