Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654

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Name: Blaeu, Joan, 1596-1673  
Title: Nova Orcadvm Descriptio Chorographica  
Pagination: 136-137
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Translation of text:

Now the inhabitants of Caithness and the Orkneys, aware of such dangers, go to meet them by throwing as it were into the throat of these whirlpools some old empty jar or basket bound with straw; when these are taken in and absorbed, the gaping throat is closed up and the water flattened, and the ships or boats with their passengers overcome these difficulties and emerge safely; the objects thrown in however are carried under water for a long distance, a mile, sometimes further, and again appear on the surface of this strait, thrown out as if by vomiting from the depth of the sea. But to hear the preaching of the Divine Word and get the benefit of the Sacraments, the inhabitants of this Swona take themselves to South Ronaldsay when they conveniently can, in calm weather.

Swona is situated in a sea crueller than any sea even the cruellest, namely in the Pictish strait; some things about its nature should, it seems, be opportunely said, before we pass to consideration of the remaining Orcadian islands.

The reason for this strait being called Pictish is not fully agreed. But if trust is to be put in tradition, which in some matters is truthful, and which is held among the inhabitants of the Orkneys themselves and which they claim has come from their forebears, the name Pictish was given to this strait by the Picts, the people who formerly lived in Scotland; after a cruel and long war with the Scots in Scotland itself, they had at last been defeated by the Scots in various battles and driven by force to Duncan’s bay (called in the vernacular Duncansby by Caithnessians and Orcadians); they tried for their safety to cross in boats this strait which flows between Caithness and the Orkneys; the Orcadians, having noticed them and gathered together to ward off the Pictish enemy, met the Picts and fought with them with such spirit, that the Picts were compelled, those who escaped alive from the slaughter, to row or sail their boats back to Caithness; and since they were unaware of the contrary and therefore most savage and dangerous tides, the little ships were overturned and sunk by the waves that rose on high, and the Picts perished to a man; from this disaster this strait was later named and will always be named the Pictish strait, in the vernacular the Pentland Firth.

This strait, as also many other straits that cut between some islands of the Orkneys, is savage and stormy not only because of the violence of the winds and the position of the Pole Star and other stars near the pole (close under which these islands lie), but especially by the opposing tides that are produced from the western Ocean: for the tide flows in this Pictish strait, as also in other straits of the Orkneys, roughly from north west to south east, and goes back from south east to north west. But such great opposition of tides in this strait, as also through the other islands of the Orkneys, arises not only from the Deucaledonian Ocean in the west, nor from the German Ocean in the east, for although there is opposition of tides nothing so fierce is seen in either of these seas, but is more properly caused by the narrowness between the lands, scil. of Caithness on the one side and the Orkneys on the other, between which the vast Deucaledonian Sea from the west and the large German one from the east run together and are squeezed, and striking on the rocks of the land, which are as it were surrounded and strengthened on all sides by adamantine walls, by the foresight of divine providence (for if these islands had been founded on sand, many centuries ago not even a trace of any island would, it seems, have been seen), are struck back thence and forced to return into the strait.

The corner too of any rock or a part that juts out makes a new tide (that is, as the Orcadians say in Scots, ‘Everie craige lugge maks a new tyd’): hence arises such an opposition of tides that, as if with a line of soldiers rushing to battle in the most hostile manner, a fight takes place between the waves of the tides as they meet each other in turn. Indeed, when not even a breath of wind blows from the sky, a conflict so great and so horrifying to see and hear arises between the waves, that they seem to wish to climb like the giants to heaven, with a great accompanying smoky vapour, and to turn the whole strait into white foam. But when Aeolus (between whom and Neptune internecine hatreds and wars perpetually occur) blows more strongly, it is almost impossible to tell how vehement and terrible is this contest of waves in the battling tides; while it lasts, by no might of oars or sails, swelling even with the most favourable and strong wind, can the whirlpools of the strait, rushing back and twisting on themselves, be overcome.

Those who are aware of these dangers do not approach too closely; the ignorant however who dare to approach too closely, either are snatched back into the sea by the violent force of the waves, or are seized by the speed of the flowing water and driven on to cliffs and rocks, or are sucked into the mounds of water turning over on themselves, rising almost to the size of high mountains. For the wretched shipwreck of many, and also even seals and fish of all kinds who are struck by rocks and killed, quite clearly testify to the violent speed of this strait and of other straits in the Orkneys, especially Stronsay, Westray and North Ronaldsay, very similar in nature to this strait, when it is stirred by the wind.

Now there are two occasions when the difficulties of this strait, intractable while it rages, may be overcome and it is possible to cross safely from Caithness to the Orkneys and back again, and it offers itself as a gentle and alluring mistress to sailors: either when the conflict of the waves ceases as the tides fall and the sea becomes calm; or when the tide has reached its highest point with the channel full and that force which stirs the waters declines, with as it were the Ocean sounding the retreat and with the storms and twisting masses of the disturbed deep retiring to their camp, after the manner of soldiers tired with fighting; that is an hour and a half before high water, and the same length of time before the sea’s retrogression is fully completed and it begins to flow: for then this strait, as also others like it, is so amazingly quiet and level, that from Duncansby to South Ronaldsay, which are twelve miles apart with this Pictish strait between, this whole distance is done by small ships in two hours, with a favourable tide and also the winds having dropped. Such is the violence of this strait, on account of the contrary tides, which are numbered at twelve by sailors who are most skilled in this strait and convey passengers daily from the Orkneys to Caithness and back.

Now this strait stretches in length nearly twenty four miles from Duncansby in the east to the furthest part of the island of Hoy in the west; in width it is in places twelve miles, in others sixteen; and because of the speed and diversity of its tides this Pictish strait has this unique feature, that it makes men astonished at the strangeness of its fame, even when only its name has been heard. And this may be sufficient concerning this estuary.

In this strait apart from Swona, there is also another island Stroma, two miles from Caithness, not unproductive for its size. But on account of its proximity to the land of Britain and because the Earls of Caithness have always held it, it is not numbered among the Orkneys; even if at one time a dispute arose between the Earls of Orkney and Caithness about the hereditary right and ownership of it, with the decision of the question being referred to arbitrators. They were quite sagacious and ended the controversy in this manner: poisonous animals, serpents or snakes, the Orkneys do not produce or bear to be introduced from elsewhere without immediate death, while Stroma, similar to the land of Caithness, both gives birth to such and tolerates them when born without harm to animals of this kind; therefore with the agreement of both parties to the dispute, Stroma was removed from the Earls of Orkney and granted to the Earls of Caithness, to be held always for the future by hereditary right.

From Stroma eight miles to the south east is situated that rock, called Pentland Skerry, about which we have already spoken; and stretching out not much below it are rocks truly called Skerries, because no grass grows on them; they offer a place only to seals, to bask there in the sun on a fine day and put out their pups into the light, or to birds, to lay and hatch their eggs. These rocks are called by neighbouring people with the verncaular name of ‘The boars of Duncansby’. Of the same nature are also rocks positioned above Stroma to the north west, which in the vernacular Scots name are called ‘the Men of Mey’, that is, men of the castle of Mey belonging to the most respected Lord of Mey, brother of the Earl of Caithness.

When sailing three miles from Swona nearly to the north, one comes next to Switha. Because it is neither inhabited nor cultivated, but left deserted only for animals to graze, it rather merits taken strictly the name of holm than of island, because of its smallness.

From here more than four miles to the south east (5) lies South Ronaldsay; it is more than six miles long, and five wide, runs out into many steep promontories, and has two fine harbours, one called Widewall, the other named after St Margaret, both very commodious and offering a very safe anchorage for ships from every fierceness of winds and tides. On this island there are two parishes and two churches, scil. the north, a small building, and the south, quite ample, situated on the side of the Pictish strait. It is fairly productive in crops, that is oats, barley, peas and beans for human food, and hay and grass for animals; being in very many places somewhat damp, it abounds in heather moors, in which herds of animals, of which there is there quite a large supply, wander freely. Now the sheep each year are driven into a narrow place, like a passage; the people pull off their fleece with their hands and strip them, rather than shearing them with scissors; and when it is their intention to get them ready for eating (since they run loose like wild animals unwatched in the mountains and moors, except in places close to crops), they let off dogs as if for hunting and pursue and catch them. This custom obtains in such matters also throughout all the islands and holms of the Orkneys: it is the practice of all rarely or never to milk sheep, but often cows. In this island there is a dwelling, quite distinguished for the nature of the place, called Halcro, and its Lord is also named Halcro, not from the house, but from the Halcros, the first founders of the house, of Norwegian origin, it is said. Here the people, in comparison with all the other natives of the Orkneys, have been held and are still reckoned to be very brave and bold, since they are accustomed to entrust themselves to the cruellest sea about them, without any fear, in order to catch fish, even in the harshest winter; this on many occasions has been harmful

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