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Chapter 10: Sir Walter Buys A Wind; “Orkney Stories: A specially commissioned collection by Highland Park”


In 1814, Sir Walter Scott visited Orkney, in the course of a cruise with the Commissioners of Northern Lights. His tour of the islands gave him the background for his novel The Pirate. This extract describes his encounter with a "Sea Witch"in Stromness.


Off Stromness, 17th August 1814 —Went on shore after breakfast. We clomb, by steep and dirty lanes, an eminence rising above the town, and commanding a fine view. An old hag lives in a wretched cabin on this height, and subsists by selling winds. Each captain of a merchantman, between jest and earnest, gives the old woman sixpence, and she boils her kettle to procure a favourable gale. She was a miserable figure; upwards of ninety, she told us, and dried up like a mummy. A sort of clay-coloured cloak, folded over her head, corresponded in colour to her corpselike complexion. Fine light blue eyes, and nose and chin that almost met, and a ghastly expression of cunning, gave her quite the effect of Hecate. She told us she remembered Gow the pirate, who was born near the House of Clestrom, and afterwards commenced buccaneer. He came to his native country about 1725, with a snow which he commanded, carried off two women from one of the islands, and committed other enormities. At length, while he was dining in a house in the island of Eday the islanders made him prisoner, and sent him to London, where he was hanged. While at Stromness, he made love to a Miss Gordon, who pledged her faith to him by shaking hands, an engagement which, in her idea, could not be dissolved without her going to London to seek back again her "faith and troth," by shaking hands with him again after execution.

We left our Pythoness, who assured us there was nothing evil in the intercession she was to make for us, but that we were only to have a fair wind through the benefit of her prayers. She repeated a sort of rigmarole which I suppose she had ready for such occasions, and seemed greatly delighted and surprised with the amount of our donation, as everybody gave her a trifle, our faithful Captain Wilson making the regular offering on behalf of the ship. So much for buying a wind. Bessy Millie's habitation is airy enough for Aeolus himself, but if she is a special favourite with that divinity, he has a strange choice. In her house I remarked a quern, or handmill.

A cairn, a little higher, commands a beautiful view of the bay, with its various entrances and islets. Here we found the vestiges of a bonfire, lighted in memory of the battle of Bannockburn, concerning which every part of Scotland has its peculiar traditions. The Orcadians say that a Norwegian prince, then their ruler, called by them Harold, brought 1400 men of Orkney to the assistance of Bruce, and that the King, at a critical period of the engagement, touched him with his scabbard, saying, "The day is against us." —" I trust," returned the Orcadian, "your Grace will venture again"; which has given rise to their motto, and passed into a proverb. On board at half past three, and find Bessy Millie a woman of her word, for the expected breeze has sprung up, if it but last us till we double Cape Wrath. Weigh anchor to bid farewell to Orkney.


Written by Sir Walter Scott


The text is an excerpt from "Orkney Stories: A specially commissioned collection by Highland Park" (pp. 55 - 57), published 1995 by Matthew Gloag & Son Limited under the commission of Highland Park Single Malt Scotch Whisky.