Guest Post: The Island of Uffa

“The Five Orange Pips” gives some of those tantalizing untold tales that Watson loved to tease his readers with: “the adventure of the Paradol Chamber, of the Amateur Mendicant Society, who held a luxurious club in the lower vault of a furniture warehouse, of the facts connected with the loss of the British barque Sophy Anderson, of the singular adventures of the Grice Patersons in the island of Uffa, and finally of the Camberwell poisoning case.” The location of the island of Uffa has long puzzled Sherlockian scholars because it exists in no atlas. They were looking in the wrong place. They needed to check Temple Bar.  

Temple Bar was one of the leading literary magazines of the day and in the February 1891 issue appeared “Our Midnight Visitor” by Arthur Conan Doyle. It is a very long short story, about 9,300 words, set on the fictional island of Uffa, two and a half miles off the western coast of Arran.

Arran is an island roughly twenty miles long by ten miles wide in the Firth of Clyde off the west coast of Scotland. In August or September 1877 Doyle and his sisters Lottie and Connie took a walking tour of the island. According to Andrew Lycett in The Man Who Created Sherlock Holmes, “Bounding over the craggy landscape that had inspired Walter Scott’s epic poem The Lord of the Isles, his [Doyle’s] imagination was fired by the Gothic potential of the misty west coast which he would later summon up in stories such as ‘The Mystery of Cloomber.’ His taste for travel and adventure was also sparked by the sight of colossal oceans liners making their stately progress through the waves between Arran and the Scottish mainland, en route to and from Glasgow. The young medical student was beginning to store up meaningful memories of his own.”

“Our Midnight Visitor’ is a reminiscence of Archie McDonald, a second year medical student returning home to Uffa from the University of Glasgow in 1865 and the sudden appearance of a mysterious stranger. Doyle gave an appreciable amount of space in the story to the history and geography of Uffa; the three families of the island, the McDonalds of Carracuil, the Gibbs of Arden and the Fullartons of Corriemains: the Roost of Uffa, the channel between Uffa and Arran with at-times dangerous currents; Carravoe where the McDonalds anchor their fishing boat; the Combera cliffs, the trysting place of Archie and Minnie Fullarton; Beg-na-sacher and Beg-na-phail, two rugged knolls in the center of the island. It is not surprising when in May 1891 as Doyle came to write “The Five Orange Pips”, the island of Uffa was still fresh in his mind as a perfect setting for a “singular adventure” of Holmes and Watson he never intended to write.

As there is a Doylean echo in “The Five Orange Pips”, there is a Canonical echo in “Our Midnight Visitor”. The visitor, Charles Digby, is a world traveler with scars on his body as souvenirs:

"This was a bullet," he said, pointing to a deep bluish pucker underneath his collar bone. "I got it behind the barricades in Berlin in eighteen hundred and forty-eight. Langenback said it just missed the subclavian artery. And this," he went on, indicating a pair of curious elliptical scars upon his throat, "was a bite from a Sioux chief, when I was under Custer on the plains —I've got an arrow wound on my leg from the same party. This is from a mutinous Lascar aboard ship, and the others are mere scratches—Californian vaccination marks. You can excuse my being a little ready with my own irons, though, when I've been dropped so often."

Subclavian artery wounds maybe more common than thought, although Digby could not have been “under Custer on the plains” as Custer went straight to the Civil War from West Point and he didn’t fight in the Indian Wars until 1866.

The island of Uffa is sitting in The Unknown Conan Doyle: Uncollected Stories waiting to be explored. Pasticheurs will find a topography ready for them to use, others find a well-crafted and evocative story by Doyle.

Written by James C. O'Leary


  1. James , you big tease! Where 's the island!

  2. Well, in Doyle's mind and in his fiction, "On the western side of the island of Arran, seldom visited, and almost unknown to tourists is the little island named Uffa. Between the two lies a strait, or roost, two miles and a half broad, with a dangerous current which sets in from the north." If you read the story "Our Midnight Visitor" and look at a map of Great Britain, you'll realize that if the island had any reality in fact it would be southwest off the Arranian coast. Perhaps I should have included a map and mark where I thought Uffa would be located. "The Unknown Conan Doyle: Uncollected Stories" edited by John Michael Gibson and Richard Lancelyn Green is available online. Try to get the original Doubleday for the intro. It's available in paperback by Cambridge Scholars Publishing Classic Texts, but you can get a used Doubleday much cheaper. Definitely worth it.


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