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David Grant

A Fisherman’s Yarn
The Witch’s Wind

“Come spin us a yarn, Will,” cried I.
“Yes, spin us a yarn,” cried all,
“For here we must ride till the turn of the tide,
Since the winds won’t come at your call.”

“I’ve whistled for half-an-hour,” said Will,
“Yet the stubborn breezes lag;
Though I’ve known a hurricane burst like a bomb
At the simple wish of a hag!”

“Come tell us about it, Will,” cried I.
“Yes, tell us, “ cried all the crew.
“Then, here,” cried Will, as he lighted his pipe,
“Goes a yarn that’s gospel true!”

“I was nearly out of my teens,” said Will,
“At home with the Skipper in Mey,
But could pull, I reckon, a stiffer oar
Than I can at the present day.

“I had stood a hand at Wick that year
And a capital catch we had;
And the Skipper himself had owned his luck
Was never the worse for the lad.

“’T was after the boats had all come home,
And the crops were nearly ripe,
That the Skipper sat on a Saturday eve
Thoughtfully smoking his pipe.

“Then slowly struck the bowl on his nail
Till the ash was wholly out;
His wont, when he schemed or cleared his mind
Of any perplexing doubt.

“’The Drover shall have the two-year-olds,
The price he offers is fair;
‘T will cover their cost and keep I think,
And leaves a trifle to spare.

“’And the yearling creatures offered me
By Magnus Manson of Walls,
Might be bought a bargain for ready cash,
To stand in others’ stalls.

“Thus far to himself, and then to us-
My elder brother and me-
‘You’ll see that the sheets and sails of the yawl
Are ready on Tuesday for sea.

“’We’ll start for Longhope with the early flood,
And possibly may get back,
If Magnus Manson and I can trade,
In the course of the ebb and slack.

“’There’s Magnus Manson’s cousin in Gills,
Will lend us a hand across,
Or if he won’t, with Benjamin Wares,
We shan’t be much at a loss.’

“On Tuesday all were ready to start,
The yawl in her neatest trim,
And we stood away from the Castle Bay,
While the day was yet but dim.

“We reached Longhope with as fine a breeze
As ever had filled a sail;
But it chopped about to the west-nor’-west,
And rose to a tearing gale.

“And from Tuesday morn till Friday night
Wind-bound in the Hope we lay,
Counting the hours on our finger ends,
And chafing at our delay.”

“Made you no account of the Orkney girls
Was there never an island flower
Along the Hope, or the heights of Walls,
To quicken a lingering hour?”

Will vented a lengthened puff of smoke,
Winked thrice with his weather eye,
The forged ahead with his yarn again,
Vouchsafing me no reply.

“Magnus Manson’s cousin from Gills,
The Skipper, my brother and I,
For three days lazily puffed our pipes,
And sullenly scanned the sky.

“Came Magnus Manson down to the shore,
And jesting at our distress-
‘Why don’t you trade for a wind,’ asked he,
‘With our neighbour Canny Jess?’

“Said the Skipper, ‘I’ve sailed for sixty years
And whistled the breezes in;
I’ve ne’er been beholden to witch’s wind,
And I’m now too old to begin.’

“But Magnus Mansons cousin from Gills,
My elder brother and I,
Slipt to the shop for a quarter of tea,
And visited Jess on the sly.

“We asked for a light for our pipes; the witch
Invited us to step ben,
And we saw before us a wrinkled wife
Of good three score and ten.

“A wrinkled hag with a straggling beard,
And a threatening nose and chin,
And a cast in her eye that plainly said-
‘I’m in league with the man of sin.’

“She greedily clutched the proffered tea,
With a chuckle meant for mirth;
‘And you’ll want a wind for this,’ said she,
‘To carry you over the Firth?’

“’Well, first we’ll try if your tea be good,
Then one of yourselves will run
And fetch me a bucket out of your boat,
And we’ll think if aught can be done.’

“ The tea was tested, the bucket fetched,
The witch herself went ben,
And clucked in the other end of the house
As you’ve heard a clucking hen.

“At times a pig would seem to grunt
And a cat to caterwaul,
While we shuddered and wished us out of the house
Riding the Firth in our yawl.

“’T was nigh an hour ere the hag returned
With the bucket in her hand,
And in it three tiny wisps of straw,
Each girt with a worsted band.

“’This bucket,’ she croaked, ‘you’ll place in your boat,
As close to the prow as you may,
And all be ready to start from the Hope
At the earliest peep of day.

“’A favouring wind will fill your sails
Till you’ve rounded Cantick Head;
Till the flood has run and the slack begun,
But the breeze will then drop dead.

“’And then you must throw a wisp of the straw,
A single wisp in the sea;
And another breeze will fill your sails
Till Gills lie under your lea.

“’A second wisp must then be flung,
And you’ll scud to Harrow Bay;
But keep, as you love you’re life, the third,
Till you’re safely landed in Mey.’

“We stowed the straw as the witch had bid,
And just as the sun appeared,
Down the Hope, with a favouring breeze,
And round by the Head we steered.

“The wind dropp’d dead as we passed the Head,
A wisp was given to the seas;
The sails were filled till the masts were bent,
And we flew before the breeze.

“Down dropp’d the wind for a second time,
And a second wisp we threw;
Then tacked and scudded as fine a board
As ever the breezes blew.

“We left the Men of Mey on our lea,
And down upon Harrow bore;
And slackened sail at a cable’s length
From the wished and welcome shore.

“Then laughed the Skipper a scornful laugh-
‘A snuff for the witch!’ cried he,
And clutching the hindmost wisp of straw,
He pitched it into the seas.

“Crash, crash! Went the thunder overhead;
Thick darkness fell on the deep;
And round the boat – like famishing fiends-
The billows began to leap.

“We rowed like men in the grip of death,
Still heading, we thought, for land;
But the angry demons of the deep
Had taken our yawl in hand.

“And still the more we urged ashore,
The further they forced us off;
Heaving us high on the mountain waves,
And deep in the dreadful trough.

“Till how we went, or whither we went,
We neither noted nor knew;
‘T was all we could do to bale the boat
And keep her from broaching to.

“The thunder bellowed, the lightning flashed,
‘T was all the light we had:
The yawl must have perished in any hands
Save the skilful hands of my dad.

“But just when the strength of all was spent,
And the hopes of all but o’er,
She suddenly steadied a cable’s length
From the witch’s cottage door.

"The tempest ceased, and the sun lit up
The Hope like a burnished glass;
In our minds alone did a trace remain
Of all that had come to pass.

“We left the hope with the breeze of heaven,
For not for the Orkney’s worth
Had we tried again with a witch’s wind,
To ferry the Pentland Firth.”

“Bravo, Will! a capital yarn!
Cried I and each of the crew.
“Ah, well!” quoth Will, “you may call it a yarn,
But I tell you it’s Gospel true.”