We narrowly escaped a bad accident as we were leaving the St. Magnus. She carried a large number of sheep and Shetland ponies on deck, and our way off the ship was along a rather narrow passage formed by the cattle on one side and a pile of merchandise on the other. The passengers were walking in single file, my brother immediately in front of myself, when one of the ponies suddenly struck out viciously with its hind legs just as we were passing. If we had received the full force of the kick, we should have been incapacitated from walking; but fortunately its strength was exhausted when it reached us, and it only just grazed our legs. The passengers behind thought at first we were seriously injured, and one of them rushed forward and held the animal's head to prevent further mischief; but the only damage done was to our overalls, on which the marks of the pony's hoofs remained as a record of the event. On reaching the landing-place the passengers all came forward to congratulate us on our lucky escape, and until they separated we were the heroes of the hour, and rather enjoyed the brief notoriety.
There was an old-world appearance about Kirkwall reminiscent of the time
When Norse and Danish galleys plied
Their oars within the Firth of Clyde,
When floated Haco's banner trim
Above Norwegian warriors grim,
Savage of heart and huge of limb.
for it was at the palace there that Haco, King of Norway, died in 1263. There was only one considerable street in the town, and this was winding and narrow and paved with flags in the centre, something like that in Lerwick, but the houses were much more foreign in appearance, and many of them had dates on their gables, some of them as far back as the beginning of the fifteenth century. We went to the same hotel as on our outward journey, and ordered a regular good "set out" to be ready by the time we had explored the ancient cathedral, which, like our ship, was dedicated to St. Magnus. We were directed to call at a cottage for the key, which was handed to us by the solitary occupant, and we had to find our way as best we could. After entering the ancient building, we took the precaution of locking the door behind us. The interior looked dark and dismal after the glorious sunshine we had left outside, and was suggestive more of a dungeon than a place of worship, and of the dark deeds done in the days of the past.
The historian relates that St. Magnus met his death at the hands of his cousin Haco while in the church of Eigleshay. He had retired there with a presentiment of some evil about to happen him, and "while engaged in devotional exercises, prepared and resigned for whatever might occur, he was slain by one stroke of a hatchet. Being considered eminently pious, he was looked upon as a saint, and his nephew Ronald built the cathedral in accordance with a vow made before leaving Norway to lay claim to the Earldom of Orkney." The cathedral was considered to be the best-preserved relic of antiquity in Scotland, and we were much impressed by the dim religious light which pervaded the interior, and quite bewildered amongst the dark passages inside the walls. We had been recommended to ascend the cathedral tower for the sake of the fine view which was to be obtained from the top, but had some difficulty in finding the way to the steps. Once we landed at the top of the tower we considered ourselves well repaid for our exertions, as the view over land and sea was very beautiful. Immediately below were the remains of the bishop's and earl's palaces, relics of bygone ages, now gradually crumbling to decay, while in the distance we could see the greater portion of the sixty-seven islands which formed the Orkney Group. Only about one-half of these were inhabited, the remaining and smaller islands being known as holms, or pasturages for sheep, which, seen in the distance, resembled green specks in the great blue sea, which everywhere surrounded them.
I should have liked to stay a little longer surveying this fairy-like scene, but my brother declared he could smell our breakfast, which by this time must have been waiting for us below. Our exit was a little delayed, as we took a wrong turn in the rather bewildering labyrinth of arches and passages in the cathedral walls, and it was not without a feeling of relief that we reached the door we had so carefully locked behind us. We returned the key to the caretaker, and then went to our hotel, where we loaded ourselves with a prodigious breakfast, and afterwards proceeded to walk across the Mainland of the Orkneys, an estimated distance of fifteen miles.
On our rather lonely way to Stromness we noticed that agriculture was more advanced than in the Shetland Islands, and that the cattle were somewhat larger, but we must say that we had been charmed with the appearance of the little Shetland ponies, excepting perhaps the one that had done its best to give us a farewell kick when we were leaving the St. Magnus. Oats and barley were the crops chiefly grown, for we did not see any wheat, and the farmers, with their wives and children, were all busy harvesting their crops of oats, but there was still room for extension and improvement, as we passed over miles of uncultivated moorland later. On our inquiring what objects of interest were to be seen on our way, our curiosity was raised to its highest pitch when we were told we should come to an underground house and to a large number of standing stones a few miles farther on.
We fully expected to descend under the surface of the ground, and to find some cave or cavern below; but when we got to the place, we found the house practically above ground, with a small mountain raised above it. It was covered with grass, and had only been discovered in 1861, about ten years before our visit. Some boys were playing on the mountain, when one of them found a small hole which he thought was a rabbit hole, but, pushing his arm down it, he could feel no bottom. He tried again with a small stick, but with the same result. The boys then went to a farm and brought a longer stick, but again failed to reach the bottom of the hole, so they resumed their play, and when they reached home they told their parents of their adventure, and the result was that this ancient house was discovered and an entrance to it found from the level of the land below.
We went in search of the caretaker, and found him busy with the harvest in a field some distance away, but he returned with us to the mound. He opened a small door, and we crept behind him along a low, narrow, and dark passage for a distance of about seventeen yards, when we entered a chamber about the size of an ordinary cottage dwelling, but of a vault-like appearance. It was quite dark, but our guide proceeded to light a number of small candles, placed in rustic candlesticks, at intervals, round this strange apartment. We could then see some small cells in the wall, which might once have been used as burial places for the dead, and on the walls themselves were hundreds of figures or letters cut in the rock, in very thin lines, as if engraved with a needle. We could not decipher any of them, as they appeared more like Egyptian hieroglyphics than letters of our alphabet, and the only figure we could distinguish was one which had the appearance of a winged dragon.
The history of the place was unknown, but we were afterwards told that it was looked upon as one of the most important antiquarian discoveries ever made in Britain. The name of the place was Maeshowe. The mound was about one hundred yards in circumference, and it was supposed that the house, or tumulus, was first cut out of the rock and the earth thrown over it afterwards from the large trench by which it was surrounded.
Our guide then directed us to the "Standing Stones of Stenness," which were some distance away; but he could not spare time to go with us, so we had to travel alone to one of the wildest and most desolate places imaginable, strongly suggestive of ghosts and the spirits of the departed. We crossed the Bridge of Brogar, or Bruargardr, and then walked along a narrow strip of land dividing two lochs, both of which at this point presented a very lonely and dismal appearance. Although they were so near together, Loch Harry contained fresh water only and Loch Stenness salt water, as it had a small tidal inlet from the sea passing under Waith Bridge, which we crossed later. There were two groups of the standing stones, one to the north and the other to the south, and each consisted of a double circle of considerable extent. The stones presented a strange appearance, as while many stood upright, some were leaning; others had fallen, and some had disappeared altogether. The storms of many centuries had swept over them, and "they stood like relics of the past, with lichens waving from their worn surfaces like grizzly beards, or when in flower mantling them with brilliant orange hues," while the areas enclosed by them were covered with mosses, the beautiful stag-head variety being the most prominent. One of the poets has described them:
The heavy rocks of giant size
That o'er the land in circles rise.
Of which tradition may not tell,
Fit circles for the Wizard spell;
Seen far amidst the scowling storm
Seem each a tall and phantom form,
As hurrying vapours o'er them flee
Frowning in grim security,
While like a dread voice from the past
Around them moans the autumnal blast!
These lichened "Standing Stones of Stenness," with the famous Stone of Odin about 150 yards to the north, are second only to Stonehenge, one measuring 18 feet in length, 5 feet 4 inches in breadth, and 18 inches in thickness. The Stone of Odin had a hole in it to which it was supposed that sacrificial victims were fastened in ancient times, but in later times lovers met and joined hands through the hole in the stone, and the pledge of love then given was almost as sacred as a marriage vow. An antiquarian description of this reads as follows: "When the parties agreed to marry, they repaired to the Temple of the Moon, where the woman in the presence of the man fell down on her knees and prayed to the God Wodin that he would enable her to perform, all the promises and obligations she had made, and was to make, to the young man present, after which they both went to the Temple of the Sun, where the man prayed in like manner before the woman. They then went to the Stone of Odin, and the man being on one side and the woman on the other, they took hold of each other's right hand through the hole and there swore to be constant and faithful to each other." The hole in the stone was about five feet from the ground, but some ignorant farmer had destroyed the stone, with others, some years before our visit.
There were many other stones in addition to the circles, probably the remains of Cromlechs, and there were numerous grass mounds, or barrows, both conoid and bowl-shaped, but these were of a later date than the circles. It was hard to realise that this deserted and boggarty-looking place was once the Holy Ground of the ancient Orcadeans, and we were glad to get away from it. We recrossed the Bridge of Brogar and proceeded rapidly towards Stromness, obtaining a fine prospective view of that town, with the huge mountain masses of the Island of Hoy as a background, on our way. These rise to a great height, and terminate abruptly near where that strange isolated rock called the "Old Man of Hoy" rises straight from the sea as if to guard the islands in the rear. The shades of evening were falling fast as we entered Stromness, but what a strange-looking town it seemed to us! It was built at the foot of the hill in the usual irregular manner and in one continuous crooked street, with many of the houses with their crow-stepped gables built as it were over the sea itself, and here in one of these, owing to a high recommendation received inland, we stayed the night. It was perched above the water's edge, and, had we been so minded, we might have caught the fish named sillocks for our own breakfast without leaving the house: many of the houses, indeed, had small piers or landing-stages attached to them, projecting towards the bay.
We found Mrs. Spence an ideal hostess and were very comfortable, the only drawback to our happiness being the information that the small steamboat that carried mails and passengers across to Thurso had gone round for repairs "and would not be back for a week, but a sloop would take her place" the day after to-morrow. But just fancy crossing the stormy waters of the Pentland Firth in a sloop! We didn't quite know what a sloop was, except that it was a sailing-boat with only one mast; but the very idea gave us the nightmare, and we looked upon ourselves as lost already. The mail boat, we had already been told, had been made enormously strong to enable her to withstand the strain of the stormy seas, besides having the additional advantage of being propelled by steam, and it was rather unfortunate that we should have arrived just at the time she was away. We asked the reason why, and were informed that during the summer months seaweeds had grown on the bottom of her hull four or five feet long, which with the barnacles so impeded her progress that it was necessary to have them scraped off, and that even the great warships had to undergo the same process.
Seaweeds of the largest size and most beautiful colours flourish, in the Orcadean seas, and out of 610 species of the flora in the islands we learned that 133 were seaweeds. Stevenson the great engineer wrote that the large Algæ, and especially that one he named the "Fucus esculentus," grew on the rocks from self-grown seed, six feet in six months, so we could quite understand how the speed of a ship would be affected when carrying this enormous growth on the lower parts of her hull.
|To Next Part|