We had the whole of the day at our disposal to explore Stromness and the neighbourhood, and we made the most of it by rambling about the town and then along the coast to the north, but we were seldom out of sight of the great mountains of Hoy.
Sir Walter Scott often visited this part of the Orkneys, and some of the characters he introduced in his novels were found here. In 1814 he made the acquaintance of a very old woman near Stromness, named Bessie Miller, whom he described as being nearly one hundred years old, withered and dried up like a mummy, with light blue eyes that gleamed with a lustre like that of insanity. She eked out her existence by selling favourable winds to mariners, for which her fee was sixpence, and hardly a mariner sailed out to sea from Stromness without visiting and paying his offering to Old Bessie Miller. Sir Walter drew the strange, weird character of "Norna of the Fitful Head" in his novel The Pirate from her.
The prototype of "Captain Cleveland" in the same novel was John Gow, the son of a Stromness merchant. This man went to sea, and by some means or other became possessed of a ship named the Revenge, which carried twenty-four guns. He had all the appearance of a brave young officer, and on the occasions when he came home to see his father he gave dancing-parties to his friends. Before his true character was known - for he was afterwards proved to be a pirate - he engaged the affections of a young lady of fortune, and when he was captured and convicted she hastened to London to see him before he was executed; but, arriving there too late, she begged for permission to see his corpse, and, taking hold of one hand, she vowed to remain true to him, for fear, it was said, of being haunted by his ghost if she bestowed her hand upon another.
It is impossible to visit Stromness without hearing something of that famous geologist Hugh Miller, who was born at Cromarty in the north of Scotland in the year 1802, and began life as a quarry worker, and wrote several learned books on geology. In one of these, entitled Footprints of the Creator in the Asterolepis of Stromness, he demolished the Darwinian theory that would make a man out to be only a highly developed monkey, and the monkey a highly developed mollusc. My brother had a very poor opinion of geologists, but his only reason for this seemed to have been formed from the opinion of some workmen in one of our brickfields. A gentleman who took an interest in geology used to visit them at intervals for about half a year, and persuaded the men when excavating the clay to put the stones they found on one side so that he could inspect them, and after paying many visits he left without either thanking them or giving them the price of a drink! But my brother was pleased with Hugh Miller's book, for he had always contended that Darwin was mistaken, and that instead of man having descended from the monkey, it was the monkey that had descended from the man.
I persuaded him to visit the museum, where we saw quite a number of petrified fossils. As there was no one about to give us any information, we failed to find Hugh Miller's famous asterolepis, which we heard afterwards had the appearance of a petrified nail, and had formed part of a huge fish whose species were known to have measured from eight to twenty-three feet in length. It was only about six inches long, and was described as one of the oldest, if not the oldest, vertebrate fossils hitherto discovered. Stromness ought to be the Mecca, the happy hunting-ground, or the Paradise to geologists, for Hugh Miller has said it could furnish more fossil fish than any other geological system in England, Scotland, and Wales, and could supply ichthyolites by the ton, or a ship load of fossilised fish sufficient to supply the museums of the world. How came this vast number of fish to be congregated here? and what was the force that overwhelmed them? It was quite evident from the distorted portions of their skeletons, as seen in the quarried flags, that they had suffered a violent death. But as we were unable to study geology, and could neither pronounce nor understand the names applied to the fossils, we gave it up in despair, as a deep where all our thoughts were drowned.
We then walked along the coast, until we came to the highest point of the cliffs opposite some dangerous rocks called the Black Craigs, about which a sorrowful story was told. It happened on Wednesday, March 5th, 1834, during a terrific storm, when the Star of Dundee, a schooner of about eighty tons, was seen to be drifting helplessly towards these rocks. The natives knew there was no chance of escape for the boat, and ran with ropes to the top of the precipice near the rocks in the hope of being of some assistance; but such was the fury of the waves that the boat was broken into pieces before their eyes, and they were utterly helpless to save even one of their shipwrecked fellow-creatures. The storm continued for some time, and during the remainder of the week nothing of any consequence was found, nor was any of the crew heard of again, either dead or alive, till on the Sunday morning a man was suddenly observed on the top of the precipice waving his hands, and the people who saw him first were so astonished that they thought it was a spectre. It was afterwards discovered that it was one of the crew of the ill-fated ship who had been miraculously saved.
He had been washed into a cave from a large piece of the wreck, which had partially blocked its entrance and so checked the violence of the waves inside, and there were also washed in from the ship some red herrings, a tin can which had been used for oil, and two pillows. The herrings served him for food and the tin can to collect drops of fresh water as they trickled down the rocks from above, while one of the pillows served for his bed and he used the other for warmth by pulling out the feathers and placing them into his boots. Occasionally when the waves filled the mouth of the cave he was afraid of being suffocated. Luckily for him at last the storm subsided sufficiently to admit of his swimming out of the cave; how he managed to scale the cliffs seemed little short of a miracle. He was kindly treated by the Islanders, and when he recovered they fitted him out with clothing so that he could join another ship. By what we may call the irony of fate he was again shipwrecked some years afterwards. This time the fates were less kind, for he was drowned!
We had a splendid view of the mountains and sea, and stayed as usual on the cliffs until the pangs of hunger compelled us to return to Stromness, where we knew that a good tea was waiting for us. At one point on our way back the Heads of Hoy strangely resembled the profile of the great Sir Walter Scott, and this he would no doubt have seen when collecting materials for The Pirate.
We had heard both in Shetland and Orkney that when we reached John o' Groat's we should find an enormous number of shells on the beach, and as we had some extensive rockeries at home already adorned with thousands of oyster shells, in fact so many as to cause our home to be nicknamed "Oyster Shell Hall," we decided to gather some of the shells when we got to John o'Groat's and send them home to our friends. The question of packages, however, seemed to be rather a serious one, as we were assured over and over again we should find no packages when we reached that out-of-the-way corner of Scotland, and that in the whole of the Orkney Islands there were not sufficient willows grown to make a single basket, skip, or hamper. So after tea we decided to explore the town in search of a suitable hamper, and we had some amusing experiences, as the people did not know what a hamper was. At length we succeeded in finding one rather ancient and capacious basket, but without a cover, whose appearance suggested that it had been washed ashore from some ship that had been wrecked many years ago, and, having purchased it at about three times its value, we carried it in triumph to our lodgings, to the intense amusement of our landlady and the excited curiosity of the Stromnessians.
We spent the remainder of the evening in looking through Mrs. Spence's small library of books, but failed to find anything very consoling to us, as they related chiefly to storms and shipwrecks, and the dangerous nature of the Pentland Firth, whose turbulent waters we had to cross on the morrow.
The Pentland Firth lies between the north of Scotland and the Orkney Islands, varies from five and a half to eight miles in breadth, and is by repute the most dangerous passage in the British Isles. We were told in one of the books that if we wanted to witness a regular "passage of arms" between two mighty seas, the Atlantic at Dunnet Head on the west, and the North Sea at Duncansbay Head on the east, we must cross Pentland Firth and be tossed upon its tides before we should be able to imagine what might be termed their ferocity. "The rush of two mighty oceans, struggling to sweep this world of waters through a narrow sound, and dashing their waves in bootless fury against the rocky barriers which headland and islet present; the endless contest of conflicting tides hurried forward and repelled, meeting, and mingling - their troubled surface boiling and spouting - and, even in a summer calm, in an eternal state of agitation"; and then fancy the calm changing to a storm: "the wind at west; the whole volume of the Atlantic rolling its wild mass of waters on, in one sweeping flood, to dash and burst upon the black and riven promontory of the Dunnet Head, until the mountain wave, shattered into spray, flies over the summit of a precipice, 400 feet above the base it broke upon."
But this was precisely what we did not want to see, so we turned to the famous Statistical Account, which also described the difficulty of navigating the Firth for sailing vessels. This informed us that "the current in the Pentland Firth is exceedingly strong during the spring tides, so that no vessel can stem it. The flood-tide runs from west to east at the rate of ten miles an hour, with new and full moon. It is then high water at Scarfskerry (about three miles away from Dunnet Head) at nine o'clock. Immediately, as the water begins to fall on the shore, the current turns to the west; but the strength of the flood is so great in the middle of the Firth that it continues to run east till about twelve. With a gentle breeze of westerly wind, about eight o'clock in the morning the whole Firth, from Dunnet Head to Hoy Head in Orkney, seems as smooth as a sheet of glass. About nine the sea begins to rage for about one hundred yards off the Head, while all without continues smooth as before. This appearance gradually advances towards the Firth, and along the shore to the east, though the effects are not much felt along the shore till it reaches Scarfskerry Head, as the land between these points forms a considerable bay. By two o'clock the whole of the Firth seems to rage. About three in the afternoon it is low water on the shore, when all the former phenomena are reversed, the smooth water beginning to appear next the land and advancing gradually till it reaches the middle of the Firth. To strangers the navigation is very dangerous, especially if they approach near to land. But the natives along the coast are so well acquainted with the direction of the tides, that they can take advantage of every one of these currents to carry them safe from one harbour to another. Hence very few accidents happen, except from want of skill or knowledge of the tides."
There were some rather amusing stories about the detention of ships in the Firth. A Newcastle shipowner had despatched two ships from that port by the same tide, one to Bombay by the open sea, and the other, via the Pentland Firth, to Liverpool, and the Bombay vessel arrived at her destination first. Many vessels trying to force a passage through the Firth have been known to drift idly about hither and thither for months before they could get out again, and some ships that once entered Stromness Bay on New Year's Day were found there, resting from their labours on the fifteenth day of April following, "after wandering about like the Flying Dutchman." Sir Walter Scott said this was formerly a ship laden with precious metals, but a horrible murder was committed on board. A plague broke out amongst the crew, and no port would allow the vessel to enter for fear of contagion, and so she still wanders about the sea with her phantom crew, never to rest, but doomed to be tossed about for ever. She is now a spectral ship, and hovers about the Cape of Good Hope as an omen of bad luck to mariners who are so unfortunate as to see her.
The dangerous places at each end of the Firth were likened to the Scylla and Charybdis between Italy and Sicily, where, in avoiding one mariners were often wrecked by the other; but the dangers in the Firth were from the "Merry Men of Mey," a dangerous expanse of sea, where the water was always boiling like a witch's cauldron at one end, and the dreaded "Swalchie Whirlpool" at the other. This was very dangerous for small boats, as they could sail over it safely in one state of the tide, but when it began to move it carried the boat round so slowly that the occupants did not realise their danger until too late, when they found themselves going round quicker and quicker as they descended into the awful vortex below, where the ancient Vikings firmly believed the submarine mill existed which ground the salt that supplied the ocean.
We ought not to have read these dismal stories just before retiring to rest, as the consequence was that we were dreaming of dangerous rocks, storms, and shipwrecks all through the night, and my brother had toiled up the hill at the back of the town and found Bessie Miller there, just as Sir Walter Scott described her, with "a clay-coloured kerchief folded round her head to match the colour of her corpse-like complexion." He was just handing her a sixpence to pay for a favourable wind, when everything was suddenly scattered by a loud knock at the door, followed by the voice of our hostess informing us that it was five o'clock and that the boat was "awa' oot" at six.
We were delighted to find that in place of the great storm pictured in our excited imagination there was every prospect of a fine day, and that a good "fish breakfast" served in Mrs. Spence's best style was waiting for us below stairs.
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