"Now for the shells!" exclaimed my brother, as we awoke early in the morning, for we expected to have a hard day's work before we gathered shells enough to fill our large baskets. So we hurried on with our breakfast, and then, shouldering our hampers, walked quickly along the beach to the place where we had been informed we should find them. When we got there we saw a sight which surely could not have had its parallel in the British Isles, for the beach was white with them for the greater part of two miles. We were greatly astonished, for in some places the beach was so thickly covered that, had we possessed a shovel, we could have filled both our baskets with shells in a very few minutes. We decided therefore to select those best suited to our purpose, and we worked away until we had filled both our hampers.
We then carried them one at a time to the "Huna Inn," and arranged with Mr. Mackenzie to have them carefully packed and delivered to the local carrier to be conveyed by road to the steamboat office at Wick, and thence forwarded by water to our home, where we knew their contents would be appreciated for rockery purposes. The whole of our operations were completed by noon, instead of occupying the whole of the day as anticipated, for we had a great advantage in having such an enormous number of shells to select from. Our host told us that farmers occasionally moved them by cart-loads to serve as lime manure on their land. Their accumulation at that particular spot was a mystery which he could not explain beyond the fact that the shells were washed up from the Pentland Firth during the great storms; so we concluded that there must be a land of shell fish in or near that stormy deep, perhaps corresponding with that of the larger fish whose destruction we had seen represented in the Strata of Pomona in the Orkneys.
We must not forget to record, however, that amongst the vast number of shells we had turned over we found some of those lovely little shells known as " John o' Groat's buckies," so highly prized by visitors. They were difficult to find, as they were so very small, but we found quite a number, and considered them to be perfect little gems, and so very pretty that we reserved them for special presents to our friends. We afterwards learned that they were known to science as Cyproe Artoca, or European Cowry.
An interesting account of John o' Groat's House and the shells was written in the year 1698 by the Rev. John Brand, Commissioner of the General Assembly: -
The landing-place was called John o' Groat's House, the northernmost house in Scotland; the man who now liveth in it and keepeth an inn there is called John Grot, who saith his house hath been in the possession of his predecessors of that name for some hundreds of years; which name of Grot is frequent in Caithness.
Upon the sand by John Grot's house are found many small pleasant buckies and shells, beautified by diverse colours, which some use to put upon a string as beads, and account much of their rarity. It is also observed of these shells that not one of them can be found altogether like another, and upon the review of the parcel I had I discovered some difference among them which variety renders them the more beautiful.
After our midday dinner had partially digested, for we had eaten rather too much, we started for Duncansbay Head, following the coast line on an up-gradient until we reached the top, which formed the north-eastern extremity of Scotland, and from where we had to start on Monday morning. It was a lonely spot, and we were the only visitors; but we had a lively time there, as the thousands of wild birds whose homes were in the rocks, judging from the loud noises they made as they new about us in endless processions, resented our intrusion into their sacred domain - hovering around us in every direction. Perhaps they were only anxious to ascertain whether we were friends or foes, but we were very much interested in their strange movements. They appeared to be most numerous on and about two or three perpendicular rocks which rose from the sea like pinnacles to a great height. These rocks were named the "Stacks," or the "Boars of Duncansbay," their sides and summits being only accessible to birds, and forming safe resting and nesting-places for them, and on the top of the highest stack the golden-coloured eagles had for ages reared their young.
The "Stacks" might once have formed part of the headland or of some adjacent island which had been wasted away by the winds and waves of ages until only these isolated portions remained, and these were worn into all kinds of crevices and fantastic shapes which impressed us with a sense of their great antiquity. We walked along the top of the cliffs, which here presented the appearance of one vast amphitheatre lined with precipices, with small promontories here and there jutting out into the sea resembling fortresses, some of them having the ruins of ancient castles crowning their highest points. We could scarcely bring our minds to realise that these were the very rocks we had seen from the deck of the s.s. St. Magnus only a few days since. We had passed through so many scenes, and had had so many adventures both by night and day since then, that the lapse of time seemed to us to be more like years than days. We retraced our steps to the head, and stood there for some time watching the ships far out at sea, trying to distinguish the St. Magnus, as it was just about the time she was again due on her outward journey; but the demands of our hungry insides were again claiming urgent attention, and so we hastened our return to the "Huna Inn." On our way we again encountered the shepherd who had shown us the site of John o' Groat's House, and we invited him to look us up in the evening, as we were anxious to get further information about John and his famous house. "Huna Inn," in spite of its disadvantages, was quite a romantic place to stay at, as it was situated almost on the edge of the boiling torrent of the Pentland Firth, which at times was so stormy that the island of Stroma could not be reached for weeks.
The "Swalchie," or whirlpool of Stroma, has been mentioned by many ancient writers, but the most interesting story is that of its origin as given in the old Norse legend headed, "Fenja and Menja," and containing a famous ballad known as the "Grotta Songr," or the "Mill Song," grotta being the Norse for mill, or quern.
Odin had a son by name Skjold from whom the Skjoldungs. He had his throne and ruled in the lands that are now called Denmark but were then called Gotland. Skjold had a son by name Fridleif, who ruled the lands after him. Fridleif's son was Frode. He took the kingdom after his father, at the time when the Emperor Augustus established peace in all the earth, and Christ was born. But Frode being the mightiest King in the Northlands, this peace was attributed to him by all who spake the Danish tongue and the Norsemen called it the Peace of Frode. No man injured the other, even though he might meet, loose or in chains, his father's or brother's bane (murderer). There was no thief or robber so that a gold ring would lie a long time on Jalanger's heath. King Frode sent messengers to Sirthjod, to the King whose name was Fjolner, and bought there two maidservants, whose names were Fenja and Menja. They were large and strong.
About this time were found in Denmark two millstones so large that no one had the strength to turn them. But the nature belonged to these millstones that they ground whatever was demanded of them by the miller. The name of the mill was Grotte. But the man to whom King Frode gave the mill was called Hengekjapt. King Frode had the maidservants led to the mill and requested them to grind for him gold and peace and Frode's happiness. Then he gave them no longer time to rest or sleep than while the cuckoo was silent or while they sang a song. It is said they sang the song called the "Grotte Song," and before they ended it they ground out a host against Frode, so that on the same night there came the Sea-King whose name was Mysing and slew Frode and took a large amount of booty. Mysing took with him Grotte and also Fenja and Menja and bade them grind salt, and in the middle of the night they asked Mysing whether he did not have salt enough. He bade them grind more. They ground only a short time longer before the ship sank. But in the ocean arose a whirlpool (maelstrom, mill-stream) in the place where the sea runs into the mill-eye: the Swalchie of Stroma.
The story "Why is the sea salt?" or "How the sea became salt," has appeared in one form or another among many nations of the world, and naturally appealed strongly to the imagination of the youth of a maritime nation like England. The story as told formerly amongst schoolboys was as follows:
Jack had decided to go to sea, but before doing so he went to see his fairy godmother, who had a strange looking old coffee-mill on the mantelshelf in her kitchen. She set the table for tea without anything on it to eat or drink, and then, taking down the old mill, placed it on the table and asked it to grind each article she required. After the tea-pot had been filled, Jack was anxious for something to eat, and said he would like some teacakes, so his fairy godmother said to the mill:
"Mill! Mill! grind away.
Buttered tea-cakes now I pray!"
for she knew Jack liked plenty of butter on his cakes, and out they came from the mill until the plate was well filled, and then she said:
"Mill! Mill! rest thee now,
Thou hast ground enough I trow,"
and immediately the mill stopped grinding. When Jack told her he was going away on a ship to sea, his fairy godmother made him a present of the old mill, which he would find useful, as it would grind anything he asked it to; but he must be careful to use the same words that he had heard her speak both in starting and stopping the mill. When he got to the ship, he stored the old mill carefully in his box, and had almost forgotten it when as they neared the country they were bound for the ship ran short of potatoes, so Jack told the Captain he would soon find him some, and ran for his mill, which he placed on the deck of the ship, and said to it:
"Mill! Mill! grind away,
Let us have some potatoes I pray!"
and immediately the potatoes began to roll out of the mill and over the deck, to the great astonishment and delight of the sailors, who had fine fun gathering them up. Then Jack said to the mill:
"Mill! Mill! rest thee now,
Thou hast ground enough I trow,"
and immediately the mill ceased grinding.
The Captain determined to get the mill from Jack, who would not part with it, and tried to steal it, but did not succeed, and when they reached the port, Jack took the mill ashore with him, and rented a shop that happened to be empty, and had a sign-board placed over it with the words painted in large letters, "All sorts of things supplied here on the shortest notice," and he soon got a pile of money, the last order being one from the King, who wanted clothing for his soldiers in a hurry, as war had broken out unexpectedly. Jack's good fortune was soon heard of by the Captain, and when his ship was ready to sail he contrived to get one of his friends to invite Jack to a party that evening, and then with the help of some of his crew he broke into the shop and stole the old mill.
When Jack returned in the morning his mill was gone, and he could just see the sails of the ship far out at sea. But he did not care much, as he had now money enough to keep himself for many years. Meantime the Captain in his hurry to get away had forgotten to bring some things that were wanted, and when he found they had no salt on board, he brought the old mill on deck, and said:
"Mill! Mill! grind away
Let us have some salt I pray,"
and immediately the mill began to grind salt at a great speed and presently covered the deck all round where it was working, but the Captain had forgotten the words spoken by Jack when he stopped the mill, and though he used all the words he could think of, the mill kept on grinding, and was rapidly filling every available space on the deck. The Captain then ran to his cabin and brought out his sword, and with a terrific blow he cut the mill in halves; but each piece formed itself into a mill, and both mills continued grinding until the ship sank to the bottom of the sea, where the mills are still grinding in the terrible Swalchie of Stroma, and that is why the water in the sea is salt!
There had been a ferry at John o' Groat's years before our visit, and mails and passengers had been carried across the Firth to and from the Orkney Islands, the distance across being shorter from this point than from any other in Scotland; but for some unexplained reason the service had been discontinued, and the presence of the ferry would probably account for so many names being written in the album. The day was already drawing to a close as we sat down to tea and the good things provided by Mrs. Mackenzie, and we were waited upon by a Scotch lassie, who wore neither shoes nor stockings; but this we found was nothing unusual in the north of Scotland in those days. After tea we adjourned to our room, and sat down in front of our peat fire; but our conversational powers soon exhausted themselves, for we felt uncommonly drowsy after having been exposed so long to the open air.
We sat there silently watching the curling smoke as it went up the chimney and dreamily gazing into the caverns which had been formed in the fire below, imagining that we could see all kinds of weird objects therein, and then we thought of the times when we should not have been able to rest so securely and comfortably in the "Huna Inn," when one Scottish clan was trying to exterminate another not so far away from where we were then sitting, for no more apparent reason than that the Scots were born soldiers, and if they had no foreigners to fight they must fight among themselves. We must have been nearly asleep when our reveries were interrupted by the entrance of the shepherd, whom for the moment we had entirely forgotten. He had come in response to our invitation to talk with us about things in general, but particularly about John o' Groat, and we were glad to see him, and we now give -
THE SHEPHERD'S STORY
John o' Groat was a fisherman belonging to Holland who was caught when at sea in a great storm which damaged his sails so that his boat drifted almost helplessly across the sea. When he came in sight of the Scottish coast he was carried with the current into the Pentland Firth, and as he could not repair the sails in the boat and could not get back to Holland with them in their damaged condition, he decided to land on one of the islands and repair them on shore. His wife was very much opposed to his landing on Stroma, as she thought it was a desert island, so he got his boat across from there to the Scottish coast; but when he attempted to land at Huna, the natives opposed his landing, for they thought he was a pirate. Fortunately for him he had a few kegs of gin in his boat, and when the canny Scots saw these they became more friendly, especially as they had a great respect for Holland's gin, and so they allowed him to land, and even helped him to mend his sails.
They afterwards allowed him to settle amongst them on condition that he did not attempt to go into the interior of the country, and that he built his house on the seashore. He got on well amongst his new friends, and in time became their chief and had eight sons, and on one festive occasion, when they all came to see him, they quarrelled as to which should have precedence at his table, so John told them that the next time they came he would have matters so arranged as to avoid that kind of thing in the future. He therefore built an entirely new house with eight sides to it and a door in each, and made a table inside of the same octagonal shape, so that when they came to see him again each of them could enter by his own door and sit at his own head of the table.
In reply to our questions the shepherd said he thought this event happened about 350 years ago, but the house had long since disappeared, and only the site of the foundations which he had shown us previously now remained. He also said that heaps of ladies and gentlemen came there to picnic on the site, and he had seen them take even small stones away; but though he had lived there for fifty years, he had never seen John o' Groat's any different from what it was now. We asked him why John did not return to Holland, and he said it was because he had a letter from the king. We thanked the shepherd for his story, and, having suitably rewarded him, bade him farewell and hurried off to bed in the fading light of our rapidly diminishing candle.
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