After bidding Mrs. Spence farewell, and thanking her for her kind attention to us during our visit to Stromness, we made our way to the sloop, which seemed a frail-looking craft to cross the stormy waters of the Pentland Firth. We did not, of course, forget our large basket which we had had so much difficulty in finding, and which excited so much attention and attracted so much curiosity towards ourselves all the way to John o' Groat's. It even caused the skipper to take a friendly interest in us, for after our explanation he stored that ancient basket amongst his more valuable cargo.
There was only a small number of passengers, but in spite of the early hour quite a little crowd of people had assembled to witness our departure, and a considerable amount of banter was going on between those on board the sloop and the company ashore, which continued as we moved away, each party trying to get the better of the other. As a finale, one of our passengers shouted to his friend who had come to see him off: "Do you want to buy a cow?" "Yes," yelled his friend, "but I see nothing but a calf." A general roar of laughter followed this repartee, as we all thought the Orkneyman on shore had scored.
We should have liked to have fired another shot, but by the time the laughter had subsided we were out of range. We did not expect to be on the way more than three or four hours, as the distance was only about twenty-four miles; but we did not reach Thurso until late in the afternoon, and we should have been later if we had had a less skilful skipper. In the first place we had an unfavourable wind, which prevented our sailing by the Hoy Sound, the shortest and orthodox route, and this caused us to miss the proper sea view of the "Old Man of Hoy," which the steamboat from Stromness to Thurso always passed in close proximity, but we could perceive it in the distance as an insular Pillar of Rock, standing 450 feet high with rocks in vicinity rising 1,000 feet, although we could not see the arch beneath, which gives it the appearance of standing on two legs, and hence the name given to the rock by the sailors. The Orcadean poet writes:
See Hoy's Old Man whose summit bare
Pierces the dark blue fields of air;
Based in the sea, his fearful form
Glooms like the spirit of the storm.
When pointing out the Old Man to us, the captain said that he stood in the roughest bit of sea round the British coast, and the words "wind and weather permitting" were very applicable when stoppages wore contemplated at the Old Man or other places in these stormy seas.
We had therefore to sail by way of Lang Hope, which we supposed was a longer route, and we were astonished at the way our captain handled his boat; but when we reached what we thought was Lang Hope, he informed the passengers that he intended to anchor here for some time, and those who wished could be ferried ashore.
We had decided to remain on the boat, but when the captain said there was an inn there where refreshments could be obtained, my brother declared that he felt quite hungry, and insisted upon our having a second breakfast. We were therefore rowed ashore, and were ushered into the parlour of the inn as if we were the lords of the manor and sole owners, and were very hospitably received and entertained. The inn was appropriately named the "Ship," and the treatment we received was such as made us wish we were making a longer stay, but time and tide wait for no man.
For the next inn he spurs amain,
In haste alights, and scuds away -
But time and tide for no man stay.
Whether it was for time or tide or for one of those mysterious movements in the Pentland Firth that our one-masted boat was waiting we never knew. We had only just finished our breakfast when a messenger appeared to summon us to rejoin the sloop, which had to tack considerably before we reached what the skipper described as the Scrabster Roads. A stiff breeze had now sprung up, and there was a strong current in the sea; at each turn or tack our boat appeared to be sailing on her side, and we were apprehensive that she might be blown over into the sea. We watched the operations carefully and anxiously, and it soon became evident that what our skipper did not know about the navigation of these stormy seas was not worth knowing. We stood quite near him (and the mast) the whole of the time, and he pointed out every interesting landmark as it came in sight. He seemed to be taking advantage of the shelter afforded by the islands, as occasionally we came quite near their rocky shores, and at one point he showed us a small hole in the rock which was only a few feet above the sea; he told us it formed the entrance to a cave in which he had often played when, as a boy, he lived on that island.
The time had now arrived to cross the Pentland Firth and to sail round Dunnet Head to reach Thurso. Fortunately the day was fine, and the strong breeze was nothing in the shape of a storm; but in spite of these favourable conditions we got a tossing, and no mistake! Our little ship was knocked about like a cork on the waters, which were absolutely boiling and foaming and furiously raging without any perceptible cause, and as if a gale were blowing on them two ways at once. The appearance of the foaming mass of waters was terrible to behold; we could hear them roaring and see them struggling together just below us; the deck of the sloop was only a few feet above them, and it appeared as if we might be swallowed up at any moment. The captain told us that this turmoil was caused by the meeting of the waters of two seas, and that at times it was very dangerous to small boats.
Many years ago he was passing through the Firth with his boat on a rather stormy day, when he noticed he was being followed by another boat belonging to a neighbour of his. He could see it distinctly from time to time, and he was sure that it could not be more than 200 yards away, when he suddenly missed it. He watched anxiously for some time, but it failed to reappear, nor was the boat or its crew ever seen or heard of again, and it was supposed to have been carried down by a whirlpool!
We were never more thankful than when we got safely across those awful waters and the great waves we encountered off Dunnet Head, and when we were safely landed near Thurso we did not forget the skipper, but bade him a friendly and, to him, lucrative farewell.
We had some distance to walk before reaching the town where, loaded with our luggage and carrying the large basket between us, each taking hold of one of the well-worn handles, we attracted considerable attention, and almost every one we saw showed a disposition to see what we were carrying in our hamper; but when they discovered it was empty, their curiosity was turned into another channel, and they must see where we were taking it; so by the time we reached the house recommended by our skipper for good lodgings we had a considerable following of "lookers on." Fortunately, however, no one attempted to add to our burden by placing anything in the empty basket or we should have been tempted to carry it bottom upwards like an inmate of one of the asylums in Lancashire. A new addition was being built in the grounds, and some of the lunatics were assisting in the building operations, when the foreman discovered one of them pushing his wheelbarrow with the bottom upwards and called out to him, "Why don't you wheel it the right way up?"
"I did," said the lunatic solemnly, "but they put bricks in it!"
We felt that some explanation was due to our landlady, who smiled when she saw the comical nature of that part of our luggage and the motley group who had followed us, and as we unfolded its history and described the dearth of willows in the Orkneys, the price we had paid, the difficulties in finding the hamper, and the care we had taken of it when crossing the stormy seas, we could see her smile gradually expanding into a laugh that she could retain no longer when she told us we could have got a better and a cheaper basket than that in the "toon," meaning Thurso, of course. It was some time before we recovered ourselves, laughter being contagious, and we could hear roars of it at the rear of the house as our antiquated basket was being stored there.
After tea we crossed the river which, like the town, is named Thurso, the word, we were informed, meaning Thor's House. Thor, the god of thunder, was the second greatest of the Scandinavian deities, while his father, Odin, the god of war, was the first. We had some difficulty in crossing the river, as we had to pass over it by no less than eighty-five stepping-stones, several of which were slightly submerged. Here we came in sight of Thurso Castle, the residence of the Sinclair family, one of whom, Sir John Sinclair, was the talented author of the famous Statistical Account of Scotland, and a little farther on stood Harold's Tower. This tower was erected by John Sinclair over the tomb of Earl Harold, the possessor at one time of one half of Orkney, Shetland, and Caithness, who fell in battle against his own namesake, Earl Harold the Wicked, in 1190. In the opposite direction was Scrabster and its castle, the scene of the horrible murder of John, Earl of Caithness, in the twelfth century, "whose tongue was cut from his throat and whose eyes were put out." We did not go there, but went into the town, and there witnessed the departure of the stage, or mail coach, which was just setting out on its journey of eighty miles, for railways had not yet made their appearance in Caithness, the most northerly county in Scotland. We then went to buy another hamper, and got a much better one for less money than we paid at Stromness, for we had agreed that we would send home two hampers filled with shells instead of one. We also inquired the best way of getting to John o' Groat's, and were informed that the Wick coach would take us the first six miles, and then we should have to walk the remaining fifteen. We were now only one day's journey to the end and also from the beginning of our journey, and, as may easily be imagined, we were anxiously looking forward to the morrow.
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