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The Pirate, Page 2

Walter Scott


  "Quoth he, there was a ship."

  This brief preface may begin like the tale of the Ancient Mariner, sinceit was on shipboard that the author acquired the very moderate degree oflocal knowledge and information, both of people and scenery, which hehas endeavoured to embody in the romance of the Pirate.

  In the summer and autumn of 1814, the author was invited to join a partyof Commissioners for the Northern Light-House Service, who proposedmaking a voyage round the coast of Scotland, and through its variousgroups of islands, chiefly for the purpose of seeing the condition ofthe many lighthouses under their direction,--edifices so important,whether regarding them as benevolent or political institutions. Amongthe commissioners who manage this important public concern, the sheriffof each county of Scotland which borders on the sea, holds ex-officio aplace at the Board. These gentlemen act in every respect gratuitously,but have the use of an armed yacht, well found and fitted up, when theychoose to visit the lighthouses. An excellent engineer, Mr. RobertStevenson, is attached to the Board, to afford the benefit of hisprofessional advice. The author accompanied this expedition as a guest;for Selkirkshire, though it calls him Sheriff, has not, like the kingdomof Bohemia in Corporal Trim's story, a seaport in its circuit, nor itsmagistrate, of course, any place at the Board of Commissioners,--acircumstance of little consequence where all were old and intimatefriends, bred to the same profession, and disposed to accommodate eachother in every possible manner.

  The nature of the important business which was the principal purpose ofthe voyage, was connected with the amusement of visiting the leadingobjects of a traveller's curiosity; for the wild cape, or formidableshelve, which requires to be marked out by a lighthouse, is generally atno great distance from the most magnificent scenery of rocks, caves, andbillows. Our time, too, was at our own disposal, and, as most of us werefreshwater sailors, we could at any time make a fair wind out of a foulone, and run before the gale in quest of some object of curiosity whichlay under our lee.

  With these purposes of public utility and some personal amusement inview, we left the port of Leith on the 26th July, 1814, ran along theeast coast of Scotland, viewing its different curiosities, stood over toZetland and Orkney, where we were some time detained by the wonders of acountry which displayed so much that was new to us; and having seen whatwas curious in the Ultima Thule of the ancients, where the sun hardlythought it worth while to go to bed, since his rising was at this seasonso early, we doubled the extreme northern termination of Scotland, andtook a rapid survey of the Hebrides, where we found many kind friends.There, that our little expedition might not want the dignity of danger,we were favoured with a distant glimpse of what was said to be anAmerican cruiser, and had opportunity to consider what a pretty figurewe should have made had the voyage ended in our being carried captiveto the United States. After visiting the romantic shores of Morven, andthe vicinity of Oban, we made a run to the coast of Ireland, and visitedthe Giant's Causeway, that we might compare it with Staffa, which we hadsurveyed in our course. At length, about the middle of September, weended our voyage in the Clyde, at the port of Greenock.

  And thus terminated our pleasant tour, to which our equipment gaveunusual facilities, as the ship's company could form a strong boat'screw, independent of those who might be left on board the vessel, whichpermitted us the freedom to land wherever our curiosity carried us. Letme add, while reviewing for a moment a sunny portion of my life, thatamong the six or seven friends who performed this voyage together, someof them doubtless of different tastes and pursuits, and remaining forseveral weeks on board a small vessel, there never occurred theslightest dispute or disagreement, each seeming anxious to submit hisown particular wishes to those of his friends. By this mutualaccommodation all the purposes of our little expedition were obtained,while for a time we might have adopted the lines of Allan Cunningham'sfine sea-song,

  "The world of waters was our home, And merry men were we!"

  But sorrow mixes her memorials with the purest remembrances of pleasure.On returning from the voyage which had proved so satisfactory, I foundthat fate had deprived her country most unexpectedly of a lady,qualified to adorn the high rank which she held, and who had longadmitted me to a share of her friendship. The subsequent loss of one ofthose comrades who made up the party, and he the most intimate friend Ihad in the world, casts also its shade on recollections which, but forthese embitterments, would be otherwise so pleasing.

  I may here briefly observe, that my business in this voyage, so far as Icould be said to have any, was to endeavour to discover some localitieswhich might be useful in the "Lord of the Isles," a poem with which Iwas then threatening the public, and was afterwards printed withoutattaining remarkable success. But as at the same time the anonymousnovel of "Waverley" was making its way to popularity, I already auguredthe possibility of a second effort in this department of literature, andI saw much in the wild islands of the Orkneys and Zetland, which Ijudged might be made in the highest degree interesting, should theseisles ever become the scene of a narrative of fictitious events. Ilearned the history of Gow the pirate from an old sibyl, (the subject ofa note, p. 326 of this volume,) whose principal subsistence was by atrade in favourable winds, which she sold to mariners at Stromness.Nothing could be more interesting than the kindness and hospitality ofthe gentlemen of Zetland, which was to me the more affecting, as severalof them had been friends and correspondents of my father.

  I was induced to go a generation or two farther back, to find materialsfrom which I might trace the features of the old Norwegian Udaller, theScottish gentry having in general occupied the place of that primitiverace, and their language and peculiarities of manner having entirelydisappeared. The only difference now to be observed betwixt the gentryof these islands, and those of Scotland in general, is, that the wealthand property is more equally divided among our more northern countrymen,and that there exists among the resident proprietors no men of verygreat wealth, whose display of its luxuries might render the othersdiscontented with their own lot. From the same cause of generalequality of fortunes, and the cheapness of living, which is its naturalconsequence, I found the officers of a veteran regiment who hadmaintained the garrison at Fort Charlotte, in Lerwick, discomposed atthe idea of being recalled from a country where their pay, howeverinadequate to the expenses of a capital, was fully adequate to theirwants, and it was singular to hear natives of merry England herselfregretting their approaching departure from the melancholy isles of theUltima Thule.

  Such are the trivial particulars attending the origin of thatpublication, which took place several years later than the agreeablejourney from which it took its rise.

  The state of manners which I have introduced in the romance, wasnecessarily in a great degree imaginary, though founded in some measureon slight hints, which, showing what was, seemed to give reasonableindication of what must once have been, the tone of the society in thesesequestered but interesting islands.

  In one respect I was judged somewhat hastily, perhaps, when thecharacter of Norna was pronounced by the critics a mere copy of MegMerrilees. That I had fallen short of what I wished and desired toexpress is unquestionable, otherwise my object could not have been sowidely mistaken; nor can I yet think that any person who will take thetrouble of reading the Pirate with some attention, can fail to trace inNorna,--the victim of remorse and insanity, and the dupe of her ownimposture, her mind, too, flooded with all the wild literature andextravagant superstitions of the north,--something distinct from theDumfries-shire gipsy, whose pretensions to supernatural powers are notbeyond those of a Norwood prophetess. The foundations of such acharacter may be perhaps traced, though it be too true that thenecessary superstructure cannot have been raised upon them, otherwisethese remarks would have been unnecessary. There is also greatimprobability in the statement of Norna's possessing power andopportunity to impress on others that belief in her supernatural giftswhich distracted her own mind. Yet, amid a very cre
dulous and ignorantpopulation, it is astonishing what success may be attained by animpostor, who is, at the same time, an enthusiast. It is such as toremind us of the couplet which assures us that

  "The pleasure is as great In being cheated as to cheat."

  Indeed, as I have observed elsewhere, the professed explanation of atale, where appearances or incidents of a supernatural character arereferred to natural causes, has often, in the winding up of the story, adegree of improbability almost equal to an absolute goblin narrative.Even the genius of Mrs. Radcliffe could not always surmount thisdifficulty.

  ABBOTSFORD, _1st May, 1831._