The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

Today’s manuscript puzzle – from the Winter’s Walk notebook

with 13 comments

Arctic soil or sail? and what does it mean?

In the notebook recording his walk from Ayr to Stranraer and beyond, RLS collects snatches of conversation and notes things seen. At one point near Maybole, he writes the following

We (Mafalda Cipollone, Neil Macara Bown, Robert-Louis Abrahamson and myself) finally arrived at the following transcription:

Lasses in the field <ins>by the sea</ins>, kilted to the

knee and hooded – between Dutch” {inv commas intended to go before ‘Dutch’?}

& Arctic soil” {*unidentified allusion}– delicate agacerie {*French, ‘provocation’}


Concerning the unidentified allusion, in the context of this Sterne-like observation I’d expect something like “kilted between high and low” or “kilted way high”, but I can’t see how to get there from “between Dutch and Arctic soil” or, indeed, “sail” (RLS would write the two words in the same way since he goes down from the ‘o’ in order to lead up to the ‘i’).

Identifying the quotation (indicatated by the inverted commas, the first set strangely misplaced) would help, but it seems to be as yet beyond the Google horizon. Can anyone solve the puzzle?


Written by rdury

15/04/2012 at 9:46 am

13 Responses

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  1. Could it be a reference to windmill sails? Windmill sails could be reefed in various ways to adjust for wind conditions, with more or less cloth being spread. Perhaps the skirts raised to the knees reminded him of windmills with sails half reefed?


    15/04/2012 at 10:25 am

  2. At first I thought you’d got it – RLS was struck by the Dutch windmills and mentions them in Catriona – but then I thought: I’m not so sure about Arctic windmills.


    15/04/2012 at 11:06 am

  3. The n of “between” looks like inverted commas, but it has nothing to dowith it, has it?


    15/04/2012 at 11:26 am

    • That sounds good: so the transcripiton would be: betw “Dutch” & [“]Arctic soil” – which would solve the problem of the quotation marks: not marking a quotation but an unusual use: between, what you might call, Dutch and, what you might call, Arctic soil.


      15/04/2012 at 12:48 pm

  4. Don’t understand the quotation marks, but could be contrasting the wetter soils by the seaside with those perhaps still frozen on the other side of the road. The spot where the road from Kirkoswald coming south debouches at the seashore today has a resemblance to a Dutch landscape of sorts – a fertile wet area lying behind and protected by a sand dune towards the sea.

    Neil Brown

    15/04/2012 at 12:29 pm

  5. polder as against tundra

    Neil Brown

    15/04/2012 at 12:31 pm

  6. Given the use of agacerie (allurement or coquetry)*, it seems that the girls’ skirts looked like Dutch sails because of the windy weather (i.e. their Scottish [artic] skirts looked like Dutch sails).

    Having said that, Stevenson uses ‘subartic’ to describe ‘the town of Wick’ in ‘Education of an Engineer’ (Tus. XXX: 21) and immediately follows this with a lengthy description of the landscape, including the coast, so Neil Brown’s suggestion seems sensible. Though it does not explain why Stevenson would use the word ‘agacerie’ in this context.

    * – According to OED, E. Gaskell and M. Oliphant both use agacerie to refer to women attracting men.

    Richard Armstrong

    15/04/2012 at 10:40 pm

    • Thanks for this. I’m more inclined now to read “soils”, as it requires less explanation, but I’m with you on “delicate agacerie” referring to teasing, coquettish provocation of some kind.


      16/04/2012 at 6:42 am

  7. Having the benefit of the whole piece, suggest that RLS writes ‘agacerie’ simply because he had earlier written ‘The one [girl] who said “fine day” to me provocatively’ and had found a more apposite word?

    Neil Brown

    16/04/2012 at 9:47 am

    • Yes, this is the second of his Sterne-like encounters on this part of the walk, and perhaps “agacerie” adds the right delicate tone, as well as honouring the subtlety of conduct of the field workers.


      16/04/2012 at 11:54 am

  8. “If ye see any body [not ‘one’] throw him a stane.” A puzzling if not baffling piece of raillery, with ‘any’ and ‘body’ not joined but close together in the script; and also what looks an extra stroke between ‘o’ and ‘d’ of ‘any body’, where RLS is perhaps making another attempt in this piece at rendering local pronunciation on the page. Can the sense of this be found, because of the stone throwing, in some reference to the devil or at least some demon or goblin. The Gaelic ‘bodach’, in its primary meaning is an old man, but as used in Scots, refers to at the very least, a mischievous fairy or sprite; indeed bogle. I’m thinking also of the biblical and Koranic casting of stones at perceived devils, although can’t think of any instances other then that still performed as part of the Haj outside Mecca, when Abraham was so advised by the angel Gabriel. Help!

    Neil Brown

    26/04/2012 at 3:09 pm

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