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Wednesday, 11th April, 1821
My dear friend William,
I hope this letter finds you in both good spirits and rude health, and I must convey my most sincere apologies for the unavoidable delay in sending it.
I find myself at last back on the mainland, and have dispatched this letter from a small town but scant miles from the port where I spent last night. Our ordeal in reaching it was considerable, and it is on that topic that I wished immediately to write to you, lest with the passing of further days it might begin to fade from my own memory. Committed to ink and paper, and thus shared with you, perhaps I can begin to find peace with the experience I have had. But you must wonder at my hesitant words. Let me start at the beginning, save to say this:
Those islands to the north are a haunted place.
My story begins several weeks ago, when our fine ship the Hamnavoe, having sailed from Bergen and crossed much of the North Sea, came within a half-day of our destination — that being the busy port of Wick, in the Caithness region of Scotland. But after a handful of further hours, it became clear we must find an alternate place to harbour, as the fiercest storm I have ever glimpsed filled the ocean and sky from horizon to horizon ahead of us. I know not of the conditions at the port we were not destined to see on that day, but since finally landing here the local inhabitants have strangely reported no particular disturbance of weather during the time in question.
Our Captain, a fine and able Norwegian named Estrem with whom I had the great pleasure of dining on several occasions during our voyage, gave the order to divert North-West, and with the coming of early evening we found ourselves negotiating a strait with long, low, dark land on either side. We could glimpse sparse settlement, and then the waters opened out once more as we navigated true West for a time, and finally Northwards once more to find ourselves in the place for which our own vessel was named: the Hamnavoe of the Vikings, which the people of that town now call Strom-ness. With Estrem seemingly a regular visitor, our unplanned berth at harbour was arranged without trouble, and my fellow passengers and I disembarked.
I need not tell you of the charm of any firm ground after an upset at sea, but I should be remiss were I not to impress upon you the excessive friendliness of those people, their origins both Scandinavian and of Scotland‚ with their flag the near-double of that of the land of Norway but with the yellow trim of Sweden upon its blue Nordic Cross. Their hospitality was generous to the point of excess, as indeed we required, for we were trapped there by unfavourable sailing conditions for no fewer than three full weeks. Whilst the storm itself was reported to have moved on, there was a ceaseless and nigh-unprecedented Southerly gale blowing uniform from beyond the archipelago, making an embarkation to any of the ports on the Scottish coast quite impossible.
As the days and nights wore on, and we became restless, I took to walking through the little town. I would find myself at the harbour in early morning, to see if the skies at the limit of my vision looked clear. I would wander up steep lanes, and overlook the commercial area where the processing of fishing hauls was the primary enterprise. I would while away entire afternoons in a tearoom whose owner I came to know passably well, often in the silent company of another passenger from my own ship: a stoic and silver-haired writer of some sort, whom I heard referred to as Walter by our ship’s first mate, ever frowning at his journal as he scratched away in it with his pen.
It was in the third week, with the local weather at least promising a dry day — though not without the omnipresent dark clouds that hung low over the strangely barren landscape, devoid of all trees entirely — that I decided to venture further afield. My destination of choice was the hills stretching above the port town, where there were a series of meandering lanes through farmland, and the occasional croft, which a learned man such as yourself will know to be a small landholding, enclosed and invariably ploughed for crop-growing, with the occupier’s home — long, low, single floored, and of stone with few windows — being the only edifice. I was greeted politely and with good cheer by those I passed, and even had offers of refreshment, such is the nature of the people of that place.
I walked on, mindful of the time and of the need to retrace my steps before full dark, and just as I came to the decision to turn back, I happened upon a junction of sorts in the road. In truth, it was little more than a branching path leading further uphill, through heavy brush and clearly not used to the presence of horses and carriage. I could see nothing from where I stood, and there was no reason at all to venture in that direction — and yet I had the strangest compulsion to do that very thing.
You will perhaps think that the tension of an enforced stay in a place I had never intended to visit was wearing upon my nerves. You will perhaps say that the exertions of my by now lengthy walk had tired my mind as much as my body. You will doubtless assert that hunger can make a man overly sensitive to things, and given to peculiar perceptions and actions. I will not argue with you, my dear friend; I have counselled myself with those very words on many a night since. I can only tell you that I faithfully report the events I must now impart to you, in every detail of accuracy and to the best of my ability.
I took the turning, wading through long grasses at the start, and made my way uphill some distance. At a crest, a stone wall came into view, and I knew I had discovered another croft. I resolved to merely inspect the area from beyond its perimeter, and then be on my way. I stepped forward, and was immediately perplexed — for there were no crops of any value for either food or trade. The entire area of arable use had been turned over to flowers of every colour and shape. There were purples and yellows, reds and blues. Neatly tended and maintained, to be sure; this was no unchecked proliferation of weeds, but rather a floral garden on a scale I had not otherwise seen on that island. I am not ashamed to say that I was briefly transfixed by its beauty and strangeness. My first thought was that this was perhaps a seasonal dwelling of a wealthy landowner, who lived elsewhere ordinarily and could afford the indulgence of an unproductive and decorative use of valuable land.
No sooner had I reached my tentative conclusion than the door of the nearby dwellinghouse swung open, startling me.
A woman stood there, advanced in years but with eyes as bright as a child’s, and she regarded me with an expression which, if pressed, I would be compelled to identify as recognition, though I of course knew her not.
I took my cap from my head, instantly contrite at being caught peering into her property, and I bowed my head in greeting. I believe I told her that I had been admiring her home, and I also apologised for my intrusion.
“Ye’ve come for the wind,” she said.
I remember her words perfectly, for they were accompanied by the strangest coincidental punctuation: a breeze rose up around us, shaking the stems of all the blooms in her garden, and then was gone.
I think I expressed my confusion, and began to identify myself as a passenger of the Hamnavoe at dock, now held here by unsuitable weather for some weeks, but she waved off my explanation with a flick of her hand.
“I know fine who ye are, sir,” she said. “If ye’ll want to be underway again afore the new moon, it’ll be a fine Northerly gale ye’ll be after. For the morn, say.”
She moved now, slowly as befit her age, but with an agility that disquieted me, passing down the path between beds of vivid plants, and she came to stand opposite me at the wall. Her eyes were upon me the entire time, and any sense of awkwardness was banished in a moment when she abruptly set her frail hand upon my arm.
I tell you, William, as sure as there is God in Heaven, that her grip was as iron. Manacles could not have bound me to the spot more effectively, and I will not pretend that I felt no fear in that moment.
“A Norther, sir,” she said, quietly now, almost in the manner of a woman speaking to her lover, “to Scrabster, or to Wick, or all the way to Aberdeen by your fancy. For the morn.”
I knew very well now what she proposed, and that I was thus faced with a woman who practised the Devil’s own arts. I would have turned and ran at that very instant, had I not been held fast in her grip. Her eyes were the shade of twilight, uncertain in colour, shifting from moment to moment, and I knew that her words were no jest.
God help me, William, but I asked her to tell me her price.
“One silver shilling to you, sir,” she said.
I found myself reaching into my pocket and taking out my coin-purse as if in a trance. She released my other arm, and I placed the requisite fee in her waiting palm forthwith. She smiled — that I do remember. And then the strange breeze rose up once more, and the door of her crofthouse banged, drawing my eye.
When I looked back, the old woman was nowhere to be seen.
How I had the presence of mind to return my monies to my pocket, I will never know, but you will not be surprised to learn that now I did turn, and I ran until my sides ached and my lungs burned, my heart bursting in my chest.
Of the remainder of the evening I remember almost nothing, and I surprised myself by sleeping soundly through the night until being woken by an urgent knock at the door of my room above a public house just beyond the harbour. It was a crewman of the Hamnavoe, sent by the Captain himself, to inform all passengers that the day of our departure had dawned at last.
A Northerly wind, strong and true, had come before first light. And so we set sail, and it carried us all the way to the Scottish mainland.
I find that my hand grows tired, and I am fatigued with the telling of my story, so I will draw to a close. I swear that my words are the unadorned truth.
The Orkneys are a place of desolate beauty, and people of warm hearts, to be sure — but there are dark things there besides. On our friendship of so many years, I can only ask that you believe me.
I remain always,
Your friend, Cameron McCullen.
Author’s note: While the specific events detailed here are of my own imagining, there’s more truth than you might think. Hamnavoe — meaning home port in old Norse, in the sense of “safe haven” — is a real ship, though it’s a modern passenger and vehicle ferry which operates between Scrabster in the extreme north of the Scottish mainland, and the town of Stromness on Orkney’s own Mainland, which is the primary island of the archipelago. My wife and me, with our dog Whisky, have sailed on that vessel twice. Stromness itself used to be called Hamnavoe too, as noted by our epistolary protagonist above.
Orkney, inhabited for more than 8,500 years, and Scotland as a whole is a place of magic, myth, and the constant presence of a profound vault of history. It’s little wonder, then, that this tale’s old woman — or witch, I suppose — actually lived. The ruins of her croft can be seen still, and she provided exactly the service described, for the price of one silver shilling. Her work was even endorsed by Sir Walter Scott, in his journal of a particular voyage.
She was known, eerily and evocatively, as The Seller of Winds.
Thanks for reading.