Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine


Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

The Father of St. Kilda
Chapter IV - From Lewis to Hudson Bay


A spirit of confidence on going into battle is either the most valuable or the most dangerous of weapons. Under certain conditions it s almost a guarantee of victor}’, that is while it acts as a tonic and braces nerve and muscle. The moment it has the effect of relaxing endeavour it becomes, alas! a mere presage of disaster. For me my new prospects meant a heavy weight upon my shrinking nerves and spirits. I felt that this venture was fraught with far-reaching consequences, as yet beyond my power to calculate, but which gave me much concern, chiefly when I thought of those I had left behind me at home. I must not disappoint them ! But who can be confident of victory, especially of the kind of victory which enables a penniless boy to go out into the world to seek his fortune and return a rich man? Did it all depend on a mere chance? Surely not. The antithesis between good luck and ill is marked enough, but no more so than that between virtue and vice, which need not be a matter of chance. There must be a sure foundation behind success, a foundation of moral courage, energy, character. The prayer of the Cromwellian divines, “that those that have zeal may have wisdom, and those that have wisdom may have zeal,” supplied me with a motto.

These thoughts troubled me to the extent of feverish nights and morning headaches, but they were working slowly in the upbuilding of character, crude enough as yet and sorely buffeted about by storms of youthful conceit, discontentment, and prejudice against anything and almost everything. But I made up my mind that all the ability, the zeal, the singleness of purpose, I could command was to be concentrated in the effort to succeed. Yet I was conscious of being but an ordinary lad, and felc that my thoughts and hopes were possibly premature and over-sanguine, as certainly I found them liable to many changes. But, such as they were, they formed my faith and purpose, which, by God’s help, I meant to maintain. I quoted to myself the verse from Whittier—

“I know not where these islands lift
Their fronded palms in air;
I only know I cannot drift
Beyond His love and care '*

As we sailed into the Sound of Hoy we found the Company’s two ships the Prince of Wales, bound for York Factory, and the Prince Rupert, for Moose Factory, at anchor off the ancient town of Stromness, the most picturesque place in the Orkneys. It occupies the slope of a steep hill overlooking the strait which separates the mainland from Hoy Island, and consists chiefly of a sort of street, full of corners, and built at every conceivable angle. This curious cart-barrow way is a mile long, running parallel with the sea, and so tortuous as to admit of only a few yards being seen from any point. For the most part it is innocent of any distinction between road and footway. From this road many steep lanes ascend to the more open grounds above. Many small piers jut out into the sea, probably belonging to private houses. Thus these fortunate people can row their boats almost to their doors and .step out within a few feet of the threshold. There is 110 need for concern about breakfast. A line cast out of the window will soon bring in a plentiful supply of sillocks. The sea washes away all refuse, and the seagulls do good service as scavengers for harbour, shore, and street. All the houses are, like Euclid’s tinangles, “similar and similarly situated.” One wonders how a resident finds his home. It is, indeed, a unique, primitive place. Among its most interesting curiosities is the asterolepis found by Hugh Miller near the Black Crag.

On Friday, 1st July, 1859, the anchors of the Prince of Wales (Captain Herd) were hauled aboard amid a chorus of sailors’ “ shanties,” which seemed to give strength as well as impulse to the task of working rope and block. As we issued from the harbour before a gentle eastern breeze, we had Breckness on our starboard side, and on our port the cliffs of Hoy, rising to their imposing stature of a thousand feet. The Kame Rock, showing an imagined profile of Sir Walter Scott, is a little short of the extreme point of Hoy Head. Then comes in sight the “Old Man of Hoy,” a rocky stack rising abruptly out of the sea, five hundred feet in height, and resembling a bishop with hat on. That point passed, we shot fairly into the dark blue waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

“It is the mirror of the stars, where all
Their hosts within the concave firmament,
Gay marching to the music of the spheres,
Can see themselves at once.”

It was one of those enchanting evenings that can only be seen in these somewhat high latitudes. We had the tide with us, which runs here at a furious rate from South Walls, Flotta, Hoy, and Longridge, and through Gutter Sound. Our pilot had returned to his boat, and amid a tremendous chorus of human voices, shouting and cheering, and much waving of hats and handkerchiefs, his rope was cast off, and we entered upon our period of isolation, with only the eternal stars in the blue vault of heaven for our companions and our guides.

By 9.30 p.m. the low sun had spread a purple glow on the water, with golden light on the barrels of the long heaving swells, and blue and green and mackerel shades in the hollows. The shadows of the masts and rigging and the never-to-be-furled sails rolled to and fro on the deck in the moonlight. Now and again a gentle, breathing swell, some three furlongs from trough to barrel, would quietly shoulder up a string of variously painted dories. They hung for an instant a wonderful fringe against the skyline, and the men pointed and hailed. Next moment the open mouths, waving arms, and bare chests disappeared, while another swell came up, showing an entirely new set of characters, for all the world like paper figures in a toy theatre.

There seemed no reason for retiring below, for there was no night. The sun’s course was clearly traceable from its disappearance below the horizon until its reappearance. But the shore was already far behind us, and as I turned my eyes upon its distant outline the blue hills quivered a moment on the horizon as if to bid us all a long farewell, and then sank into the bosom of the ocean. I turned, and went hastily to my berth.

In the morning the rocky stack of the island of Rona stood out of the glittering sea on our starboard quarter like a giant on stilts. Many a tale of this island I had drunk in almost with my mother’s milk. Old Angus Gunn was full of its traditions. The sight of it brought back keen recollections of home, and when I turned and saw the Butt of Lewis rising far off out of the sea, a speck no bigger than a man’s hand, I was forced once more to hurry out of sight. I was young, the youngest on board except the cabin boy and a baby passenger, and at sixteen a lad is young enough for tears and old enough to seek to hide them.

Later in the day, finding on board a young man from the extreme west of Lewis, I made a secret agreement with him that at dinnertime we should climb the mast to see if we could catch sight of the western point, Gallan Uig. We mounted, but only to be followed by two sailors to tie us to the rigging till the grog penalty should be paid. Observing this, I seized a rope which stretched from the crosstrees to the deck, and throwing my legs round it I was soon on deck, while my companion was being fastened in mid-air. The incident afforded me an object lesson in the value of that quickness in emergency which has since stood me in good stead. Meanwhile, however, the deep rents and wounds in the palms of both my hands provided the ship’s doctor with his first bit of professional practice for the voyage.

In addition to nearly fifty Company’s servants, who were engaged for five years to serve at various points in its vast territory, there were three private passengers and a baby aboard. Of these three, two were natives of the Territory, one full blooded the other half bred, who had undergone a course of training, the one in divinity, the other in what appeared to be some form of occult alchemy. The other was an Orcadian lady, mother of the baby already mentioned. I wish I could write of our Helen as Homer did of her of Troy, yet ours was not Helen but Penelope, for she refused to accept the homage the whole ship was waiting to offer her. Very rarely would she appear on deck, and when she did so she was attired in a plain but neat and becoming dress, and wore a heavy veil, as if she had just emerged from a Turkish harem. Yet so magical is the effect of a lady upon the male sex, that though hundreds ol miles from shore, the mere sight of this one at once produced a perceptible change for the better in the looks of the whole ship’s crew.

Two watches were kept on board, the Captain’s and Mate’s, according to custom. Each lasted four hours. The hours from 4 to 8 p.m. were divided into two dog watches, arranged so as to change the hours and allow the men to sleep to-day during the hours that they were on duty yesterday, and vice versa. When the sun was seen and on our meridian, the captain and mate mounted the rigging with sextant and quadrant to take our bearings. A glance at the chronometers, faultlessly adjusted to Greenwich time, and a simple arithmetical calculation, were sufficient to discover within a mile our distance west and north from Londun.

Long after solan geese and gulls were left behind we were followed by two fulmar petrels (Procellaria Glacialias). Restlessly they followed us, now poised on the crest of a billow, now lost in its trough; eating not, sleeping not, pausing not, but journeying perpetually over the waste of waters like homeless spirits lost in the glooms of eternity.

There is no more familiar and yet no more astonishing experience for the voyager upon the high seas than to study the new worlds, which in a few hours are created by a .simple change of atmosphere. A storm is at hand, and Nature frowns at us from every side. She chills us with piercing winds, drenches us with pitiless rain and spray, threatens us from above with boding storm-clouds, glooms at us from black depths beneath. The storm which met our vessel was one of those which cannot easily be foreseen. It was preceded by a steady and persistent fall of the barometer, not by a sudden and alarming change. When it came, it came in full force. The scene made an ineffaceable impression on me—the mountainous sea, the high wind, the angry surge, the chaos and turmoil of whirling waters. The good barque shivered as each wave struck her, like an animal in the throes of death. Our horizon was but a ridge of foam-topped walls of water, raging tumultuously in a series of cataracts. When the ship dipped her bows she shipped tons of water, that came surging aft like the river Dell in spate. The heavens, the ship, and the ocean seemed mingled in a turmoil of war.

Yet through it all it was impossible to help being tickled at the ludicrous plight of the nervous and unseasoned recruits as they cautiously crept along the deck like timid skaters making their first attempt to keep a footing on smooth ice. On the whole, those who had to attend to the galley while the ship was tossing, and all the pots and pans were rolling anywhere and everywhere, into the fire and over the floor, had the worst of it. They might exclaim, with the Irishman writing to his friends at home, "I am writing this, stirring the soup with the one hand, putting on coals with the other, and holding on to a rope with my teeth.”

For my own part, to crown all, I was suffering from that malady which no physician can cure, but which a sympathetic Irish sailor told me need not trouble me at all if I would simply “forget about it”! The sailors were enveloped in foul-weather gear, and kept on their oilskins and sou’-westers for thirty hours, yet I venture to say their discomfort was as nothing compared with mine.

At last, after two days of indescribable gloom, the atmospheric pressure was left behind, and once more we saw the heavens. The new glory of the air, of the sunlight, of the silver-shining sea, and of the sweet, blue sky, lifted us at a Dound from despair to rapture. The pessimist of yesterday was the optimist of this glorious morning. And, after all, it was only an affair of the atmosphere. Truly the whole art of existence might be said to lie in getting the right light upon things.

But now we were in the regions of icebergs. We were off Cape Farewell, Greenland, and from day to day sighted white, mountainous stacks, or others island-like, sailing slowly southward, drawn by the suction of the Gulf Stream into mid Atlantic, to become water again after an eternity of ice-reign. Some we saw towering hundreds of feet above water, and our veteran captain assured us that for every inch above there were fourteen below. Yet it was their age that most impressed me. The Pyramids of Egypt, beneath whose shadow fifty centuries have passed away, are children of a day beside these ice-bound pyramids of nature. When Moses was the servant of Tharaoh these mighty monuments were there, the relics of a hoary past, of another Egypt long since dead and forgotten. But for untold ages before their first stone was placed these frozen mountains lay huge and silent in their far-off unvisited solitudes.

On Monday, 1st August, a black speck appeared on the horizon, and the land of Columbus gradually raised itself out of the sea. It is hardly possible that Roderigo de Friand’s cry of “Land looms up ahead! ” could have caused more excitement in that crew three hundred and sixty-seven years before than the first sight of the barren and inhospitable island of Resolution now caused among us. A party of shipwrecked sailors on a raft could not have been more eager. Late in the day, after an exchange of courtesies with an ice floe, which gave the crew eight hours’ hard pumping, the Prince of Wales entered Hudson’s Straits, and found herself in the midst of an ice pack, which compelled her to proceed with more discretion and circumspection than had been necessary during the first three weeks of her voyage. Around us, as far as the eye could see, stretched fields of ice. Small lakes lay upon the floe of the purest and freshest water that ever man drank, and out of these the ship’s tanks were refilled. I certainly found in the water tiny cray fishes and various insects moving about visibly enough, but there was no plant life, only swarms of animaicula;, chiefly infurosia and flagellata.

There we remained fixed in a frozen monotony. On the port bow the American coast, Labrador, and Cape Chudleigh; on the starboard quarter, Cape Best, Resolution Island, Baffin Land, and the great Meta Incognita stretching northward towards the Pole. Round us lay masses of ice lying flat, standing on edge, piled upon each other in every imaginable position. On 15th August, my seventeenth bi thday, I commuted my second act of insubordination, tempted by these unfamiliar, yet alluring, surroundings. Accompanied by another lad, I stole overboard at dinner-time, resolved to reach the open sea. When we had got some distance from the ship we could not repress our exclamations at the grandeur of the scene. It astonished and amazed me beyond expression, No very fantastic imagination is needed to see spirits there at noonday. Yet it seems a perpetual image of death, so calm, so grand, as to compose the mind rather than to terrify it. Not a precipice, not a standing cliff of ice, but seems to reveal the finger of God, the Creator. These are scenes so beautiful and sublime that they might well awe an atheist into belief without other argument. I said to myself that the Eskimo who first chose to settle here was a man of no common genius, and that I, had I had the choice, would have been one of his first disciples.

After wandering over hummocky ice till the ship’s masts had dwindled to the size of walking sticks, the “sublime and beautiful” suddenly made a rather untimely and unwelcome appearance in the form of a tremendous Polar bear making straight for us. My companion crept under a piece of ice for comfort and shelter. I took off my cloth jacket and a red comforter, which I had wound about my neck, and, waving these over my head, ran as fast as I could to meet the Arctic king. He immediately retreated, plunged into open water, and swam across a broad water lane to the ice floe beyond. We took to our heels, and reached the ship safely, only to be subjected to a kind of court-martial for desertion.

Every day our captain looked eagerly along the northern horizon on the chance of seeing traces of the Fox, which had sailed from Aberdeen two years before, under Captain McClintock, to search for Sir John Franklin and his crew, and of which nothing had since been heard. Captain Herd was also on the lookout for the chartered barque Kitty, which had left London for Hudson Bay on the 21st June. One day he fancied he saw smoke rising from a point approaching Frobisher Bay, but finding that his cannon shots remained unanswered, he wisely gave it up.

Again, a change of atmosphere had altered the whole face of the world. Under the new conditions the view from the “crow’s nest” was indeed desolation itself. As far as the eye could reach the earth stretched out like a monstrous stiffened corpse. The land lay petrified and black as night under the murky fog. The only break in the grim monotony was afforded by a few scattered reddish mounds of what looked like slag, some ugly brown hills of burnt earth with sporadic snowdrifts scattered here and there in hollows and clefts. The barren dreary hills lay lonely, swathed in ugly robes of black mist, their lower slopes cold and bare above the sea-line, defying for ever the growth of vegetation. An oppressive silence weighed upon the scene. Nowhere did there appear to be a single vestige of life.

But it was not so, for suddenly along these dreary shores were seen signs of human presence. “ Venerable to me is the hand, crooked, coarse—wherein, notwithstanding, lies a cunning virtue, indefeasibly royal as of the sceptre of this planet. Venerable, too, is their rugged face, all weather-tanned, besoiled, with its rude intelligence; for it is the face of a man living manlike,” says Carlyle. Out of the unspeakable desolation men came to us. Dwarfed in size, (lark olive in colour, oily in appearance, here they live out their short nightless summer and long sunless winter in an isolation not always splendid. Yet they thrive, in their own way, under (significant fact!) the protection of no government but that of a kind Creator, and are as happy—ay, most likely happier than if trained in the wisdom of Aristotle or the world-conquering art of Alexander.

After a preliminary skirmish, paddling round the ship, their eyes rolling in frantic delight, this remnant of a prehistoric race sat at ease in the open hole in their kayaks. Each carried a harpoon line coiled on a tripod in front of him, a long spear on one side, and a dark skin bag inflated as a buoy in the narrow stern at his back. Their costume was, :n its way, picturesque. Their long coarse black hair hung loose over their seal-skin jackets, which in turn overlapped their shaggy bear-skin breeches, and these again their seal-skin boots. Some of them were adorned with a tolerable sprinkling of beard and moustache. One, a chief, or head-man apparently, essayed to mount the ship’s rigging, but his nerve failed, and, with heavy drops of oily sweat breaking on his brow, he returned to deck, almost paralysed and in a fainting fit. Their language was altogether unintelligibly ugly, far beyond the understanding of any of us, whether Gordon from Lochinvar, London cockney, or Highlander from the Isles. Talk of pandemonium, or a certain place let loose! These are but pale figures with which to describe the sounds, and, as one powerful hoarse voice continued the discourse, like a dog yelping in the last stages of hydrophobia, many of us gave way to shrieks of laughter.

It is a difficult matter to say what ought to be done with these poor creatures. It seems evident that they must remain in perpetual isolation. A natural code of ethics and certain traditional rules of conduct to which they conform from one generation to another they no doubt possess, but they have no teacher and no religion; and as they paddled away I was filled with pity and regret for their uncouth, half-savage ignorance.

Three weary weeks we passed imprisoned in the ice. This is inevitable in such a strait, the passage being not only narrow but crooked and embarrassed with islands, though the only outlet from the largest inland sea in the world. At the cost, however, of a severe strain on both ship and hands, we made our way, after indescribable manoeuvres, into the Bay. Our only other adventure was a severe gale on the 27th, which brought with it from the north an immense field of ice floe, in which our good ship laboured heavily for fifteen hours, and which nearly carried two of her boats away.

We were now nearing Fort York, and the time had come to part from our Venus. Her husband was on board the little coasting schooner which we now saw approaching us from far out in the Bay. She was as charming and beautiful a creature as ever graced a fairy tale, and made a complete conquest of us all by her modesty, sweetness, and beauty. Not one of us but would have fought for her as the Trojans for Helen. We lost her, but honourably, delivering her to none other but the right man. And so bidding her farewell, we turned to the task of our own landing.

After manoeuvring for many hours between red and black buoys, placed for our guidance by the happy man in whose care we left our Venus, we finally cast anchor in the “ five-fathom hole,” which forms the London Docks of Hudson's Bay. And soon the inevitable partings had to be faced, among a number of people so closely associated for a time, and probably never to meet again on earth. As I turned away to descend into the boat below

I realised, as never before, the meaning and the beauty of the familiar words: “And may the love of God that passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds, through Jesus Christ.”

Thus, with a blessing in my heart and farewells on my lips, I turned with thrilling nerves for the first sight of my adopted land, which, truly, appears, on the horizon, low, swampy, and inhospitable, to prove something of an El Dorado for the new recruits, who will soon be scattered, broadcast, over its vast surface, to spy out its outward worth, like Caleb and Joshua of old. But! ----


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