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David Grant

Old Anne’s Yarn

The Swelchie of Stroma

The Whirlpool, called the Swelchie, is situated at the north-east corner of the Island of Stroma, in the Pentland Firth. It does not rage always, but in certain conditions of wind and tide would infallibly swamp or suck down any undecked vessel entering it.

The loss of the boat and crew, which forms the subject of the following “Yarn,” occurred early in the nineteenth century. The incidents connected with the catastrophe were furnished me by an eye witness (the same into whose mouth I have put the narrative), and were corroborated by other aged persons on Stroma and along the northern shores of Caithness. In my recital I have endeavoured to retain as nearly as possible the particulars as I received them.

The Freswick men had bought a boat
From a builder at Stromness,
And crossed the Firth to fetch her home
When their land-work ceased to press.

When herring-boats were all drawn up
And the crops were under thatch,
When shoals of sillocks along the shores
Were the fisherman’s only catch-

They reached Stromness on an autumn eve,
Each man in his trimmest guise;
And spent the night in a gay carouse,
Till they saw the sun arise.

At least such rumour reached our Isle,
And was never since gainsaid;
But God forbid that a word of mine
Should wrong the unburied dead!

They left Stromness on a breezy morn,
When the sun in the east was low,
And merrily coasted Gremsy Isle,
And scudded through Scapa Flow.

By Hoxa Head and by Herston bay,
And close to the Barth they sailed;
And ere they headed to cross the Firth,
The wind had lessened and failed.

And the ebb set west at its fullest force,
For the moon was three days old;
And the Men of Mey were up in might,
And the Swelchie swirled and howled.

The Sails were doused when they ceased to draw,
And the oarsmen rowed their best;
But the boat got caught in the strongest ebb,
Ands it hurried them west and west.

We sighted the boat, and new the risk
That the struggling boatmen ran;
If once they entered the Swelchie stream
They must perish, every man.

Half a mile to the south, and their boat
Might catch our eddy and wait;
Less by a length, and the Swelchie stream
Was there sure and certain fate.

Our pilots signalled and shouted hard,
But the men were surely fey;
For they handled their tackle landsmenlike,
In an odd, unskilful way.

And neared and neared till we knew them all,
Each face of the fated seven;
Fast, fast they were in the Swelchie’s clutch,
And we cried for their souls to heaven.

Ah, me ! they could neither pull to land
Nor out to the smoother sea;
For the boat was reckless of helm and oar,
And on to her doom sped she.

Our pilots shouted, our women screamed,
The boatmen struggled hard,
And the frantic fear upon every face
Was terrible to regard.

But ever the wilful boat plunged on,
In spite of struggles and screams;
For the Swelchie was sucking her in and in
With the strength of a thousand streams.

And round and round in the raging whirl,
The boat and the boatmen flew;
And nearer and nearer, at every sweep,
To the yawning vortex drew.

And ropes, and sails, and oars, and masts,
And thwarts went overboard;
And jackets and vests in the Swelchie’s maw,
All flung with a swift accord.

For ‘t is the thought of our fishermen
That the Swelchie’s mouth will close,
And miss its hold on a human prey,
Whilst swallowing things like those.

But vainly oars, and masts, and sails,
And jackets and vests were spent;
The boat stood up, as it were, on end,
And down with a plunge she went.

The Swelchie closed above its prey
With a splash and a sullen roar;
Nor wreck, nor rag, nor corpse of man,
Has ever been cast to shore.

I am after seventy years of age,
And my hair is white as spray,
But I mind how the boat went round and down
Like a thing that happened today.

I am after seventy years to-day-
I was under a dozen then-
Yet I still can hear the shriek of fear
That followed the drowning men.

It rose above the surge’s dash,
And the Swelchie’s sullen roar;
It startled the whole of Uppertown,
And pealed to the southern shore.

My home is mean, and my fare is coarse,
I am frail and full of pain;
The joy and pride of my life are past,
And can never return again.

My friends are few, for the world is cold
To the aged, poor and low;
And whenever it pleases death to call
Right glad I be to go.

But I’d rather linger a hundred years
Behind the last of my kin,
Than die as they who died that day,
In the Swelchie’s dismal din.

Take A Look At Stroma
Map Of Stroma