A Pilots Yarn
Uncle Dan, the Pentland Firth Pilot
By David Grant,
teacher at Canisbay School 1857-1861
My Uncle Dan was a moral man,
And seldom drank or swore;
My Uncle Dan was an honest man
While he kept his foot on shore.
But, strange to tell of my Uncle Dan,
Whenever he touched the brine,
His notions always got confused
On the laws of yours and mine.
On shore, dishonesty shrank abashed
At the sound of my Uncle’s name,
For ne’er was he known to lift a plack
To which another had claim;
But, once upon board, such odds and ends
As landsmen could scarce conceive
Would find their way to my Uncle’s pouch,
And never ask owners leave.
The skippers who sailed the northern
Knew Uncle’s faults to a man;
But they also knew that their ships were safe
In the hands of my Uncle Dan;
For Britain never produced his match
At steering a vessel to berth,
And none in Caithness better knew how
To pilot the Pentland Firth.
Bay and creek, and skerry and ness,
And eddies great and small;
Ebb and flood, and reef and roust,
My Uncle knew them all.
The shores and the seas from east to west
He knew for a hundred miles,
And the wells and flows, and sounds and hopes,
To the furthest Orkney Isles.
Or east, or west, or north, or south,
Wherever the wind might veer,
Blow high or low, run ebb or flow,
My Uncle knew whither to steer.
But to my tale, ‘T was an autumn morn,
If I do aright remember,
Exactly fifty years ago,
Come the first of next November.
A smartish breeze was ruffling the
An hour and a quarter run,
When over the eastern waters rose
The sober November sun;
And, rounding Noss Head, a gallant barque
Attracted my Uncles eye;
For he knew she signalled a pilot out
By the red flag half-mast high.
“Get ready, my boys,” cried Uncle Dan,
To myself and cousins three-
To “Rob o’ the Rock,” and “Tom o’ the Hole,”
And “Peerie Will,” and me.
“There’s a pilot required for yonder barque”
(And he chuckled and rubbed his hands);
“A stranger here, I know by his gear,
And the awkward way that he stands.
“ Get out in haste, and pilot him
For the highest fee that you can;
But leave a shot in the locker, my boys,
‘T will be needed for Uncle Dan.
Run him up the way of the men of Mey,
And tell him to stand to sea,
And then make off for the fear of squalls”;
And my Uncle redoubled his glee.
We launched our boat, the Mary Jane,
And dashed across the tide,
Till we reached the barque, made fast a rope,
And climbed the stranger’s side;
We found the Barque of Jonathan’s build,
And her master a swaggering blade,
“Guessed” he hadn’t seen a “clearance” like ours
Since he entered the timber trade.
He reckoned our “squires” didn’t thank
Nor much approve of the “spec’ ”
That cleared their “lots” of their timber plots,
And squirted the juice on the deck.
He screwed us down, and lower down,
Begrudging our meanest fee;
But I got charge of the Yankee barque,
And west away stood we.
We rounded the rocks of Duncan’s Bay,
And skirted the “Western Bore, ”
Standing now upon Stroma Isle,
And now upon Canisbay shore;
Tacking here with the breeze abreast,
And there with the breeze abaft,
From eddy to ebb, with little way,
But a wondrous show of craft.
And we left him west of the Men of Mey;
But little the Yankee “guessed”
That the wind and the tide would soon unite
With a force he could never resist.
He fought them long, but in spite of his teeth,
He lost upon every tack,
For the westerly wind and the eastering flood
Were carrying him swiftly back.
And down he went upon Swona Isle,
Where he narrowly ‘scaped a wreck,
Down till he easted Skirza Head,
And my Uncle stood upon the deck.
Nor failed my Uncle to find a berth,
Where the barque at anchor could ride,
Until he could pilot her west the Sound
With the flow of the westering tide.
He sorely blamed the “lubberly swab”
Who’d played the pilot before,
And cleverly pocketed odds and ends
From out of the Yankee’s store.
But Jonathan’s “eye teeth had been cut,”
For a Yankee 'cute was he;
And he fathomed our plans and Uncle Dan’s
Ere he entered the open sea.
And, asking my Uncle down below,
He plied him so hard with grog
That the old man’s tongue outran his wits,
And his brains were lost in fog.
He drank and drank, till at last he sank
With a heavy gurgling snore,
And lay completely spirit-logged
On Jonathan’s cabin floor.
He lay – he knew not how long he lay –
Entranced in his drunken sleep;
Nor if ’t was the tide or the Yankee’s barque
That carried him out to the deep.
But, lo! When he opened his drowsy eyes,
A ‘wildered man was he,
To find himself in his little boat
Far out in the open sea.
Outstretched in a punt of nine feet
Unmeet for the slightest gale;
With naught to shield his shivering frame
Save a shred of tattered sail;
Without his pickings, without his fee,
With never a pipe to smoke,
With a racking head and a parching throat,
My Uncle Dan awoke.
He started up and gazed around
With a wild, bewildered stare;
The barque was gone, and he was alone,
With the ocean everywhere.
He looked to the east – the cloudless sky
Gave hopes of a tranquil night;
He looked to the west, the setting sun
Went down in a blaze of light.
He looked to the north, he looked to
But as far as the eye could sweep,
Around and around the only bound
Was the meeting of sky and deep;
With never a boat, with never a ship,
With never a floating thing,
Save only he and his tiny punt
In the middle of the mighty ring.
He had battled the Bores of Duncan’s
He had tossed in the Men of Mey,
He had weathered the wrath of wind and wave,
Till his hair was scanty and grey.
The raging winds and the roaring floods,
He had battled them like a man,
For there wasn’t a braver stept in shoes
Than my brave old Uncle Dan.
But now, though he sat on a smiling
On an evening calm and mild,
His head dropped over his helpless breast,
And he wept like a sucking child;
For how could he pass the dreary night
Afar on the open sea,
In the sprites of the deep, the ghosts of the drowned,
In the Finmen’s company?
He wasn’t without his trust in heaven
Your seaman is seldom so –
Though he oft forgets the Power that saves
When the storm hath ceased to blow;
Though he bid religion pass to-day,
And call again to-morrow;
Though he’s oft a thoughtless, dissolute dog,
He’s seldom an Atheist thorough.
Your blinded advocate of chance,
Whom the churchmen cannot reform,
Who laughs at faith, and sneers at hope –
Put him out to sea in a storm.
Put him far at sea in an open boat,
And alone like my Uncle Dan,
And I’ll lay you my yawl to a schooner’s punt
You would find him an altered man.
My Uncle thought on his friends at
The wife he might ne’er see more,
And wrung his hands, and wept and prayed,
As he never had prayed on shore.
‘T were long to tell how he lay becalmed
On the broad Atlantic’s breast,
Or number the risks of his tiny bark
When a breeze sprang up in the west.
‘T were sad to hear of his raging
With nothing to quench its fire,
Or the hunger that gnawed his vitals up
With the fangs of fierce desire.
Enough to say that a second day
And a third dread night had run,
Ere a coaster picked my Uncle up
At the rising of the sun.
Nor ever again was my Uncle Dan
The pilot he wont to be;
He would never climb to a stranger’s deck,
Nor hear of a double fee.
He pulled an oar with a feebler stroke,
And steered with an unsteady hand;
He was ever the last to put to sea,
And the first to spring to land.
He never went west of the Men of Mey,
Nor into the open seas,
But he shivered and shook in a nervous fit,
Like a sail in a ruffling breeze.
Some twenty years have passed away
Since my Uncle stowed the oar,
And hoisted sail, to stand, as we trust,
For a fairer, happier shore.
And this was the last advice he gave
To myself and my cousins three –
To “Rob o’ the Rock,” and “Tom o’ the Hole,”
And “Peerie Will,” and me:
“Let Conscience stand at the wheel,” he said,
“And honesty leave the log;
Keep a sharp look-out on a Yankee ship,
And be sparing of Jonathan’s grog;
Beware of the wicked one whose nets
Are spread for the soul of man,
And whenever you think of a double fee,
Remember your Uncle Dan.”
Thanks To Hugh Ross for
typing this out and sending it in