Copyright
Robert Naylor.

From John O'Groats to Land's End online

. (page 7 of 66)
Online LibraryRobert NaylorFrom John O'Groats to Land's End → online text (page 7 of 66)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


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.

[Illustration: OLD MAN OF WICK.]

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
YEARS.
_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.

[Illustration: THE NEEDLE OF IRESGOE.]

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._)


_Wednesday, September 20th._

We rose early, and while waiting for our breakfast talked with an old
habitué of the hotel, who, after drawing our attention to the weather,
which had now changed for the worse, told us that the building of the
new pier, as he called it, at Wick had been in progress for seven or
eight years, but the sea there was the stormiest in Britain, and when
the wind came one way the waves washed the pier down again, so that it
was now no bigger than it was two years ago. He also told us he could
remember the time when there was no mail-coach in that part of the
country, the letters for that neighbourhood being sent to a man, a
tailor by trade, who being often very busy, sent his wife to deliver
them, so that Her Majesty's mails were carried by a female!

[Illustration: A STORM IN WICK HARBOUR.]

Almost the last piece of advice given us before leaving home was, "Mind
that you always get a good breakfast before starting out in a morning,"
and fortunately we did not neglect it on this occasion, for it proved
one of the worst day's walks that we ever experienced. Helmsdale was our
next stage, and a direct road led to it along the coast, a distance of
sixteen miles. But my brother was a man of original ideas, and he had
made up his mind that we should walk there by an inland route, and climb
over the Maiden's Paps mountain on our way.

The wind had increased considerably during the night, and the rain began
to fall in torrents as we left the Dunbeath Inn, our mackintoshes and
leggings again coming in useful. The question now arose whether we
should adhere to our original proposal, or proceed to Helmsdale by the
shortest route. Our host strongly advised us to keep to the main road,
but we decided, in spite of our sore feet and the raging elements, to
cross over the Maiden's Paps. We therefore left the main road and
followed a track which led towards the mountains and the wild moors. We
had not gone very far when we met a disconsolate sportsman, accompanied
by his gillies and dogs, who was retreating to the inn which he had left
early in the morning. He explained to us how the rain would spoil his
sport amongst the grouse, though he consoled himself by claiming that it
had been one of the finest sporting seasons ever known in Caithness. As
an illustration, he said that on the eighteenth day of September he had
been out with a party who had shot forty-one and a half brace of grouse
to each gun, besides other game. The average weight of grouse on the
Scotch moors was twenty-five ounces, but those on the Caithness moors
were heavier, and averaged twenty-five and a half ounces.

He was curious to know where we were going, and when we told him, he
said we were attempting an impossible feat in such awful weather, and
strongly advised us to return to the hotel, and try the journey on a
finer day. We reflected that the fine weather had now apparently broken,
and it would involve a loss of valuable time if we accepted his advice
to wait for a finer day, so we pressed forwards for quite two hours
across a dreary country, without a tree or a house or a human being to
enliven us on our way. Fortunately the wind and rain were behind us, and
we did not feel their pressure like our friend the sportsman, who was
going in the opposite direction. At last we came to what might be called
a village, where there were a few scattered houses and a burial-ground,
but no kirk that we could see. Near here we crossed a stream known as
Berriedale Water, and reached the last house, a farm, where our track
practically ended. We knocked at the door, which was opened by the
farmer himself, and his wife soon provided us with tea and oatmeal cake,
which we enjoyed after our seven or eight-mile walk. The wind howled in
the chimney and the rain rattled on the window-panes as we partook of
our frugal meal, and we were inclined to exclaim with the poet whose
name we knew not:

The day is cold and dark and dreary,
It rains, and the wind is never weary.

The people at the farm had come there from South Wales and did not know
much about the country. All the information they could give us was that
the place we had arrived at was named Braemore, and that on the other
side of the hills, which they had never crossed themselves, there was a
forest with no roads through it, and if we got there, we should have to
make our way as best we could across the moors to Helmsdale. They showed
us the best way to reach the foot of the mountain, but we found the
going much worse than we anticipated, since the storm had now developed
into one of great magnitude. Fortunately the wind was behind us, but the
higher we ascended the stronger it became, and it fairly took our breath
away even when we turned our heads towards it sideways, which made us
realise how impossible it was for us to turn back, however much we
might wish to do so; consequently we struggled onwards, occasionally
taking advantage of the shelter of some projecting rock to recover our
breathing - a very necessary proceeding, for as we approached the summit
the rain became more like sleet, the wind was very cold, and the rocks
were in a frozen and slippery condition. We were in great danger of
being blown over and losing our lives, and as we could no longer walk
upright in safety, we knelt down, not without a prayer to heaven as we
continued on our way. Thus we crawled along upon our hands and knees
over the smooth wind-swept summit of the Maiden's Paps, now one immense
surface of ice. The last bit was the worst of all, for here the raging
elements struck us with full and uninterrupted force. We crossed this
inches at a time, lying flat on the smooth rock with our faces
downwards. Our feelings of thankfulness to the Almighty may be imagined
when we finally reached the other side in safety.

Given a fine day we should have had a glorious view from this point,
and, as it was, in spite of the rain we could see a long distance, but
the prospect was far from encouraging. A great black rock, higher than
that we had climbed, stood before us, with its summit hidden in the
clouds, and a wide expanse of hills and moors, but not a house or tree
so far as the eye could reach. This rather surprised us, as we expected
the forest region to be covered with trees which would afford us some
shelter on our farther way. We learned afterwards that the "forest" was
but a name, the trees having disappeared ages ago from most of these
forests in the northern regions of Scotland.

We were wet through to the skin and shivering with cold as we began to
descend the other side of the Maiden's Paps - a descent we found both
difficult and dangerous. It looked an awful place below us - a wild
amphitheatre of dreary hills and moors!

We had no compass to guide us, and in the absence of light from the sun
we could not tell in what direction we were travelling, so with our
backs towards the hills we had crossed, we made our way across the bog,
now saturated with water. We could hear it gurgling under our feet at
every stride, even when we could not see it, and occasionally we slipped
into holes nearly knee-deep in water. After floundering in the bog for
some time, and not knowing which way to turn, as we appeared to be



Online LibraryRobert NaylorFrom John O'Groats to Land's End → online text (page 7 of 66)