A Day in Rousay – 1889



The Orkney Herald – 29 May 1889

If it be the case that Londoners knew less of London than the casual visitor, it is equally true that the Orcadian often has smaller acquaintance with his own isles than even the summer tourist. There are people of my acquaintance – Kirkwall born and bred – who have never been in Shapinsay, who have never seen the Old Man of Hoy or the Dwarfie Stone, and whose closest knowledge of the Standing Stones has been derived from the pictured guide-book. Need it be wondered at, therefore, that to many Rousay is a terra incognita? With feelings akin to shame I confess that till Friday last I was one of the untravelled number; now I have wiped off that reproach, and can soothly say that nowhere is there a fairer isle in the archipelago, and none more deserving of a visit.

Westness, with a view across to Eynhallow and Costa Head in the distance to the left, and Scabra Head far away to the right.

When the Orcadia steamed out of the bay on the morning of the Queen’s Birthday, laden with pleasure-seekers, it was indeed right royal weather. The winds for once in a time were hushed, and the sea lay sleeping under a canopy of tenderest blue, flecked with pearly white. As the good ship churned her way onwards, there opened out on either hand glimpses of sun-lit isle, almost ideal in their restful beauty, certainly defying description at my impractised hands. It is easy enough to heap adjective upon adjective in essaying to picture scenery; yet all the adjectives, all the Ruskinesque writing in the world, would fail in doing justice to Orkney’s peculiar charms. You may not rave of gorgeous colouring, or cloud-capped peaks, or many-hued woods, for these are for the most part non-existent; but if you be truly sensible of their subdued and subtle beauties, you will confess at once how inadequate mere words are to express your emotions. So when this wondrous panorama reveals itself we are most of us very quiet on board. The tranquil day seems to slide into the very soul. How different, to be sure, from an ordinary excursion party we are. We have no brass band on board wherewith to deafen meditative converse; none of the sights and sounds that deafen the holiday steamer here obtrude themselves. The blind fiddler, the concertina man, the masher, the half-maudlin maiden in pink dress and blue feathers, the furtive welsher – all  these  are  far  away. Only the presence of the policeman reminds us of stern realities, and whispers that we are but all human. That official himself keeps by us the whole day, watchful and sphinx-like, yet without once having occasion to bestow his attention on aught but the natural beauties of the scene.

Whis Ber and its Quern, between Fishing Geo and Midhowe.

It is in this quiet, sensible way, we approach Rousay, where we can already see many welcoming faces – a practical protest in advance against the slanderous suggestion of a passenger on board that hospitality is not a special trait in Rousay character. However,   when  you  are  going   on a  journey,  always  lay  on  supplies, no matter  who  your  host  may  be; for fifty things may happen to bring about a hitch. Thus being most of us armed against contingencies, our ill-conditioned friend had thus moralized aloud: – “It’s well you’re all provided, for there was a lady went to Rousay some time ago, and tried to get rest and shelter. Being a bit well-dressed like, the folk were na sure of her; and so she had to sleep under the park wall all night.” We had no sooner stepped ashore than we had practical proof of the contrary disposition on the part of the people. Houses on every hand opened to receive us; even strangers were admitted within the charmed circle; and when later in the day, after the pleasing pain of treading the long heather, the party returned, there were spoiling guid-wives who proffered a cup of tea to their own delightful sex. It was then I was reminded by one of our party of an incident that once and for all disposes of any doubt on the subject of Rousay hospitality. Being on the island once, he had slaked his honest thirst at a well, and a few weeks afterwards a Rousay acquaintance called upon him. She was not over-well pleased, and burst out, “You put me richt mad the other day, man. You took a drink out o’ wir well. Man! I wad have given your faither’s dog a drink o’ milk !”

How we spent the day I need hardly tell, because on every hand the island is brimful of everything that can delight the senses on such a day as we had. Suffice it to say, that some had the good fortune to explore the beauties of the mansion-houses on the place; others picnicked on the hill side; while the more young and adventurous made the circuit of the island. Despite age and infirmity, I was of the last-mentioned number, spending en route a restful hour on that fatal cliff which, six years ago, claimed one of a band of Kirkwall excursionists as its victim. It is indeed a wild  and  giddy  spot. We had had the incident related to us by one of the party, and just as he finished he led the way to the sheer descent with the words: –

“Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still.
How fearful and dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low.
The crows and choughs that  wing  the midway air
Show scarce so gross as beetles.
The fishermen that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and you tall anchoring bark
Diminish’d to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight; the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumber’d idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high.   I’ll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.”

Saviskaill Bay, with the Leean rising to the right and the Head of Faraclett away to the left.

The blow-holes or Sinians of Cutclaws were also visited, but they were evidently not in working order. It may be of interest to state here that the late Laurence Oliphant describes a somewhat similar phenomenon near the hamlet of Summarin, in Palestine. He says: – “One of the fellahin, led me to the head of a valley, where he said there was a mysterious rock with a hole in it, where the roaring of a mighty river might be heard. The aperture was a crack in a table-rock of limestone, about three inches by two, its sides were worn smooth by listeners who had placed their ears upon it from time immemorial. On following the example of the thousands who had probably preceded me, I was saluted by a strong draught of air, which rushed upwards from unknown depths, and heard to my surprise the mighty roaring sound that had given the rock its mystical reputation; but I felt at once that no subterranean river large enough to produce the rushing of such a torrent was likely, for physical reasons, to exist in the locality, for the noise was that  of  a  distant  Niagara. I was puzzled till I ascended a neighbouring hill, where the roar of the sea was distinctly audible; and I am therefore disposed to think that the fissure must have led to a cave on the sea-shore, from which the sound is conducted, as by a whispering gallery, to this point, distant from it about three miles.”

Tom Kent’s photograph taken from inside the Sinians of Cutclaws,
looking towards Scabra Head and the Hole o’ the Horse.
[Orkney Library & Archive]

Leaving the higher belt of un-cultivated ground, with its gleaming, trout-laden lochs, we made our way to the shore by the lower arable belt; admiring the while the cozy and comfortable appearance of the crofters’ houses, and feeling that since the Crofters Commission have been among them, they must surely be in a state of sweet content which nothing could increase save the purchase of their buildings. The island, we have been told, is in the market; could not their accumulated savings do some-thing therefore at this juncture to transform them into Rousay lairds after the manner of their brethren in Harray! But probably they may think them-selves better as they are, knowing full well that the days are long past when they were in a manner serfs. Of that remote period we were told the following anecdote – which may or may not be as true as the rest of its class – as Egilshay hove in sight on the homeward journey. The laird and a friend were going to the Mainland in a fisherman’s boat, and the talk drifted on to the places where they were born. “I was born in Kirkwall,” quoth the laird; “and I, in Kirkwall,” returned his friend. “Where, my man, were you born?” queried the laird turning to the boatman. “Please your honours,” he replied, “It ill becomes me to speak o’ being born at a’ in presence o’ your worships; but I was whelpit in the puir island o’ Egilshay.” R. J. A.