Walter sets off for sea to make his way

Snab Point. The coastguard cottage is in a dip, with only the chimney visible. Picture by Roger Hawkins.
Snab Point. The coastguard cottage is in a dip, with only the chimney visible. Picture by Roger Hawkins.

Sir Walter Runciman, later Lord Runciman, was born at Dunbar, East Lothian, in July 1847. His father, also called Walter, was a coastguard and Methodist local preacher. His mother, Jean Finlay, was ‘a great-grand-daughter of one of the Hopetouns’.

In 1852 Mr Runciman was appointed to the station at Cresswell. He and his wife and family, at that time two girls and four boys, of whom Walter was the youngest, arrived at Cresswell in a revenue cutter and lived thereafter in the coastguard cottage at Snab Point.

Walter as an apprentice, c.1860.

Walter as an apprentice, c.1860.

It was, Walter wrote many years later: “in a hollow a little to the south of the small fishing village of Cresswell... an eighteenth-century cottage with an ample garden, well cultivated.... The house was comfortably furnished, spotlessly clean, and everything about it gave the impression of industry and taste.

“The bookshelves were not overcrowded, but the quality of the books, so far as means would permit, showed that good judgement had been exercised in their choice, and at least two members of the household, who in later years became writers of some distinction, owe their first chance to a father and mother of refined intellectual tastes, who had many a hard struggle to provide food for both mouth and mind.

“Being of Scottish was natural to them to have John Knox’s Discourses, the life of William Wallace, and Sir Walter Scott’s novels and poems. But the immortal Shakespeare, Thomas Carlyle, Bunyan, and Tales of the Scottish Covenanters figured prominently, as did Dickens, Burns, Macaulay, Emerson, and Thackeray.

“My mother...was a frugal person more by necessity than by nature.... She was the planner, and hers the force that ‘ran the home’, or anything else that came within her orbit. Full of religious fervour...she was yet strong in human qualities that were a godsend to her family. My father had a great admiration for this singularly strong wife and mother.

It wasn’t that Walter did not know about the hardships and dangers of life at sea. He spent all his time with the children of the local fishing families, and with the fishermen themselves.

“Temperamentally different as both parents were, yet they were well mated.... The leisure of my father was devoted to intellectual and religious pursuits, and this plan of life was an unyielding order of the home.... His forbears had been sailors, farmers, and distinguished artists, and he in early life was a sailor, and proud to relate that he commanded a fast Scottish schooner that ran the mails between Scotland and the South of England. His voyages, and the sailing qualities of his schooner, were a favourite topic of conversation when the time was appropriate.

“I think it was in the winter of 1855 that three old sailors came on a visit.... Strength and geniality were shown in every line of their faces. Each had fine expressive eyes that twinkled with humour.... They spoke with a refined Scottish accent. One was my grandfather, and the other two were my great-uncles. All three had been in the Navy, and had fought Copenhagen, the Nile, and Trafalgar.

“One of the most fascinating things to me — I was then in my seventh year — was the frequent reference to...the powder monkey, that is, a boy whose duty it was to carry powder from the magazine to the gun.”

Walter wanted straightaway to be a powder monkey, but Mrs Runciman said she would: “spare no pains to prevent her boys from entering a service that pressed well-to-do relatives of her own, as though they were serfs.... Don’t I remember the cruel fate that came into my childhood when you were dragged from the vessel you owned, and were forced into compulsory service.... Did I not marry my husband on condition he would give up his command and find other honourable work ashore? My prejudice against the sea is the result of many sorrows and many experiences.”

When he was about ten, Walter ran away, but his father found him after two nights and days and brought him back. He was sorry for the grief it gave his parents and sisters, but was nonetheless determined to go to sea. Mr Runciman, who had been in both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Service, advised him to choose the latter — when he was old enough.

It wasn’t that Walter did not know about the hardships and dangers of life at sea. He spent all his time with the children of the local fishing families, and with the fishermen themselves. In winter he would stand watching, either with his family or down in the village, as sailing ships struggled to stand clear of the rocks during the vicious easterly storms. On at least one occasion his father went out in a coble with the men from the village to rescue the crews of vessels driven ashore.

In December 1859, during one of these storms, Walter crept out at three in the morning and “commenced my journey to the nearest seaport”. He had to cross a river, evidently the Lyne, and waited an hour-and-a-half for the tide to go down before he could do so, wading waist-deep in the surging water. He doesn’t say which seaport he made for, but it seems certain to have been Newbiggin.

He followed an officerly-looking man to his ship, went aboard and asked a sailor if they had all their hands. The man told him bluntly that they didn’t take children.

The captain, whom he had followed, came from the cabin, and Walter asked him “in a very shy way”, if he wanted a cabin boy. The captain gave the same reply, and was just walking away, when an elderly gentleman came up.

“The captain said: ‘Here is a young boy pestering me to give him a berth, father’.

“‘Far too young, far too young’, said the father. ‘Get away back to your home. Where is your home? What is your name? Do your parents know you are here?,’ etc.

“The temptation to fabricate was great, but each of the questions was answered truthfully; and the fine old gentleman and his son gaped with amazement. For they had both known my father and mother very well.

“‘Many a time’, said the father, who was a staunch Wesleyan, ‘have this boy’s father and I exchanged appointments, or spoken from the same pulpit and platform’.

“‘To be sure, and he several times held services on board the Talamancas when I had her, and also on the old Seaflower... when Claxton was the master’, added the son.

“‘Take him, John’, said the old gentleman, ‘and make a man of him’.”

Walter signed articles for a six-year apprenticeship. His parents tried to get him released, but to no avail: “To this course I myself was the main obstacle, and as there was no help for it, the needful outfit was provided, and two weeks after I had joined the handsome copper-bottomed brig Harperley, she loaded a cargo of coal for Mozambique.”

“So that,” says Lord Runciman, “was how I joined my first ship.”