14th December 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Notes from a niseach

How the Orcadians lost their taste for Guga:
The sad story of Helen Waters

Books are rarely finished by their writers. For most authors who have their work published, there are questions that remain unanswered; mistakes, too, that he or she failed to notice they were making; errors of fact and expression they were completely and utterly unconscious they were guilty of at the time.

And so it is was with me when I held my first copy of The Guga Hunters in my hands a year or so ago. I opened up its pages and became aware that there were some parts in it that didn’t “read” the way I wanted them to do. I had committed the cardinal sin of repeating words close together, chosen the wrong phrase here or there. And then, of course, there were the faults and flaws my fellow Nessmen or women noticed and were quick to point out to me.
“Hey! You know you got that bit wrong!”

I confess to all of this. I apologise. I am all too aware that there were times I made slip-ups/gaffes/blunders/oversights/even the occasional bloomer or two. Nowhere was I more conscious of my failings, however, when I told the story of how the men of Ness at the top of the isle of Lewis sailed to another rock, Sule Stack off the coast of Sutherland at one time. I noted in The Guga Hunters that there was a period when the Orcadians used to go out to both this location and its neighbour, Sule Skerry, to search for birds both to eat and obtain their plumage. Believing it was impossible to “trace any record of the practice”, I noted that it seemed “likely that the Orcadians stopped going to either island for seabirds at the end of the nineteenth century”.

We are now coming to a moment that my friends, relatives and family have been looking forward to for years – where I confess that in writing that I was completely and absolutely wrong and not just once but twice. I have found since that the Orcadians stopped going to Sule Stack and Sule Skerry much earlier than the end of the nineteenth century. There is evidence, too, of why they did not sail in its direction any more. This exists not only in Orkney’s statistical accounts of the mid-eighteenth century, but also appears in the sad story of Helen Waters and Henry Graham, the neighbour on the mainland of Orkney she planned to marry.

It wasn’t long before their wedding date that the story begins. Apparently, it was the custom of the time for the groom to head out in a boat shortly before their marriage took place, inviting people from all around to attend the festivities. In order to do this, young Henry sailed this day in the direction of Rackwick on the neighbouring island of Hoy, together with a number of his friends. When they were there, these prosperous young men decided to take their guns, doing a little shooting – perhaps for the wedding feast – during their period in exile. For a long time, Helen and the others could hear where they were. The loud crack of rifle-shot echoed as far as the mainland, booming through the hills of Hoy, Orkney’s highest island.

And then there was silence.

It was a quiet and hush that didn’t trouble Helen at first. Like the rest of the people nearby, she decided that Henry and his group had probably gone to Caithness, extending their hunting there, or one of the other islands nearby, in the fine, dry summer weather. It was only as the day of the wedding approached and guests started appearing from all over Orkney that the silence grew ominous and threatening. A boat was sent out to Hoy to see if the young men could be found. While this occurred, the people who had come for the wedding began to eat and feast. They were still doing this the day on which the wedding had been set to occur, drinking and dancing till nightfall. It was a way – or so the story argues – of cheering up poor Helen, bereft of her new husband’s company.

It is at this point that the tale tips into melodrama. Apparently, Annie Fae, a woman with the reputation of being a witch, appeared at the door, warning them of the consequences of their behaviour.

“For decency’s sake, you should stop that fine fiddling and dancing, for you may well believe that it won’t give much pleasure to the dead!”

Unsurprisingly, this remark brought a swift end to the festivities, creating a silence that became even greater when the boat came back an hour or so later. On board were the broken, battered bodies of the men, mangled and destroyed by the close attentions of sea-birds and seals. They had been discovered on Sule Skerry and brought home as darkness grew, the summer sun sinking downwards and blurring the horizon of land and sea. Apparently, their boat had slipped its fastenings and been washed away while they were there; their long, slow deaths caused by thirst because of the lack of water on its shores.

They were all there when the men were brought to land. Annie Fae. The wedding guests. Helen Waters rushing from her home, believing Henry had arrived safely, only to discover what had occurred. She began to moan and scream, mourning the death of the man she loved. Like so many of these tales, her grief was such that she died herself a few short hours later, joining the one she had planned to make her husband in his grave.

It is, perhaps, because of incidents like this one that tales of Sule left their mark on the Orkney imagination, allowing them to talk of these islands as places where children could be sent if they were naughty, where bogies and ghosts performed dark and dastardly rituals.

It could be because of this, too, that the Orcadians lost their taste for eating seabirds; the sad story of Helen Waters and her lover leaving a foul taste in their mouths when they went out towards these islands to look for food.

(In this guga-hunting season, the writer would like to thank Tom Muir from Orkney Museum and Sigurd Towrie, editor of the Orcadian, for their help in putting together this story. A version of this tale titled “Helen Waters; A Tale of the Orkneys” can also be found at http://www.electricscotland.com/books/story/story83.htm )