We rose early with the object of seeing all we could in the short time at our disposal, which was limited to the space of a single day, or until the St. Magnus was due out in the evening on her return journey. We were anxious to see a large cavern known as the Orkneyman's Cave, but as it could only be reached from the sea, we should have had to engage a boat to take us there. We were told the cave was about fifty feet square at the entrance, but immediately beyond it increased to double the size; it was possible indeed to sail into it with a boat and to lose sight of daylight altogether.
The story goes that many years ago an Orkneyman was pursued by a press-gang, but escaped being captured by sailing into the cave with his boat. He took refuge on one of the rocky ledges inside, but in his haste he forgot to secure his boat, and the ground swell of the sea washed it out of the cave. To make matters worse, a storm came on, and there he remained a prisoner in the cave for two days; but as soon as the storm abated he plunged into the water, swam to a small rock outside, and thence climbed to the top of the cliff and so escaped. Since that event it had been known as the Orkneyman's Cave.
We went to the boat at the appointed time, but unfortunately the wind was too strong for us to get round to the cave, so we were disappointed. The boatman suggested as the next best thing that we should go to see the Island of Noss. He accordingly took us across the bay, which was about a mile wide, and landed us on the Island of Bressay. Here it was necessary for us to get a permit to enable us to proceed farther, so, securing his boat, the boatman accompanied us to the factor's house, where he procured a pass, authorising us to land on the Island of Noss.
Here he left us, as we had to walk across the Island of Bressay, and, after a tramp of two or three miles, during which we did not see a single human being, we came to another water where there was a boat. Here we found Walter, and, after we had exhibited our pass, he rowed us across the narrow arm of the sea and landed us on the Island of Noss. He gave us careful instructions how to proceed so that we could see the Holm of Noss, and warned us against approaching too near the edge of the precipice which we should find there. After a walk of about a mile, all up hill, we came to the precipitous cliffs which formed the opposite boundary of the island, and from a promontory there we had a magnificent view of the rocks, with the waves of the sea dashing against them, hundreds of feet below. A small portion of the island was here separated from the remainder by a narrow abyss about fifty feet wide, down which it was terrible to look, and this separated portion was known as the Holm of Noss. It rose precipitously on all sides from the sea, and its level surface on the top formed a favourite nesting-place for myriads of wild birds of different varieties, which not only covered the top of the Holm, but also the narrow ledges along its jagged sides.
Previous to the seventeenth century, this was one of the places where the foot of man had never trod, and a prize of a cow was offered to any man who would climb the face of the cliff and establish a connection with the mainland by means of a rope, as it was thought that the Holm would provide pasturage for about twenty sheep. A daring fowler, from Foula Island, successfully performed the feat, and ropes were firmly secured to the rocks on each side, and along two parallel ropes a box or basket was fixed, capable of holding a man and a sheep. This apparatus was named the Cradle of Noss, and was so arranged that an Islander with or without a sheep placed in the cradle could drag himself across the chasm in either direction. Instead, however, of returning by the rope or cradle, on which he would have been comparatively safe, the hardy fowler decided to go back by the same way he had come, and, missing his foothold, fell on the rocks in the sea below and was dashed to pieces, so that the prize was never claimed by him.
We felt almost spellbound as we approached this awful chasm, and as if we were being impelled by some invisible force towards the edge of the precipice. It fairly made us shudder as on hands and knees we peered down on the abysmal depths below. It was a horrible sensation, and one that sometimes haunted us in our dreams for years afterwards, and we felt greatly relieved when we found that we could safely crawl away and regain an upright posture. We could see thousands upon thousands of wild birds, amongst which the ordinary sea-gull was largely represented; but there were many other varieties of different colours, and the combination of their varied cries, mingled with the bleating of the sheep, the whistling of the wind, the roaring of the waves as they dashed against the rocks below, or entered the caverns with a sound like distant thunder, tended to make us feel quite bewildered. We retired to the highest elevation we could find, and there, 600 miles from home, and perhaps as many feet above sea-level, was solitude in earnest. We were the only human beings on the island, and the enchanting effect of the wild scenery, the vast expanse of sea, the distant moaning of the waters, the great rocks worn by the wind and the waves into all kinds of fantastic shapes and caverns, the blue sky above with the glorious sun shining upon us, all proclaimed to our minds the omnipotence of the great Creator of the Universe, the Almighty Maker and Giver of all.
We lingered as long as we could in these lonely and romantic solitudes, and, as we sped down the hill towards the boat, we suddenly became conscious that we had not thought either of what we should eat or what we should drink since we had breakfasted early in the morning, and we were very hungry. Walter was waiting for us on our side of the water, as he had been watching for our return, and had seen us coming when we were nearly a mile away. There was no vegetation to obstruct the view, for, as he said, we might walk fifty miles in Shetland without meeting with a bush or tree. We had an agreeable surprise when we reached the other side of the water in finding some light refreshments awaiting our arrival which he had thoughtfully provided in the event of their being required, and for which we were profoundly thankful. The cradle of Noss had disappeared some time before our visit, but, if it had been there, we should have been too terrified to make use of it. It had become dangerous, and as the pasturage of sheep on the Holm had proved a failure, the birds had again become masters of the situation, while the cradle had fallen to decay.
Walter gave us an awful description of the danger of the fowler's occupation, especially in the Foula Island, where the rocks rose towering a thousand feet above the sea. The top of the cliffs there often projected over their base, so that the fowler had to be suspended on a rope fastened to the top of the cliff, swinging himself backwards and forwards like a pendulum until he could reach the ledge of rock where the birds laid their eggs. Immediately he landed on it, he had to secure his rope, and then gather the eggs in a hoop net, and put them in his wallet, and then swing off again, perhaps hundreds of feet above the sea, to find another similar ledge, so that his business was practically carried on in the air. On one of these occasions a fowler had just reached a landing-place on the precipice, when his rope slipped out of his hand, and swung away from the cliff into the empty air. If he had hesitated one moment, he would have been lost for ever, as in all probability he would either have been starved to death on the ledge of rock on which he was or fallen exhausted into the sea below. The first returning swing of the rope might bring him a chance of grasping it, but the second would be too far away. The rope came back, the desperate man measured the distance with his eye, sprang forward in the air, grasped the rope, and was saved.
Sometimes the rope became frayed or cut by fouling some sharp edge of rock above, and, if it broke, the fowler was landed in eternity. Occasionally two or three men were suspended on the same rope at the same time. Walter told us of a father and two sons who were on the rope in this way, the father being the lowest and his two sons being above him, when the son who was uppermost saw that the rope was being frayed above him, and was about to break. He called to his brother who was just below that the rope would no longer hold them all, and asked him to cut it off below him and let their father go. This he indignantly refused to do, whereupon his brother, without a moment's hesitation, cut the rope below himself, and both his father and brother perished.
It was terrible to hear such awful stories, as our nerves were unstrung already, so we asked our friend Walter not to pile on the agony further, and, after rewarding him for his services, we hurried over the remaining space of land and sea that separated us from our comfortable quarters at Lerwick, where a substantial tea was awaiting our arrival.
We were often asked what we thought of Shetland and its inhabitants.
Shetland was fine in its mountain and coast scenery, but it was wanting in good roads and forests, and it seemed strange that no effort had been made to plant some trees, as forests had formerly existed there, and, as a gentleman told us, there seemed no peculiarity in either the soil or climate to warrant an opinion unfavourable to the country's arboricultural capacity. Indeed, such was the dearth of trees and bushes, that a lady, who had explored the country thoroughly, declared that the tallest and grandest tree she saw during her visit to the Islands was a stalk of rhubarb which had run to seed and was waving its head majestically in a garden below the old fort of Lerwick!
Agriculture seemed also to be much neglected, but possibly the fishing industry was more profitable. The cottages also were very small and of primitive construction, many of them would have been condemned as being unfit for human habitation if they had existed elsewhere, and yet, in spite of this apparent drawback, these hardy islanders enjoyed the best of health and brought up large families of very healthy-looking children. Shetland will always have a pleasant place in our memories, and, as regards the people who live there, to speak the truth we scarcely ever met with folks we liked better. We received the greatest kindness and hospitality, and met with far greater courtesy and civility than in the more outwardly polished and professedly cultivated parts of the countries further south, especially when making inquiries from people to whom we had not been "introduced"! The Shetlanders spoke good English, and seemed a highly intelligent race of people. Many of the men went to the whale and other fisheries in the northern seas, and "Greenland's icy mountains" were well known to them.
On the island there were many wives and mothers who mourned the loss of husbands and sons who had perished in that dangerous occupation, and these remarks also applied to the Orkney Islands, to which we were returning, and might also account for so many of these women being dressed in black. Every one told us we were visiting the islands too late in the year, and that we ought to have made our appearance at an earlier period, when the sun never sets, and when we should have been able to read at midnight without the aid of an artificial light. Shetland was evidently in the range of the "Land of the Midnight Sun," but whether we should have been able to keep awake in order to read at midnight was rather doubtful, as we were usually very sleepy. At one time of the year, however, the sun did not shine at all, and the Islanders had to rely upon the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights, which then made their appearance and shone out brilliantly, spreading a beautifully soft light over the islands. We wondered if it were this or the light of the midnight sun that inspired the poet to write:
Night walked in beauty o'er the
Whose gentle waters spoke tranquillity,
or if it had been borrowed from some more peaceful clime, as we had not yet seen the "peaceful sea" amongst these northern islands. We had now once more to venture on its troubled waters, and we made our appearance at the harbour at the appointed time for the departure of the St. Magnus. We were, however, informed that the weather was too misty for our boat to leave, so we returned to our lodgings, ordered a fire, and were just making ourselves comfortable and secretly hoping our departure might be delayed until morning, when Mrs. Sinclair, our landlady, came to tell us that the bell, which was the signal for the St. Magnus to leave, had just rung. We hurried to the quay, only to find that the boat which conveyed passengers and mails to our ship had disappeared. We were in a state of consternation, but a group of sailors, who were standing by, advised us to hire a special boat, and one was brought up immediately, by which, after a lot of shouting and whistling - for we could scarcely see anything in the fog - we were safely landed on the steamboat.
We had only just got beyond the harbour, however, when the fog became so dense that we suddenly came to a standstill, and had to remain in the bay for a considerable time. When at last we moved slowly outwards, the hoarse whistle of the St. Magnus was sounded at short intervals, to avoid collision with any other craft. It had a strangely mournful sound, suggestive of a funeral or some great calamity, and we should almost have preferred being in a storm, when we could have seen the danger, rather than creeping along in the fog and darkness, with a constant dread of colliding with some other boat or with one of the dangerous rocks which we knew were in the vicinity. Sleep was out of the question until later, when the fog began to clear a little, and, in the meantime, we found ourselves in the company of a group of young men who told us they were going to Aberdeen.
One of them related a rather sorrowful story. He and his mates had come from one of the Shetland Islands from which the inhabitants were being expelled by the factor, so that he could convert the whole of the island into a sheep farm for his own personal advantage. Their ancestors had lived there from time immemorial, but their parents had all received notice to leave, and other islands were being depopulated in the same way. The young men were going to Aberdeen to try to find ships on which they could work their passage to some distant part of the world; they did not know or care where, but he said the time would come when this country would want soldiers and sailors, and would not be able to find them after the men had been driven abroad. He also told us about what he called the "Truck System," which was a great curse in their islands, as "merchants" encouraged young people to get deeply in their debt, so that when they grew up they could keep them in their clutches and subject them to a state of semi-slavery, as with increasing families and low wages it was then impossible to get out of debt. We were very sorry to see these fine young men leaving the country, and when we thought of the wild and almost deserted islands we had just visited, it seemed a pity they could not have been employed there. We had a longer and much smoother passage than on our outward voyage, and the fog had given place to a fine, clear atmosphere as we once more entered the fine harbour of Kirkwall, and we had a good view of the town, which some enthusiastic passenger described as the "Metropolis of the Orcadean Archipelago."
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