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Behold the Hebrides
The Call of the Sea
Seals from Courts of the Kings of Lochlainn

OH! how these mad March days remind me of Lewis, where the tempest beats unceasingly against the rocks that are rent asunder by the storms of a hundred centuries! And I hear that impulsive call of the sea; and I have that longing to be sailing; that yearning for a little boat in which to explore the wrack- covered reefs and the seal-haunted caves of the Western Isles; that desire to be tacking against wind and tide for some distant island inhabited only by a few sheep that feed on its scanty pastures, and by the great flocks of birds that seldom fly very far from their wave-girt habitat.

If you have never heard the call of the sea, I would suggest that you visit old Stornoway one summer, and watch from a convenient knoll the great fishing-fleet as it puts out to sea on a sunny afternoon, when there is scarcely a breath of wind, and the huge limp canvasses lie motionlessly against the masts.

At times you will hear the plash of an oar, as the crew of some smack endeavours to turn the bow in order that the sail may catch the little wind that may chance to come in odd passing breezes: sometimes, a mile or so off, you will hear the rough grating of ropes over the side of a sailing-boat that is being taken in tow to the fishing-grounds by a steam-drifter: sometimes you will hear the puffing and the clicking of a capstan, and the voices of the patient fishermen whose boat, perhaps, has been tacking in an almost windless harbour for a couple of hours, and has only covered a distance of about half a mile. I have frequently witnessed a large part of the fishing-fleet return to the quays in Stornoway owing to the entire absence of wind, with the result that the night’s catch of herring is brought in by the crews engaged on steam-drifters or on motor-driven boats.

Stornoway harbour is one of the finest natural harbours in the world—so Captain Watt has repeatedly told me; and he has seen a few of the world’s harbours. And the going to sea of the fishing-fleet is one of the most beautiful sights that an imaginative person could possibly wish to see.

In my never-failing Gazette I have been reading about the Danish steamer, Esther Maria, which has just been driven ashore on the Sgeir-Mhor (Big Rock) where she remains fast with her hull holed in three places. This ship was bound for Marston from Sunsball with a cargo of timber, and, having run short of coal, the master decided to put in to Stornoway to replenish his bunkers from the ancient coal hulks that lie anchored in the harbour. But, when off the beacon, which is situated just at the harbour entrance and close to Arnish Lighthouse, the steamer’s steering-gear was carried away in a squall, and before a violent southerly gale she was driven helplessly on the treacherous rocks already mentioned, where she remains stranded high and dry at low tide. From my private bulletin, which for personal reasons I designate my Assynt Times, I learn further that, owing to the exposed position in which the Esther Maria was lying, the coxswain of the Stornoway lifeboat dropped anchor and endeavoured to drift down on her; but, with the heavy seas, the anchor failed to hold, and the lifeboat in consequence was blown ashore in Sandwick Bay, only a stonethrow from the peat-scented croft of Mary, my cousin, to whom I have referred elsewhere.

It was to the Sgeir-Mhor that the people of Inaclete (the old Scandinavian name for that part of Stornoway now known as Newton) used to go in search of shellfish. Near at hand is the Sgeir Ruadh, the Red Rock, so called because it is tinted with the sea-ware that grows upon it. Not so very long ago frequent excursions were made to the latter in order to obtain the ware for manuring purposes. The spreading of the dulse is still a familiar scene in many of the Outer Isles.

But the real place for cockles is in Broad Bay; and my old father has just been telling me of those exciting days when women and boys used to visit the traigh choilleag—that sandy stretch which, when the tide is out, lies between Steinish and the long spit of land near Tong. The traigh choilleag, as its name denotes, is famous for its cockle-beds; and in the olden days it was the haunt of scores of eager cockle-gatherers.

How often I have watched the fishing-fleet from Holm, and felt so much that longing for the sea that I have been unable to resist the temptation of having a couple of hours cruise over to the mouth of the Creed on our own little sailing-boat, or on the boat of Alasdair Greumach, both of which at present are beached high and dry above the tide mark in Sandwick Bay! Little wonder that some folks suffer from what Masefield calls ‘sea-fever.’ And, if you could only watch the departure of the fleet from Stornoway on a calm, quiet afternoon, or when a fresh gale was blowing, I feel certain that with him you would say ‘I simply must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky!’

And, as I write, I feel this ‘sea-fever’ coming over me; and I would give anything if at the moment I could go down to the sea in the mysterious Isle of Lewis, and linger along those white and golden sands, where the plovers and the curlews wade! Oh! to be scrambling among those rocks that have withstood the storms of countless ages, or to be investigating again that cave at Ness, where the pigmies used to dwell, and where the dauntless sea-rievers of old were wont to conceal their plunder!

And I would love to be picking my way over the reef that stretches to Holm Island at low tide, so that I might explore its hidden treasures as they never before have been explored, or that I might lie quietly in a crevasse and watch for seals—those musical creatures clad in silken gowns which, they say, came originally to our Isles as secret emissaries from the courts of the Kings of Lochlainn.

I only wish that it were possible to construct a great pipe-organ among the rent rocks of Raasay, or of Rona—that Isle of the Seal; or, maybe, somewhere in wild Loch Roag, with its visions and memories of Viking days, when the triremes of war sent forth from the Land of Lochlainn sought to assail the brave Picts in Dun Carloway, and drank the blood-red wine from the golden horn of adventure and of victory.

Such an organ might lend its mellow harmony to the songs that the winds and the waves sing, when the restless sea-birds are hastening for shelter from the wrath and fury of an approaching storm, when the last homing boat is making for the shore against the hill-wind that passes angrily across a darkened and overcast moor, and when the aged cockle-gatherer, whose tartan shawl flutters round her cold, frozen cheeks, is hurrying back to her warm peat fire, leaving her cockle-gathering until the tide is at the ebbing once more.

But one does not require to travel so far away as the Hebrides to hear the call of the sea, for we can hear it almost at our own doors if we should take the trouble to listen. And so I would ask those of you who live within easy access of the sea, and have never felt this sea-impulse, to go down to Leith now and again, or to the great docks on the Clyde, and wander leisurely along the endless wharves and through the cargo-sheds, taking an interest in everything you see. When you have done this a few times, you will find that your sea-blood will begin to tell, if, perchance, you have anything of the sea in your veins. And you will acquire such a desire to clamber up every gangway that meets your eye, and to poke inquisitively into every nook and corner you can find! About docks there is something which is most fascinating; and, if you form the gentle art of chatting casually with seafaring people, you will accumulate a store of useful knowledge, and at the same time acquire a passion for maritime things.

The sea is a great leveller of men as well as of things that have no being—there is neither disdain nor class distinction about the sea. Seafaring is a calling whose watchword is internationality. Nothing could be more pleasingly instructive in these days of imperialistic tendency than to inspect those strangely different visitors from many lands, that are berthed in the docks of a modern seaport town.

Seafaring is a calling where all men are men and nothing more. And what higher praise can we bestow upon a human being in this age of artificiality than to say that he is a plain, unaffected man?

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