Leslie Geddes-brown recalls a redhot relative
THE Bodleian Libraries exhibition on volcanoes (until May 21) has been a great success among both scientists and schoolchildren, they tell me. And who can not be fascinated by the real thing seen from a respectable distance? I will never forget Etna with redhot lava running down its sides.
The Victorians took exploration a bit further. Hew’s great grandfather’s cousin James was a Glasgow chemical manufacturer, a bachelor and rich enough to be known as Croesus in the family. Stevenson’s hobby was yachting and he would take parties of Presbyterian ministers round the Mediterranean (sounds like fun). On one of these trips, he spotted the island of Vulcano, which was little more than a volcano, a few depressed convicts and a Roman Catholic priest (who was soon given his marching orders) as its only inhabitants.
Without any apparent research and only a single visit, he bought it for £8,000 to use its sulphur. He then built roads and factories for the new industry, modern- ised the buildings and extracted the sulphur from the volcano’s crater and tried to harness its heat through a steam engine.
He built a charming singlestorey house, which the islanders called the Castello de’ll Inglese. Here, he planted figs and fruit trees and 12,000 Malvasia vines. His Vulcano wine became famous in the family. A few bottles were even found when an old cellar was cleared out in 1940. There were also lawns and grass tennis courts.
Then, it all went wrong. In 1873, huge clouds of smoke rose from the crater, blue and green flames leapt from its floor and boulders were hurled into the air. This didn’t seem to worry Croesus, who suspended work until the volcano had quietened down.
However, 14 years later, Vulcano had a grand eruption that lasted two years. Eye-witnesses tell of huge explosions that threw ‘bread-crust bombs’ into the air, one of which crashed through the castello roof. Black ash covered the whole island and the sea boiled. Croesus hurriedly left in his yacht and returned only once more, saw the devastation and decided to sell. The buyer was an Italian farmer, Giovanni Conti, whose greatgrandson still owns the island.
Greatly daring, with my husband being called Stevenson, we visited the island a few years ago. It’s a weird place. In front of the castello, now a disco, is a sulphurous mudbath heated by the volcano. Once, Croesus bathed there for his health and, now, visiting tourists do the same.
Hew climbed up the crater, past burning sulphur and smoke, which the experts call ‘mild solphatic activity’. At the top, there was the inevitable German woman sunbathing in a bikini. For weeks afterwards, our clothes smelt of bad eggs.
The vines survived the eruption and wine is still being made in Vulcano.
Being interested in antiquities, James bought a collection of ancient Greek vases and statuettes excavated on the nearby island of Lipari. This is thought to be the best collection outside Sicily. He gave them to the Glasgow Museum, where they can still be seen.
While all this was going on, this extraordinary Victorian was also financing a war against Arab slave traders in what was Nyasaland (now Malawi). He had never visited sub-saharan Africa, which he said was deadly to anyone over 30, so he ran the war from Glasgow. When things went bad, he was visited in his yacht by Cecil Rhodes, who took over.
Croesus is not forgotten on Vulcano. Photographs of him in a jaunty yachting cap figure on the napkins and promotional leaflets for the Cantine Stevenson, the now restored castello. There is even an idea to use his Scottish coat of arms on the new Vulcano wine labels.
‘Without any research, he bought the island for £8,000