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Storm And Tempest
by [?]

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 L10,000 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.”