Robert Naylor.

From John O'Groats to Land's End online

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able to read at midnight without the aid of an artificial light.
Shetland was evidently in the range of the "Land of the Midnight Sun,"
but whether we should have been able to keep awake in order to read at
midnight was rather doubtful, as we were usually very sleepy. At one
time of the year, however, the sun did not shine at all, and the
Islanders had to rely upon the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights,
which then made their appearance and shone out brilliantly, spreading a
beautifully soft light over the islands. We wondered if it were this or
the light of the midnight sun that inspired the poet to write:

Night walked in beauty o'er the peaceful sea.
Whose gentle waters spoke tranquillity,

or if it had been borrowed from some more peaceful clime, as we had not
yet seen the "peaceful sea" amongst these northern islands. We had now
once more to venture on its troubled waters, and we made our appearance
at the harbour at the appointed time for the departure of the _St.
Magnus_. We were, however, informed that the weather was too misty for
our boat to leave, so we returned to our lodgings, ordered a fire, and
were just making ourselves comfortable and secretly hoping our departure
might be delayed until morning, when Mrs. Sinclair, our landlady, came
to tell us that the bell, which was the signal for the _St. Magnus_ to
leave, had just rung. We hurried to the quay, only to find that the boat
which conveyed passengers and mails to our ship had disappeared. We were
in a state of consternation, but a group of sailors, who were standing
by, advised us to hire a special boat, and one was brought up
immediately, by which, after a lot of shouting and whistling - for we
could scarcely see anything in the fog - we were safely landed on the
steamboat. We had only just got beyond the harbour, however, when the
fog became so dense that we suddenly came to a standstill, and had to
remain in the bay for a considerable time. When at last we moved slowly
outwards, the hoarse whistle of the _St. Magnus_ was sounded at short
intervals, to avoid collision with any other craft. It had a strangely
mournful sound, suggestive of a funeral or some great calamity, and we
should almost have preferred being in a storm, when we could have seen
the danger, rather than creeping along in the fog and darkness, with a
constant dread of colliding with some other boat or with one of the
dangerous rocks which we knew were in the vicinity. Sleep was out of the
question until later, when the fog began to clear a little, and, in the
meantime, we found ourselves in the company of a group of young men who
told us they were going to Aberdeen.

One of them related a rather sorrowful story. He and his mates had come
from one of the Shetland Islands from which the inhabitants were being
expelled by the factor, so that he could convert the whole of the island
into a sheep farm for his own personal advantage. Their ancestors had
lived there from time immemorial, but their parents had all received
notice to leave, and other islands were being depopulated in the same
way. The young men were going to Aberdeen to try to find ships on which
they could work their passage to some distant part of the world; they
did not know or care where, but he said the time would come when this
country would want soldiers and sailors, and would not be able to find
them after the men had been driven abroad. He also told us about what he
called the "Truck System," which was a great curse in their islands, as
"merchants" encouraged young people to get deeply in their debt, so that
when they grew up they could keep them in their clutches and subject
them to a state of semi-slavery, as with increasing families and low
wages it was then impossible to get out of debt. We were very sorry to
see these fine young men leaving the country, and when we thought of the
wild and almost deserted islands we had just visited, it seemed a pity
they could not have been employed there. We had a longer and much
smoother passage than on our outward voyage, and the fog had given place
to a fine, clear atmosphere as we once more entered the fine harbour of
Kirkwall, and we had a good view of the town, which some enthusiastic
passenger described as the "Metropolis of the Orcadean Archipelago."

_Tuesday, September 12th._

We narrowly escaped a bad accident as we were leaving the _St. Magnus_.
She carried a large number of sheep and Shetland ponies on deck, and our
way off the ship was along a rather narrow passage formed by the cattle
on one side and a pile of merchandise on the other. The passengers were
walking in single file, my brother immediately in front of myself, when
one of the ponies suddenly struck out viciously with its hind legs just
as we were passing. If we had received the full force of the kick, we
should have been incapacitated from walking; but fortunately its
strength was exhausted when it reached us, and it only just grazed our
legs. The passengers behind thought at first we were seriously injured,
and one of them rushed forward and held the animal's head to prevent
further mischief; but the only damage done was to our overalls, on which
the marks of the pony's hoofs remained as a record of the event. On
reaching the landing-place the passengers all came forward to
congratulate us on our lucky escape, and until they separated we were
the heroes of the hour, and rather enjoyed the brief notoriety.

There was an old-world appearance about Kirkwall reminiscent of the time

When Norse and Danish galleys plied
Their oars within the Firth of Clyde,
When floated Haco's banner trim
Above Norwegian warriors grim,
Savage of heart and huge of limb.

for it was at the palace there that Haco, King of Norway, died in 1263.
There was only one considerable street in the town, and this was winding
and narrow and paved with flags in the centre, something like that in
Lerwick, but the houses were much more foreign in appearance, and many
of them had dates on their gables, some of them as far back as the
beginning of the fifteenth century. We went to the same hotel as on our
outward journey, and ordered a regular good "set out" to be ready by the
time we had explored the ancient cathedral, which, like our ship, was
dedicated to _St. Magnus_. We were directed to call at a cottage for the
key, which was handed to us by the solitary occupant, and we had to find
our way as best we could. After entering the ancient building, we took
the precaution of locking the door behind us. The interior looked dark
and dismal after the glorious sunshine we had left outside, and was
suggestive more of a dungeon than a place of worship, and of the dark
deeds done in the days of the past. The historian relates that St.
Magnus met his death at the hands of his cousin Haco while in the church
of Eigleshay. He had retired there with a presentiment of some evil
about to happen him, and "while engaged in devotional exercises,
prepared and resigned for whatever might occur, he was slain by one
stroke of a hatchet. Being considered eminently pious, he was looked
upon as a saint, and his nephew Ronald built the cathedral in accordance
with a vow made before leaving Norway to lay claim to the Earldom of
Orkney." The cathedral was considered to be the best-preserved relic of
antiquity in Scotland, and we were much impressed by the dim religious
light which pervaded the interior, and quite bewildered amongst the dark
passages inside the walls. We had been recommended to ascend the
cathedral tower for the sake of the fine view which was to be obtained
from the top, but had some difficulty in finding the way to the steps.
Once we landed at the top of the tower we considered ourselves well
repaid for our exertions, as the view over land and sea was very
beautiful. Immediately below were the remains of the bishop's and earl's
palaces, relics of bygone ages, now gradually crumbling to decay, while
in the distance we could see the greater portion of the sixty-seven
islands which formed the Orkney Group. Only about one-half of these were
inhabited, the remaining and smaller islands being known as holms, or
pasturages for sheep, which, seen in the distance, resembled green
specks in the great blue sea, which everywhere surrounded them.


[Illustration: STROMNESS]

I should have liked to stay a little longer surveying this fairy-like
scene, but my brother declared he could smell our breakfast, which by
this time must have been waiting for us below. Our exit was a little
delayed, as we took a wrong turn in the rather bewildering labyrinth of
arches and passages in the cathedral walls, and it was not without a
feeling of relief that we reached the door we had so carefully locked
behind us. We returned the key to the caretaker, and then went to our
hotel, where we loaded ourselves with a prodigious breakfast, and
afterwards proceeded to walk across the Mainland of the Orkneys, an
estimated distance of fifteen miles.

On our rather lonely way to Stromness we noticed that agriculture was
more advanced than in the Shetland Islands, and that the cattle were
somewhat larger, but we must say that we had been charmed with the
appearance of the little Shetland ponies, excepting perhaps the one that
had done its best to give us a farewell kick when we were leaving the
_St. Magnus_. Oats and barley were the crops chiefly grown, for we did
not see any wheat, and the farmers, with their wives and children, were
all busy harvesting their crops of oats, but there was still room for
extension and improvement, as we passed over miles of uncultivated
moorland later. On our inquiring what objects of interest were to be
seen on our way, our curiosity was raised to its highest pitch when we
were told we should come to an underground house and to a large number
of standing stones a few miles farther on. We fully expected to descend
under the surface of the ground, and to find some cave or cavern below;
but when we got to the place, we found the house practically above
ground, with a small mountain raised above it. It was covered with
grass, and had only been discovered in 1861, about ten years before our
visit. Some boys were playing on the mountain, when one of them found a
small hole which he thought was a rabbit hole, but, pushing his arm down
it, he could feel no bottom. He tried again with a small stick, but with
the same result. The boys then went to a farm and brought a longer
stick, but again failed to reach the bottom of the hole, so they resumed
their play, and when they reached home they told their parents of their
adventure, and the result was that this ancient house was discovered and
an entrance to it found from the level of the land below.

[Illustration: SHETLAND PONIES.]

We went in search of the caretaker, and found him busy with the harvest
in a field some distance away, but he returned with us to the mound. He
opened a small door, and we crept behind him along a low, narrow, and
dark passage for a distance of about seventeen yards, when we entered a
chamber about the size of an ordinary cottage dwelling, but of a
vault-like appearance. It was quite dark, but our guide proceeded to
light a number of small candles, placed in rustic candlesticks, at
intervals, round this strange apartment. We could then see some small
cells in the wall, which might once have been used as burial places for
the dead, and on the walls themselves were hundreds of figures or
letters cut in the rock, in very thin lines, as if engraved with a
needle. We could not decipher any of them, as they appeared more like
Egyptian hieroglyphics than letters of our alphabet, and the only figure
we could distinguish was one which had the appearance of a winged

The history of the place was unknown, but we were afterwards told that
it was looked upon as one of the most important antiquarian discoveries
ever made in Britain. The name of the place was Maeshowe. The mound was
about one hundred yards in circumference, and it was supposed that the
house, or tumulus, was first cut out of the rock and the earth thrown
over it afterwards from the large trench by which it was surrounded.


Our guide then directed us to the "Standing Stones of Stenness," which
were some distance away; but he could not spare time to go with us, so
we had to travel alone to one of the wildest and most desolate places
imaginable, strongly suggestive of ghosts and the spirits of the
departed. We crossed the Bridge of Brogar, or Bruargardr, and then
walked along a narrow strip of land dividing two lochs, both of which at
this point presented a very lonely and dismal appearance. Although they
were so near together, Loch Harry contained fresh water only and Loch
Stenness salt water, as it had a small tidal inlet from the sea passing
under Waith Bridge, which we crossed later. There were two groups of the
standing stones, one to the north and the other to the south, and each
consisted of a double circle of considerable extent. The stones
presented a strange appearance, as while many stood upright, some were
leaning; others had fallen, and some had disappeared altogether. The
storms of many centuries had swept over them, and "they stood like
relics of the past, with lichens waving from their worn surfaces like
grizzly beards, or when in flower mantling them with brilliant orange
hues," while the areas enclosed by them were covered with mosses, the
beautiful stag-head variety being the most prominent. One of the poets
has described them:

The heavy rocks of giant size
That o'er the land in circles rise.
Of which tradition may not tell,
Fit circles for the Wizard spell;
Seen far amidst the scowling storm
Seem each a tall and phantom form,
As hurrying vapours o'er them flee
Frowning in grim security,
While like a dread voice from the past
Around them moans the autumnal blast!

These lichened "Standing Stones of Stenness," with the famous Stone of
Odin about 150 yards to the north, are second only to Stonehenge, one
measuring 18 feet in length, 5 feet 4 inches in breadth, and 18 inches
in thickness. The Stone of Odin had a hole in it to which it was
supposed that sacrificial victims were fastened in ancient times, but in
later times lovers met and joined hands through the hole in the stone,
and the pledge of love then given was almost as sacred as a marriage
vow. An antiquarian description of this reads as follows: "When the
parties agreed to marry, they repaired to the Temple of the Moon, where
the woman in the presence of the man fell down on her knees and prayed
to the God Wodin that he would enable her to perform, all the promises
and obligations she had made, and was to make, to the young man present,
after which they both went to the Temple of the Sun, where the man
prayed in like manner before the woman. They then went to the Stone of
Odin, and the man being on one side and the woman on the other, they
took hold of each other's right hand through the hole and there swore to
be constant and faithful to each other." The hole in the stone was about
five feet from the ground, but some ignorant farmer had destroyed the
stone, with others, some years before our visit.

There were many other stones in addition to the circles, probably the
remains of Cromlechs, and there were numerous grass mounds, or barrows,
both conoid and bowl-shaped, but these were of a later date than the
circles. It was hard to realise that this deserted and boggarty-looking
place was once the Holy Ground of the ancient Orcadeans, and we were
glad to get away from it. We recrossed the Bridge of Brogar and
proceeded rapidly towards Stromness, obtaining a fine prospective view
of that town, with the huge mountain masses of the Island of Hoy as a
background, on our way. These rise to a great height, and terminate
abruptly near where that strange isolated rock called the "Old Man of
Hoy" rises straight from the sea as if to guard the islands in the rear.
The shades of evening were falling fast as we entered Stromness, but
what a strange-looking town it seemed to us! It was built at the foot of
the hill in the usual irregular manner and in one continuous crooked
street, with many of the houses with their crow-stepped gables built as
it were over the sea itself, and here in one of these, owing to a high
recommendation received inland, we stayed the night. It was perched
above the water's edge, and, had we been so minded, we might have caught
the fish named sillocks for our own breakfast without leaving the house:
many of the houses, indeed, had small piers or landing-stages attached
to them, projecting towards the bay.

We found Mrs. Spence an ideal hostess and were very comfortable, the
only drawback to our happiness being the information that the small
steamboat that carried mails and passengers across to Thurso had gone
round for repairs "and would not be back for a week, but a sloop would
take her place" the day after to-morrow. But just fancy crossing the
stormy waters of the Pentland Firth in a sloop! We didn't quite know
what a sloop was, except that it was a sailing-boat with only one mast;
but the very idea gave us the nightmare, and we looked upon ourselves as
lost already. The mail boat, we had already been told, had been made
enormously strong to enable her to withstand the strain of the stormy
seas, besides having the additional advantage of being propelled by
steam, and it was rather unfortunate that we should have arrived just at
the time she was away. We asked the reason why, and were informed that
during the summer months seaweeds had grown on the bottom of her hull
four or five feet long, which with the barnacles so impeded her progress
that it was necessary to have them scraped off, and that even the great
warships had to undergo the same process.

Seaweeds of the largest size and most beautiful colours flourish, in the
Orcadean seas, and out of 610 species of the flora in the islands we
learned that 133 were seaweeds. Stevenson the great engineer wrote that
the large Algæ, and especially that one he named the "Fucus esculentus,"
grew on the rocks from self-grown seed, six feet in six months, so we
could quite understand how the speed of a ship would be affected when
carrying this enormous growth on the lower parts of her hull.

_Wednesday, September 13th._

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

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

Online LibraryRobert NaylorFrom John O'Groats to Land's End → online text (page 3 of 66)