Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Scottish Reminincenses
Chapter X

The Orkney Islands. The Shetland Islands. Faroe Islands contrasted with Western Isles.  Burning the water.’ A fisher of men. Salmon according to London taste. Trout and fishing-poles. A wolfs den.

The Orkney and Shetland Islands present in many respects a strong contrast to the Hebrides. Differing fundamentally in their geological structure, and consequently also in their scenery, they are inhabited by a totally distinct race of people, and the topographical names, instead of being Gaelic, are Norse or English. The natives, descendants of the old Norwegian stock that once ruled the north and west of Scotland, still retain many marks of their Scandinavian origin. Blue eyes and fair hair are common among them. They are strongly built and active, with an energy and enterprise which strike with surprise one who has long been familiar with the west Highland indolence and procrastination. My first descent upon the Orkneys was a brief but interesting expedition, when after a ramble along the north coast of Caithness, I had reached, with my colleague, Mr. B. N. Peach, the little inn of Huna, near John o’ Groat’s House. For geological purposes we were desirous of visiting the nearest of the Orkney group, Stroma, ‘the island of the stream,’—a name which graphically marks its position in the midst of the broad tidal current of the Pentland Firth that sweeps past it like a vast river, and with a flow fully three times faster than that of an ordinary navigable river. We engaged the old ferryman, who used to run the mail-boat from Caithness to Orkney, and were warned by him that, as the weather looked threatening and the tide in the evening would be against us, he could not give us more than an hour on the island, and he would not allow the men to have any whisky on the voyage, since they might need all their wits about them before we got back. The sail across was easily made. Obeying our captain’s injunctions to keep within the prescribed hour, we did most of our work running, and succeeded in ascertaining what we wanted to know. On re-embarking, we soon perceived that his prognostication as to the weather was likely to be fulfilled. The sky had become entirely overcast, and, though no rain fell, ominous moanings of wind warned us not to linger. The tide had turned and was beginning to flow westwards against the breeze. As it increased in its rate of flow the surface of the firth began to curl and boil, streaks of foam were whirled round in yeasty eddies, while here and there the water, as if in agony, would rear itself in swirling columns that burst into spray, which was swept along by the wind in clouds of spindrift. Not far off we could see the ‘ Merry men of Mey,’ a tumultuous group of breakers above a dangerous reef, surging up into sheets of foam-crested water that writhed and tossed themselves far up into the misty air. Our pilot sat at the helm watching every advancing billow and cleverly bringing the boat round in time to meet it. It was a difficult piece of navigation, skilfully performed. We could then understand why the men were to be prohibited from tasting whisky till they got back to Huna. But arrived in safety, we cheerfully ordered the stipulated bottle for them.

Subsequently on crossing over into the Orkney group, I had soon occasion to note the difference between the boatmen there and those with whom I was familiar in the west of Scotland More adventurous and skilful than their Celtic fellow-countrymen, they generally possess larger and stronger boats, which they keep in better trim. Some of their smaller boats are built with sharp sterns, and exactly resemble the common type one sees in Norway. In the eighteenth century, as Boswell mentions, the people in the Inner Hebrides sometimes obtained their boats from Norway. The Orcadians, among other traces of their Scandinavian descent, seem to take to the water as naturally as the seals which they shoot. On several occasions my Orkney boatmen piloted me along the base of cliffs and among rocks against which the heavy Atlantic swell was breaking, where no Skye boatmen I ever met with would have ventured. No one can fully realize the grandeur of the great cliff of Hoy unless he can look up at it from below, as well as from the crest above. Its warm tints of bright yellow and red make it seem aglow with light even in dull weather, and from a distance it looks as if it caught sunbeams which are falling on no other part of the scene. Viewed from its upper edge, this cliff presents a wonderful picture of decay. The horizontal beds of sandstone have been split by the weather into long deep vertical chasms, and etched out into fantastic cusps and cupolas, alcoves and recesses. From the edge of the precipice, which rises a thousand feet above the sea, one looks down on the long Atlantic rollers, seemingly diminished to mere ripples, and their heavy breakers to streaks of foam, while the surge, though it thunders against the rocks, ‘cannot be heard so high.’ The Old Man of Hoy, which has been left standing as an isolated column in front of this great cliff, is the grandest natural obelisk in the British Islands, for it rises to a height of 450 feet above the waves that beat against its base.

Swept by the salt-laden blasts from the ocean, Orkney and Shetland cannot "boast of trees. Hedges of elder grow well enough when under the protection of stone walls, but are shorn off obliquely when they rise above them, as if a scythe or bill-hook had cut them across. ' A group of low trees, sheltered by the houses at Strom ness, appears to be the resort of all the birds within a compass of many miles. There is a story of an American traveller who landed at Kirkwall in the dark, and, after a stroll before breakfast next morning, returned to the hotel amazed at the ‘completeness of the clearing’ which he supposed the inhabitants had made of their forests. To the geologist, the antiquary, and the lover of cliff scenery, the Orkney islands offer much of great interest. Though it was in the first of these capacities that I was drawn to the islands, the standing. sbpnes, brochs, and mounds, as well as the magnificent coast-precipices, were soon found to have irresistible attractions.

Shetland, lying more remote from the rest of Britain, has preserved, even more than Orkney, traces of the Scandinavian occupation. One comes now and then upon an old Norse word in the language of the people, and so foreign are the topographical names that, in hearing them pronounced, one might imagine oneself to be among the fjords of Norway. To this day we may hear a Shetlander, who is about to sail for the south, say that he is going to Scotland, as if he regarded his own islands as part of another kingdom. On my first visit to Shetland I spent some time on the mainland, chiefly on geological errands bent, but not without a glance at the scenic and antiquarian interests of the islands. One of my excursions took me to Papa Stour—a small island lying to the west, and exposed to the full fury of the Atlantic storms, which have tunnelled its cliffs with caverns and gullies. Some of these perforations have been continued until they open upward in cauldron-like holes on the surface of the moorland. During gales from the west, the sea is driven into these clefts with a noise like the firing of cannon, and bursts out in sheets of spray from the cauldrons on the moor. On this island,. as in so many .other parts of Shetland, the want of fuel is a serious evil. The inhabitants have gradually cut away and burnt much of the thin coating of turf which covered the naked rock. Hence over considerable areas there is now no soil,—only sheets of crumbling stone which supports no vegetation and cannot be made to yield a crop of any kind.

On the way back from Papa Stour to Lerwick, I availed myself of the kindly offered hospitality of one of the proprietors on the mainland. The lady of the house was unfortunately confined to bed, but her daughter and the governess did the honours of the house. This young lady was said to be descended from one of the daughters of the Shetland worthy whose likeness Scott drew as Magnus Troil in the Pirate. At all events she was a typical Shetlander, as much at home on the water as on the land. Mounted on a strong pony, she used to scour the country far and near, picking her way across bog and stream in a region where roads were few. In her boat, she had made acquaintance with every creek and cavern for miles along the coast on either side. Some time before my visit, a vessel with a cargo of teak had been wrecked in the neighbourhood, and such part of the wood as could be reached had been removed. But the young lady, in the true spirit of the wrecker, knew where every stray log was to be found, in each little voe and creek into which the waves had carried it. She had a huge dog which accompanied her on her rambles, and, as one of the family, was admitted into the dining-room at meal-time. During dinner the animal, instinctively divining that I was fond of dogs and might be expected to be attentive to him, placed himself at my side, with his nose resting on the. edge of the table and his eyes directed towards my plate. Interested beyond measure in the talk of my young hostess, I forgot my four-footed friend for a little, and, on turning to continue operations with knife and fork, found to my astonishment that my plate was empty, and that he was pleasantly looking at me and licking his lips.

In the course of a cruise in the ‘Aster’ round the Shetland Islands I enjoyed ample opportunities of becoming acquainted with the whole of the wonderful coast-scenery of this archipelago. With a steam yacht it is possible to keep close inshore, and to sail back and forward along the more interesting parts. In this way I was enabled to see the great cliffs of Foula well, and to watch the movements of its ‘bonxies’ or Great Skuas. With the view of protecting these now rare and almost exterminated birds, the proprietor of the island many years ago gave strict orders to the natives not to molest them nor take their eggs, and on no account to let any birds’-egg collectors come and help themselves. He was on the steamer one day bound for Scotland, when one of the passengers, entering into conversation with him, began to talk of Foula, and to complain of the incivility of the people of the island. The laird inquired in what way they had been discourteous to him. ‘Well, you see,’ said the bird-man, ‘I am a dealer in birds’ eggs, and I went to the island to obtain some eggs of the Great Skua. The natives refused to get me any, and when they saw me preparing to go and hunt for them myself they gathered round and threatened to pitch me over the cliff into the sea.’ ‘And, by Jove,’ exclaimed the laird, ‘they would have done it too. They have my orders ; I am the proprietor of Foula.’

As the yacht steamed round St. Magnus Bay and past the extraordinary group of fantastic islets that rise out of its waters, we had the good luck to see a white-tailed eagle winging its way northward, and pursued by a flock of large gulls. This bird is now almost extinct along our coasts. A few pairs are still left. One of these breeds near the top of a cliff 500 feet high, in a group of islets which is a favourite anchorage for the ‘Aster.’ Last year (1903), besides the two old birds, a third was seen.

Rounding the far headland of Unst, the most northerly point of the British Islands, we ran up a flag to salute the lighthouse on that lonely spot. So seldom does any yacht pass there, and, judging from our experience, so few vessels of any kind come within saluting distance of the place, that the keeper, taken aback apparently at our courtesy, and not wishing to delay his return of it, seized a pair of white trousers that were drying on the parapet rail, and waved them enthusiastically, while his comrade ran to hoist the flag.

One of the greatest obstacles to yachting in these northern seas during summer is the prevalence of fogs. In two cruises to the Faroe Islands, the ‘ Aster ’ had to be navigated for most of the way in a dense white mist, with a smooth sea below and blue sky above, but when one end of the vessel was scarcely visible from the other, and the foghorn had to be kept constantly going. So excellently, however, had the course been laid, that after soundings had shown that land could not be far off, we heard the barking of a dog and the firing of a gun. In a few minutes the top of the Lille Dimon could be seen above the fog, and we entered the channel for which we had been steering.

At the time of one of our trips to Faroe, small-pox had been prevalent in Scotland, and when we ran into the sheltered inlet of Tran-gisvaag, the yellow quarantine flag was run up on the wooden building ashore, and a boat came off to warn us not to land until we had been inspected by the medical man of the place. In a little while he pulled alongside, and after some preliminary conversation asked that the whole human contents of the yacht should be mustered on the deck before him. So we all placed ourselves in a row, while he marched along and inspected us. It was interesting to notice the amused and half-contemptuous faces of the crew at this performance, each man feeling himself as strong and well as youth, sea-air, and good food could make him, My host thought that the official should not be allowed to leave without some refreshment, and called on the steward to bring it. The Doctor selected a glass of whisky, evidently without knowing what it was, for before we could make any explanation, he tossed it off as if it had been so much water. But not until it was well down his throat did he realise the strength of the liquor. He gave a few gasps, while his eyes filled with water, and he had to make an effort to compose himself and go on with the conversation as if nothing had happened. If he had never tasted 'i alisker whisky before, we believed he would not forget his first experience of it.

So exactly do the Faroe Islands reproduce the scenery of the Inner Hebrides that it is difficult .at first to believe that we are not somehow back again under the cliffs of Skye or Mull. Green declivities descend from the interior of these islands to the edge of the cliffs, which then plunge sheer down into the sea. The precipices are built up of nearly level sheets of brown basalt, edged with narrow strips of grassy herbage, cleft into chasms, and eaten out into tunnels and caves by the restless surge. From the horizontal bars of the great cliffs, the eye ranges upward to the brightly verdant slopes above, and marks dark-brown ribs of rock running parallel with these bars in a series of terraces away up to the crests of the ridges and hills. Only in the little bays, which here and there indent the ranges of formidable precipice, does one catch sight of evidence of human occupation.

But, while the topography is so similar, the population presents a singular contrast to that of the Western Isles of Scotland. Everywhere it gives proofs of energy, industry, comfort, cleanliness, and civilisation. Each little community at the head of its cliff-girt inlet has built a hamlet of neat wooden houses, which, with their painted doors, trim windows, and clean white curtains, show that the inhabitants are well-to-do, and not without some of the luxuries of life. Fishing is the main industry, and all the inhabitants are more or less engaged in it—men, women, and children. The men go to sea and bring back the fish. The women look after it as it lies drying in the sun, cover it with tarpaulin if rain comes, and stack it up ready for export. There is usually a chief man or merchant who takes general charge of the trade, and arranges for the steamboats to come and carry off the piles of fish.

To return from such a scene to the west of Skye cannot but fill the heart with sadness as one passes inlet after inlet, either with no inhabitants or with only a handful of them, housed in squalid, miserable, dirty huts, too poor to provide themselves with good seagoing boats, too timid or too lazy and unenterprising to gather the harvest of the sea, as the men do in Faroe, but content to live as their fathers have done, save that now they have become possessed by a greed for more land, which, when they get it, they will doubtless cultivate in the same unskilful and slovenly fashion. In the herring fishing, which is the chief industry among the Western Isles, the boats come largely from the east side of Scotland, and are manned by the stalwart and active seamen of the shores of the Moray Firth and other parts of the coast.

The subject of fish and fishing recalls some recollections of angling experiences on the mainland. In boyhood I used sometimes to assist at a ‘ burning o’ the water/ when all the shepherds, poachers, and idlers of the district assembled to take part in the fun and excitement of spearing salmon or grilse. The Gala Water on these nights presented a singularly picturesque sight—the lurid glare and smoke of the torches, the cautious movements of the men in the river, the shouts of those on the bank as a successful ‘leister/ that had transfixed a fish, was handed over to them, and the chorus of shepherds’ dogs that were among the most active and excited of the spectators. The account of the night exploits at Charlie’s Hope in Guy Mannering is as truthful as it is graphic.

Among the lakes of Sutherland there is one not far from Beinn Griam which, an enthusiastic angler assured me, consists of ‘ three parts of fish and one water.’ Another sporting friend, not to be outdone, lauded the extraordinary abundance of game in his native island. ‘There is a stream there,’ he would say, ‘once so stocked with trout that I never failed to fill a big basket. But now the feathered game has become so abundant that though the fish are as plentiful as ever, I can hardly get any, for almost every time I cast my line I hook a grouse in the air.

A former well-known witty editor of an Edinburgh newspaper was fond of escaping to the banks of the Yarrow or the Ettrick for a few days’ fishing. One Monday morning he was accosted by the clergyman who had been preaching the day before, and who, though a stranger to him, asked a number of questions about his sport. The editor replied civilly to the battery of queries, and at last began to catechise in his turn.

‘And are you too a fisher?’ he asked.

‘Oh no, I have no time for angling. You see I am a fisher of men.’

‘And have you had much success in your line?’

‘Not nearly as much as I could wish.’ _

‘Ay, I can believe that. I looked into your creel [the church] yesterday and there were very few fish in it.’

There is a story told of an amateur angler who with an attendant was fishing, from the English side, the Carham Burn, which at one part of the border separates the two kingdoms. H is hook had caught under the opposite bank, and he was under the impression that it had been taken by a large fish which had run up from the Tweed. His old companion, however, disabused him by drily remarking, ‘ Ay, ye hae got a big fish, nae doot; ye hae heukit auld Scotland.’

Those who are accustomed to salmon which has been carried in ice a long distance, and kept for some days before being eaten, do not always appreciate the newly-killed fish as it is given in Scotland, with its firm, flaky consistence and fresh curd. A Londoner, who had taken a house for the summer in Forfarshire, had made the acquaintance of the lessee of one of the salmon fisheries on the coast of that county, and asked him one day to be so good as allow him to have a fish for a dinner party which he was about to give. A fine fresh salmon was accordingly sent to the house. A few weeks afterwards the Englishman came down to the coast again, and after expressing his thanks for the fish, ventured to remark that somehow it was harder and more flaky than what he was accustomed to in London. He was about to give another dinner, he said, and would like another salmon. The lessee, promising that he should have one quite to his taste, went down to one of his men and gave the following order: ‘Sandy, you’ll take that fish and hang it up in the sun all day. Then after breakfast tomorrow you'll lay it on a stone and thump it hard all over with a heavy stick, then hang it up in the sun again till the afternoon, and after that send it up to Mr. -.’ The Londoner in a few days appeared to express his thanks for the fish which he pronounced to be exactly what he liked, and what he was used to in the south.

Trouting streams in this country and in Western America have distinct peculiarities. Some years ago I was rambling up Glen Spean, and along the heathery and rocky banks of the River Treig with an American friend, who had spent much of his life in surveying the Western Territories of the United States. ‘What a fine stream,’ he remarked, ‘not to have trout in it! ’ I assured him there were plenty of trout in all the streams of the district. ‘But how can that be?’ he enquired, ‘there are no poles growing along the banks.’ He explained that in the Far West, Providence appeared to have so arranged that fish need not be sought for in streams on ihe margins of which no wood grew, such as would supply a fishing-rod.

The mention of sport in the Highlands brings to recollection another illustration of the curious vitality of some stories, and the singular transformations which they may undergo as they are passed on from mouth to mouth through successive generations. An old legend in the north-west Highlands tells how two men set out to kill a wolf that was destroying the sheep of the crofters of Kintail. One of them entered the animal’s den, while the other stood on guard at the entrance. Soon afterwards the wolf returned and made for its cave, when the man at the entrance seized it by the tail as it got inside, and held it fast. His companion within then called out

One-eyed Gilchrist Who closed the hole?

The other answered

If the rump-tail should break Thy skull shall know that.1

Probably this tale was carried to Canada by some of the Highland emigrants and became naturalised and localised there, for it has come back in the following guise: Two Scotsmen in a mountainous part of the colony, climbed up a rocky slope to the mouth of a narrow cave, into which one of them crawled to discover what might be inside. The other contented himself by lighting his pipe and sitting down outside, but had not been there above a minute or two when a huge she-bear came rushing up the declivity and made straight for the cave. Seeing the danger to his friend he had presence of mind enough to seize the tail of the bear just as the animal had got within the entrance, and to plant his feet firmly against the rock on each side. Presently a voice from the inner recesses shouted out, ‘Donald, Donald, fat be darkenin’ the hole?’ To which Donald replied, ‘My faith, Angus, gin the tail break ye’ll fin’ fat be darkenin’ the hole.’

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus