Robert Naylor.

From John O'Groats to Land's End online

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long time in being realised, and one of his favourite quotations,
repeated several times by our friend, dwells in our memory after many

For a' that an' a' that
It's coming, yet, for a' that,
That man to man the war-ld o'er
Shall brithers be for a' that.

During the night, as the _St. Magnus_ ploughed her way through the
foaming billows, we noticed long, shining streaks on the surface of the
water, varying in colour from a fiery red to a silvery white, the effect
of which, was quite beautiful. Our friend informed us these were caused
by the stampede of the shoals of herrings through which we were then

The herring fishery season was now on, and, though we could not
distinguish either the fishermen or their boats when we passed near one
of their fishing-grounds, we could see the lights they carried dotted
all over the sea, and we were apprehensive lest we should collide with
some of them, but the course of the _St. Magnus_ had evidently been
known and provided for by the fishermen.

We had a long talk with our friend about our journey north, and, as he
knew the country well, he was able to give us some useful information
and advice. He told us that if we left the boat at Wick and walked to
John o' Groat's from there, we should have to walk the same way back, as
there was only the one road, and if we wished to avoid going over the
same ground twice, he would advise us to remain on the _St. Magnus_
until she reached her destination, Lerwick, in the Shetland Islands, and
the cost by the boat would be very little more than to Wick. She would
only stay a short time at Lerwick, and then we could return in her to
Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands. From that place we could walk across
the Mainland to Stromness, where we should find a small steamboat which
conveyed mails and passengers across the Pentland Firth to Thurso in the
north of Scotland, from which point John o' Groat's could easily be
reached, and, besides, we might never again have such a favourable
opportunity of seeing the fine rock scenery of those northern islands.

[Illustration: WICK HARBOUR. From a photograph taken in 1867.]

We were delighted with his suggestion, and wrote a hurried letter home
advising our people there of this addition to our journey, and our
friend volunteered to post the letter for us at Wick. It was about six
o'clock in the morning when we neared that important fishery town and
anchored in the harbour, where we had to stay an hour or two to load and
unload cargo. Our friend the Scot had to leave us here, but we could not
allow him to depart without some kind of ceremony or other, and as the
small boat came in sight that was to carry him ashore, we decided to
sing a verse or two of "Auld Lang Syne" from his favourite poet Burns;
but my brother could not understand some of the words in one of the
verses, so he altered and anglicised them slightly:

An' here's a haund, my trusty friend,
An' gie's a haund o' thine;
We'll tak' a cup o' kindness yet,
For the sake o' auld lang syne.

Some of the other passengers joined in the singing, but we never
realised the full force of this verse until we heard it sung in its
original form by a party of Scots, who, when they came to this
particular verse, suited the action to the word by suddenly taking hold
of each other's hands, thereby forming a cross, and meanwhile beating
time to the music. Whether the cross so formed had any religious
significance or not, we did not know.

Our friend was a finely built and intelligent young man, and it was with
feelings of great regret that we bade him farewell and watched his
departure over the great waves, with the rather mournful presentiment
that we were being parted from him for ever!

_Saturday, September 9th._

There were signs of a change in the weather as we left Wick, and the
_St. Magnus_ rolled considerably; but occasionally we had a good view of
the precipitous rocks that lined the coast, many of them having been
christened by the sailors after the objects they represented, as seen
from the sea. The most prominent of these was a double-headed peak in
Caithness, which formed a remarkably perfect resemblance to the breasts
of a female giant with nipples complete, and this they had named the
"Maiden's Paps." Then there was the "Old Man of Hoy," and other rocks
that stood near the entrance to that terrible torrent of the sea, the
Pentland Firth; but, owing to the rolling of our ship, we were not in a
fit state either of mind or body to take much interest in them, and we
were very glad when we reached the shelter of the Orkney Islands and
entered the fine harbour of Kirkwall. Here we had to stay for a short
time, so we went ashore and obtained a substantial lunch at the
Temperance Hotel near the old cathedral, wrote a few letters, and at 3
p.m. rejoined the _St. Magnus_.

The sea had been quite rough enough previously, but it soon became
evident that it had been smooth compared with what followed, and during
the coming night we wished many times that our feet were once more on
_terra firma_. The rain descended, the wind increased in violence, and
the waves rolled high and broke over the ship, and we were no longer
allowed to occupy our favourite position on the upper deck, but had to
descend a stage lower. We were saturated with water from head to foot in
spite of our overalls, and we were also very sick, and, to add to our
misery, we could hear, above the noise of the wind and waves, the
fearful groaning of some poor woman who, a sailor told us, had been
suddenly taken ill, and it was doubtful if she could recover. He carried
a fish in his hand which he had caught as it was washed on deck, and he
invited us to come and see the place where he had to sleep. A dismal
place it was too, flooded with water, and not a dry thing for him to put
on. We could not help feeling sorry that these sailors had such
hardships to undergo; but he seemed to take it as a matter of course,
and appeared to be more interested in the fish he carried than in the
storm that was then raging. We were obliged to keep on the move to
prevent our taking cold, and we realised that we were in a dark,
dismal, and dangerous position, and thought of the words of a
well-known song and how appropriate they were to that occasion:

"O Pilot! 'tis a fearful night,
There's danger on the deep;
I'll come and pace the deck with thee,
I do not dare to sleep."
"Go down!" the Pilot cried, "go down!
This is no place for thee;
Fear not! but trust in Providence,
Wherever thou may'st be."

The storm continued for hours, and, as it gradually abated, our feelings
became calmer, our fears subsided, and we again ventured on the upper
deck. The night had been very dark hitherto, but we could now see the
occasional glimmering of a light a long distance ahead, which proved to
be that of a lighthouse, and presently we could distinguish the bold
outlines of the Shetland Islands.

As we entered Bressay Sound, however, a beautiful transformation scene
suddenly appeared, for the clouds vanished as if by magic, and the last
quarter of the moon, surrounded by a host of stars, shone out
brilliantly in the clear sky. It was a glorious sight, for we had never
seen these heavenly bodies in such a clear atmosphere before, and it was
hard to realise that they were so far away from us. We could appreciate
the feelings of a little boy of our acquaintance, who, when carried
outside the house one fine night by his father to see the moon,
exclaimed in an ecstasy of delight: "Oh, reach it, daddy! - reach it!"
and it certainly looked as if we could have reached it then, so very
near did it appear to us.

It was two o'clock on Sunday morning, September 10th, when we reached
Lerwick, the most northerly town in Her Majesty's British Dominions, and
we appealed to a respectable-looking passenger who was being rowed
ashore with us in the boat as to where we could obtain good lodgings. He
kindly volunteered to accompany us to a house at which he had himself
stayed before taking up his permanent residence as a tradesman in the
town and which he could thoroughly recommend. Lerwick seemed a
weird-looking place in the moonlight, and we turned many corners on our
way to our lodgings, and were beginning to wonder how we should find our
way out again, when our companion stopped suddenly before a private
boarding-house, the door of which was at once opened by the mistress. We
thanked the gentleman for his kind introduction, and as we entered the
house the lady explained that it was her custom to wait up for the
arrival of the _St. Magnus_. We found the fire burning and the kettle
boiling, and the cup that cheers was soon on the table with the usual
accompaniments, which were quickly disposed of. We were then ushered to
our apartments - a bedroom and sitting or dining-room combined, clean
and comfortable, but everything seemed to be moving like the ship we had
just left. Once in bed, however, we were soon claimed by the God of
Slumber, sleep, and dreams - our old friend Morpheus.

_Sunday, September 10th._

In the morning we attended the English Episcopalian Church, and, after
service, which was rather of a high church character, we walked into the
country until we came in sight of the rough square tower of Scalloway
Castle, and on our return we inspected the ruins of a Pictish castle,
the first of the kind we had seen, although we were destined to see many
others in the course of our journey.

[Illustration: LERWICK. Commercial Street as it was in 1871.]

The Picts, we were informed, were a race of people who settled in the
north of Scotland in pre-Roman times, and who constructed their
dwellings either of earth or stone, but always in a circular form. This
old castle was built of stone, and the walls were five or six yards
thick; inside these walls rooms had been made for the protection of the
owners, while the circular, open space enclosed by the walls had
probably been for the safe housing of their cattle. An additional
protection had also been formed by the water with which the castle was
surrounded, and which gave it the appearance of a small island in the
middle of a lake. It was connected with the land by means of a narrow
road, across which we walked. The castle did not strike us as having
been a very desirable place of residence; the ruins had such a very
dismal and deserted appearance that we did not stay there long, but
returned to our lodgings for lunch. After this we rested awhile, and
then joined the townspeople, who were patrolling every available space
outside. The great majority of these were women, healthy and
good-looking, and mostly dressed in black, as were also those we
afterwards saw in the Orkneys and the extreme north of Scotland, and we
thought that some of our disconsolate bachelor friends might have been
able to find very desirable partners for life in these northern
dominions of Her Majesty the Queen.

The houses in Lerwick had been built in all sorts of positions without
any attempt at uniformity, and the rough, flagged passage which did duty
for the main street was, to our mind, the greatest curiosity of all, and
almost worth going all the way to Shetland to see. It was curved and
angled in such an abrupt and zigzag manner that it gave us the
impression that the houses had been built first, and the street, where
practicable, filled in afterwards. A gentleman from London was loud in
his praise of this wonderful street; he said he felt so much safer there
than in "beastly London," as he could stand for hours in that street
before the shop windows without being run over by any cab, cart, or
omnibus, and without feeling a solitary hand exploring his coat pockets.
This was quite true, as we did not see any vehicles in Lerwick, nor
could they have passed each other through the crooked streets had they
been there, and thieves would have been equally difficult to find.
Formerly, however, Lerwick had an evil reputation in that respect, as it
was noted for being the abode of sheep-stealers and pirates, so much so,
that, about the year 1700, it had become such a disreputable place that
an earnest appeal was made to the "Higher Authorities" to have the place
burnt, and for ever made desolate, on account of its great wickedness.
Since that time, however, the softening influences of the Christian
religion had permeated the hearts of the people, and, at the time of our
visit, the town was well supplied with places of worship, and it would
have been difficult to have found any thieves there then. We attended
evening service in the Wesleyan Chapel, where we found a good
congregation, a well-conducted service, and an acceptable preacher, and
we reflected that Mr. Wesley himself would have rejoiced to know that
even in such a remote place as Lerwick his principles were being

_Monday, September 11th._

We rose early with the object of seeing all we could in the short time
at our disposal, which was limited to the space of a single day, or
until the _St. Magnus_ was due out in the evening on her return journey.
We were anxious to see a large cavern known as the Orkneyman's Cave, but
as it could only be reached from the sea, we should have had to engage a
boat to take us there. We were told the cave was about fifty feet square
at the entrance, but immediately beyond it increased to double the size;
it was possible indeed to sail into it with a boat and to lose sight of
daylight altogether.

The story goes that many years ago an Orkneyman was pursued by a
press-gang, but escaped being captured by sailing into the cave with his
boat. He took refuge on one of the rocky ledges inside, but in his haste
he forgot to secure his boat, and the ground swell of the sea washed it
out of the cave. To make matters worse, a storm came on, and there he
remained a prisoner in the cave for two days; but as soon as the storm
abated he plunged into the water, swam to a small rock outside, and
thence climbed to the top of the cliff and so escaped. Since that event
it had been known as the Orkneyman's Cave.

We went to the boat at the appointed time, but unfortunately the wind
was too strong for us to get round to the cave, so we were disappointed.
The boatman suggested as the next best thing that we should go to see
the Island of Noss. He accordingly took us across the bay, which was
about a mile wide, and landed us on the Island of Bressay. Here it was
necessary for us to get a permit to enable us to proceed farther, so,
securing his boat, the boatman accompanied us to the factor's house,
where he procured a pass, authorising us to land on the Island of Noss,
of which the following is a facsimile:

_Allow Mr. Nailer and friends
to land on Noss.
To Walter. A.M. Walker_.

Here he left us, as we had to walk across the Island of Bressay, and,
after a tramp of two or three miles, during which we did not see a
single human being, we came to another water where there was a boat.
Here we found Walter, and, after we had exhibited our pass, he rowed us
across the narrow arm of the sea and landed us on the Island of Noss. He
gave us careful instructions how to proceed so that we could see the
Holm of Noss, and warned us against approaching too near the edge of the
precipice which we should find there. After a walk of about a mile, all
up hill, we came to the precipitous cliffs which formed the opposite
boundary of the island, and from a promontory there we had a magnificent
view of the rocks, with the waves of the sea dashing against them,
hundreds of feet below. A small portion of the island was here separated
from the remainder by a narrow abyss about fifty feet wide, down which
it was terrible to look, and this separated portion was known as the
Holm of Noss. It rose precipitously on all sides from the sea, and its
level surface on the top formed a favourite nesting-place for myriads of
wild birds of different varieties, which not only covered the top of the
Holm, but also the narrow ledges along its jagged sides. Previous to the
seventeenth century, this was one of the places where the foot of man
had never trod, and a prize of a cow was offered to any man who would
climb the face of the cliff and establish a connection with the mainland
by means of a rope, as it was thought that the Holm would provide
pasturage for about twenty sheep. A daring fowler, from Foula Island,
successfully performed the feat, and ropes were firmly secured to the
rocks on each side, and along two parallel ropes a box or basket was
fixed, capable of holding a man and a sheep. This apparatus was named
the Cradle of Noss, and was so arranged that an Islander with or without
a sheep placed in the cradle could drag himself across the chasm in
either direction. Instead, however, of returning by the rope or cradle,
on which he would have been comparatively safe, the hardy fowler decided
to go back by the same way he had come, and, missing his foothold,
fell on the rocks in the sea below and was dashed to pieces, so that
the prize was never claimed by him.

[Illustration: THE HOLM OF NOSS. "It made us shudder ... as we peered
down on the abysmal depths below."]

We felt almost spellbound as we approached this awful chasm, and as if
we were being impelled by some invisible force towards the edge of the
precipice. It fairly made us shudder as on hands and knees we peered
down on the abysmal depths below. It was a horrible sensation, and one
that sometimes haunted us in our dreams for years afterwards, and we
felt greatly relieved when we found that we could safely crawl away and
regain an upright posture. We could see thousands upon thousands of wild
birds, amongst which the ordinary sea-gull was largely represented; but
there were many other varieties of different colours, and the
combination of their varied cries, mingled with the bleating of the
sheep, the whistling of the wind, the roaring of the waves as they
dashed against the rocks below, or entered the caverns with a sound like
distant thunder, tended to make us feel quite bewildered. We retired to
the highest elevation we could find, and there, 600 miles from home, and
perhaps as many feet above sea-level, was solitude in earnest. We were
the only human beings on the island, and the enchanting effect of the
wild scenery, the vast expanse of sea, the distant moaning of the
waters, the great rocks worn by the wind and the waves into all kinds of
fantastic shapes and caverns, the blue sky above with the glorious sun
shining upon us, all proclaimed to our minds the omnipotence of the
great Creator of the Universe, the Almighty Maker and Giver of all.

We lingered as long as we could in these lonely and romantic solitudes,
and, as we sped down the hill towards the boat, we suddenly became
conscious that we had not thought either of what we should eat or what
we should drink since we had breakfasted early in the morning, and we
were very hungry. Walter was waiting for us on our side of the water, as
he had been watching for our return, and had seen us coming when we were
nearly a mile away. There was no vegetation to obstruct the view, for,
as he said, we might walk fifty miles in Shetland without meeting with a
bush or tree. We had an agreeable surprise when we reached the other
side of the water in finding some light refreshments awaiting our
arrival which he had thoughtfully provided in the event of their being
required, and for which we were profoundly thankful. The cradle of Noss
had disappeared some time before our visit, but, if it had been there,
we should have been too terrified to make use of it. It had become
dangerous, and as the pasturage of sheep on the Holm had proved a
failure, the birds had again become masters of the situation, while the
cradle had fallen to decay. Walter gave us an awful description of the
danger of the fowler's occupation, especially in the Foula Island, where
the rocks rose towering a thousand feet above the sea. The top of the
cliffs there often projected over their base, so that the fowler had to
be suspended on a rope fastened to the top of the cliff, swinging
himself backwards and forwards like a pendulum until he could reach the
ledge of rock where the birds laid their eggs. Immediately he landed on
it, he had to secure his rope, and then gather the eggs in a hoop net,
and put them in his wallet, and then swing off again, perhaps hundreds
of feet above the sea, to find another similar ledge, so that his
business was practically carried on in the air. On one of these
occasions a fowler had just reached a landing-place on the precipice,
when his rope slipped out of his hand, and swung away from the cliff
into the empty air. If he had hesitated one moment, he would have been
lost for ever, as in all probability he would either have been starved
to death on the ledge of rock on which he was or fallen exhausted into
the sea below. The first returning swing of the rope might bring him a
chance of grasping it, but the second would be too far away. The rope
came back, the desperate man measured the distance with his eye, sprang
forward in the air, grasped the rope, and was saved.

Sometimes the rope became frayed or cut by fouling some sharp edge of
rock above, and, if it broke, the fowler was landed in eternity.
Occasionally two or three men were suspended on the same rope at the
same time. Walter told us of a father and two sons who were on the rope
in this way, the father being the lowest and his two sons being above
him, when the son who was uppermost saw that the rope was being frayed
above him, and was about to break. He called to his brother who was just
below that the rope would no longer hold them all, and asked him to cut
it off below him and let their father go. This he indignantly refused to
do, whereupon his brother, without a moment's hesitation, cut the rope
below himself, and both his father and brother perished.

It was terrible to hear such awful stories, as our nerves were unstrung
already, so we asked our friend Walter not to pile on the agony further,
and, after rewarding him for his services, we hurried over the remaining
space of land and sea that separated us from our comfortable quarters at
Lerwick, where a substantial tea was awaiting our arrival.

We were often asked what we thought of Shetland and its inhabitants.

Shetland was fine in its mountain and coast scenery, but it was wanting
in good roads and forests, and it seemed strange that no effort had been
made to plant some trees, as forests had formerly existed there, and, as
a gentleman told us, there seemed no peculiarity in either the soil or
climate to warrant an opinion unfavourable to the country's
arboricultural capacity. Indeed, such was the dearth of trees and
bushes, that a lady, who had explored the country thoroughly, declared
that the tallest and grandest tree she saw during her visit to the
Islands was a stalk of rhubarb which had run to seed and was waving its
head majestically in a garden below the old fort of Lerwick!

Agriculture seemed also to be much neglected, but possibly the fishing
industry was more profitable. The cottages also were very small and of
primitive construction, many of them would have been condemned as being
unfit for human habitation if they had existed elsewhere, and yet, in
spite of this apparent drawback, these hardy islanders enjoyed the best
of health and brought up large families of very healthy-looking
children. Shetland will always have a pleasant place in our memories,
and, as regards the people who live there, to speak the truth we
scarcely ever met with folks we liked better. We received the greatest
kindness and hospitality, and met with far greater courtesy and civility
than in the more outwardly polished and professedly cultivated parts of
the countries further south, especially when making inquiries from
people to whom we had not been "introduced"! The Shetlanders spoke good
English, and seemed a highly intelligent race of people. Many of the
men went to the whale and other fisheries in the northern seas, and
"Greenland's icy mountains" were well known to them.

On the island there were many wives and mothers who mourned the loss of
husbands and sons who had perished in that dangerous occupation, and
these remarks also applied to the Orkney Islands, to which we were
returning, and might also account for so many of these women being
dressed in black. Every one told us we were visiting the islands too
late in the year, and that we ought to have made our appearance at an
earlier period, when the sun never sets, and when we should have been

Online LibraryRobert NaylorFrom John O'Groats to Land's End → online text (page 2 of 66)