We had our first experience of a herring breakfast, and were surprised to find how delicious they tasted when absolutely fresh. There was an old proverb in Wick: "When the herrings come in, the doctors go out!" which may indicate that these fish had some medicinal value; but more likely the saying referred to the period of plenty following that of want and starvation. We went down to the quay and had a talk with some of the fishermen whom we met returning from their midnight labours. They told us they had not caught many herrings that night, but that the season generally had been a good one, and they would have money enough to support themselves through the coming winter. There were about nine hundred boats in the district, and sometimes over a thousand, all employed in the fishing industry; each boat was worked by four men and one boy, using nets 850 yards long. The herrings appeared about the second week in August and remained until the end of September, but the whales swallowed barrels of them at one "jow."
We called at the steamboat depot and found that our hampers of shells had already arrived, and would be sent forward on the St. Magnus; next we went to get our hair and beards trimmed by the Wick barber. He was a curious old gentleman and quite an orator, and even at that early hour had one customer in hand while another was waiting to be shaved, so we had of course to wait our turn. The man who was waiting began to express his impatience in rather strong language, but the barber was quite equal to the occasion, and in the course of a long and eloquent oration, while he was engaged with the customer he had in hand, he told him that when he came into a barber's shop he should have the calmness of mind to look quietly around and note the sublimity of the place, which ought to be sufficient to enable him to overcome such signs of impatience as he had exhibited.
We were quite sure that the barber's customer did not understand one-half the big words addressed to him, but they had the desired effect, and he waited patiently until his turn came to be shaved. He was a dark-complexioned seafaring man, and had evidently just returned from a long sea voyage, as the beard on his chin was more like the bristles on a blacking-brush, and the operation of removing them more like mowing than shaving. When completed, the barber held out his hand for payment. The usual charge must have been a penny, for that was the coin he placed in the barber's hand. But it was now the barber's turn. Drawing himself up to his full height, with a dignified but scornful expression on his face, he pointed with his razor to the penny he held in his other hand, which remained open, and exclaimed fiercely, "This! for a month's shave!" Another penny was immediately added, and his impatient customer quickly and quietly departed.
It was now our turn for beard and hair trimming, but we had been so much amused at some of the words used by the barber that, had it not been for his awe-inspiring look, the scissors he now held in his hand, and the razors that were so near to us, we should have failed to suppress our laughter. The fact was that the shop was the smallest barber's establishment we had ever patronised, and the dingiest-looking little place imaginable, the only light being from a very small window at the back of the shop. To apply the words sublime and sublimity to a place like this was ludicrous in the extreme. It was before this window that we sat while our hair was being cut; but as only one side of the head could be operated upon at once, owing to the scanty light, we had to sit before it sideways, and then to reverse our position.
We have heard it said that every man's hair has a stronger growth on one side of his head than the other, but whether this barber left more hair on the strong side or not we did not know. In any case, the difference between the two sides, both of hair and beard, after the barber's operation was very noticeable. The only sublime thing about the shop was the barber himself, and possibly he thought of himself when speaking of its sublimity. He was a well-known character in Wick, and if his lot had been cast in a more expansive neighbourhood he might have filled a much higher position. He impressed us very much, and had we visited Wick again we should certainly have paid him a complimentary visit. We then purchased a few prints of the neighbourhood at Mr. Johnston's shop, and were given some information concerning the herring industry. It appeared that this industry was formerly in the hands of the Dutch, who exploited the British coasts as well as their own, for the log of the Dutillet, the ship which brought Prince Charles Edward to Scotland in 1745, records that on August 25th it joined two Dutch men-of-war and a fleet of herring craft off Rongisby.
In the early part of the fourteenth century there arose a large demand for this kind of fish by Roman Catholics both in the British Isles and on the Continent. The fish deserted the Baltic and new herring fields were sought, while it became necessary to find some method of preserving them. The art of curing herrings was discovered by a Dutchman named Baukel. Such was the importance attached to this discovery that the Emperor Charles V caused a costly memorial to be erected over his grave at Biervlet. The trade remained in the hands of the Dutch for a long time, and the cured herrings were chiefly shipped to Stettin, and thence to Spain and other Roman Catholic countries, large profits being made. In 1749, however, a British Fishery Society was established, and a bounty of £50 offered on every ton of herrings caught. In 1803 an expert Dutchman was employed to superintend the growing industry, and from 1830 Wick took the lead in the herring industry, which in a few years' time extended all round the coasts, the piles of herring-barrels along the quay at Wick making a sight worth seeing.
We had not gone far when we turned aside to visit the ruins of Wick Castle, which had been named by the sailors "The Auld Man o'Wick." It was built like most of the others we had seen, on a small promontory protected by the sea on three sides, but there were two crevices in the rock up which the sea was rushing with terrific force. The rock on which its foundations rested we estimated to be about 150 feet high, and there was only a narrow strip of land connecting it with the mainland. The solitary tower that remained standing was about fifty feet high, and apparently broader at the top than at the bottom, being about ten or twelve yards in length and breadth, with the walls six or seven feet thick. The roar of the water was like the sound of distant thunder, lending a melancholy charm to the scene. It was from here that we obtained our first land view of those strange-looking hills in Caithness called by the sailors, from their resemblance to the breasts of a maiden, the Maiden's Paps. An old man directed us the way to Lybster by what he called the King's Highway, and looking back from this point we had a fine view of the town of Wick and its surroundings.
Taught by past experience, we had provided ourselves with a specially constructed apparatus for tea-making, with a flask to fit inside to carry milk, and this we used many times during our journey through the Highlands of Scotland. We also carried a reserve stock of provisions, since we were often likely to be far away from any human habitation. To-day was the first time we had occasion to make use of it, and we had our lunch not in the room of an inn, but sitting amongst the heather under the broad blue canopy of heaven. It was a gloriously fine day, but not a forerunner of a fine day on the morrow, as after events showed. We had purchased six eggs at a farmhouse, for which we were only charged fourpence, and with a half-pound of honey and an enormous oatmeal cake - real Scotch - we had a jovial little picnic and did not fare badly. We had many a laugh at the self-satisfied sublimity of our friend the barber, but the sublimity here was real, surrounded as we were by magnificent views of the distant hills, and through the clear air we could see the mountains on the other side of the Moray Firth probably fifty miles distant. Our road was very hilly, and devoid of fences or trees or other objects to obstruct our view, so much so that at one point we could see two milestones, the second before we reached the first.
We passed Loch Hempriggs on the right of our road, with Iresgoe and its Needle on the seacoast to the left, also an old ruin which we were informed was a "tulloch," but we did not know the meaning of the word. After passing the tenth milestone from Wick, we went to look at an ancient burial-ground which stood by the seaside about a field's breadth from our road. The majority of the gravestones were very old, and whatever inscriptions they ever had were now worn away by age and weather; some were overgrown with grass and nettles, while in contrast to these stood some modern stones of polished granite. The inscriptions on these stones were worded differently from those places farther south. The familiar words "Sacred to the memory of" did not appear, and the phrasing appeared rather in the nature of a testimonial to the benevolence of the bereft. We copied two of the inscriptions:
ERECTED BY ROBERT WALLACE, MERCHANT,
LYBSTER, TO THE MEMORY
OF HIS SPOUSE CHARLLOT SIMPSON WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE NOV. 21
1845 AGED 30 YEARS.
Lovely in Life.
PLACED BY JOHN SUTHERLAND, FISHERMAN, LYBSTER, IN MEMORY OF
HIS WIFE WILLIAMINIA POLSON WHO DIED 28TH MAY 1867 AGED 29
At Death still lovely.
In the yard we noticed a large number of loose stones and the remains of a wall which we supposed had been part of the kirk. The name of the village near here was Mid Clyth, and the ruins those of an old Roman Catholic chapel last used about four hundred years ago. Several attempts had been made to obtain power to remove the surplus stones, but our informant stated that although they had only about a dozen Romanists in the county, they were strong enough to prevent this being done, and it was the only burial-ground between there and Wick. He also told us that there were a thousand volunteers in Caithness.
The people in the North of Caithness in directing us on our way did not tell us to turn to right or left, but towards the points of the compass - say to the east or the west as the case might be, and then turn south for a given number of chains. This kind of information rather puzzled us, as we had no compass, nor did we know the length of a chain. It seemed to point back to a time when there were no roads at all in that county. We afterwards read that Pennant, the celebrated tourist, when visiting Caithness in 1769, wrote that at that time there was not a single cart, nor mile of road properly so called in the county. He described the whole district as little better than an "immense morass, with here and there some fruitful spots of oats and bere (barley), and much coarse grass, almost all wild, there being as yet very little cultivated." And he goes on to add:
Here are neither barns nor granaries; the corn is thrashed out and preserved in the chaff in bykes, which are stacks in the shape of beehives thatched quite round. The tender sex (I blush for the Caithnessians) are the only animals of burden; they turn their patient backs to the dunghills and receive in their cassties or straw baskets as much as their lords and masters think fit to fling in with their pitchforks, and then trudge to the fields in droves.
A more modern writer, however, thought that Pennant must have been observant but not reflective, and wrote:
It is not on the sea coast that woman looks on man as lord and master. The fishing industry more than any other leads to great equality between the sexes. The man is away and the woman conducts all the family affairs on land. Home means all the comfort man can enjoy! His life is one persistent calling for self-reliance and independence and equally of obedience to command.
The relations Pennant quoted were not of servility, but of man assisting woman to do what she regarded as her natural work.
To inland folk like ourselves it was a strange sight to see so many women engaged in agricultural pursuits, but we realised that the men had been out fishing in the sea during the night and were now in bed. We saw one woman mowing oats with a scythe and another following her, gathering them up and binding them into sheaves, while several others were cutting down the oats with sickles; we saw others driving horses attached to carts. The children, or "bairns," as they were called here, wore neither shoes nor stockings, except a few of the very young ones, and all the arable land was devoted to the culture of oats and turnips.
We passed through Lybster, which in Lancashire would only be regarded as a small village, but here was considered to be a town, as it could boast of a population of about eight hundred people. We made due note of our reaching what was acknowledged to be the second plantation of trees in the county; there were six only in the entire county of Caithness, and even a sight like this was cheery in these almost treeless regions.
An elderly and portly-looking gentleman who was on the road in front of us awaited our arrival, and as an introduction politely offered us a pinch of snuff out of his well-filled snuff-box, which we accepted. We tried to take it, but the application of a small portion to our noses caused us to sneeze so violently that the gentleman roared with laughter at our expense, and was evidently both surprised and amused at our distress. We were soon good friends, however, and he was as pleased with our company as we were with his, but we accepted no more pinches of snuff in Scotland. He had many inquiries to make about the method of farming in Cheshire and regarding the rotation of crops. We informed him that potatoes were the first crop following grass grown in our neighbourhood, followed by wheat in the next year, and oats and clover afterwards - the clover being cut for two years.
"And how many years before wheat again?" he asked; but this question we could not answer, as we were not sufficiently advanced in agricultural knowledge to undergo a very serious examination from one who was evidently inclined to dive deeply into the subject. As we walked along, we noticed a stone on the slope of a mountain like those we had seen at Stenness in the Orkneys, but no halo of interest could be thrown around it by our friend, who simply said it had been there "since the world began." Near Lybster we had a good view of the Ord of Caithness, a black-looking ridge of mountains terminating in the Maiden's Paps, which were later to be associated with one of the most difficult and dangerous traverses we ever experienced.
The night was now coming on, and we hurried onwards, passing two old castles, one to the left and the other to the right of our road, and we noticed a gate, the posts of which had been formed from the rib-bones of a monster whale, forming an arch ornamented in the centre by a portion of the backbone of the same creature. In the dark the only objects we could distinguish were the rocks on the right and the lights of two lighthouses, one across Dornoch Firth and the other across Moray Firth. In another mile and a half after leaving the farmer, who had accompanied us for some miles and who, we afterwards learned, was an old bachelor, we were seated in the comfortable hotel at Dunbeath. The landlord was civil and communicative, and we sat talking to him about the great difference between Caithness and Cheshire, and the relative values of turf and coal. He informed us that there was very little coal consumed in the county of Caithness, as the English coal was dear and the Scotch coal bad, while the peat was of good quality, the darkest-looking being the richest and the best.
Our tea was now ready, and so were we, as we had walked fifteen miles since our lunch in the heather. We were ushered into the parlour, where we were delighted to find a Cheshire gentleman, who told us he had been out shooting, and intended to leave by the coach at two a.m. Hearing that two pedestrians had arrived, he had given up his bed, which he had engaged early in the day, and offered to rest on the sofa until the arrival of the mail-coach. We thanked him for his kind consideration, for we were tired and footsore. Who the gentleman was we did not discover; he knew Warrington and the neighbourhood, had visited Mr. Lyon of Appleton Hall near that town, and knew Mr. Patten of Bank Hall, who he said was fast getting "smoked out" of that neighbourhood. We retired early, and left him in full possession of the coffee-room and its sofa.
At two o'clock in the morning we were wakened by the loud blowing of a horn, which heralded the approach of the mail-coach, and in another minute the trampling of horses' feet beneath our window announced its arrival. We rose hurriedly and rushed to the window, but in the hurry my brother dashed against a table, and down went something with a smash; on getting a light we found it was nothing more valuable than a water-bottle and glass, the broken pieces of which we carefully collected together, sopping up the water as best we could. We were in time to see our friend off on the coach, with three horses and an enormous light in front, which travelled from Thurso to Helmsdale, a distance of fifty-eight miles, at the rate of eight miles per hour.
(Distance walked twenty-one and a half miles.)
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