Robert Naylor.

From John O'Groats to Land's End online

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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!

[Illustration: THE WRECK.]

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

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."

[Illustration: A NORTH SEA ROLLER.]

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.

_Thursday, September 14th._

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.

[Illustration: "OLD MAN OF HOY."]

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.

[Illustration: THE SHIP INN, LANG HOPE. The sign has now been removed to
a new hotel, visible in the photograph, on the opposite side of the

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.

_Friday, September 15th._

At eight o'clock in the morning we were comfortably seated in the coach
which was bound for Wick, with our luggage and the two hampers safely
secured on the roof above, and after a ride of about six miles we were
left, with our belongings, at the side of the highway where the by-road
leading in the direction of John o' Groat's branched off to the left
across the open country. The object of our walk had become known to our
fellow-passengers, and they all wished us a pleasant journey as the
coach moved slowly away. Two other men who had friends in the coach also
alighted at the same place, and we joined them in waving adieux, which
were acknowledged from the coach, as long as it remained in sight. They
also very kindly assisted us to carry our luggage as far as they were
going on our way, and then they helped us to scheme how best to carry it
ourselves. We had brought some strong cord with us from Thurso, and with
the aid of this they contrived to sling the hampers over our shoulders,
leaving us free to carry the remainder of our luggage in the usual way,
and then, bidding us a friendly farewell, left us to continue on our
lonely way towards John o' Groat's. We must have presented an
extraordinary appearance with these large baskets extending behind our
backs, and we created great curiosity and some amusement amongst the
men, women, and children who were hard at work harvesting in the country
through which we passed.

My brother said it reminded him of Christian in John Bunyan's _Pilgrim's
Progress_, who carried the burden on his back and wanted to get rid of
it; while I thought of Sinbad the Sailor, who, when wrecked on a desert
island, was compelled to carry the Old Man of the Sea on his shoulders,
and he also wanted to get rid of his burden; but we agreed that, like
both of these worthy characters, we should be obliged to carry our
burdens to the end of the journey.

We had a fine view of Dunnet Head, which is said to be the Cape Orcas
mentioned by Diodorus Siculus, the geographer who lived in the time of
Julius Cæsar, and of the lighthouse which had been built on the top of
it in 1832, standing quite near the edge of the cliff.

The light from the lantern, which was 346 feet above the highest spring
tide, could be seen at a distance of 23 miles; but even this was
sometimes obscured by the heavy storms from the west when the enormous
billows from the Atlantic dashed against the rugged face of the cliff
and threw up the spray as high as the lights of the building itself, so
that the stones they contained have been known to break the glass in the
building; such, indeed, was the prodigious combined force of the wind
and sea upon the headland, that the very rock seemed to tremble as if it
were affected by an earthquake.

While on the coach we had passed the hamlets of Murkle and Castlehill.
Between these two places was a sandy pool on the seashore to which a
curious legend was attached. The story goes that -

a young lad on one occasion discovered a mermaid bathing and by some
means or other got into conversation with her and rendered himself so
agreeable that a regular meeting at the same spot took place between
them. This continued for some time. The young man grew exceedingly
wealthy, and no one could tell how he became possessed of such
riches. He began to cut a dash amongst the lasses, making them
presents of strings of diamonds of vast value, the gifts of the fair
sea nymph. By and by he began to forget the day of his appointment;
and when he did come to see her, money and jewels were his constant
request. The mermaid lectured him pretty sharply on his love of gold,
and, exasperated at his perfidy in bestowing her presents on his
earthly fair ones, enticed him one evening rather farther than usual,
and at length showed him a beautiful boat, in which she said she
would convey him to a cave in Darwick Head, where she had all the
wealth of all the ships that ever were lost in the Pentland Firth and
on the sands of Dunnet. He hesitated at first, but the love of gold
prevailed, and off they set to the cave in question. And here, says
the legend, he is confined with a chain of gold, sufficiently long to
admit of his walking at times on a small piece of sand under the
western side of the Head; and here, too, the fair siren laves herself
in the tiny waves on fine summer evenings, but no consideration will
induce her to loose his fetters of gold, or trust him one hour out of
her sight.

We walked on at a good pace and in high spirits, but, after having
knocked about for nine days and four nights and having travelled seven
or eight hundred miles by land and sea, the weight of our extra burden
began to tell upon us, and we felt rather tired and longed for a rest
both for mind and body in some quiet spot over the week's end,
especially as we had decided to begin our long walk on the Monday

Visions of a good hotel which we felt sure we should find at John o'
Groat's began to haunt us, and the more hungry we became the brighter
were our anticipations of the good fare that awaited us. But judge of
our surprise and disappointment when a man whom we met on the road told
us there was no hotel there at all! We asked if he thought we could get
lodgings at John o' Groat's House itself, but the sardonic grin that
spread over his features when he told us that that house had vanished
long ago was cruel. The information gave us quite a shock, and our
spirits seemed to fall below zero as we turned our backs on the man
without even thanking him for answering our questions. We felt not too
full, but too empty for words, as we were awfully hungry, and I heard my

Online LibraryRobert NaylorFrom John O'Groats to Land's End → online text (page 4 of 66)