In the Beginning
The Well‑Traveled Barrister
By Farwell Forrest
May 9, 2000
Revised on February 12, 2013
The year was 1858. The place? A dugout canoe on Lake Témiscouata in what had been, until 1841, called "Lower Canada." One of the four paddlers in the canoe was a tall Englishman. A well‑to‑do London barrister, his dress and demeanor suggested a man of leisure, but he wasn't what he seemed. At the age of 33, he was already the author of several standard works on patent law, to which would soon be added a comprehensive study of patents related to marine propulsion. And what was this energetic barrister's name? John MacGregor. He played as hard as he worked, too, and now he was indulging in a favorite pastime — travel. Whether he was at his desk or on the move, MacGregor did nothing by halves. His 1858 tour of the Americas took him from Nova Scotia all the way west to the Mississippi. But while he cheerfully shrugged off the hardships and uncertainties of mid‑19th‑century travel, he didn't think much of dugout canoes. They were, he later wrote, "a very bad sort of boat when there is the least wind." He preferred the "true Indian [bark] canoe," which he found easy to manage, even when paddled solo.
This barrister‑turned‑canoeist was a man of strong religious convictions, a member of the Church of England with decidedly low‑church sympathies, strong philanthropic leanings, and an inclination to evangelize. He also had a keen interest in the slavery question, and whenever the opportunity presented itself during his travels in America, he spoke with black preachers and white abolitionists. He was profoundly disturbed by what he saw and heard: "There will one day be a Civil War here about these slaves," he wrote in a letter to his sister. And he proved a good prophet. In just three short years, on February 8, 1861, delegates from seven southern states met in Montgomery, Alabama, where they lost no time in proclaiming the Confederate States of America. Sixty‑three days later, on April 12, Confederate shore batteries at Charleston, South Carolina, opened fire on Fort Sumter. The American Civil War that MacGregor had foreseen had now begun in earnest.
Four years passed. Great armies marched and countermarched across the continent, in what was to be America's costliest war. In the years between 1861 and 1865, more than half a million men and boys were killed. Many died in the field, struck down by Minié balls or ripped open by bayonets. Those who survived long enough to face the surgeon's knife often succumbed to infection while lying on filthy hospital cots, and still more died of dysentery, typhoid, and malaria. Others drowned in the mud of flooded trenches or starved to death in prison camps. And tens of thousands lost one or more limbs, constant reminders of what was then known as war's "butcher's bill" — the human cost of conflict.
Finally, on April 2, 1865, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy, boarded the train that would carry him safely out of reach of the Union army advancing on his Richmond, Virginia, capital. Five days later, on orders from Confederate General Robert E. Lee, whose encircled troops were now starving for want of rations, a junior officer rode toward the Union lines, holding a white towel aloft. He carried Lee's request for a meeting with his opposite number, a fellow West Point graduate named Ulysses S. Grant. The American Civil War was over. The guns fell silent.
Meanwhile, in London, the War Office was responding to the many shortcomings revealed by Britain's recent bloodletting in the Crimea. One result was the creation of a number of volunteer corps, and John MacGregor was soon enjoying a comfortable flirtation with military life. In 1859 he joined the London Scottish Rifle Volunteers, a battalion of gentlemen citizen‑soldiers. By February of the following year he had been appointed captain of the East Company, wryly noting in his diary that "my popularity in the corps is very dangerous to my modesty." He was no slouch as a marksman, either, winning first prize in the regimental shooting contest at Wimbledon in 1861, a distinction he was to enjoy on at least one other occasion.
With the passage of time, however, MacGregor began to lose interest in marching and shooting. Or, more accurately, he fell under the sway of a new passion. And that passion was canoeing. In later life he attributed the inconstancy of his affections to a "smash in a railway carriage" which did lasting damage to the "nerves which one needs for rifle shooting" and turned him "in one night back again to … life on the water." Whatever the proximate cause — and his biographer makes no mention of the railway smash — the roots of MacGregor's new enthusiasm undoubtedly ran deep. As early as 1848 his eye had been drawn to an "india‑rubber boat which forms a cloak, tent, boat, and bed." This curious object was presumably an early Halkett boat‑cloak, and it got MacGregor thinking about an excursion to the Lake District. As things turned out, however, it took all of 17 years for these early musings to lead to action, and when they did, MacGregor's object was something far more ambitious than a gentle week's paddle around Windermere or Coniston Water. It was nothing less than a tour of Europe's major rivers and lakes.
And his chosen vessel was not a Halkett boat. It was an altogether new sort of craft: a recreational kayak. Decked and double‑ended, MacGregor's boat had a smallish central cockpit. Protected from splash and spray by a mackintosh‑fabric apron, the seated occupant could wield a seven‑foot‑long, double‑bladed paddle with ease. In describing his first "canoe," MacGregor wrote: "She was made just short enough to go into the German railway waggons; that is to say, fifteen feet in length, twenty‑eight inches broad, [and] nine inches deep." He went on to add that she "weighs eighty pounds, and draws three inches of water." Built from best British oak using lapstrake construction, with cedar decks, the boat was certainly no featherweight, but that didn't faze MacGregor, who prized "good lines" and a "stiff craft" more than mere lightness. He promptly christened his canoe Rob Roy, in honor of the Scottish folk hero (and sometime outlaw) of the same name, from whom he proudly claimed descent.
She — MacGregor always spoke of his canoe as "she," never as "it" — was the first of a long lineage, many of whose descendants can be found among today's touring kayaks. Just where MacGregor got the idea for such a radical design is something of a mystery, however. Toward the end of his life, when writing in his journal, he suggested that he'd found inspiration in "the canoes in North America and the Kamchatka with double paddles" that he'd seen on his early trips to Canada and Russia. This has led many writers — myself among them — to assume that MacGregor had visited Kamchatka. But I can find no mention of such a trip in his books. Nor does his biographer shed any light on the matter. So if MacGregor had indeed seen a Kamchatka canoe, it must have been when he visited the great fair at Nizhny Novgorod in 1859, for this was, his biographer confirms, the "farthest point" in his only Russian tour. That said, Nizhny Novgorod is a very long way indeed from the Kamchatka peninsula. I think it far more likely that MacGregor saw the aboriginal canoe that inspired his Rob Roy only on the pages of a book.
No matter what the Rob Roy's origins were, however, she proved an agile, seaworthy little boat. And on a stiflingly hot day at the end of July 1865, she began her maiden voyage. Launched onto the Thames at London, she "bounded away joyously on the top of the tide through Westminster Bridge, and swiftly shooting the narrow piles at Blackfriars, she danced along the waves of the Pool, which looked all golden in the morning sun." It was an auspicious beginning to the world's first kayak tour.
This was to be no weekend outing. MacGregor had no use for tentative beginnings. His planned itinerary carried him across the English Channel to Ostend, Belgium — the Rob Roy crossed the Channel as passenger's luggage aboard a steamer, however — and continued on from there through Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and France, sampling the waters of, in MacGregor's words, …
The Rivers Thames, Sambre, Meuse, Rhine, Main, Danube, Reuss, Aar, Ill, Moselle, Meurthe, Marne, and Seine[, and t]he Lakes Titisee, Constance, Unter See, Zurich, Zug, and Lucerne, together with six canals in Belgium and France, and … the open sea of the British Channel.
All in all, it made an impressive tally. But MacGregor wasn't content simply to put miles under the Rob Roy's keel. On his return to London, he sat down, put pen to paper, and wrote up the story of his adventures. The result was a book entitled A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe. Illustrated with woodcuts made from his own sketches and published in January 1866, it was an immediate best‑seller. Further adventures followed, and sequels to A Thousand Miles appeared in short order, beginning with The Rob Roy on the Baltic, later in the same year. 1867 saw MacGregor temporarily abandoning the canoe for a 21‑foot yawl, but he returned to his little double‑paddle craft not long thereafter, and The Rob Roy on the Jordan, Nile, Red Sea, and Gennesareth, etc. appeared in 1869. MacGregor made two more trips in subsequent years — to Holland in 1871 and to the Northern Isles of Scotland in 1872 — but neither of these was ever written up for publication.
Never a man to be easily satisfied, MacGregor had a new boat built for each voyage he made, altering the basic design in various ways to improve performance or meet anticipated conditions. He once wrote that "The incessant changes and countermands of her anxious designer in search of perfection worried the builders," and I can well believe it. All of MacGregor's seven canoes carried the name Rob Roy, however, and each bore the stamp of the original. All were decked, double‑ended, and propelled with a double‑bladed paddle. Each, in short, was a kayak in all but name. (Each could be fitted with sails to take advantage of any favorable slant of wind, as well.)
The Rob Roy books' engaging combination of derring‑do, ready wit, genial chauvinism, and technical nitty‑gritty proved to be enormously popular. Recreational canoeing was still in its infancy. Indeed, MacGregor could be said to have invented it. But others were soon carried away by the torrent of his words, and his books were reissued in edition after edition. MacGregor really didn't need the money that flowed in ceaselessly from his publishers, however. He was already comfortably off. So he distributed much of his royalty income among the many charities he supported. And he didn't stop at that. Beginning in 1870 he embarked on a course of lectures and public appearances, exploiting his new‑found celebrity. He set himself the task of earning £10,000 (the equivalent of some $1.5 million today), all of which he intended to devote to charitable causes, and in 1878 he realized his goal, recording "a sum gained over and above expenses" of exactly £10,042. Always a man who loved the limelight, MacGregor was amply rewarded by public recognition and acclaim.
He certainly had both in ample measure. His books weren't just best‑sellers — they were international best‑sellers. The French Emperor Napoleon III read an early copy of A Thousand Miles, and no sooner had he turned the last page than he hit on the idea of sponsoring a Boat Exhibition in Paris "to encourage a taste for the exploration of solitary streams and lonely currents among the youth of France." Not surprisingly, MacGregor decided to attend the Exhibition himself, and he immediately matched deed to thought, sailing single‑handed from London to Paris in a 21‑foot yawl of his own designing (also christened Rob Roy), earnestly distributing Protestant tracts along the way to any fisherman, deckhand, or seaman who could be persuaded to accept one.
It's unlikely that these religious pamphlets ever converted a single recipient to MacGregor's brand of muscular Christianity, but his adventurous tales were far more compelling, enticing thousands of men around the world to dream of taking to the water in canoes. One of these new disciples was a Mr. A. H. Siegfried, the business manager of a Louisville, Kentucky, newspaper. Eager to replicate MacGregor's paddling feats on American rivers and lakes, Siegfried had two touring canoes built to the "English pattern" by a most unlikely craftsman — a diminutive shoe clerk turned boat‑builder in the little northern New York town of Canton.
That diminutive clerk was J. Henry Rushton. And his story comes next.