Portals of Ports
A harbour town, no matter where in the world it is located, is a door between the land and the sea, a portal of sorts, a place where we can cross over. Here, everything can change in an instant, even the very ground beneath our feet can alter, the solidity of a stone pier giving way to an untrustworthy, rolling deck, moving on a swell you did not notice before you boarded.
I lived in a port town when I was small—or peedie, in the local dialect—far to the north, in Stromness, Orkney. Later, when we had moved a little further into the heart of Mainland, the principal island of the archipelago, my secondary school was at Stromness Academy. I wonder, perhaps being raised in a place with one stone foot in the ocean and another in a deep, rich past, means I am destined to be blown by sea winds, searching for what makes us human, what links rather than divides, what ties us to the natural, to a shared language of laughter and tears, to the seasons and the sky and the trail never-ending—and a powerful urge to discover yet another home?
Before my family made that voyage to Scotland, I had spent my earliest years in what is now North Lincolnshire, on ground which had been reclaimed from the vast Humberhead Levels, raised bogs formed atop the deposits left by the draining of a lake, following the last ice age. Bogs which encouraged rebellion, independence, difference, and a distrust of authority and, as such, were drained as quickly as Vermuyden and his Dutch engineers could be paid for by the Crown, back in the 17th century.
I do not remember ports from this time, although I must have seen them. I remember visits to seaside towns, all dubious sands, cold winds, donkeys, and water not to be entered, whether Cleethorpes or Blackpool, but I do not recall boats, nor working docks.
My first solid memory of a port is from our two-day-long journey to Orkney, and the port of Scrabster, on the northern Scottish shore of the Pentland Firth. Here were proper boats, here were piers and jetties, hawsers and buoys, the stench of fish and animals transported across the turbulent waters, the calls of the gulls and the whispered promise of potential seals. It was another world, an alternative lexicon, phrases I would pick up over time, which came to mean something solid, rather than just a jumble of sounds.1
Waking, that first morning in Stromness, to hear the alien and insistent cries of gulls, to taste an air unlike any I had ever inhaled before, is one of those memories seared across my senses. The town felt quick and alive, in a way my previous home village had not. It had an energy born of the waves and raised by the wind, and it carried tantalising whispers of history and the long days and dark, stormy nights before that.
Stromness remains the closest thing I have to a home town. Here, the buildings anchor themselves between the protected inlet of Hamnavoe and the rising granite mass of Brinkie’s Brae behind the town. There has been a settlement here since the 16th century and farms and homes before that. I could—and most likely will, one day—write reams about Stromness.
The geography of the town—gable ends to the sea, waves crashing into small stone jetties which seemingly spring from each of the homes as a prow of sorts, a narrow winding street most certainly not built for car traffic, the start of the road to Kirkwall at one end and, in those days, the seasonal camp of the travelling folk, who headed north every spring when the yellow was on the broom, after wintering in the cities to the south, at the other—felt timeless.
Ports lend themselves to myth and legend2. Sailors have a long tradition of telling stories and singing songs, after all. The world would arrive in Stromness over the centuries it existed, filling water barrels, gathering up its young and flinging them out to distant and adventurous scratchings on a map still being charted. The New World was crucial to the growth of the town, and still echoed through the connections and history of the town when I was there, here a whalebone arch, or a well, used by those visiting sailships, there, a museum full of wonders brought back by those who sailed to the Nor-Wast, the seemingly endless forests and tundras of the north of Canada or the frozen ice beyond. Friends had relatives over the ocean still, some themselves upping and leaving the islands for places that lie across the ever-changing canvas of the Atlantic, its surface constantly redrawn, paint added and layers scraped away, texture upon texture.
These ports, especially the smaller harbours of the world, locations where once great fleets rested—now dispersed, to sink, to wreck, to be scuttled, used for targets, to be decommissioned or left to rot—are never silent. They carry whispers of their past, rising from the stones when you least expect them, the gulls tell of the red sails of the herring boats and the songs of the mermaid, and the air itself feels charged and waiting.
Ports are doors, they are a path we have beseeched the seas to leave be, they are threaded through with time, woven by streams of wind and preserved by salt—and they are simply perfect for stories, the energy they possess, even if it is now dormant, coiled away, paused for a time, this energy translates to character and plot and place. It is a foundation which stands across the shore, a foundation which links land and sea, infusing your tale with double the meaning, even before you begin.
Yet, if you do not treat the place with care, purchase the right winds to carry you through3, you might easily flounder, sometimes before you even leave the dock itself. Such is the way of these spaces—they can be borrowed for a time, but their life is theirs, and theirs alone.
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Do you live in a port town? Or have you? What does such a place mean to you? Do you associate certain smells or sounds with a harbour? Do you feel like a port belongs to the land, the sea, or both? Are you a keen sailor, or dislike being aboard a ship? What does boarding a boat make you feel?
Something different for today’s story—something different and considerably longer than normal. As you know, I am (very slowly) editing (and rewriting) The Care Industry, much of which is set in Orkney. In this novel, there is a character named Bessie Spence, who arrives at the Stromness care home where another character now works. She is very old and highly respected, a respect tinged with fear, and she tell stories—tales of the past, tales of the islands and the people who have lived upon them. This is one such story. Imagine a room full of people listening to such a tale; outside, the wind climbing and shrieking, waves piling higher out in the bay and darkness falling early, everyone in the room silent, attentive.
As I rethink this novel, I realised I cannot afford the space that each of these stories takes and, as such, I have cut several from the narrative. This is one of those, originally drafted a decade ago. I almost edited it further before sharing it here, but then I thought it perhaps best to send it out into the world as it was crafted. I am a better writer now, but I feel this story still has something to tell and this feels a fitting space to share it.
The Tale of John Rendall
Once, there was a man named John Rendall. He lived from the sea, and he lived from the land, as the people of Orkney have done for centuries. John would till the earth, plant his seeds, tend his livestock and then set his creels, collect shellfish and seaweed, fish with line and trap and net.
He was well liked but, like all kindly souls, he had enemies—those who resented his easy and honest smile, his soft and gentle ways with words and with laughter.
At that time there was a family named Sinclair who lived on a small farm over the hill and around the headland from John. They were not ideally suited to the tough life the people were forced to live, too lazy, and too uncaring. The father of the family, a bull of a man named Thomas Sinclair, all dark hair and thick fists, taught his three sons to take without giving. They thought they could strip the land and sea naked, collecting more food than they needed and giving no thought to selling or giving away any surplus, instead merely letting it rot on their midden.
They hated John Rendall. Thomas Sinclair had always coveted the rich farmland John worked, and his sons disliked the way in which the young women of the parish would compete with one another for his attention, barely paying them the slightest notice.
But John was not interested in getting married. He was quite happy to work the land and farm the sea alone, tending his garden, doing his housekeeping, spending his evenings darning his clothes, sewing and knitting new items, repairing equipment, or carving driftwood. He was polite to the young ladies, but he would not commit to them, nor would he lead them on, making no promises he did not intend to keep.
Perhaps one day he would think of marriage, but not yet. Perhaps unwisely, his mother had instilled within him the notion of love at first sight, rather than growing to love someone, and this had stayed with him long after her death.
So John continued on his own, farming, fishing, and gathering. The Sinclairs continued to try and make his life a misery, committing acts of meanness and spite wherever and whenever they could, but they failed to change his optimistic outlook on life.
Years passed and Old Man Sinclair died. John tried to express his sadness at his death, speaking highly of Thomas when anyone asked, refusing to hear criticism and diffusing some of the nastier and crueller commentary. This only served to make the three sons hate him more. They grew more and more resentful over the constant mention of John's name in relation to their father's death, the parish folks' admiration of John's kindness only made their loss more painful.
Their jibes became harsher, the brothers resorting to nastier tricks, each with more potential for harm than the last. They would release their dogs near to John's sheep, try to fire his hay, cut his creels free. Each time they failed in their wicked intentions—the dogs chased a hare instead, one falling and needing rescuing from a geo, the fire would be put out in a sudden and unexpected shower which also soaked the brothers' mattresses, placed out in the sun to air, the creel rope became entangled in kelp, meaning John did not lose his pots, nor his floats, which also ended up in the weed.
The brothers became convinced John Rendall had made dark pacts with the devil, sure he was a witch. When they mentioned this to the other parishioners, they would be scorned and laughed at, making their blood boil, their anger seethe, and their rage fester.
Those were dangerous times to be accused of witchcraft and devilry. Witches were no longer strangled and burnt at Heiding Hill, but there were still zealots who were willing to carry out what they saw as God's work. Soon enough the baseless accusations of the Brothers Sinclair reached the ears of a young preacher named Josiah Cumbernauld.
Cumbernauld was too young to have seen the executions of witches so popular in Orkney, but he had heard the islands were home to many devils and, as such, had set off north in order to combat evil, his grandfather's copy of Daemonologie in one hand, his bible in the other.
He had no church and instead would stand around the markets cajoling people, demanding they reveal and identify those who served Satan. No one bade him any notice and he became convinced this was due to all who dwelt on the islands being in league with dark forces.
In truth, the people had been forced to endure centuries of persecution, many innocents murdered in the name of God; they were glad the witch hunters had packed up their crucifixes and bibles and left Orkney.
Then, one day, Reverend Cumbernauld happened to be standing near the Sinclair brothers and overheard them discussing their favourite topic—John Rendall. He approached them, convinced this was the work of God in action, and explained how, with a little help, he could rid them and the islands of this evil.
Two days previous, the brothers had pulled down part of a dry stone wall which formed the boundary between John's lands and those of another farmer. John had seen the gap and immediately set about repairing it. Being a man unafraid of hard work, and taking great pride in work well done, he had stripped back the wall to foundation level, in order to make sure the stones would bind correctly.
As he pulled a loose stone from the top of the huge rocks used at the base he uncovered a strange and curious pottery vessel hidden in a hollow. He placed this to one side and carried on with patching the wall, soon being joined by his neighbour who explained he had heard the Sinclairs bragging about what they had done. The gap fixed, the two men had been astounded to find the small pot contained darkened silver coins of an unknown origin, brooches, pins and pieces of cut silver. It was very old indeed.
John Rendall had shared the silver evenly between them, returning one coin to the wall, slipping it within the cracks to appease any spirit attached to the place, as a quiet thank you. His neighbour had spent a coin of his share the same night, telling everyone of their luck and buying drinks for all. The Sinclairs soon heard how yet another plan to cause John pain had gone awry, and they were sure it was yet more evidence of an unholy bargain.
When they explained all these things to Cumbernauld, omitting their own involvement, he agreed it demonstrated an evil pact between Rendall and the devil. He set off with the brothers to confront him and, if he deemed it necessary, follow the prescript set in his King James Bible: Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.
As was his custom, John had risen early. Upon completing the necessary tasks around the house and farmstead, he had packed himself a lunch and walked down the hill to his boat to spend the day on the sea. He had used some of the silver to buy a new net, and he was keen to try his luck. He loved the sea, where he could be wrapped in his own thoughts, away from others.
The weather was beautiful, with a light breeze rippling the waters and the sun warming the late July air. John knew it would not last, his mother had taught him the reading of the clouds and the ken of the sea and it was rare he was wrong about the weather. As he cast off, he knew the waves would be growing and the wind howling as the sun dropped below the horizon.
When Cumbernauld had been told by the Sinclairs of John's weathercraft and knowledge of weatherlore, he had explained this was one of the common and unnatural signs of witchcraft, to the agreement of the brothers. They had never taken the time to study the weather, despite spending much of their time working under the sky.
As John pulled on his oars, he had no knowledge of the approaching man-made storm, instead simply settling into the rhythm and headed out into the bay.
The fishing was good, the net proving effective and a worthy investment. John filled two large straw baskets with various fish—mackerel and herring forming the majority of his catch. He would salt, smoke and dry some of the fish, sell others, and give much away.
Checking the clouds, he knew he still had several hours before the weather changed, and he set his net one final time. This done, he began to eat his lunch, tossing small pieces of bere bannock to the sea birds and resisting the urge to sing. It was bad luck to sing at sea. His mother and father had both taught him old songs, melodies many years old, and he loved to sing as he worked, but not at sea. It was too dangerous.
After his meal he sat back in the boat, feeling full, satisfied and happy. Too late, he realised he had been quietly humming a wedding song, and he anxiously looked around, wary and alert. Everything looked normal, looked as it should, yet he could not shake the feeling something terrible was going to happen. He would give the nets a few more minutes and haul them in.
The Reverend and the brothers arrived at John's farm to find him gone. They sat in the yard between the byre and the house to await his return, helping themselves to water from the well, the Sinclairs telling tales of the evil John Rendall had wrought over the years of his life. The young priest swallowed it whole. The more they talked, the more the brothers believed their own tales, and the angrier they became, rage feeding rage.
John, meanwhile, was still oblivious to all of this poisoned hatred. The final setting of the net had been the most successful, and he had begun to lose some of his sense of unease. There were more fish in the net than he could fit in his baskets, and he let some go free, those not damaged or injured by the ropes. Others he threw to the birds and the seals surrounding the boat. They seemed to smile at him as he did, and this made John happy.
The net stowed, he picked up the oars ready to row to shore, only to be stopped as something hit his small boat. It made a hollow thump and at first he wondered if a seal had knocked into the vessel. He anxiously put down the oars again and checked the boat for damage. Luckily there was none and, with even more luck, he found he had been hit by a long piece of worked wood. It was clearly a timber from a ship, and John offered up a silent prayer to those who may have perished in the wreck.
He knew such timbers could remain in the water for a long time, becoming the home for all manner of sea creatures, things which ate the wood and others which used it as a holdfast. This piece was long, thick, and sturdy. There were few barnacles attached, and it rode high in the water, sun bleached on one side. It was a timber from a recent wreck.
John offered up another prayer as he lashed the wood and tied it behind his boat. Then he saw another, thinner, plank, and another. He tied these together, rafting them, hoping he could still manoeuvre his small boat back to shore with the heavy cargo and increased drag. The opportunity was too good to miss; timber was extremely scarce and expensive on Orkney, and driftwood the most likely source.
Soon he was surrounded by parts of the unfortunate ship, far more than he could safely raft back to shore. He knew he would have to report the wreck to the authorities, share the good fortune and offer up thanks to God, to the sea. She takes and she gives.
As he began to row back to the small bay below the farm, the first few drops of rain started to fall, accompanied by the occasional low murmur of the wind, small gusts which were the advance guard of the raging seas. Seas which had recently wrecked the much larger ship he was now rowing through.
He pulled on the oars harder, knowing he would make it back in time, even with the added drag of the timber, and the constant knocking and catching of the many other planks, posts, rails, and timbers he had not collected. The weight of the fish helped with his momentum, and he knew he could beat the winds, cheat the sea of a further catch.
The wind was increasing, only slightly at first, but it was now constantly stronger, more powerful. He reached the outer bay. The previously small ripples were now starting to resolve themselves into waves, small with a few whitecaps, but they would grow—and fast.
Then he heard the call.
He paused in his rhythm. It seemed to come from the sea, but he could no longer hear whatever had made the sound. After a few more heartbeats he started to row again, finding it harder to build up a momentum than before.
Then the call came again.
It was definitely somewhere in the water. John looked around him, keen eyes searching for the source. He knew the seals' song, how they could sound like the wailing of babies, of women, of those in pain. This was similar, but somehow different.
It cried once more—from somewhere out to his left.
He raised his face to the climbing wind, knowing he only had a matter of minutes before he would be seriously challenged in beaching the boat without mishap or injury.
John Rendall was a good man. The chance of someone in the water, crying for help before the advancing storm, was too great to ignore. He pulled his knife and cut the rafted timbers loose, offering up another prayer that they find their own way to shore, undamaged and whole.
Then he turned to face the boat into the coming storm, and started rowing.
Meanwhile, the approaching storm had a different effect on the Sinclairs. Cumbernauld shared his belief that the witch, John Rendall, had called the storm to rid himself of the impending threat from his judgement, his days of devil-working and dark bargains were at an end. He loudly proclaimed how no petty magics could hinder the work of the Lord.
The Sinclairs remained silent as the young man continued to whip himself into what he believed was righteous fury, drawing a long knife and waving it around, using it to stab home his words, while gesturing with his cross in his other hand.
They knew things had gone too far and exchanged worried glances. The hatred and jealousy they possessed were now tempered with the realisation the Reverend intended to openly kill their neighbour. It began to dawn on them how the local magistrate would look upon this as murder, the burning of witches had long since been illegal, and John was well liked. No one but they thought he was a witch, and even they knew, deep down, it was their hatred and jealousy which had made him into a creature of the devil. It was all in their minds, but no longer a game or an irritation. Too much was now at stake.
They began to talk quickly, one after the other.
'We must return to our farm.'
'The byre needs shutting up.'
'The geese are out.'
'The door and windows are open.'
Their list of excuses went on.
Reverend Cumbernauld stood and listened, his mouth set and his eyes grim. Then he raised his arms, knife lifted to heaven in one hand, his cross in the other.
'Quiet! I understand what is happening here. This devil Rendall has brought this storm, he has placed doubt upon you, as Thomas doubted our Lord. This is how the devil works, how he prospers and survives amongst the God-fearing. If you truly believe you must go, then so be it. I will myself look for the witch John Rendall.' He paused, and then quietly added, 'And I will defeat him, and he will burn.'
The Sinclairs shared another look with each other then, with no further words, they turned and left.
Behind them they heard Cumbernauld calling over the growing storm.
'You are absolved of your cowardice, God forgives those who repent. I will carry the Word and the battle myself, alone, as it should be.'
His voice became lost in the wind as they parted, the Sinclairs at first walking away, then speeding up until they were running back to their farm, panic setting in. The Reverend walked towards the hill behind the farm, overlooking the bay, his long strides eating into the distance, the hope he would soon catch a glimpse of the witch speeding his steps.
Down in the bay John was struggling to move his boat into the increasingly strong storm. He rowed and he pulled, the small vessel seemed to be going forward, only to be swept back by a bigger wave. He had not heard the call for some minutes, and he was beginning to wonder if he was too late, or if his ears had been misled.
Then he saw the woman.
She was clinging to a thick piece of timber from the wreck, her clothes in tatters. John could see she was injured and quickly guided the boat towards her, straining with every fibre of muscle in his body.
The woman had dark, dark, hair; blacker than the depths of the sea. Her skin was fair; as fair as the dawn on the snow. John had never in his life seen anyone as beautiful and he wondered as to her story. Was she a Lady who had been heading to the Nor-Wast, to the lands of the Hudson's Bay Company? Had her ship foundered after taking on water and supplies and men in Stromness? He did not care, his simple duty was to save her from the clutches of the sea; and that is what he was determined to do.
Reaching the woman, he could see she was unconscious—clearly the effort of crying for help had used up the last of her reserves of her strength. How she clung to the timber—a part of a mast—John did not know.
He bent over, careful not to tip the boat too much, the strong waves rocking him down and then up, down and up. As he reached the bottom of a dip he grabbed hold of the woman, both hands under her armpits, and pulled, using the momentum of the waves to rock her back into his boat, into his arms.
The Sinclairs were still running home, their legs pounding at the now slippery track, fear at what they had done, the events they had set into motion, coursing through their veins. Then the youngest slowed, taking hold of his brothers as he slowed.
'Stop! This cannot be. We must stop the priest.'
'We cannot, it is too late,' the eldest replied.
'We must! This is not what our mother would have wanted.'
'Perhaps not, but it is what father would want,' said the eldest.
'Yes, but is it right? I cannot let Cumbernauld do this, please come back with me, help me to stop him. Tell him the truth.'
'He is a Reverend, we cannot stop him. What if he tells the magistrate we have lied about Rendall? What then? We could be deported, sent across the seas for inciting murder. Or hanged.'
'We must try,' the youngest Sinclair brother was calm now, knowing what he must do, and do alone. 'Very well. I will stop him myself.'
He turned and began to run back the way they had come. He knew Rendall would be out on his boat, and he hoped he could reach him before Cumbernauld did.
The storm grew and roared.
The Reverend had reached the top of the hill. He raised his hand to his face, shielding his eyes from the stinging rain. He looked around him to try and locate Rendall, his hair whipping back and forth. Out to the west the clouds were dark, the sea boiling. He knew this would be a storm unlike any other he had ever weathered, but he was sure he would prevail, for the sake of the innocent islanders. The witch must be burnt, even in this chaos of rain and wind and wave.
Down in the bay he saw a small boat, could just make out the man rowing for shore, surrounded by wood, planks, decking, masts and railing. In the mind of the young Reverend, this was further proof, not that he felt it was needed. It was clear the witch had brought the storm and deliberately sunk the ship in order to profit from its loss.
He started to run down to the beach, his dark clothes flapping wildly.
John was making little headway towards the beach, the boat being driven closer and closer to the rocks. The woman had not moved from where he had laid her on his new net and he was terrified she would die before he could fetch the doctor for her. He realised he needed to lighten his load, allow the wind and waves to carry him and use the oars to try and guide them to safety.
He put the oars down and reached for the baskets, barely giving pause to think of all the hours he had spent harvesting the straw, preparing it, weaving, twisting and sewing. He threw the baskets overboard, one after the other. Each was heavy and he hoped he would now be able to make it to shore.
After trying to guide the small boat into the bay he knew he still needed to lighten his weight and stopped rowing once more. Moving the woman, he started letting the net over the side, the thick ropework disappearing into the churning water. He could make other baskets, catch other fish, buy another net, but he could not replicate human life.
He had barely started rowing when the wave hit. It was huge and powerful, ripping the oars from grasp, turning the boat so it was parallel to the shore. With no oars, John began to despair. He watched the next giant wave approaching, knowing it would catch the boat and flip her over. He picked up the woman, wrapping his arms tightly around her, holding her close.
'We will have to risk the water. It is our only chance.' He knew she could not hear him, but shouting the words over the storm helped his resolve. He sat on the bow of his boat and deliberately fell backwards, keeping the woman tight to him, one hand around her chest, the other under her chin. He pushed off with his feet, trying to gain some distance from the boat, in order to avoid being struck by it. All around timbers were spinning, colliding. The sound was terrible, an accompaniment to the crashing of the waves against the rocks.
Then a huge wave caught him, taking the boat away and turning it. He allowed the wave to carry him, shielding the woman as best he could; from the waters and the timbers. He was caught several times, planks bruising, cutting into him. He could no longer see the shore, no longer hear where he was in relation to the small beach and jagged rocks on either side. He was cold, the water freezing him, dulling his senses.
He could not battle the ocean and fight the wind and storm. He felt no pain, he no longer felt anything. Above the roaring, the crashing and the crunching, he heard a faint sound, and was surprised to realise it was his own voice, singing against the storm.
Another huge wave, bigger than the last, picked him up, tearing the woman from his grasp. He felt something crack sharply against his skull and blackness swam in his vision, bright sparks of light slowly resolving into a figure striding towards him, dark clothes snapping in the wind, a cross in his hand.
'Help, please help. The woman, please help her.' He could not be sure if his words had been heard as he fell unconscious, his last thought one of hope—that the woman had also reached the shore and would now be saved.
Josiah Cumbernauld had watched as the witch rowed back to shore, alternating his gaze between the steep steps to the bay and the small boat making its way to the beach. It seemed to him unnatural in its progress, as though guided by a terrible force, protected from the storm.
He missed John lightening his load, as he had missed the woman being hauled aboard.
'Dear God! Aid me in my need!' He called out as he reached the bottom stair and stepped onto the beach. He looked around for the boat and failed to find it. The Lord must have heard his prayer, for there was the witch, bedraggled, bloodied and half dead in the pounding surf. He ran towards him, holding his cross out in front.
'Help, please help.'
Cumbernauld heard the faint voice and shouted into the wind.
'See how he pleads! See how he begs forgiveness! This is your judgement John Rendall; this is the price you must pay for your devilry. I, Josiah Cumbernauld, proclaim you to be a witch, and for this you deserve your death.'
He laughed, pulling the man from the water and further up the beach, out of reach of the crashing waves ploughing into the bay. He had to carefully step over pieces of timber, some cracked and splintered, some whole. He avoided falling when his feet tangled in a net, and caught his balance when he slipped on a pair of oars, but he had to pick himself up when he fell backwards over a large straw basket, whatever was inside weighing it down against the pull of the retreating waves. He saw another two such baskets and avoided them.
To one side of the bay he frowned as he noticed Rendall's boat. A wave had righted it, another huge swell carrying it high on to the shingle.
'You have the devil's own luck, John Rendall, but I have faith in my Lord, he has placed me here to help you on your final journey.' Cumbernauld yelled over the storm, wiping salt water and rain from his drenched face, out of his eyes. Anger was seething in him as he continued to rant at the unconscious figure before him, his back to the stair down to the bay, unable to neither see nor hear the youngest of the Sinclairs, as he waved, screamed and pointed.
'There! There is a woman, for God's sake, pull her from the water!' He knew the Reverend could not hear him and he started down the steps, falling and picking himself up, water cascading around him, carrying loose soil and stones. The pathway was becoming a torrent. He felt sick when he realised he would not reach the priest in time.
Below him the stair tore free from the steep slope, tumbling to the beach below. He had to stop, desperately seeking another path down, but there was none nearby. He looked into the bay and saw how Cumbernauld had pulled Rendall beyond the high water mark. He was knelt over him, arms raised above, back now to the sea. Sinclair watched as the knife was pulled from its sheath, lifted above the prone figure, and he could do nothing but watch.
Then he saw the woman.
She was no longer lying in the water. She had stood up, her hair a halo around her head, seaweed twisted amongst the dark strands. The sea had torn the last remnants of her clothing from her and she stood naked. Yet it was not this which caused Sinclair to gasp, as achingly beautiful as the sight was.
She stood, but not in the water—she was standing upon it, above it.
As he watched, slipping in the mud of the slope, time seemed to slow. Cumbernauld was now holding the knife in both his hands, his shoulders were shaking, whether with laughter or tears, Sinclair could not hear. The storm was reaching its peak, the wind howling, whipping the rain into stinging needles of pain.
The voice did not carry above the tumult—it was not raised, neither shouted nor shrill, it was simply heard, as though the woman was standing close by.
Cumbernauld whipped his head around. He saw the woman standing above the water. He leapt to his feet, knife outstretched, and a terrified rictus on his face. He started to run down the beach towards her but a brilliant blue light arced from the raging skies and he dropped to the shingle.
The woman turned her head to the youngest of the Sinclairs, pointed and spoke again.
'Come and help, I need to get these people up the cliff and out of the rain to the warmth. You will help me.'
He realised she was pointing below him and his gaze followed her outstretched finger to where the torrential rain had washed out the path. Only it was no longer washed out, the steps were there, as solid as they had ever been.
A part of his mind whimpered at what he had seen, but his feet started moving and soon enough he was standing over the priest, the woman knelt beside the prone figure of John Rendall. It took a moment of staring to convince himself Cumbernauld was still alive. There was a curious burn running down the left side of his face, splitting into hundreds of smaller marks, like the fronds of a fern. It would be a difficult climb up the path, but Sinclair was strong and he bent to lift the unconscious figure.
Before he could do so a pair of bare feet came into his field of vision and he slowly looked up at the woman before him. Her pale skin was marred with cuts, scrapes, covered in sand and weed, yet she was still the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
'Stand.' He did as she instructed. 'You and the Reverend were at the top of the hill and saw John out on the water. You saw him pull me into his boat, then both of in the water. You both hurried down the path to save us. After saving John's life the Reverend was struck by lightning, as he had drawn his knife to free the tangles of weed and rope which held me in the water. You pulled me out. Somehow you managed to carry all three of us, one after the other, back up the path to John's farm. This is what happened.'
There was not a hint of question to her voice and all he could do is nod. Then, from somewhere deep inside, he found the courage to ask a question.
'Why did you not kill Cumbernauld? He would have killed you and killed Rendall.'
'And that is why. I do not kill unless it is absolutely the only path. Cumbernauld is a sick man—he has an illness in his mind. I am not evil. Neither are you—or he for that matter. Now, help me.'
Sinclair bent down once more and lifted the priest as he would a weak calf. He saw the woman kneeling beside his lifelong enemy, whispering in his ear. Then she lifted him over her shoulders as though he weighed no more than a child. His eyes were wide and he could feel his heart pounding. He knew he could never talk of what he had seen and, from the look the woman gave him as they started to walk, so did she.
That day changed many things. Josiah Cumbernauld was collected by cart two days later. He had regained consciousness, but was babbling and incoherent. After his involvement in the rescue of John Rendall was explained he was regarded as a fallen hero by the church, cared for and kept in a small, darkened room for many years. He never regained his sanity, telling such fanciful tales of witchcraft and dark magic, his carers would shake their heads and discuss the terrible price he paid for his brave and holy actions.
The youngest of the Sinclair brothers was also lauded as a hero. He took all the praise humbly and graciously. His brothers knew some of the truth of that day, but he never spoke of what had occurred on the stormy beach. After some months he moved out of the family farm, taking a ship to the Nor-Wast. His letters home to his brothers and, strangely, to John's farm, told of his life and adventures in the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company. He married a Chipewyan woman and never returned to Orkney. His brothers set aside their hatred and kept their heads down. They knew how close they had come to disaster, and they never repeated their mistake.
John Rendall knew something was wrong with the story told of his rescue, yet he never openly questioned the tale. His boat was only slightly damaged, miraculously avoiding the rocks, the oars also located with barely a scratch on them. When he awoke he found his neighbours and friends had discovered his net and hung it to dry. They had also found the three baskets of fish and had set to, gutting and curing them. The timber from the wreck was shared and kept the rain and wind out of many homes and byres, supporting roofs, framing windows, and made into doors.
The lady John had risked his life for could remember nothing of the rescue, the events which found her in the water, or her previous life. No ship was reported lost, so her origins remained a mystery. As she spoke with a curious accent it was supposed she came from afar, perhaps from the continent, or one of the colonies. Having no name of her own she could recall she took the name Ishbel. Over time she became as loved and respected as John Rendall.
John and Ishbel privately pledged their own love at the Odin Stone in midwinter, and were married in a well-attended kirk ceremony the following spring. Not long after, Ishbel gave birth to a healthy baby boy. They lived long and happy lives, close to the land and the sea, surrounded by family, friends, and neighbours.
Many, many, years later, John died, a very old man. After his funeral Ishbel disappeared, never to be seen again. It was said her heart was broken, it was said she had returned to the sea from where she came. In some homes it was whispered she had been a Spaewife, a selkie, or a Finwife—not entirely human, but a creature of nature, not the devil.
If you were to travel to the site of John's farm now you will see little. It was taken apart many years ago, the stone carried away and reused, the strong dry timber from the roofs coveted, the land fertile and ploughed for splendid crops.
It is said, however, if you are sitting on a certain clifftop in summer, and a storm is brewing in the west, you can sometimes hear a man down in the bay, singing.
It is also said how, if the timing is right and the storm has arrived and you are pure of heart—believing in love that is true—then you can see two figures out on the waves, joyfully dancing arm in arm over the water, hair streaming behind them, laughing, together, forever.
When I was at that secondary school, it had a nautical department, one where I learnt to row, to sail, to tie knots, understand charts and weather, and recognise lighthouses and buoys. At the time, I did not appreciate just how rare that opportunity was.
These places, these portals to other worlds, are magical. They carry a power it is impossible not to recognise, even if time has lessened activity. The vessels in this particular port—Stromness, and out in the natural, sheltered harbour of Scapa Flow nearby—are now mostly small creel fishing craft and visiting yachts, rather than the main naval base of the British Navy, the location of the captured Imperial German Navy, scuttled beneath the waves, the mass of the herring fleet, the sleek whalers, the boats of Captain James Cook, and the Hudson Bay Company (by the late 1700s, over 75% of HBC employees in Canada were Orcadians), or those which avoided the English Channel/La Manche, whenever there was war between the two nations. Some of the fleeing vessels of the Spanish Armada of 1588 headed north of Orkney, their flagship wrecking off Fair Isle, the island between Orkney and Shetland, another off Westray, where the surviving sailors were welcomed, some staying and marrying local women and forming a unique community—the Westray Dons. Before this, the Vikings used the area to shelter their longships and knarr and, somewhere on the Orkney coast, vessels five thousand years ago would have set off south, carrying livestock and ideas, to head to the area around what is now called Stonehenge, to build, feast, and celebrate. A rich maritime history—and prehistory—indeed.
There were several weather witches who plied their wares in Stromness, selling sailors favourable winds for a small fee. One, Bessie Spence, partially inspired a character who inhabits the novel I’m editing, The Care Industry (see today’s story). An old, old woman, who is probably even older than you think, seemingly preserved by time, yet possesses eyes of startling clarity—just the sort of person from whom you can expect magic. (One early alternative title for The Care Industry was The Spaewife.)