The Fairy Minister and Puss-in-Boots

The Rev Mr Kirk of Aberfoyle was carried away by the Fairies in 1692

People of Peace! a peaceful man,
Well worthy of your love was he,
Who, while roaring Garry ran
Red with the lifeblood of Dundee
When coats were turning, crowns were falling,
Wandered along his valley still,
And heard their mystic voices calling
From fairy knowe and haunted hill.

Andrew Lang Ban and Arriere Ban 1894

Little connected with the remarkable Reverend Robert Kirk of Aberfoyle is without interest. For example, the history of Bibliotheque de Carabas, the imprint under which the Andrew Lang version of Kirk’s famous book, The Secret Commonwealth, first appeared provides a connection between Robert Kirk and Puss-in-Boots. It is a modest connection, but it is both interesting and intriguing.

Charles Perrault lived from 1628 until 1703, and was thus a contemporary of Kirk’s, and it was he who first set down the story of the resourceful cat, the precursor of ‘Top Cat’, who managed, by appealing to his master’s vanity and pretentiousness, to pass his master off as the Marquis de Carabas in which guise he won the hand of the King of France’s daughter. We can suppose that it was this connection with the world of fairy tales which induced Alfred Nutt to dub a series of somewhat abstruse books ‘The Bibliotheque de Carabas’.

Andrew Lang’s famous Victorian edition of Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth was the eighth and probably the most important book in the series. Alfred Nutt, who had inherited from his father the publishing firm of David Nutt, and who might nowadays be perceived as having a rather unfortunate surname, was an early pillar of the Folklore Society. The first book in ‘The Bibliotheque de Carabas’, The Most Pleasant and Delectable Tale of the Marriage of Cupid and Psyche (1887), carried a discourse on the fable by Andrew Lang who was the general editor of the series. Andrew Lang (1844- 1912), folklorist, poet, novelist and historian was a pivotal literary figure of his time. The intention of the series, was to show the universality of certain themes in folklore, a subject to which Lang returned in his introduction to The Secret Commonwealth.

These volumes were crown octavo books, ‘printed on hand-made paper with wide margins and uncut edges, done up in Japanese vellum wrappers’ (Nutt). Cupid and Psyche was an edition of only sixty copies, just fifty of which were to be sold to the public. A few copies carried a poem by Stevenson addressed to Lang.

In response Lang dedicated The Secret Commonwealth to the exiled author in a an amusing and undeservedly neglected dialect poem alluding to Stevenson’s lifelong interest in the supernatural:

To Robert Louis Stevenson
O Louis! you that like them maist
Ye’re far frae kelpie, wraith and ghaist,
And fairy dames, no unco’ chaste,
And haunted cell.
Among a heathen clan ye’re placed,
That kens na hell!

That Lang should think of Stevenson in connection with Kirk is understandable. Whether Stevenson knew of his intention is not clear. In a letter which has survived Lang asked Stevenson whether Nutt had sent him a copy of The Secret Commonwealth, but, unfortunately, there is no specific answer to his question in RLS’s known letters, although the two authors were at that time, half a world apart, contemplating a literary collaboration, and constantly in touch.

However, if he did not, it is a remarkable coincidence that, in the same year, Stevenson was thinking of the Trossachs, when on 6th June, 1893, he wrote a letter to Sidney Colvin about Callander. There is no direct evidence that Robert Louis Stevenson ever visited Aberfoyle, or knew of its Fairy Minister, but the intriguing resonances of these remote connections are typical of the unresolved questions which there are about Robert Kirk.

2 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    t phelps said,

    Stewart Sanderson’s edition (1976) of the ‘Secret Commonwealth’ appears (at the text’s conclusion) to show that Kirk wrote it at ‘Inch Allodine’. Do you have any idea where this place – presumably an island – may have been, I wonder?

    • 2

      louisstott said,

      Inshalladine appears to be the name of Kirk’s Manse since he gives it as his address in at least two letters when he was editing his Bible. There is now a house built on the site called Auchinblae and it is possible that there are traces of Kirk’s manse in outbuildings there. I have never seen an explanation for the meaning of the word, but in addition to meaning ‘island’ inch can also mean ‘water meadow’. The manse is situated close to the river Forth which may well have changed its course.

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