The Baronet of Burra: Episode I

A chieftain lived, or rather reigned, in the island of Burra in Orkney, some time subsequent to ‘the fifteen’.  Haughty in his disposition, and imperious in his bearing, even to his equals; domineering and despotical over those helpless wretches who had the misfortune to live under his protection; combining the revenge of a Shylock with the taciturnity of a mute, especially when it chanced to suit his interest to do so, Sir James Stuart lorded it over his vassals with a despotism worthy of the meridian of Algiers.

He was a descendant of Robert Stuart, first earl of that name, who was by himself an illegitimate son of James the Fifth, by the famous Euphemia Elphinstone; and hence his Jacobitism was equal to the haughtiness of his nature and pride of birth. He intrigued for the Court of St Germains with all the address of an adept; and endeavoured, whenever he could do so with impunity, to thwart the schemes of the reigning family, aswell as to wreak his vengeance in every possible way on the aristocracy of the country who adhered to their interests.

One of his retainers, being at the Kirkwall fair, chanced to fall in with a recruiting party. The usual ‘speeches’, and the usual libations flowed in on the poor youth with such effect, that,ere another sun had gilded the horizon, he found to his horror, that he had mounted the black cockcade, an emblem he had been taught from infancy to regard as worse than the private mark of his infernal majesty.

With returning reason, therefore, and watching the first opportunity, the young recruit tore the hated badge from his bonnet, and sought and obtained his lord’s protection. A subaltern and a file of men ransacked the island of Burra, but Sir James was prepared for them; and the baulked ‘Hanoverians’ returned to headquarters humbled and jaded, whildst the jacobean partizan bestowed a smile of bitter scorn on them and their employers.

This was not to be borne. The officer of the party claimed the assistance of the civic authorities, and sported some of the choicest execrations which he had learned under the walls of Malplaquet. But the provost was a man of peace, and moreover knew too well the character of the infuriated baronet, to beard him on his own island. He, therefore, waited until he learnt that Sir James had gone on a shooting excursion; and seizing the first opportunity, he took a boat and four men and pulled to that island, under pretence of a friendly visit to its proprietor.

It so happened, that the first person they met was the individual they were in search of, – namely the deserter. To pinion him and place him in the boat was the work of a moment; and in five minutes more the civic dignitary was pulling away in triumph to the opposite shores of Holm, resolving internally to have his laugh also at the pupils of Marlborough.

But he reckoned without his host. An adverse current had set in in Holm-sound, which retarded the boat’s progress; and Sir James was a very Argus. In half an hour the baronet’s boat was seen turning a headland, its crew straining every nerve, and visibly gaining ground.

The provost’s boat grazed the beach; and with all the rapidity that council dinners had left him, he was endeavouring to spring on shore. Sir James,seeing he was likely to lose not only his retainer, but what was far dearer to him – his revenge, suddenly seized his fowling-piece, and lodged its contents in the civic dignitary’s seat of honour. Fortunately, however, the distance was so great, that the slugs ‘Just played dirl through the skin, An’ did nae mair’.

During the confusion the recruit plunged into the water, and was taken on board by his fellow-serfs; while Sir James, with the halcyon feelings of an approving conscience went home to dinner. How the provost felt on this occasion, tradition saith not.

Mind on this was published by David Vedder in Orcadian Sketches (1832)

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2 replies »

  1. the jacobites and scots were fairly pitchforked off our isles at the battle of summersdale .This seems to be a skewed rewriting of history if ever there was.

    • This is David Vedder’s version of events and written in 1832 so interesting to see how folk at that time viewed things.

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