A View of the Islands from the Deck of the SS St Magnus: A 19thC Visit to Orkney

In 1890 an American Professor visited Orkney, and later Shetland. In this series we have republished his account first printed in the local paper, The Orkney Herald and Advertiser.

painting of the SS St Magnus and the SS St Nicholas
Leask, William; SS ‘St Magnus’ and SS ‘St Nicholas’; Orkney Islands Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/ss-st-magnus-and-ss-st-nicholas-167521

As he prepares to leave Orkney and sail north on the St Magnus he reflects on some lasting impressions of the islands and islanders.

‘On the 12th of July the St Magnus carried us northward to the Shetland Islands. We had a moderately placid sea, but as immoderately tumbling boat; nevertheless it was a passage keenly enjoyed.

On this trip I saw essentially all the northern islands of the Orkney group, and that, with the evening upon Wideford Hill, made me feel at least broadly acquainted with Orcadian scenery. While the islands vary in detail, they conform all to one general type. Usually low and always essentially treeless, the elevations, if such are found, are rounded. Brown heath occupies the highlands, grass and arable land the lower sections. The Orkneyman can till his fields with some hope for a return from his labour, and reclaim the wild lands also gradually, according to his needs and energy prompt him. Relatively to the Shetlander, he is well housed and prosperous; so far at least as my observation and information reach.’

the view from Wideford Cairn across the low lying landscape
The view from Wideford Cairn Image credit Bell

‘He is a contented subject of the Queen, and takes only an antiquarian’s interest in bygone days. Of course the latter half of the remark refers to the educated class alone, for I do not believe that either Shetland crofters or Orkney farmers have, as a rule, any knowledge outreaching their immediate spheres of life. ‘

Rora Head Hoy , the sea cliffs and the pounding sea
Rora Head, Hoy, Image credit Martin Laird

‘Hoy rises into prominence as we steam northward, and, chart in hand, I ply the Captain and whomsoever else I judge capable of affording information, of the islands we are passing. Very soon, having received from Shetlanders one or two responses, indicative of abysmal ignorance, I reach the satisfying conviction that, with map in hand and compass before me, I am wiser than they are.

Green islets, well tilled, with outlying lesser islets or skerries are passed in quick succession. There is little to distinguish one from another. Of Sanday, a long, narrow, forked tongue of a sward clad sand, stretching north east, I hear the following tale:

A tourist asked a Sanday mariner, as they were strolling together along the shore, to tell him the local name of a certain bird, the ringed plover; to which weightily gave answer the ancient tar: “Ignorant people sir, calls them the Sanday laverock (sandlark), but the proper name is the Alexander lark. “

We had barely reached the open sea between the two archipelagos when Fair Isle (probably Faerey sheep island) rose into view. It is a mountain islet, lying about midway between the Shetlands and Orkneys, and is claimed, I believe, by both. Once in six months it is visited by a sailing vessel bringing the mails.’

a long stretch of land in Sanday

To follow – we will read of our American Professor’s impressions of Shetland and Shetlanders.

Fiona Grahame

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