Rambles of a Geologist (6)

Home Up Autobiography First Impressions Scenes and Legends Tales and Sketches Leading Articles Miscellanea Main Index Site Search


 

[Previous Page]


CHAPTER XIII.


WE returned to Stromness along the edge of the cliff's, gradually descending from higher to lower ranges of precipices, and ever and anon detecting ichthyolite beds in the weathered and partially decomposed strata.  As the rock moulders into an incoherent clay, the fossils which it envelopes become not unfrequently wholly detached from it, so that, on a smart blow dealt by the hammer, they leap out entire, resembling, from the degree of compression which they exhibit, those mimic fishes carved out of plates of ivory or of mother-of-pearl, which are used as counters in some of the games of China or the East Indies.  The material of which they are composed, a brittle jet, though better suited than the stone to resist the disintegrating influences, is in most cases greatly too fragile for preservation.  One may, however, acquire from the fragments a knowledge of certain minute points in the structure of the ancient animals to which they belonged, respecting which specimens of a more robust texture give no evidence.  The plates of Coccosteus sometimes spring out as unbroken as when they covered the living animal, and, if the necessary skill be not wanting, may be set up in their original order.  And I possess specimens of the head of Dipterus in which the nearly circular gill-covers may be examined on both surfaces, interior and exterior, and in which the cranial portion shows not only the enamelled plates of the frontal buckler, but also the strange mechanism of the palatal teeth, with the intervening cavities that had lodged both the brain and the occipital part of the spine.  The fossils on the top of the cliffs here are chiefly Dipterians of the two closely allied genera, Diplopterus and Osteolepis.

    A little farther on, I found, on a hill-side in which extensive slate-quarries had once been wrought, the remains of Pterichthys existing as mere patches, from which the colour had been discharged, but in which the almost human-like outline of both body and arms were still distinctly traceable; and farther on still, where the steep wall of cliffs sinks into a line of grassy banks, I saw in yet another quarry, ichthyolites of all the three great ganoid families so characteristic of the Old Red,—Cephalaspians, Dipterians, and Acanthodians,—ranged in the three-storied order to which I have already referred as so inexplicable.  The specimens, however, though numerous, are not fine.  They are resolved into a brittle bituminous coal, resembling hard pitch or black wax, which is always considerably less tenacious than the matrix in which they are inclosed; and so, when laid open by the hammer, they usually split through the middle of the plates and scales, instead of parting from the stone at their surfaces; and resemble, in consequence, those dark, shadow-like profiles taken in Indian ink by the limner, which exhibit a correct outline, but no details.  We find, however, in some of the genera, portions of the animal preserved that are rarely seen in a state of keeping equally perfect in the ichthyolites of Cromarty, Moray, or Banff,—those terminal bones of the Coccosteus, for instance, that were prolonged beyond the plates by which the head and upper parts of the body were covered.  Wherever the ichthyolites are inclosed in nodules, as in the more southerly counties over which the deposit extends, the nodule terminates, in almost every case, with the massier portions of the organism; for the thinner parts, too inconsiderable to have served as attractive nuclei to the stony matter when the concretion was forming, were left outside its pale, and so have been lost; whereas, in the northern districts of the deposit, where the fossils, as in Caithness and Orkney, occur in flagstone, these slimmer parts, when the general state of keeping is tolerably good, lie spread out on the planes of the slabs, entire often in their minutest rays and articulations.  The numerous Coccostei of this quarry exhibit, attached to their upper plates, their long vertebral columns, of many joints, that, depending from the broad dorsal shields of the ichthyolite, remind one of those skeleton fishes one sometimes sees on the shores of a fishing village, in which the bared backbone joints on, cord-like, to the broad plates of the skull.  None of the other fishes of the Old Red Sandstone possessed an internal skeleton so decidedly osseous as that of the Coccosteus, and none of them presented externally so large an extent of naked skin,—provisions which probably went together.  For about three-fifths of the entire length of the animal the surface was unprotected by dermal plates; and the muscles must have found the fulcrums on which they acted in the internal skeleton exclusively.  And hence a necessity for greater strength in their interior framework than in that of fishes as strongly fenced round externally by scales or plates as the coleoptera by their elytrine, or the crustacea by their shells.  Even in the Coccosteus, however, the ossification was by no means complete; and the analogies of the skeleton seem to have allied it rather with the skeletons of the sturgeon family than with the skeletons of the sharks or rays.  The processes of the vertebræ were greatly more solid in their substance than the vertebræ themselves,—a condition which in the sharks and rays is always reversed; and they frequently survive, each with its little sprig of bone, formed like the letter Y, that attached it to its centrum, projecting from it, in specimens from which the vertebral column itself has wholly disappeared.  I found frequent traces, during my exploratory labours in Orkney, of the dorsal and ventral fins of this ichthyolite; but no trace whatever of the pectorals or of the caudal fin.  There seem to have been no pectorals; and the tail, as I have already had occasion to remark, was apparently a mere point, unfurnished with rays.

    In descending from the cliffs upon the quarries, my companion pointed to an angular notch in the rock-edge, apparently the upper termination of one of the numerous vertical cracks by which the precipices are traversed, and which in so many cases on the Orkney coast have been hollowed by the waves into long open coves or deep caverns.  It was up there, he said, that about twelve years ago the sole survivor of a ship's crew contrived to scramble, four days after his vessel had been dashed to fragments against the rocks below, and when it was judged that all on board had perished.  The vessel was wrecked on a Wednesday.  She had been marked, when in the offing, standing for the bay of Stromness; but the storm was violent, and the shore a lee one; and as it was seen from the beach that she could scarce weather the headland yonder, a number of people gathered along the cliffs, furnished with ropes, to render to the crew whatever assistance might be possible in the circumstances.  Human help, however, was to avail them nothing.  Their vessel, a fine schooner, when within forty yards of the promontory, was seized broadside by an enormous wave, and dashed against the cliff, as one might clash a glass-phial against a stone-wall.  One blow completed the work of destruction; she went rolling in entire from keel to mast-head, and returned, on the recoil of the broken surge, a mass of shapeless fragments, that continued to dance idly amid the foam, or were scattered along the beach.  But of the poor men, whom the spectators had seen but a few seconds before running wildly about the deck, there remained not a trace; and the saddened spectators returned to their homes to say that all had perished.  Four days after,—on the morning of the following Sabbath,—the sole survivor of the crew, saved, as if by miracle, climbed up the precipice, and presented himself to a group of astonished and terrified country people, who could scarce regard him as a creature of this world.  The fissure, which at the top of the cliff forms but a mere angular inflection, is hollowed below into a low-roofed cave of profound depth, into the farther extremity of which the tide hardly ever penetrates.  It is floored by a narrow strip of shingly beach; and on this bit of beach, far within the cave, the sailor found himself, half a minute after the vessel had struck and gone to pieces, washed in, he knew not how.  Two pillows and a few dozen red herrings, which had been swept in along with him, served him for bed and board; a tin cover enabled him to catch enough of the fresh-water droppings of the roof to quench his thirst; several large fragments of wreck that had been jambed fast athwart the opening of the cave broke the violence of the wind and sea; and in that doleful prison, day after day, he saw the tides sink and rise, and lay, when the surf rolled high at the fall of the tide, in utter darkness even at mid-day, as the waves outside rose to the roof, and inclosed him in a chamber as entirely cut off from the external atmosphere as that of a diving bell.  He was oppressed in the darkness, every time the waves came rolling in and compressed his modicum of air, by a sensation of extreme heat,—an effect of the condensation; and then, in the interval of recession, and consequent expansion, by a sudden chill.  At low ebb he had to work hard in clearing away the accumulations of stone and gravel which had been rolled in by the previous tide, and threatened to bury him up altogether.  At length he succeeded, after many a fruitless attempt, in gaining an upper ledge that overhung his prison-mouth; and, by a path on which a goat would scarce have found footing, he scrambled to the top.  His name was Johnstone; and the cave is still known as "Johnstone's Cave."  Such was the narrative of my companion.

    A little farther on, the undulating bank, into which the cliffs sink, projects into the sea as a flat green promontory, edged with hills of indurated sand, and topped by a picturesque ruin, that forms a pleasing object in the landscape.  The ruin is that of a country residence of the bishops of Orkney during the disturbed and unhappy reign of Scotch Episcopacy, and bears on a flat tablet of weathered sandstone the initials of its founder, Bishop George Grahame, and the date of its erection, 1633.  With a green cultivated oasis immediately around it, and a fine open sound, overlooked by the bold, picturesque cliffs of Hoy, in front, it must have been, for at least half the year, an agreeable, and, as its remains testify, a not uncomfortable habitation.  But I greatly fear Scottish clergymen of the Establishment, whether Presbyterian or Episcopalian, when obnoxious, from their position or their tenets, to the great bulk of the Scottish people, have not been left, since at least the Reformation, to enjoy either quiet or happy lives, however extrinsically favourable the circumstances in which they may have been placed.  Bishop Grahame, only five years after the date of the erection, was tried before the famous General Assembly of 1638; and, being convicted of having "all the ordinar faults of a bishop," he was deposed, and ordered within a limited time "to give tokens of repentance, under paine of excommunication."  "He was a curler on the ice on the Sabbath day," says Baillie,—"a setter of tacks to his sones and grandsones, to the prejudice of the Church; he oversaw adulterie; slighted charming; neglected preaching and doing of anie good; and held portions of ministers' stipends for building his cathedral."  The concluding portion of his life, after his deposition, was spent in obscurity; nor did his successor in the bishoprick, subsequent to the re-establishment of Episcopacy at the Restoration,—Bishop Honeyman,—close his days more happily.  He was struck in the arm by the bullet which the zealot Mitchell had intended for Archbishop Sharp; and the shattered bone never healed; "for, though he lived some years after," says Burnet, "they were forced to lay open the wound every year, for an exfoliation;" and his life was eventually shortened by his sufferings.  All seemed comfortable enough, and quite quiet enough, in the bishop's country-house to-day.  There were two cows quietly chewing the cud in what apparently had been the dignitary's sitting-room, and patiently awaiting the services of a young woman who was approaching at some little distance with a pail.  A large gray cat, that had been sunning herself in a sheltered corner of the court-yard, started up at our approach, and disappeared through a slit hole.  The sun, now gone far down the sky, shone brightly on shattered gable-tops, and roofless, rough-edged walls, revealing many a flaw and chasm in the yielding masonry; and their shadows fell with picturesque effect on the loose litter, rude implements, and gapped dry-stone fence, of the neglected farm-yard which surrounds the building.

    I have said that the flat promontory occupied by the ruin is edged by hills of indurated sand.  Existing in some places as a continuous bed of a soft gritty sandstone, scooped wavelike a-top, and varying from five to eight feet in thickness, they form a curious example of a subaerial formation,—the sand of which they are composed having been all blown from the sea-beach, and consolidated by the action of moisture on a calcareous mixture of comminuted shells, which forms from twenty to twenty-five per cent. of their entire mass.  I found that the sections of the bed laid open by the encroachments of the sea were scarce less regularly stratified than those of a subaqueous deposit, and that it was hollowed, where most exposed to the weather, into a number of spherical cells, which gave to those parts of the surface where they lay thickest, somewhat the aspect of a rude Runic fret-work,—an appearance not uncommon in weathered sandstones.  With more time to spare, I could fain have studied the deposit more carefully, in the hope of detecting a few peculiarities of structure sufficient to distinguish subaerially-formed from subaqueously-deposited beds of stone.  Sandstones of subaerial formation are of no very unfrequent occurrence among the recent deposits. On the coast of Cornwall there are cliffs of considerable height, that extend for several miles, and have attained a degree of solidity sufficient to serve the commoner purposes of the architect, which at one time existed as accumulations of blown sand.  "It is around the promontory of New Kaye," says Dr Paris, in an interesting memoir on the subject, "that the most extensive formation of sandstone takes place.  Here it may be seen in different stages of induration, from a state in which it is too friable to be detached from the rock upon which it reposes, to a hardness so considerable, that it requires a violent blow from a sledge-hammer to break it.  Buildings are here constructed of it; the church of Cranstock is entirely built with it; and it is also employed for various articles of domestic and agricultural uses.  The geologist who has previously examined the celebrated specimen from Guadaloupe will be struck with the great analogy which it bears to this formation."  Now, as vast tracts of the earth's surface,—in some parts of the world, as in Northern Africa, millions of square miles together,—are at present overlaid by accumulations of sand, which have this tendency to consolidate and become lasting subaerial formations, destined to occupy a place among the future strata of the globe, it seems impossible but that also in the old geologic periods there must have been, as now, sand-wastes and subaerial formations.  And as the representatives of these may still exist in some of our sandstone quarries, it might be well to be possessed of a knowledge of the peculiarities by which they are to be distinguished from deposits of subaqueous origin.  In order that I might have an opportunity of studying these peculiarities where they are to be seen more extensively developed than elsewhere on the eastern coast of Scotland, I here formed the intention of spending a day, on my return south, among the sand-wastes of Moray,—a purpose which I afterwards carried into effect.  But of that more anon.

    On the following morning, availing myself of a kind invitation, through Dr Garson, from his brother, a Free Church minister resident in an inland district of the Mainland, in convenient neighbourhood with the northern coasts of the island, and with several quarries, I set out from Stromness, taking in my way the Loch and Standing Stones of Stennis, which I had previously seen from but my seat in the mail-gig as I passed.  Mr Learmonth, who had to visit some of his people in this direction, accompanied me for several miles along the shores of the loch, and lightened the journey by his interesting snatches of local history, suggested by the various objects that lay along our road,—buildings, tumuli, ancient battle-fields, and standing stones.  The loch itself, an expansive sheet of water fourteen miles in circumference, I contemplated with much interest, and longed for an opportunity of studying its natural history.  Two promontories,—those occupied by the Standing Stones,—shoot out from the opposite sides, and approach so near as to be connected by a rustic bridge.  They divide the loch into two nearly equal parts, the lower of which gives access to the sea, and is salt in its nether reaches and brackish in its upper ones, while the higher is merely brackish in its nether reaches, and fresh enough in its upper ones to be potable.  The shores of both were strewed, at the time I passed, by a line of wrack, consisting, for the first few miles, from where the lower loch opens to the sea, of only marine plants, then of marine plants mixed with those of fresh-water growth, and then, in the upper sheet of water, of lacustrine plants exclusively.  And the fauna of the loch, like its flora, is, I was led to understand, of the same mixed character; the marine and fresh-water animals having each their own reaches, with certain debateable tracts between, in which each expatiates with more or less freedom, according to its nature and constitution,—some of the sea-fishes advancing far on the fresh water, and others, among the proper denizens of the lake, encroaching far on the salt.  The common fresh-water eel strikes out, I was told, farthest into the sea-water; in which, indeed, reversing the habits of the salmon, it is known in various places to deposit its spawn: it seeks, too, impatient of a low temperature, to escape from the cold of winter, by taking refuge in water brackish enough in a climate such as ours to resist the influence of frost.  Of the marine fishes, on the other hand, I found that the flounder got greatly higher than any of the others, inhabiting reaches of the lake almost entirely fresh.  A memoir on the Loch of Stennis and its productions, animal and vegetable, such as a Gilbert White of Selborne could produce, would be at once a very valuable and very curious document.  By dividing it into reaches, in which the average saltiness of the water was carefully ascertained, and its productions noted, with the various modifications which these underwent as they receded upwards or downwards from their proper habitat towards the line at which they could no longer exist, much information might be acquired, of a kind important to the naturalist, and not without its use to the geological student.  I have had an opportunity elsewhere of observing a curious change which fresh-water induces on the flounder.  In the brackish water of an estuary it becomes, without diminishing in general size, thicker and more fleshy than when in its legitimate habitat the sea; but the flesh loses in quality what it gains in quantity—it is flabby and insipid, and the margin-fin lacks always its delicious strip of transparent fat.  I fain wish that some intelligent resident on the shores of Stennis would set himself carefully to examine its productions, and that then, after registering his observations for a few years, he would favour the world with its natural history.

    The Standing Stones,—second in Britain, of their kind, to only those of Stonehenge,—occur in two groups; the smaller group (composed, however, of the taller stones) on the southern promontory; the larger on the northern one.  Rude and shapeless, and bearing no other impress of the designing faculty than that they are stuck endwise in the earth, and form, as a whole, regular figures on the sward, there is yet a sublime solemnity about them, unsurpassed in effect by any ruin I have yet seen, however grand in its design or imposing in its proportions.  Their very rudeness, associated with their ponderous bulk and weight, adds to their impressiveness.  When there is art and taste enough in a country to hew an ornate column, no one marvels that there should be also mechanical skill enough in it to set it up on end; but the men who tore from the quarry these vast slabs, some of them eighteen feet in height over the soil, and raised them where they now stand, must have been ignorant savages, unacquainted with machinery, and unfurnished, apparently, with a single tool.  And what, when contemplating their handiwork, we have to subtract in idea from their minds, we add, by an involuntary process, to their bodies: we come to regard the feats which they have accomplished as performed by a power not mechanical, but gigantic.  The consideration, too, that these remains,—eldest of the works of man in this country,—should have so long survived all definite tradition of the purposes which they were raised to serve, so that we now merely know regarding them that they were religious in their uses,—products of that ineradicable instinct of man's nature which leads him in so many various ways to attempt conciliating the Powers of another world,—serves greatly to heighten their effect.  History at the time of their erection had no existence in these islands: the age, though it sought, through the medium of strange, unknown rites, to communicate with Heaven, was not knowing enough to communicate, through the medium of alpha bet or symbol, with posterity.  The appearance of the obelisks, too, harmonizes well with their great antiquity and the obscurity of their origin.  For about a man's height from the ground they are covered thick by the shorter lichens,—chiefly the gray-stone parmelia,—here and there embroidered by golden-hued patches of the yellow parmelia of the wall; but their heads and shoulders, raised beyond the reach alike of the herd-boy and of his herd, are covered by an extraordinary profusion of a flowing beard-like lichen of unusual length,—the lichen calicarus (or, according to modern botanists, Ramalina scopuloruma), in which they look like an assemblage of ancient Druids, mysteriously stern and invincibly silent and shaggy as the bard of Gray, when


Loose his beard and hoary hair
Streamed like a meteor on the troubled air.


    The day was perhaps too sunny and clear for seeing the Standing Stones to the best possible advantage.  They could not be better placed than on their flat promontories, surrounded by the broad plane of an extensive lake, in a waste, lonely, treeless country, that presents no bold competing features to divert attention from them as the great central objects of the landscape; but the gray of the morning, or an atmosphere of fog and vapour, would have associated better with the misty obscurity of their history, their shaggy forms, and their livid tints, than the glare of a cloudless sun, that brought out in hard, clear relief their rude outlines, and gave to each its sharp dark patch of shadow.  Gray-coloured objects, when tall and imposing, but of irregular form, are seen always to most advantage in an uncertain light,—in fog or frost-rhime, or under a scowling sky, or, as Parnell well expresses it, "amid the livid gleams of night."  They appeal, if I may so express myself, to the sentiment of the ghostly and the spectral, and demand at least a partial envelopment of the obscure.  Burns, with the true tact of the genuine poet, develops the sentiment almost instinctively in an exquisite stanza in one of his less-known songs, "The Posey,"—


The hawthorn I will pu', wi' its locks o' siller gray,
Where, like an aged man, it stands at break o' day.


Scott, too, in describing these very stones, chooses the early morning as the time in which to exhibit them, when they "stood in the gray light of the dawning, like the phantom forms of antediluvian giants, who, shrouded in the habiliments of the dead, come to revisit, by the pale light, the earth which they had plagued with their oppression, and polluted by their sins, till they brought down upon it the vengeance of long-suffering heaven."  On another occasion he introduces them as "glimmering, a grayish white, in the rising sun, and projecting far to the westward their long gigantic shadows."  And Malcolm, in the exercise of a similar faculty with that of Burns and of Scott, surrounds them, in his description, with a somewhat similar atmosphere of partial dimness and obscurity:—


The hoary rocks, of giant size,
That o'er the land in circles rise,
Of which tradition may not tell,
Fit circles for the wizard's spell,
Seen far amidst the scowling storm,
Seem each a tall and phantom form,
As hurrying vapours o'er them flee,
Frowning in grim security,
While, like a dread voice from the past,
Around them moans the autumnal blast.


There exist curious analogies between the earlier stages of society and the more immature periods of life,—between the savage and the child; and the huge circle of Stennis seems suggestive of one of these.  It is considerably more than four hundred feet in diameter; and the stones which compose it, varying from three to fourteen feet in height, must have been originally from thirty-five to forty in number, though only sixteen now remain erect.   A mound and fosse, still distinctly traceable, run round the whole; and there are several mysterious-looking tumuli outside, bulky enough to remind one of the lesser morains of the geologist.   But the circle, notwithstanding its imposing magnitude, is but a huge child's house after all,—one of those circles of stones which children lay down on their village-green, and then, in the exercise of that imaginative faculty which distinguishes between the young of the human animal and those of every other creature, convert, by a sort of conventionalism, into a church or dwelling house, within which they seat themselves, and enact their imitations of the employments of their seniors, whether domestic or ecclesiastical.  The circle of Stennis was a circle, say the antiquaries, dedicated to the sun.  The group of stones on the southern promontory of the lake formed but a half-circle, and it was a half-circle dedicated to the moon.  To the circular sun the great rude children of an immature age of the world had laid down a circle of stones on the one promontory; to the moon, in her half-orbed state, they had laid down a half-circle on the other; and in propitiating these material deities, to whose standing in the old Scandinavian worship the names of our Sunday and Monday still testify, they employed in their respective inclosures, in the exercise of a wild unregulated fancy, uncouth irrational rites, the extremeness of whose folly was in some measure concealed by the horrid exquisiteness of their cruelty.  We are still in the nonage of the species, and see human society sowing its wild oats in a thousand various ways, very absurdly often, and often very wickedly; but matters seem to have been greatly worse when, in an age still more immature, the grimly-bearded, six-feet children of Orkney were laying down their stone-circles on the green.  Sir Walter, in the parting scene between Cleveland and Mina Troil, which he describes as having taken place amid the lesser group of stones, refers to an immense slab "lying flat and prostrate in the middle of the others, supported by short pillars, of which some relics are still visible," and which is regarded as the sacrificial stone of the erection.  "It is a current belief," says Dr Hibbert, in an elaborate paper in the "Transactions of the Scottish Antiquaries," "that upon this stone a victim of royal birth was immolated.  Halfdan the Long legged, the son of Harold the Fair-haired, in punishment for the aggressions of Orkney, had made an unexpected descent upon its coasts, and acquired possession of the Jarldom.  In the autumn succeeding, Halfdan was retorted upon, and, after an inglorious contest, betook himself to a place of concealment, from which he was the following morning unlodged, and instantly doomed to the Asæ.  Einar, the Jarl of Orkney, with his sword carved the captive's back into the form of an eagle, the spine being longitudinally divided, and the ribs being separated by a transverse cut as far as the loins.  He then extracted the lungs, and dedicated them to Odin for a perpetuity of victory, singing a wild song,—'I am revenged for the slaughter of Rognvalld: this have the Nornæ decreed.  In my fiording the pillar of the people has fallen.  Build up the cairn, ye active youths, for victory is with us.  From the stones of the sea-shore will I pay the Long-legged a hard seat.'"  There is certainly no trace to be detected, in this dark story, of a golden age of the world: the golden age is, I would fain hope, an age yet to come.  There at least exists no evidence that it is an age gone by.  It will be the full-grown manly age of the world when the race, as such, shall have attained to their years of discretion.  They are at present in their froward boyhood, playing at the mischievous games of war, and diplomacy, and stock-gambling, and site-refusing; and it is not quite agreeable for quiet honest people to be living amongst them.  But there would be nothing gained by going back to that more infantine state of society in which the Jarl Einar carved into a red eagle the back of Halfdan the Long-legged.


 
CHAPTER XIV.


WHILE yet lingering amid the Standing Stones, I was joined by Mr Garson, who had obligingly ridden a good many miles to meet me, and now insisted that I should mount and ride in turn, while he walked by my side, that I might be fresh, he said, for the exploratory ramble of the evening.  I could have ventured more readily on taking the command of a vessel than of a horse, and with fewer fears of mutiny; but mount I did; and the horse, a discreet animal, finding he was to have matters very much his own way, got upon honour with me, and exerted himself to such purpose, that we did not fall greatly more than a hundred yards behind Mr Garson.  We traversed in our journey a long dreary moor, so entirely ruined, like those which I had seen on the previous day, by belonging to everybody in general, as to be no longer of the slightest use to anybody in particular.  The soil seems to have been naturally poor; but it must have taken a good deal of spoiling to render it the sterile, verdureless waste it is now; for even where it had been poorest, I found that in the island-like appropriated patches by which it is studded, it at least bears, what it has long ceased to bear elsewhere, a continuous covering of green sward.  But if disposed to quarrel with the commons of Orkney, I found in close neighbourhood with them that with which I could have no quarrel, numerous small properties farmed by the proprietors, and forming, in most instances, farms by no means very large.  There are parishes in this part of the mainland divided among from sixty to eighty landowners.

    A nearly similar state of things seems to have obtained in Scotland about the beginning of the eighteenth century, and for the greater part of the previous one.  I am acquainted with old churchyards in the north of Scotland that contain the burying-grounds of from six to ten landed proprietors, whose lands are now merged into single properties.  And, in reading the biographies of our old covenanting ministers, I have often remarked as curious, and as bearing in the same line, that no inconsiderable proportion of their number were able to retire, in times of persecution, to their own little estates.  It was during the disastrous wars of the French Revolution,—wars the effects of which Great Britain will, I fear, never fully recover,—that the smaller holdings were finally absorbed.  About twenty years ere the war began, the lands of England were parcelled out among no fewer than two hundred and fifty thousand families; before the peace of 1815, they had fallen into the hands of thirty-two thousand.  In less than half a century, that base of actual proprietorship on which the landed interest of any country must ever find its surest standing, had contracted in England to less than one-seventh its former extent.  In Scotland the absorption of the great bulk of the lesser properties seems to have taken place somewhat earlier; but in it also the revolutionary war appears to have given them the final blow; and the more extensive proprietors of the kingdom are assuredly all the less secure in consequence of their extinction.  They were the smaller stones in the wall, that gave firmness in the setting to the larger, and jambed them fast within those safe limits determined by the line and plummet, which it is ever perilous to overhang.  Very extensive territorial properties, wherever they exist, create almost necessarily human nature being what it is—a species of despotism more oppressive than even that of great unrepresentative governments.  It used to be remarked on the Continent, that there was always less liberty in petty principalities, where the eye of the ruler was ever on his subjects, than under the absolute monarchies. [16]  And in a country such as ours, the accumulation of landed property in the hands of comparatively a few individuals has the effect often of bringing the territorial privileges of the great landowner into a state of antagonism with the civil and religious rights of the people, that cannot be other than perilous to the landowner himself.  In a district divided, like Orkney, among many owners, a whole country-side could not be shut up against its people by some ungenerous or intolerant proprietor,—greatly at his own risk and to his own hurt,—as in the case of Glen Tilt or the Grampians; nor, when met for purposes of public worship, could the population of a parish be chased from off its bare moors, at his instance, by the constable or the sheriff officer, to worship God agreeably to their consciences amid the mire of a cross road, or on the bare sea-beach uncovered by the ebb of the tide.  The smaller properties of the country, too, served admirably as stepping-stones, by which the proprietors or their children, when possessed of energy and intellect, could mount to a higher walk of society.  Here beside me, for instance, was my friend Mr Garson, a useful and much esteemed minister of religion in his native district; while his brother, a medical man of superior parts, was fast rising into extensive practice in the neighbouring town.  They had been prepared for their respective professions by a classical education; and yet the stepping-stone to positions in society at once so important and so respectable was simply one of the smaller holdings of Orkney, derived to them as the descendants of one of the old Scandinavian Udallers, and which fell short, I was informed, of a hundred a-year.

    Mr Garson's dwelling, to which I was welcomed with much hospitality by his mother and sisters, occupies the middle of an inclined hollow or basin, so entirely surrounded by low, moory hills, that at no point,—though the radius of the prospect averages from four to six miles,—does it command a view of the sea.  I scarce expected being introduced in Orkney to a scene in which the traveller could so thoroughly forget that he was on an island.  Of the parish of Harray, which borders on Mr Garson's property, no part touches the sea-coast; and the people of the parish are represented by their neighbours, who pride themselves upon their skill as sailors and boatmen, as a race of lubberly landsmen, unacquainted with nautical matters, and ignorant of the ocean and its productions.  A Harray man is represented, in one of their stories, as entering into a compact of mutual forbearance with a lobster,—to him a monster of unknown powers and formidable proportions,—which he had at first attempted to capture, but which had shown fight, and had nearly captured him in turn.  "Weel, weel, let a-be for let a-be," he is made to say; "if thou doesna clutch me in thy grips, I'se no clutch thee in mine."  It is to this primitive parish that David Vedder, the sailor-poet of Orkney, refers, in his "Orcadian Sketches," as "celebrated over the whole archipelago for the peculiarities of its inhabitants, their singular manners and habits, their uncouth appearance, and homely address.  Being the most landward district in Pomona," he adds, "and consequently having little intercourse with strangers, it has become the stronghold of many ancient customs and superstitions, which modern innovation has pushed from off their pedestals in almost all the other parts of the island.  The permanency of its population, too, is mightily in favour of 'old use and wont,' as it is almost entirely divided amongst a class of men yclept pickie, or petty lairds, each ploughing his own fields and reaping his own crops, much in the manner their great-great-grandfathers did in the days of Earl Patrick.  And such is the respect which they entertain for their hereditary belief's, that many of them are said still to cast a lingering look, not unmixed with reverence, on certain spots held sacred by their Scandinavian ancestors."

    After an early dinner I set out for the barony of Birsay, in the northern extremity of the mainland, accompanied by Mr Garson, and passed for several miles over a somewhat dreary country, bare, sterile, and brown, studded by cold, broad, treeless lakes, and thinly mottled by groups of gray, diminutive cottages, that do not look as if there was much of either plenty or comfort inside.  But after surmounting the hills that form the northern side of the interior basin, was sensible of a sudden improvement on the face of the country.  Where the land slopes towards the sea, the shaggy heath gives place to a green luxuriant herbage; and the frequent patches of corn seem to rejoice in a more genial soil.  The lower slopes of Orkney are singularly rich in wild flowers,—richer by many degrees than the fat loamy meadows of England.  They resemble gaudy pieces of carpeting, as abundant in petals as in leaves: their luxuriant blow of red and white, blue and yellow, seems as if competing, in the extent of surface which it occupies, with their general ground of green.  I have remarked a somewhat similar luxuriance of wild flowers in the more sheltered hollows of the bleak north-western coasts of Scotland.  There is little that is rare to be found among these last, save that a few Alpine plants may be here and there recognised as occurring at a lower level than elsewhere in Britain; but the vast profusion of blossoms borne by species common to the greater part of the kingdom imparts to them an apparently novel character.  We may detect, I am inclined to think, in this singular profusion, both in Orkney and the bleaker districts of the mainland of Scotland, the operation of a law not less influential in the animal than in the vegetable world, which, when hardship presses upon the life of the individual shrub or quadruped, so as to threaten its vitality, renders it fruitful in behalf of its species.  I have seen the principle strikingly exemplified in the common tobacco plant, when reared in a northern county in the open air.  Year after year it continued to degenerate, and to exhibit a smaller leaf and a shorter stem, until the successors of what in the first year of trial had been vigorous plants of from three to four feet in height, had in the sixth or eighth become more weeds of scarce as many inches.  But while the more flourishing, and as yet undegenerate plant, had merely borne a-top a few florets, which produced a small quantity of exceedingly minute seeds, the stunted weed, its descendant, was so thickly covered over in its season with its pale yellow bells, as to present the appearance of a nosegay; and the seeds produced were not only bulkier in the mass, but also individually of much greater size.  The tobacco had grown productive in proportion as it had degenerated and become poor. In the common scurvy grass, too, remarkable, with some other plants, as I have already had occasion to mention, for taking its place among both the productions of our Alpine heights and of our sea-shores, it will be found that in proportion as its habitat proves ungenial, and its stems and leaves become dwarfish and thin, its little white cruciform flowers increase, till, in localities where it barely exists, as if on the edge of extinction, we find the entire plant forming a dense bundle of seed-vessels, each charged to the full with seed.  And in the gay meadows of Orkney, crowded with a vegetation that approaches its northern limit of production, we detect what seems to be the same principle, chronically operative; and hence, it would seem, their extraordinary gaiety.  Their richly-blossoming plants are the poor productive Irish of the vegetable world [17] for Doubleday seems to be quite in the right in holding that the law extends to not only the inferior animals, but to our own species also.  The lean, ill-fed sow and rabbit rear, it has been long known, a greatly more numerous progeny than the same animals when well cared for and fat; and every horse and cattle breeder knows, that to over-feed his animals proves a sure mode of rendering them sterile.  The sheep, if tolerably well pastured, brings forth only a single lamb at a birth; but if half-starved and lean, the chances are that it may bring forth two or three.  And so it is also with the greatly higher human race.  Place them in circumstances of degradation and hardship so extreme as almost to threaten their existence as individuals, and they increase, as if in behalf of the species, with a rapidity without precedent in circumstances of greater comfort.  The aristocratic families of a country are continually running out; and it requires frequent creations to keep up the House of Lords; while our poor people seem increasing in some districts in almost the mathematical ratio.  The county of Sutherland is already more populous than it was previous to the great clearings.  In Skye, though fully two-thirds of the population emigrated early in the latter half of the last century, a single generation had scarce passed ere the gap was completely filled; and miserable Ireland, had the human family no other breeding-place or nursery, would of itself be sufficient in a very few ages to people the world.

    We returned, taking in our way the cliffs of Marwick Head, in which I detected a few scattered plates and scales, and which, like nine-tenths of the rocks of Orkney, belong to the great flagstone division of the formation.  I found the drystone fences on Mr Garson's property still richer in detached fossil fragments than the cliffs; but there are few erections in the island that do not inclose in their walls portions of the organic.  We find ichthyolite remains in the flagstones laid bare along the wayside,—in every heap of road-metal,—in the bottom of every stream,—in almost every cottage and fence.  Orkney is a land of defunct fishes, and contains in its rocky folds more individuals of the waning ganoid family than are now to be found in all the existing seas, lakes, and rivers of the world.  I enjoyed in a snug upper room a delectable night's rest, after a day of prime exercise, prolonged till it just touched on toil, and again experienced, on looking out in the morning on the wide flat basin around, a feeling somewhat akin to wonder, that Orkney should possess a scene at once so extensive and so exclusively inland.

    Towards mid-day I walked on to the parish manse of Sandwick, armed with a letter of introduction to its inmate, the Rev. Charles Clouston,—a gentleman whose descriptions of the Orkneys, in the very complete and tastefully written Guide Book of the Messrs Anderson of Inverness, and of his own parish in the "Statistical Account of Scotland," had, both from the high literary ability and the amount of scientific acquirement which they exhibit, rendered me desirous to see.  I was politely received, though my visit must have been, as I afterwards ascertained, at a rather inconvenient time.  It was now late in the week, and the coming Sabbath was that of the communion in the parish; but Mr Clouston obligingly devoted to me at least an hour, and I found it a very profitable one.  He showed me a collection of flags, with which he intended constructing a grotto, and which contained numerous specimens of Coccosteus, that he had exposed to the weather, to bring out the fine blue efflorescence,—a phosphate of iron which forms on the surface of the plates.  They reminded me, from their peculiar style of colouring, and the grotesqueness of their forms, of the blue figuring on pieces of buff-coloured china, and seemed to be chiefly of one species, very abundant in Orkney, the Coccosteus decipiens.  We next walked out to see a quarry in the neighbourhood of the manse, remarkable for containing in immense abundance the heads of Dipteri,—many of them in a good state of keeping, with all the multitudinous plates to which they owe their pseudo-name, Polyphractus, in their original places, and bearing unworn and untarnished their minute carvings and delicate enamel, but existing in every case as mere detached heads.  I found three of them lying in one little slaty fragment of two and a half inches by four, which I brought along with me.  Mr Clouston had never seen the curious arrangement of palatal plates and teeth which distinguishes the Dipterus; and, drawing his attention to it in an ill-preserved specimen which I found in the coping of his glebe-wall, I restored, in a rude pencil sketch, the two angular patches of teeth that radiate from the elegant dart-head in the centre of the palate, with the rhomboidal plate behind.  "We have a fish, not uncommon on the rocky coasts of this part of the country," he said,—"the Bergil or Striped Wrasse (Labrus Balanus),—which bears exactly such patches of angular teeth in its palate.  They adhere strongly together; and, when found in our old Pict's houses, which occasionally happens, they have been regarded by some of our local antiquaries as artificial,—an opinion which I have had to correct, though it seems not improbable that, from their gem-like appearance they may have been used in a rude age as ornaments.  I think I can show you one disinterred here some years ago."  It interested me to find, from Mr Clouston's specimen, that the palatal grinders of this recent fish of Orkney very nearly resemble those of its Dipterus of the Old Red Sandstone.  The group is of nearly the same size in the modern as in the ancient fish, and presents the same angular form; but the individual teeth are more strongly set in the Bergil than in the Dipterus, and radiate less regularly from the inner rectangular point of the angle to its base outside.  I could fain have procured an Orkney Bergil, in order to determine the general pattern of its palatal dentition with what is very peculiar in the more ancient fish,—the form of the lower jaw; and to ascertain farther, from the contents of the stomach, the species of shell-fish or crustaceans on which it feeds; but, though by no means rare in Orkney, where it is occasionally used as food, I was unable, during my short stay, to possess myself of a specimen.

    Mr Clouston had, I found, chiefly directed his palæontological inquiries on the vegetable remains of the flagstones, as the department of the science in which, in relation to Orkney, most remained to be done; and his collection of these is the most considerable in the number of its specimens that I have yet seen.  It, however, serves but to show how very extreme is the poverty of the flora of the Lower Old Red Sandstone.  The numerous fishes of the period seem to have inhabited a sea little more various in its vegetation than in its molluscs.  Among the many specimens of Mr Clouston's collection I could detect but two species of plants,—an imperfectly preserved vegetable, more nearly resembling a clubmoss than aught I have seen, and a smooth-stemmed fircoid, existing as a mere coaly film on the stone, and distinguished chiefly from the other by its sharp-edged, well-defined outline, and from the circumstance that its stems continue to retain the same diameter for a considerable distance, and this, too, after throwing off at acute angles numerous branches nearly equal in bulk to the parent trunk.  In a specimen about two and a half feet in length, which I owe to the kindness of Mr Dick of Thurso, there are stems continuous throughout, that, though they ramify into from six to eight branches in that space, are quite as thick atop as at bottom.  They are the remains, in all probability, of a long flexible fucoid, like those fucoids of the intertropical seas that, streaming slantwise in the tide, rise not unfrequently to the surface in fifteen and twenty fathoms water.  I saw among Mr Clouston's specimens no such lignite as the fragment of true coniferous wood which I had found at Cromarty a few years previous, and which, it would seem, is still unique among the fossils of the Old Red Sandstone.  In the chart of the Pacific attached to the better editions of "Cook's Voyages," there are several entries along the track of the great navigator that indicate where, in mid-ocean, trees, or fragments of trees, had been picked up.  The entries, however, are but few, though they belong to all the three voyages together: if I remember aright, there are only five entries in all,—two in the Northern and three in the Southern Pacific.  The floating tree, at a great distance from land, is of rare occurrence in even the present scene of things, though the breadth of land be great, and trees numerous; and in the times of the Old Red Sandstone, when probably the breadth of land was not great, and trees not numerous, it seems to have been of rarer occurrence still.  But it is at least something to know that in this early age of the world trees there were.

    I walked on to Stromness, and on the following morning, that of Saturday, took boat for Hoy,—skirting, on my passage out, the eastern and southern shores of the intervening island of Græmsay, and, on the passage back again, its western and northern shores.  The boatman, an intelligent man,—one of the teachers, as I afterwards ascertained, in the Free Church Sabbath-school,—lightened the way by his narratives of storm and wreck, and not a few interesting snatches of natural history.  There is no member of the commoner professions with whom I better like to meet than with a sensible fisherman, who makes a right use of his eyes.  The history of fishes is still very much what the history of almost all animals was little more than half a century ago,—a matter of mere external description, heavy often and dry, and of classification founded exclusively on anatomical details.  We have still a very great deal to learn regarding the character, habits, and instincts of these denizens of the deep,—much, in short, respecting that faculty which is in them through which their natures are harmonized to the inexorable laws, and they continue to live wisely and securely, in consequence, within their own element, when man, with all his reasoning ability, is playing strange vagaries in his—a species of knowledge this, by the way, which constitutes by far the most valuable part,—the mental department of natural history; and the notes of the intelligent fisherman, gleaned from actual observation, have frequently enabled me to fill portions of the wide hiatus in the history of fishes which it ought of right to occupy.  In passing, as we toiled along the Græmsay coast, the ruins of a solitary cottage, the boatman furnished us with a few details of the history and character of its last inmate, an Orkney fisherman, that would have furnished admirable materials for one of the darker sketches of Crabbe.  He was, he said, a resolute, unsocial man, not devoid of a dash of reckless humour, and remarkable for an extraordinary degree of bodily strength, which he continued to retain unbroken to an age considerably advanced, and which, as he rarely admitted of a companion in his voyages, enabled him to work his little skiff alone, in weather when even better equipped vessels had enough ado to keep the sea.  He had been married in early life to a religiously-disposed woman, a member of some dissenting body; but, living with him in the little island of Græmsay, separated by the sea from any place of worship, he rarely permitted her to see the inside of a church.  At one time, on the occasion of a communion Sabbath in the neighbouring parish of Stromness, he seemed to yield to her entreaties, and got ready his yawl, apparently with the design of bringing her across the Sound to the town.  They had, however, no sooner quitted the shore than he sailed off to a green little Ogygia of a holm in the neighbourhood, on which, reversing the old mythologic story of Calypso and Ulysses, he incarcerated the poor woman for the rest of the day till evening.  I could see, from the broad grin with which the boatmen greeted this part of the recital, that there was, unluckily, almost fun enough in the trick to neutralize the sense of its barbarity.  The unsocial fisherman lived on, dreaded and disliked, and yet, when his skiff was seen boldly keeping the sea in the face of a freshening gale, when every other was making for port, or stretching out from the land as some stormy evening was falling, not a little admired also.  At length, on a night of fearful tempest, the skiff was marked approaching the coast, full on an iron-bound promontory, where there could be no safe landing.  The helm, from the steadiness of her course, seemed fast lashed, and, dimly discernible in the uncertain light, the solitary boatman could be seen sitting erect at the bows, as if looking out for the shore.  But as his little bark came shooting inwards on the long roll of a wave, it was found that there was no speculation in his stony glance: the misanthropic fisherman was a cold and rigid corpse.  He had died at sea, as English juries emphatically express themselves in such cases, under "the visitation of God."

 

CHAPTER XV.


WE landed at Hoy, on a rocky stretch of shore, composed of the gray flagstones of the district.  They spread out here in front of the tall hills composed of the overlying sandstone, in a green undulating platform, resembling a somewhat uneven esplanade spread out in front of a steep rampart.  With the upper deposit a new style of scenery commences, unique in these islands: the hills, bold and abrupt rise from fourteen to sixteen hundred feet over the sea-level; and the valleys by which they are traversed,—no mere shallow inflections of the general surface, like most of the other valleys of Orkney,—are of profound depth, precipitous, imposing, and solitary.  The sudden change from the soft, low, and comparatively tame, to the bold, stern, and high, serves admirably to show how much the character of a landscape may depend on the formation which composes it.  A walk of somewhat less than two miles brought me into the depths of a brown, shaggy valley, so profoundly solitary, that it does not contain a single human habitation, nor, with one interesting exception, a single trace of the hand of man.  As the traveller approaches by a path somewhat elevated, in order to avoid the peaty bogs of the bottom, along the slopes of the northern side of the dell, he sees, amid the heath below, what at first seems to be a rhomboidal piece of pavement of pale Old Red Sandstone, bearing atop a few stunted tufts of vegetation.  There are no neighbouring objects of a known character by which to estimate its size; the precipitous hill-front behind is more than a thousand feet in height; the greatly taller Ward Hill of Hoy, which frowns over it on the opposite side, is at least five hundred feet higher; and, dwarfed by these giants, it seems a mere pavier's flag, mayhap some five or six feet square, by from eighteen inches to two feet in depth.  It is only on approaching it within a few yards that we find it to be an enormous stone, nearly thirty feet in length by almost fifteen feet in breadth, and in some places, though it thins, wedge-like, towards one of the edges, more than six feet in thickness,—forming altogether such a mass as the quarrier would detach from the solid rock, to form the architrave of some vast gateway, or the pediment of some colossal statue.  A cave-like excavation, nearly three feet square, and rather more than seven feet in depth, opens on its gray and lichened side.  The excavation is widened within, along the opposite walls, into two uncomfortably short beds, very much resembling those of the cabin of a small coasting vessel.  One of the two is furnished with a protecting ledge and a pillow of stone, hewn out of the solid mass; while the other, which is some five or six inches shorter than its neighbour, and presents altogether more the appearance of a place of penance than of repose, lacks both cushion and ledge.  An aperture, which seems to have been originally of a circular form, and about two and a half feet in diameter, but which some unlucky herd-boy, apparently in the want of better employment, has considerably mutilated and widened, opens at the inner extremity of the excavation to the roof, as the hatch of a vessel opens from the hold to the deck; for it is by far too wide in proportion to the size of the apartment to be regarded as a chimney.  A gray, rudely-hewn block of sandstone, which, though greatly too ponderous to be moved by any man of the ordinary strength, seems to have served the purpose of a door, lies prostrate beside the opening in front.  And such is the famous Dwarfie Stone of Hoy,—as firmly fixed in our literature by the genius of Sir Walter Scott, as in this wild valley by its ponderous weight and breadth of base, and regarding which—for it shares in the general obscurity of the other ancient remains of Orkney—the antiquary can do little more than repeat, somewhat incredulously, what tradition tells him, viz., that it was the work, many ages ago, of an ugly, malignant goblin, half-earth half-air,—the Elfin Trolld,—a personage, it is said, that, even within the last century, used occasionally to be seen flitting about in its neighbourhood.

    I was fortunate in a fine breezy day, clear and sunshiny, save where the shadows of a few dense piled-up clouds swept dark athwart the landscape.  In the secluded recesses of the valley all was hot, heavy, and still; though now and then a fitful snatch of a breeze, the mere fragment of some broken gust that seemed to have lost its way, tossed for a moment the white cannach of the bogs, or raised spirally into the air, for a few yards, the light beards of some seeding thistle, and straightway let them down again.  Suddenly, however, about noon, a shower broke thick and heavy against the dark sides and gray scalp of the Ward Hill, and came sweeping down the valley.  I did what Norna of the Fitful Head had, according to the novelist, done before me in similar circumstances,—crept for shelter into the larger bed of the cell, which, though rather scant, taken fairly lengthwise, for a mar of five feet eleven, I found, by stretching myself diagonally from corner to corner, no very uncomfortable lounging-place in a thunder-shower.  Some provident herd-boy had spread it over, apparently months before, with a littering of heath and fern, which now formed a dry, springy couch; and as I lay wrapped up in my plaid, listening to the rain-drops as they pattered thick and heavy a-top, or slanted through the broken hatchway to the vacant bed on the opposite side of the excavation, I called up the wild narrative of Norna, and felt all its poetry.  The opening passage of the story is, however, not poetry, but good prose, in which the curious visitor might give expression to his own conjectures, if ingenious enough either to form or to express them so well.  "With my eyes fixed on the smaller bed," the sorceress is made to say, "I wearied myself with conjectures regarding the origin and purpose of my singular place of refuge.  Had it been really the work of that powerful Trolld to whom the poetry of the Scalds referred it? or was it the tomb of some Scandinavian chief, interred with his arms and his wealth, perhaps also with his immolated wife, that what he loved best in life might not in death be divided from him? or was it the abode of penance, chosen by some devoted anchorite of later days? or the idle work of some wandering mechanic, whom chance, and whim, and leisure, had thrust upon such an undertaking?"  What follows this sober passage is the work of the poet.  "Sleep," continues Norna, "had gradually crept upon me among my lucubrations, when I was startled from my slumbers by a second clap of thunder; and when I awoke, I saw through the dim light which the upper aperture admitted, the unshapely and indistinct form of Trolld the dwarf, seated opposite to me on the lesser couch, which his square and misshapen bulk seemed absolutely to fill up.  I was startled, but not affrighted; for the blood of the ancient race of Lochlin was warm in my veins.  He spoke, and his words were of Norse,—so old, that few save my father, or I myself, could have comprehended their import,—such language as was spoken in these islands ere Olave planted his cross on the ruins of heathenism.  His meaning was dark also, and obscure, like that which the pagan priests were wont to deliver, in the name of their idols, to the tribes that assembled at the Helgafels. * * * I answered him in nearly the same strain; for the spirit of the ancient Scalds of our race was upon me; and, far from fearing the phantom with whom I sat cooped within so narrow a space, I felt the impulse of that high courage which thrust the ancient champions and Druidesses upon contests with the invisible world, when they thought that the earth no longer contained enemies worthy to be subdued by them. * * * The Demon scowled at me as if at once incensed and overawed; and then, coiling himself up in a thick and sulphurous vapour, he disappeared from his place.  I did not till that moment feel the influence of fright, but then it seized me.  I rushed into the open air, where the tempest had passed away, and all was pure and serene."  Shall I dare confess, that I could fain have passed some stormy night all alone in this solitary cell, were it but to enjoy the luxury of listening, amid the darkness, to the dashing rain and the roar of the wind high among the cliffs, or to detect the brushing sound of hasty footsteps in the wild rustle of the heath, or the moan of unhappy spirits in the low roar of the distant sea.  Or, mayhap,—again to borrow from the poet,—as midnight was passing into morning,


To ponder o'er some mystic lay,
Till the wild tale had all its sway;
And in the bittern's distant shriek
I heard unearthly voices speak,
Or thought the wizard priest was come
To claim again his ancient home!
And bade my busy fancy range
To frame him fitting shape and strange;
Till from the dream my brow I cleared,
And smil'd to think that I had feared.


    The Dwarfie Stone has been a good deal undervalued by some writers, such as the historian of Orkney, Mr Barry; and, considered simply as a work of art or labour, it certainly does not stand high.  When tracing, as I lay a-bed, the marks of the tool, which, in the harder portions of the stone, are still distinctly visible, I just thought how that, armed with pick and chisel, and working as I was once accustomed to work, I could complete such another excavation to order in some three weeks or a month.  But then, I could not make my excavation a thousand years old, nor envelop its origin in the sun-gilt vapours of a poetic obscurity, nor connect it with the supernatural, through the influences of wild ancient traditions, nor yet encircle it with a classic halo, borrowed from the undying inventions of an exquisite literary genius.  A half-worn pewter spoon, stamped on the back with the word London, which was found in a miserable hut on the banks of the Awatska by some British sailors, at once excited in their minds a thousand tender remembrances of their country.  And it would, I suspect, be rather a poor criticism, and scarcely suited to grapple with the true phenomena of the case, that, wholly overlooking the magical influences of the associative faculty, would concentrate itself simply on either the workmanship or the materials of the spoon.  Nor is the Dwarfie Stone to be correctly estimated, independently of the suggestive principle, on the rules of the mere quarrier who sells stones by the cubic foot, or of the mere contractor for hewn work who dresses them by the square one.

    The pillow I found lettered over with the names of visitors; but the stone,—an exceedingly compact red sandstone,—had resisted the imperfect tools at the command of the traveller,—usually a nail or knife; and so there were but two of the names decipherable,—that of an "H. Ross, 1735," and that of a " P. FOLSTER. 1830."  The rain still pattered heavily overhead; and with my geological chisel and hammer I did, to beguile the time, what I very rarely do,—added my name to the others, in characters which, if both they and the Dwarfie Stone get but fair play, will be distinctly legible two centuries hence.  In what state will the world then exist, or what sort of ideas will fill the head of the man who, when the rock has well-nigh yielded up its charge, will decipher the name for the last time, and inquire, mayhap, regarding the individual whom it now designates, as I did this morning, when I asked, "Who was this H. Ross, and who this P. Folster?"  I remember when it would have saddened me to think that there would in all probability be as little response in the one case as in the other; but as men rise in years they become more indifferent than in early youth to "that life which wits inherit after death," and are content to labour on and be obscure.  They learn, too, if I may judge from experience, to pursue science more exclusively for its own sake, with less, mayhap, of enthusiasm to carry them on, but with what is at least as strong to take its place as a moving force, that wind and bottom of formed habit through which what were at first acts of the will pass into easy half-instinctive promptings of the disposition.  In order to acquaint myself with the fossiliferous deposits of Scotland, I have travelled, hammer in hand, during the last nine years, over fully ten thousand miles; nor has the work been in the least one of dry labour, —not more so than that of the angler, or grouse-shooter, or deer-stalker: it has occupied the mere leisure insterstices of a somewhat busy life, and has served to relieve its toils.  I have succeeded, however, in accomplishing but little: besides, what is discovery to-day will be but rudimentary fact to the tyro-geologists of the future.  But if much has not been done, I have at least the consolation of George Buchanan, when, according to Melvill, "fand sitting in his chair, teiching his young man that servit him in his chalmer to spell a, b, ab e, b, eb. 'Better this,' quoth he, 'nor stelling sheipe."'

    The sun broke out in great beauty after the shower, glistening on a thousand minute runnels that came streaming down the precipices, and revealing, through the thin vapoury haze, the horizontal lines of strata that bar the hill-sides, like courses of ashlar in a building.  I failed, however, to detect, amid the general many-pointed glitter by which the blue gauze-like mist was bespangled, the light of the great carbuncle for which the Ward Hill has long been famous,—that wondrous gem, according to Sir Walter, "that, though it gleams ruddy as a furnace to them that view it from beneath, ever becomes invisible to him whose daring foot scales the precipices whence it darts its splendour."  The Hill of Hoy is, however, not the only one in the kingdom that, according to tradition, bears a jewel in its forehead.  The "great diamond" of the Northern Sutor was at one time scarce less famous than the carbuncle of the Ward Hill.  I have been oftener than once interrogated on the western coast of Scotland regarding the "diamond rock of Cromarty;" and have been told by an old campaigner who fought under Abercrombie, that he has listened to the familiar story of its diamond amid the sand wastes of Egypt.  But the diamond has long since disappeared; and we now see only the rock.  Unlike the carbuncle of Hoy, it was never seen by day; though often, says the legend, the benighted boatman has gazed, from amid the darkness, as he came rowing along the shore, on its clear beacon-like flame, which, streaming from the precipice, threw a fiery strip across the water; and often have the mariners of other countries inquired whether the light which they saw so high among the cliffs, right over their mast, did not proceed from the shrine of some saint or the cell of some hermit.  At length an ingenious ship-captain, determined on marking its place, brought with him from England a few balls of chalk, and took aim at it in the night-time with one of his great guns.  Ere he had fired, however, it vanished, as if suddenly withdrawn by some guardian hand; and its place in the rock front has ever since remained as undistinguishable, whether by night or by day, as the scaurs and clefts around it.  The marvels of the present time abide examination more patiently.  It seems difficult enough to conceive, for instance, that the upper deposit of the Lower Old Red in this locality, out of which the mountains of Hoy have been scooped, once overlaid the flagstones of all Orkney, and stretched on and away to Dunnet Head, Tarbet Ness, and the Black Isle; and yet such is the story, variously authenticated, to which their nearly horizontal strata and their abrupt precipices lend their testimony.  In no case has this superior deposit of the formation of the Coccosteus been known to furnish a single fossil; nor did it yield me on this occasion, among the Hills of Hoy, what it had denied me everywhere else on every former one.  My search, however, was by no means either very prolonged or very careful.

    I found I had still several hours of day-light before me; and these I spent, after my return on a rough tumbling sea to Stromness, in a second survey of the coast, westwards from the granitic axis of the island, to the bishop's palace, and the ichthyolitic quarry beyond.  From this point of view the high terminal Hill of Hoy, towards the west, presents what is really a striking profile of Sir Walter Scott, sculptured in the rock front by the storms of ages, on so immense a scale, that the Colossus of Rhodes, Pharos and all, would scarce have furnished materials enough to supply it with a nose.  There are such asperities in the outline as one might expect in that of a rudely modelled bust, the work of a master, from which, in his fiery haste, he had not detached the superfluous clay; but these interfere in no degree with the fidelity, I had almost said spirit, of the likeness.  It seems well, as it must have waited for thousands of years ere it became the portrait it now is, that the human profile, which it preceded so long, and without which it would have lacked the element of individual truth, should have been that of Sir Walter.  Amid scenes so heightened in interest by his genius as those of Orkney, he is entitled to a monument.  To the critical student of the philosophy and history of poetic invention it is not uninstructive to observe how completely the novelist has appropriated and brought within the compass of one fiction, in defiance of all those lower probabilities which the lawyer who pleaded before a jury court would be compelled to respect, almost every interesting scene and object in both the Shetland and Orkney islands.  There was but little intercourse in those days between the two northern archipelagos.  It is not yet thirty years since they communicated with each other, chiefly through the port of Leith, where their regular traders used to meet monthly; but it was necessary, for the purposes of effect, that the dreary sublimities of Shetland should be wrought up into the same piece of rich tissue with the imposing antiquities of Orkney,—Sumburgh Head and Roost with the ancient Cathedral of St Magnus and the earl's palace, and Fitful Head and the sand-enveloped kirk of St Ringan with the Standing Stones of Stennis and the Dwarfie Stone of Hoy; and so the little jury court probabilities have been sacrificed without scruple, and that higher truth of character, and that exquisite portraiture of external nature, which give such reality to fiction, and make it sink into the mind more deeply than historic fact, have been substituted instead.  But such,—considerably to the annoyance of the lesser critics,—has been ever the practice of the greater poets.  The lesser critics are all critics of the jury-court cast; while all the great masters of fiction, with Shakspeare at their head, have been asserters of that higher truth which is not letter, but spirit, and contemners of the mere judicial probabilities.  And so they have been continually fretting the little men with their extravagances, and they ever will.  What were said to be the originals of two of Sir Walter's characters in the "Pirate" were living in the neighbourhood of Stromness only a few years ago.  An old woman who resided immediately over the town, in a little cottage, of which there now remains only the roofless walls, and of whom sailors, weather-bound in the port, used occasionally to purchase a wind, furnished him with the first conception of his Norna of the Fitful Head; and an eccentric shopkeeper of the place, who to his dying day used to designate the "Pirate," with much bitterness, as a "lying book," and its author as a "wicked lying man," is said to have suggested the character of Bryce Snailsfoot the pedlar.  To the sorceress Sir Walter himself refers in one of his notes.  "At the village of Stromness, on the Orkney main island, called Pomona, lived," he says, "in 1814 an aged dame called Bessie Millie, who helped out her subsistence by selling favourable winds to mariners.  Her dwelling and appearance were not unbecoming her pretensions: her house, which was on the brow of the steep hill on which Stromness is founded, was only accessible by a series of dirty and precipitous lanes, and, for exposure, might have been the abode of Æolus himself, in whose commodities the inhabitant dealt.  She herself was, as she told us, nearly one hundred years old, withered and dried up like a mummy.  A clay-coloured kerchief, folded round her head, corresponded in colour to her corpse-like complexion.  Two light-blue eyes that gleamed with a lustre like that of insanity, an utterance of astonishing rapidity, a nose and chin that almost met together, and a ghastly expression of cunning, gave her the effect of Hecate.  She remembered Gow the pirate, who had been a native of these islands, in which he closed his career.  Such was Bessie Millie, to whom the mariners paid a sort of tribute, with a feeling betwixt jest and earnest."

    On the opposite side of Stromness, where the arm of the sea, which forms the harbour, is about a quarter of a mile in width, there is, immediately over the shore, a small square patch of ground, apparently a planticruive, or garden, surrounded by a tall dry-stone fence.  It is all that survives—for the old dwelling-house to which it was attached was pulled down several years ago—of the patrimony of Gow the "Pirate;" and is not a little interesting, as having formed the central nucleus round which,—like those hits of thread or wire on which the richly saturated fluids of the chemist solidify and crystallize, the entire fiction of the novelist aggregated and condensed under the influence of forces operative only in minds of genius.  A white, tall, old-fashioned house, conspicuous on the hill-side, looks out across the bay towards the square inclosure, which it directly fronts.  And it is surely a curious coincidence that, while in one of these two erections, only a few hundred yards apart, one of the heroes of Scott saw the light, the other should have proved the scene of the childhood of one of the heroes of Byron,


Torquil, the nursling of the northern seas.


The reader will remember, that in Byron's poem of "The Island," one of the younger leaders of the mutineers is described as a native of these northern isles.  He is drawn by the poet, amid the wild luxuriance of an island of the Pacific, as


                    The blue-eyed northern child,
Of isles more known to man, but scarce leas wild,—
The fair-haired offspring of the Orcades,
Where roars the Pentland with his whirling seas,—
Rocked in his cradle by the roaring wind,
The tempest-born in body and in mind,—
His young eyes, opening on the ocean foam,—
Had from that moment deemed the deep his home.


Judging from what I learned of his real history, which is well known in Stromness, I found reason to conclude that he had been a hapless young man, of a kindly, genial nature; and greatly "more sinned against than sinning," in the unfortunate affair of the mutiny with which his name is now associated, and for his presumed share in which, untried and unconvicted, he was cruelly left to perish in chains amid the horrors of a shipwreck.  I had the honour of being introduced on the following day to his sister, a lady far advanced in life, but over whose erect form and handsome features the years seemed to have passed lightly, and whom I met at the Free Church of Stromness, to which, at the Disruption, she had followed her respected minister.  It seemed a fact as curiously compounded as some of those pictures of the last age in which the thin unsubstantialities of allegory mingled with the tangibilities of the real and the material, that the sister of one of Byron' s heroes should be an attached member of the Free Church.

    On my return to the inn, I found in the public room a young German of some one or two and twenty, who, in making the tour of Scotland, had extended his journey into Orkney.  My specimens, which had begun to accumulate in the room, on chimney-piece and window-sill, had attracted his notice, and led us into conversation.  He spoke English well, but not fluently,—in the style of one who had been more accustomed to read than to converse in it; and he seemed at least as familiar with two of our great British authors,—Shakspeare and Sir Walter Scott,—as most of the better informed British themselves.  It was chiefly the descriptions of Sir Walter in the "Pirate" that had led him into Orkney.  He had already visited the Cathedral of St Magnus and the Stones of Stennis; and on the morrow he intended visiting the Dwarfie Stone; though I ventured to suggest that, as a broad sound lay between Stromness and Hoy, and as the morrow was the Sabbath, he might find some difficulty in doing that.  His circle of acquirement was, I found, rather literary than scientific.  It seemed, however, to be that of a really accomplished young man, greatly better founded in his scholarship than most of our young Scotchmen on quitting the national universities; and I felt, as we conversed together, chiefly on English literature and general politics, how much poorer a figure I would have cut in his country than he cut in mine.  I found, on coming down from my room next morning to a rather late breakfast, that he had been out among the Stromness fishermen, and had returned somewhat chafed.  Not a single boatman could he find in a populous seaport town that would undertake to carry him to the Dwarfie Stone on the Sabbath,—a fact, to their credit, which it is but simple justice to state.  I saw him afterwards in the Free Church, listening attentively to a thoroughly earnest and excellent discourse, by the Disruption minister of the parish, Mr Learmonth; and in the course of the evening he dropped in for a short time to the Free Church Sabbath school, where he took his seat beside one of the teachers, as if curious to ascertain more in detail the character of the instruction which had operated so influentially on the boatmen, and which he had seen telling from the pulpit with such evident effect.  What would not his country now give,—now, while drifting loose from all its old moorings, full on the perils of a lee shore,—for the anchor of a faith equally steadfast!  He was a Lutheran, he told me; but, as is too common in Germany, his actual beliefs appeared to be very considerably at variance with his hereditary creed.  The creed was a tolerably sound one, but the living belief regarding it seemed to do little more than take cognizance of what lie deemed the fact of its death.

    I had carried with me a letter of introduction to Mr William Watt, to whom I have already had occasion to refer as an intelligent geologist; but the letter I had no opportunity of delivering.  Mr Watt had learned, however, of my being in the neighbourhood, and kindly walked into Stromness, some six or eight miles, on the morning of Monday, to meet with me, bringing me a few of his rarer specimens.  One of the number,—a minute ichthyolite, about three inches in length,—I was at first disposed to set down as new, but I have since come to regard it as simply an imperfectly-preserved specimen of a Cromarty and Morayshire species,—the Glyptolepis microlepidotus; though its state of keeping is such as to render either conclusion an uncertainty.  Another of the specimens was that of a fish, still comparatively rare, first figured in the first edition of my little volume on the "Old Red Sandstone," from the earliest found specimen, at a time while it was yet unfurnished with a name, but which has since bad a place assigned to it in the genus Diplacan—thus, as the species longispinus.  The scales, when examined by the glass, remind one, from their pectinated character, of shells covering the walls of a grotto,—a peculiarity to which, when showing my specimen to Agassiz, while it had yet no duplicate, I directed his attention, and which led him to extemporize for it, on the spot, the generic, name Ostralepis, or shell-scale.  On studying it more leisurely, however, in the process of assigning to it a place in his great work, where the reader may now find it figured (Table XIV., fig. 8), the naturalist found reason to rank it among the Diplacanthi.  Mr Watt's specimen exhibited the outline of the head more completely than mine; but the Orkney ichthyolites rarely present the microscopic minutiæ; and the shell-like aspect of the scales was shown in but one little patch, where they had left their impressions on the stone.  His other specimens consisted of single plates of a variety of Coccosteus, undistinguishable in their form and proportions from those of the Coccosteus decipiens, but which exceeded by about one-third the average size of the corresponding parts in that species; and of a rib-like bone, that belonged apparently to what few of the ichthyolites of the Lower Old Red seem to have possessed,—an osseous internal skeleton.  This last organism was the only one I saw in Orkney with which I had not been previously acquainted, or which I could regard as new; though possibly enough it may have formed part, not of an undiscovered genus, but of the known genus Asterolepis, of whose inner frame-work, judging from the Russian specimens at least, portions must have been bony.  After parting from Mr Watt, I travelled on to Kirkwall, which, after a leisurely journey, I reached late in the evening, and on the following morning took the steamer for Wick.  I brought away with me, if not many rare specimens or many new geological facts, at least a few pleasing recollections of an interesting country and a hospitable people.  In the previous chapter I indulged in a brief quotation from Mr David Vedder, the sailor-poet of Orkney; and I shall make no apology for availing myself, in the present, of the vigorous, well-turned stanzas in which he portrays some of those peculiar features by which the land of his nativity may be best recognised and most characteristically remembered.


TO ORKNEY.


Land of the whirlpool,—torrent,—foam,
Where oceans meet in madd'ning shock;
The beetling cliff,—the shelving holm,—
        The dark insidious rock.
Land of the bleak,—the treeless moor,—
The sterile mountain, sered and riven,—
The shapeless cairn, the ruined tower,
        Scathed by the bolts of heaven,—
The yawning gulf,—the treacherous sand,—
I love thee still,
MY NATIVE LAND.

Land of the dark,—the Punic rhyme,—
The mystic ring,—the cavern hoar,—
The Scandinavian seer, sublime
        In legendary lore.
Land of a thousand sea-kings' graves,—
Those tameless spirits of the past,
Fierce as their subject arctic waves,
        Or hyperborean blast,—
Though polar billows round thee foam,
I love thee!—thou wert once my home.

With glowing heart and island lyre,
Ah! would some native bard arise,
To sing, with all a poet's fire,
        Thy stern sublimities,—
The roaring flood,—the rushing stream,—
The promontory wild and bare,—
The pyramid, where sea-birds scream,
        Aloft in middle air,—
The Druid temple on the heath,
Old even beyond tradition's birth.

Though I have roamed through verdant glades,
In cloudless climes, 'neath azure skies,
Or pluck'd from beauteous orient meads,
        Flowers of celestial dies,—
Though I have laved in limpid streams,
That murmur over golden sands,
Or basked amid the fulgid beams
        That flame o'er fairer lands,
Or stretched me in the sparry grot,—
My country! 
THOU wert ne'er forgot.




 

END OF RAMBLES OF A GEOLOGIST.

 

NOTES.

 
16.    There is a very admirable remark to this effect in the "Travelling Memorandums" of the late Lord Gardenstone, which, as the work has been long out of print, and is now scarce, may be new to many of my readers:—"It is certain, and demonstrated by the experience of ages and nations," says his Lordship, in referring to the old principalities of France, "that the government of petty princes is less favourable to the security and interests of society than the government of monarchs, who possess great and extensive territories.  The race of great monarchs cannot possibly preserve a safe and undisturbed state of government, without many delegations of power and office to men of approved abilities and practical knowledge, who are subject to complaint during their administration, and responsible when it is at an end; or yet without an established system of laws and regulations; so that no inconsiderable degree of security and liberty to the subject is almost inseparable from, and essential to, the subsistence and duration of a great monarchy.  But it is easy for petty princes to practise an arbitrary and irregular exercise of power, by which their people are reduced to a condition of miserable slavery.  Indeed, very few of them, in the course of ages, are capable of conceiving any other means of maintaining the ostentatious state, the luxurious and indolent pride, which they mistake for greatness.  I heartily wish that this observation and censure may not, in some instances, be applicable to great landed proprietors in some parts of Britain."—"Travelling Memorandums," vol. i. p. 123. 1792.
 
17.    The exciting effects of a poor soil, or climate, or of severe usage, on the productive powers of various vegetable species, have been long and often remarked.  Flavel describes, in one of his ingenious emblems, illustrative of the influence of affliction on the Christian, an orchard tree, which had been beaten with sticks and stones, till it presented a sorely stunted and mutilated appearance; but which, while the fairer and more vigorous trees around it were rich in only leaves, was laden with fruit,—a direct consequence, it is shown, of the hard treatment to which it had been subjected.  I have heard it told in a northern village, as a curious anecdote, that a large pear tree, which, during a vigorous existence of nearly fifty years, had borne scarce a single pear, had, when in a state of decay, and for a few years previous to its death, borne immense crops of from two to three bolls each season.  And the skilful gardener not unfrequently avails himself of the principle on which both phenomena seem to have occurred,—that exhibited in the beaten and that in the decaying tree,—in rendering his barren plants fruitful.  He has recourse to it even when merely desirous of ascertaining the variety of pear or apple which some thriving sapling, slow in bearing, is yet to produce.  Selecting some bough which may be conveniently lopped away without destroying the symmetry of the tree, he draws his knife across the bark, and inflicts on it a wound, from which, though death may not ensue for some two or three twelvemonths, it cannot ultimately recover.  Next spring the wounded branch is found to bear its bunches of blossoms; the blossoms set into fruit; and while in the other portions of the plant all is vigorous and barren as before, the dying part of it, as if sobered by the near prospect of dissolution, is found fulfilling the proper end of its existence.  Soil and climate, too, exert, it has been often remarked, a similar influence.  In the united parishes of Kirkmichael and Culicuden, in the immediate neighbourhood of Cromarty, much of the soil is cold and poor, and the exposure ungenial; and "in most parts, where hardwood has been planted," says the Rev. Mr Sago of Resolis, in his "Statistical Account," "it is stinted in its growth, and bark-bound.  Comparatively young trees of ash," he shrewdly adds, "are covered with seed,—an almost infallible sign that their natural growth is checked.  The leaves, too, fall off about the beginning of September."

 


[Home] [Up] [Autobiography] [First Impressions] [Scenes and Legends] [Tales and Sketches] [Leading Articles] [Miscellanea] [Main Index] [Site Search]

Correspondence should be sent to Webmaster@Gerald-Massey.org.uk