Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

Storm and Tempest

When we think of "the Border," the picture that rises to mind is usually one of hill and dale, of peat-hag and heathery knoll, of brimming burns that tumble headlong to meet the embrace of rivers hurrying to their rest in the great ocean. One sees in imagination the solemn, round-shouldered hills standing out grim in the thin spring sunshine, their black sides slashed and lined with snow; later, one pictures these hills decked with heartsease and blue-bells a-swing in the summer breeze, or rich with the purple bloom of heather; and, again, one imagines them clothed in November mists, or white and ghost-like, shrouded in swirling clouds of snow.

But there is another part of the Border which the inland dweller is apt to forget—that which, in sweep upon sweep of bay, or unbroken line of cliff, extends up the coasts of Northumberland and Berwickshire. That is a part of the Border which those who are not native to it know only in the months of summer, when the sea is sapphire-blue, when surf creams softly round the feet of limpet-covered rocks, and the little wavelets laugh and sparkle as they slide over the shining sands. It is another matter when Winter with his tempests comes roaring from the North. Where are then the laughing waters and the smiling sunlit sands? Swallowed up by wild seas with storm-tossed crests, that race madly landward to dash themselves in blind fury on shoreless cliffs, or sweep resistless over a shingly beach.

It is a cruel coast in the winter time, and its children had need be strong men and fearless, for they who make their living on the face of its waters surely inherit a share greater than is their due of toil and danger; they, verily, more than others "see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep." From earliest times when men first sailed the seas this coast has taken heavy toll of ships and of human lives, and in the race that it has bred, necessarily there has been little room for weaklings; their men are even to this day of the type of the old Vikings—from whom perhaps they descend—fair-bearded and strong, blue-eyed and open of countenance. And their women—well, there are many who might worthily stand alongside their countrywoman, Grace Darling, many who at a pinch would do what she did, and "blush to find it fame."

Yet one must admit that, as a whole, this community was not always keen to save ship and crew from the breakers, nor prone to warn vessels off from dangerous reef or sunken rock. In days long gone by, if all tales are true, the people of these coasts had no good reputation among sailors, and their habits and customs were wont to give rise to much friction and ill-will betwixt England and Scotland. It is certain that in 1472 they plundered the great foreign-going barge built by Bishop Kennedy of St. Andrews—the greatest ship ever seen in those days—when she drove ashore one stormy night off Bamborough. And of her passengers, one, the Abbot of St. Colomb, was long held to ransom by James Carr, a deed the consequences of which, in those days of an all-powerful Church, might be dreadful to contemplate. Pitscottie says the "Bishop's Barge" cost her owner something like 10,000 sterling. Perhaps the harvest reaped by Bamborough when she came ashore may have encouraged Northumbrians to adopt this line of business in earnest, for by 1559 we read that "wreckers" were common down all that coast; and their prayer: "Let us pray for a good harvest this winter," contained no allusion to the fruits of the field.

In 1643 there was a Scottish priest, Gilbert Blakhal, confessor in Paris to the Lady Isabelle Hay, Lord Errol's daughter, who in the course of a journey to his native land visited Holy Island, and in the account of his travels he makes mention of the ways of the island's inhabitants, and of their prayer when a vessel was seen to be in danger. "They al sit downe upon their knees and hold up their handes, and say very devotely, 'Lord, send her to us. God, send her to us.' You, seeing them upon their knees, and their handes joyned, do think that they are praying for your sauvetie; but their myndes are far from that. They pray, not God to sauve you, or send you to the porte, but to send you to them by ship-wrack, that they may gette the spoile of her. And to showe that this is their meaning, if the ship come wel to the porte, or eschew naufrage (shipwreck), they gette up in anger, crying: 'The Devil stick her; she is away from us.'" Father Blakhal does not pretend that with his own ears he heard the Holy Islanders so pray. It was told to him by the Governor of the island. But, then, this Governor, Robin Rugg by name, was "a notable good fellow, as his great read nose, full of pimples, did give testimony." Perhaps he exaggerated, or it was but one of his "merry discourses." Yet I think he told the truth in this instance. To "wreck" was the habit of the day, and by all coastal peoples the spoil of wrecks was regarded as not less their just due than was the actual food obtained by them from the sea. On our own coasts and in our islands until quite recent times such was undoubtedly the case, just as in savage lands it continues to be the case to this day; and the distinction is a fine-drawn one between doing nothing to prevent a vessel from running into danger which would result in profit to the spectators, and the doing of a something, greater or less—say the showing of a light, or the burning of a beacon—which may make it certain that the same vessel shall go where she may be of "the greatest good to the greatest number"—the "greatest number" in such instances being always, of course, the wreckers. A wrecked vessel was their legitimate prey, and the inhabitants of many coastal parts are known to have deeply resented the building of lighthouses where wrecks were frequent. In his notes to The Pirate, Sir Walter Scott mentions that the rent of several of the islands in Shetland had greatly fallen since the Commissioners of Lighthouses ordered lights to be established on the Isle of Sanda and the Pentland Skerries. And he tells of the reflection cast upon Providence by a certain pious island farmer, the sails of whose boat were frail from age and greatly patched: "Had it been His  will that a light hadna been placed yonder," said he, with pious fervour, "I wad have had enough of new sails last winter."

Then as to the saving of life—in those days, and well on into the eighteenth century, it was believed to be a most unlucky thing to save a drowning person; he was sure eventually to do his rescuer some deadly injury. A similar belief, as regards the ill luck, prevails in China to this day; nothing will induce a Chinaman to help a drowning man from the water. In our own case, probably this superstition as to ill luck originated in the obvious fact that if there were no survivor from a wreck, there could be no one to interfere with the claim made by the finders to what they considered their lawful due. If a vessel drove ashore on their coast, that surely was the act and the will of God, and it was not for them to question His decrees or to thwart His intentions.

Many, since the days of the wreckers, have been the ships cast away along that rugged coast-line which starts southward from the grim promontory of St. Abb's Head, and runs, cruelly rock-girt or stretched in open bay of yellow sand, away past Berwick and down by Holy Island. Many have been the disasters, pitiful on occasion the loss of life. But never, since history began, has disaster come upon the coast like to that which befell the little town of Eyemouth in the early autumn of 1881, never has loss of life so heartrending overwhelmed a small community. Once the headquarters of smuggling on our eastern coast, and built—as it is well known was also built a certain street of small houses in Spittal—with countless facilities for promoting the operations of "Free Trade," and with "bolt-holes" innumerable for the smugglers when close pressed by gangers, Eyemouth is still a quaint little town, huddling its strangely squeezed-up houses in narrow lanes and wynds betwixt river and bay. There, too, as at a northern town better known to fame than Eyemouth,

"The grey North Ocean girds it round,

And o'er the rocks, and up the bay,

The long sea-rollers surge and sound,

And still the thin and biting spray

Drives down the melancholy street."

Truly, in Eyemouth it is not alone spray that drives. So close a neighbour is the protecting sea-wall to some of the houses that turn weather-beaten backs on the bay, that at high tide during a north-easterly gale the giant seas, breaking against the wall, burst also clear over the houses, hurling themselves in torrents of icy water into the street beyond. And up the width of one little street that runs to the bay, and past its barricaded doors, you may see sometimes billows that have overleapt the wall come charging, to ebb with angry swish and long-drawn clatter of shingle as the waves suck back. It is a strange sight, and it causes one to wonder what manner of men they are who dwell here, who draw their living from the bosom of a sea that thus harshly treats its children. Yet it is a sea that can be kindly enough; and in the long, golden summer evenings, when the brown-sailed fishing-boats in endless procession draw out from the "haven under the hill," to vanish seaward in the deepening twilight, you would scarce believe that a thing so gentle could be guilty of treachery, or ever could arise in sudden mad frenzy to slay those who had trusted it.

Yet that was what happened that terrible Friday, the 14th of October 1881. No summer's morning could have dawned more peaceful and fair. And here we were but in mid-October, when the woods are in their glory and Scotland looks still for the settled weather of her "Indian summer"; there should yet be ample measure of quiet days and nights ere winter gales rumble in the chimneys and wail through the rigging of boats lying weather-bound in harbour.

A cloudless day, sea of deepest blue, without even the faintest cat's-paw to wrinkle its shining face; a morning warm, genial, windless, reminiscent of fairest summer, such a day as landsmen rejoice in, feeling that it is good to be alive. But the glass came tumbling down, the sea heaved sullenly in the oily calm, seething around the bared fangs of jagged rocks, drawing back with threatening snarl or snatching irritably at the trailing sea-weed; and high aloft the gulls wheeled, clamouring. Old men amongst the fishers looked askance. Why did they not take warning? Alas! The year had been a lean year; the weather latterly had been bad, and for near on a week the boats had been unable to go out. The fish were there for the taking. Prices now were good. And "men must work" even if "women must weep." So it befell that boat after boat put out from harbour and headed over the windless sea, dragged, galley-like, by the clumsy sweeps, till, clear of the land, the fanning of a light air from the south-west gave her gentle steerage way. Soon not a boat was left in port; even those whose weather-wise "skeely" old skippers had counselled caution, at length, against their will and better judgment, were shamed into starting. After all, it was no great distance they were going; with ordinary luck they might be back before much wind came. And if the worst came to the worst and they were caught out at sea, why, the boats were weatherly craft, manned by the best of seamen, and an hour or two at the most would see them fight their way back to port. It was all in the day's work. Nothing venture, nothing win. If one may take a risk, so may another. It does not do to stand idle in the background whilst one's neighbour by superior daring secures the prize we also sorely need.

So by 9 A.M. the last boat of the five and forty had got to sea. Before midday all had made an offing of eight or ten miles, and had started to shoot their lines. Folk who had watched them creep out of the harbour now gave no further heed, save perhaps that wives may chance to have cast anxious looks seaward now and again. But none dreamt of evil.

Then of a sudden, as the morning passed, some on shore became aware of a strange, death-like stillness that had fallen over all things, a feeling of gloom and oppression in the air. The sun indeed still shone unclouded over the land, but away out at sea to the north-east there was a horrible canker of blackness that was eating up the sky, and that already had hid from sight, as by a wall, those boats that lay farthest from the land, whilst those still visible could be seen hurriedly letting everything go by the run. Then the blackness shut down over all, and men could but guess what was going on behind that terrible veil. Over the town, as people deserted their houses and hurried to cliff or sea wall, or wherever there seemed possibility of gaining sight or knowledge of the fleet, the same horror of darkness came rushing; wind raved and screamed, and already a sea, indescribable in its appalling fury, was raging into the bay, the crests, cut off as with a knife, flying through the air like densest smoke. Rain scourged and blinded, the driving spray lashed beyond bearing the faces of those who, dread in their souls, peered through their sheltering hands, trying vainly to penetrate the smother to windward. A few hundred yards of raging water, a blurred vision of rushing, tumbling seas; tumultuous, deafening roar of surf, the tortured scream of wind; and that was all. It was as if one might try to gaze into the mouth of hell.

Then through this Hades of waters, rolling, tumbling, pitching, buried almost in the breaking seas, into the bay came rushing three yawls, manned by crab-fishers from St. Abb's, past the Hurcar Rock, and round safely into the harbour; then a large Eyemouth fishing-boat, and another, and another, and then a pause of sickening suspense, and two more large boats from St. Abb's fought their way to safety. Men began faintly to pluck up heart. If these had come out of the jaws of death, why not the others? But now again they hoped with ever sinking hearts, for minutes passed and there came no more. Then, even as they strained their eyes despairingly, there came one into the bay that failed to get far enough to windward. Down on the rock behind the breakwater she drove, helpless, and went to pieces. Another took the same road, and smashed to atoms almost at the pierhead, so near, and yet so far from human aid, that the voices of both crews could be heard by the helpless, distracted spectators—white-lipped men, wailing women, who clustered there by the rocks in impotent agony. One struggling drowning man fought hard—it is said that the outermost of a chain of rescuers once even touched his hand. But no help was possible, no human power could have drawn those helpless men from that raging cauldron; against such wind no rocket could fly, near these rocks no lifeboat could live. Even if she could have lived, there was no crew to man her; all were away with the fleet.

It was near low water now, and into the bay came driving a big boat that rushed on the rocks at Fort Point, pounded there a brief second, and was hurled by the following sea on to the beach, so nearly high and dry that her crew, by the aid of lines, were readily saved. And then into view through the welter came staggering a new boat, one whose first trip it was, sore battered, but battling gallantly for life, and making wonderful weather of it. Yet, even as hope told the flattering tale of her certain safety, there came racing up astern a sea, gigantic even in that giant sea, raced her, caught her, and, as it passed ahead, so tilted her bows that the ballast slid aft, and down she sank by the stern, so near to safety that betwixt ship and shore wife might recognise husband and husband wife.

As at Eyemouth, so it was all down the coast. At Burnmouth, at Berwick (though no boat belonging to Berwick that day was out), at Goswick Bay, and elsewhere, boat after boat, driven before the fury of the gale, was forced over by wind and sea, and sunk with all her crew, or was dashed to pieces on the shore.

Night fell on Eyemouth; and, God, what a night! "In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning; Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not."

By little and little, by ones and twos, boats, battered and with sails torn to ribbons, with crews exhausted and distraught, kept arriving during the Saturday and Sunday, bringing men, as it were, back from the dead. One or two, under bare poles, had ridden the gale out at sea, lying up into the wind as near as might be, threshing through those awful seas hour after hour, buried almost, sometimes, in the seething cauldron, or struck by tons of solid water when some huge mountain of a wave, toppling to its fall, rushed at her out of the blackness. From minute to minute the men never knew but that the next roaring billow would engulf them also, as already they had seen it roll over and swallow up their neighbours.

It was the skipper of the White Star  that told afterwards how, before the tornado burst—as some said, "like a clap of thunder"—the first thing to take his attention from the shooting of his lines was boats on the weather side of him hurriedly shortening sail, or letting all run. To the nor'ard, from horizon almost to zenith, already the sky was black as ink, the sea beneath white with flying spume. Then like magic the sea got up, and the White Star  turned to run for Eyemouth, with the Myrtle  in company. But darkness and the fierce turmoil of waters forced them to lay to in order to make certain of their position. As they lay, pitching fearfully and many times almost on their beam ends from the violence of the wind, a foaming mountain of water came thundering down on the White Star, so that for a brief moment all thought that she was gone; and almost as she shook herself free, just such another tremendous wave struck the Myrtle, and rolled her over like a walnut-shell skiff, a child's plaything. As the White Star  rose on successive waves, her crew twice afterwards saw the Myrtle  heave up her side for a second ere she went to the bottom, but of her seven hands no man was ever seen again. Head-reaching into the wind, the White Star  gradually made her perilous way, presently passing yet another boat floating bottom up, her rigging trailing in the water around her, but no bodies visible anywhere. Of the rest of the fleet, no sign. Four and forty hours later the White Star  reached safety at North Shields. Other boats that also headed for the open sea were even longer in coming to port, but all, as they drew farther and farther from land, found weather less terrible, a sea less dangerous, than that from which by the skin of their teeth they had escaped. Some of the smitten craft drove far to the south before the wind, and after escapes many and incredible, reached a haven of safety, with men worn and dazed, but not all with crews complete; too many paid toll to the sea with one or more lives. For as long as a day and a half, there were skippers who sat, unrelieved, at the tiller of their boat, an awful weight of responsibility on their shoulders, human lives depending on their nerve and skill. Some of these men had to be carried ashore, when at length they reached safety; the legs of one were found to be so twisted and wedged in beneath his seat, that it was only with the greatest difficulty and pain that he was got out of the boat.

There was one boat that found refuge at Shields on the Sunday. She arrived too late to permit of a telegram being sent announcing her safety, but in time to allow her crew—or what was left of it—to catch a late train to the north, and the solemn, echoing tramp of their heavy feet at midnight in the silent street of Eyemouth brought the stricken people from their beds with a start, and with vague apprehension of fresh disaster. But their dread was turned to rejoicing, except for the family of that man who came home never again. In all, on that Sunday night it was known that sixty-four of the men of Eyemouth had perished, and seventy-one were still missing. Of these but a handful ever returned. Eyemouth alone lost one hundred and twenty-nine—the men of whole families, almost of clans, swept away. Truly to her that day was as of old had been Flodden Field to Scotland. The total number of men who perished along this coast in that hurricane was one hundred and eighty-nine.

Will the terror of that time ever be forgotten, or its horror wiped out from the town of Eyemouth? In the face of disaster such as that, smaller happenings appear for the time almost insignificant. Yet it was but the other year that another great gale on that coast brought disaster most pitiful. A Danish steamer, feeling her way to the Firth of Forth in weather thick with fog and with a great gale blowing, mistaking her position, came creeping in the darkness close in to the little village of St. Abb's. Nearer and nearer to the people, snug in their warm, well-lit houses, came the roar of her fog-horn. And then, from the neighbourhood of a treacherous rock—awash at low water—and little more than a stone's throw from the village houses, there rushed up a rocket, and a flare was seen dimly burning. In the heavy sea, the steamer had brought her bows with a mighty crash on to that sunken rock, and there she lay, the great seas sweeping her from stem to stern. Rockets from the cliff that overlooked the wreck could not reach her in that fierce wind; the life-boat, when it arrived from Berwick, could not live in the broken water near to her. All was done that man could do to rescue the perishing men in that hapless vessel; but that "all" in the end amounted to just nothing. Helpless, the watchers listened with sick hearts to the cries of her doomed crew and to the deep baying of a great hound that was on board the doomed ship; helpless, they gazed in impotent agony at the despairing signals made. In the morning she was still there, but the cries were fainter, the faces seen fewer, the vessel more often buried under breaking seas. Then the cries ceased. And when daylight came a second time, where the hull had been there was now but white, raging water, and seas that spouted high in air from a black rock that showed its cruel head at intervals. And of the crew there was found no sign. Only to and fro on the shore there ran a great white dog, that would let no man approach it, that would take no food from strange hands. Day and night, like a lost spirit, to and fro between Eyemouth and St. Abb's Head trotted the great white hound, never resting. And ever when a sail hove in sight, or a steamship passed near in, he would run hurriedly to the farthest projecting point, and throwing back his head, wail piteously for the drowned sailors, his friends.