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History of Caithness
Index & Introduction|
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Civil And Traditional
Chapter 1 - Page Four
Situated half way between Duneansbay-head and the head of Mey, and about a league from the opposite shore of Canisbay, to which it belongs, lies the small picturesque-looking island of Stroma. Its name in the old Norse was “Straumsey,” which means the island in the current. It is two miles long, and a mile in breadth, and contains about two hundred inhabitants. They are evidently of pure Norwegian descent, and like their ancestors, the male part of the population are all excellent boatmen. On its west and north-west sides the island is surrounded with very high rocks, which rise up like an iron rampart to protect it from the fury of the Atlantic surge. In a winter storm from the west, the spray is tossed up over the loftiest precipices, arid drifted in showers a long way into the interior. There is no rivulet or burn in the island; and the salt water carried inland by the storm was at one time collected in a “dam,” or reservoir, and with the rain supplied from the clouds, made to turn the wheel of a small meal mill. In the west corner of Stroma there is a large round open chasm, shaped like a bowl, and about thirty yards from the precipice, to which the sea has access by an opening at the bottom. The natives call it the “glupe.” It is about 100 feet in diameter, and as many in depth. The subterranean opening between it and the sea is about 30 feet high and 12 feet wide; and the waves growl and thunder through it in their constant ebb and flow. When illicit distillation was carried on in Stroma (which it was to a great extent some years ago), the smugglers used to hide in this cavern their brewing apparatus, etc., from the officers of the revenue; but these lynx-eyed gentlemen found out all their places of concealment here, and in other parts of the island, and finally put a stop to the demoralising traffic.
The officer who really suppressed smuggling in Stroma, and indeed through Caithness generally, was a Mr Terence Macmahon, a native of Ireland. So active and successful was he in the discharge of his duty, that his very name spread terror over the whole country, from the Ord to Duncansbay-head. Mr Macmahon was an excellent specimen of the better class of his countrymen; and, notwithstanding the terror inspired by his name, those who were acquainted with him, found him to possess a well-cultivated mind and a fine taste for literature. On receiving his retiring allowance he resided for a short time in Edinburgh, and afterwards emigrated to the Cape of Good Hope. Stroma, or at least certain portions of it, would seem to have belonged to different proprietors at different times. The Sinclairs, soon after their accession to the earldom of Caithness, obtained by royal grant the property of the island. In 1574, George Sinclair of Mey, youngest son of George, Earl of Caithness, was, in addition to other lands belonging to the family in Canisbay, served heir of entail to his brother William in the lands of Stroma.*
* Origines Parochiales Scotiae, vol.ii., p.813.
In 1726 all the arable land
in Stroma was delved with the spade, and it paid, says a writer of
the period, “in victual and money 1300 merks in yearly rent.”*
*Macfarlane's Geog. Collection.
The present proprietors of Stroma are the Earl of Caithness and Mrs Thomson Sinclair of Freswick. The former draws about one-third, and the latter two-thirds of the rental of the island, which amounts to about £200 per annum. There is some excellent land in Stroma, particularly in the northern part of it, but the inhabitants may be said to depend for their livelihood chiefly upon the sea. The finest cod in the north is to be got in the Pentland Firth; and, at certain seasons of the year, the shores of the island teem with cod fish, and the young fry, provincially called sillocks. Large and excellent lobsters are also caught around the island. Accordingly the time that is not employed in the cultivation of their little crofts, the male portion of the inhabitants devote to fishing; and many among them earn a good deal in the course of the year by piloting vessels through the firth.
The island rises to a considerable altitude above the neighbouring shore of Canisbay. It is entirely destitute of anything in the shape of a tree; and as Trinculo says in the “Tempest,” “Here’s neither bush nor shrub to bear off any weather at all.” There is a school, but no church, in the island; and when the weather is suitable, the inhabitants cross over to attend divine service in Canisbay. George Gibson, a near relative of Mr Gibson, minister of Canisbay, was the first schoolmaster of Stroma on the foundation of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge. His appointment took place in 1723. He married a daughter of Bailie Roreson of Thurso, whose maiden name was Catherine. When a young woman, she had been the sweetheart of Gow, who afterwards turned out a noted pirate. Gow was, according to the tradition of the place, a native of Scrabster, near Thurso, and was ultimately executed for the many crimes and robberies which he had committed on the high seas. Near the south-west corner of the island, and in what is called Stroma Sound, an outlying reef of rock, partly visible at ebb-tide, but entirely covered with the flood, has occasioned frequent accidents to vessels. Of late a beacon has been erected on it. It consists of six strong iron columns, thoroughly joined together with tie-beams or arms, and dove-tailed into the solid rock. In height it is 45 feet, and in weight about 43 tons. At the top is a cage which can be reached by a cast-iron ladder in the centre of the construction. Opposite the north corner of the island there is a remarkable eddy or whirlpool, called the “Swelchie of Stroma,” which is particularly dangerous in a storm; and instances have occurred in which boats, and even vessels, have been sucked down into it and lost. Pennant and Pope of Reay both mention a singular natural curiosity which was to be seen in their time in Stroma. In this island, says the latter, “there is a vault built by one Kennedy of Carmunks. The coffins are laid on stools above ground; but the vault being on the sea-edge, and the rapid tides of the Pentland running by it, there is such a saltish air continually as has converted the bodies into mummies- insomuch that Murdo Kennedy, son of Carmunks, is said to beat the drum on his father’s belly!” A family of the name of Kennedy at one time possessed a part of Stroma.
They belonged originally, it is said, to Fifeshire; and the amiable young gentleman, who amused himself in the way mentioned by Mr Pope, was the last of his race who were lairds of Stroma. Accounts differ as to how they lost their property; but the general belief is that it was forcibly seized upon-a mode of acquiring land very common in the north at a period when might and not right was the leading rule of conduct. From a note in Henry Glassford Bell’s “Life of Queen Mary,” I am led to think that the Kennedys of Stroma, who were also called the Kennedys of Carmunks, were the descendants of the family of that name in Fife, connected by marriage with an ancestor of the Traills of Orkney. It is mentioned in the note that George Traill, son of the laird of Blebo in. Fife, married Jean Kennedy of Carmunks. She was a relative of Lady Jean Kennedy, daughter of the Earl of Casillis, and wife of Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney. Traill accompanied the Earl to Orkney in capacity of factor, and became proprietor of some lands in the island of Rousay. Thus it is highly probable that from their connection with the Traills and the Earl’s family, the Kennedys came first to Orkney, and afterwards obtained property in the island of Stroma. The name of Kennedy of Stroma appears in the list of Caithness proprietors in 1687. The house in which the Kennedys dwelt still exists in the northern part of the island, and, what is more remarkable, it is still inhabited. There is an amusing legend, in an old topographical work on Scotland, which says that a dispute once arose between the Earls of Orkney and Caithness as to which county Stroma belonged. Instead of deciding the quarrel by the sword, the chiefs on both sides ultimately agreed to refer the decision of the matter to an experiment in natural history. Some venomous animals-of what kind we are not told-lived in Stroma. A certain number of them were shipped, at the same time, as colonists to Orkney and Caithness. Those that were brought to Caithness took kindly to the soil as to a congenial habitat; while those that were sent to Orkney, from the unfavourable effects of the climate on their constitution, sickened and died. By this singular fact Stroma was adjudged to belong to Caithness!
During the Norwegian rule in Caithness Stroma, from its proximity to the mainland, and other natural advantages, was regarded as a place of much importance, and a sub-deputy or governor usually resided in it. This official also acted in the capacity of what might be termed special reporter for the district, and forwarded to his superior in Orkney intelligence of every event affecting the interests of the earldom in that quarter. An instance of this is mentioned as occurring about the end of the tenth century. At this time two Highland chiefs having invaded Caithness with a large band of followers, plundered the county as far as Canisbay; and, among other acts of atrocity, killed a Norwegian nobleman who lived at Freswick. Arnilot, the governor of Stroma, as soon as he heard of it, despatched a boat to Orkney with the news of the invasion. The Earl lost no time in transporting across the firth a sufficient body of troops, attacked the two chiefs near Duncansbay-head, routed them with great slaughter, and retook all the booty which they had collected in Caithness.
In the eastern entrance of the firth, and nearly half-way between Orkney and Caithness, lie the Pentland Skerries, called in the Old Norse “ Pentlandsker,” and in the Danish “Petland Skjaere.” They are three in number. On the largest, which is about a quarter of a mile in length, and situated 4~ miles east-north-east from Duncansbay-head, a lighthouse was erected in 1794. It consists of two towers- the one considerably higher than the other-with a fixed light on each. This double beacon, with the one now on Dunnethead, have rendered the navigation of the firth, in the nighttime, much safer than it was before.
The “Stormy Pentland,” as it has been well named, has proved a watery grave to thousands. The old sagas point out in strong terms its manifold dangers. On the return of Haco, king of Norway, after his disaster at Largs, one of his ships was lost in the Pentland Firth, and another escaped only with the greatest difficulty. From the account given in Haco’s Journal, the vessel would seem to have foundered in what are called the “Wells of Swana,” a series of whirlpools at the south end of that island. They are most dangerous with an ebb-tide and a strong breeze from the west. Even in modern times, with all the advantages afforded by science, many melancholy shipwrecks have occurred on its wild shores. A few years ago a fine schooner belonging to the West of England was, on her way home from the Baltic, caught in a severe gale on entering the firth, and literally swallowed up in the Boars of Duncansbay. The catastrophe, which happened during the middle of the day, was witnessed by numerous spectators on shore, who could render the hapless crew no assistance. So frightful, indeed, was the surge that all the lifeboats in Britain could not have saved them at the time.