Tuesday, August 31, 2010

More Tales of Shipwreck and Mystery

The Scottish One started composing a comment for yesterdays post and carried on until the point where I thought it was worthy of a guest slot so here it is in all it's glory.

Towering like jagged and broken saw-teeth on the western extremity of Shetland are the Rusna Stacks, eight or more forbidding towers of Middle Red Sandstone, guarding the northern shore of the western entrance to Vaila Sound. They are separated from the mainland by 150 yards of turbulent, icy grey sea and a 180 ft cliff face with a precipitous edge that every fiber in your body screams you should retreat from and keep going. It was while out for a morning’s constitutional on this coastline with Desperate Reader’s father and his faithful hounds that we were shown a curious carving scratched on a flattish, un-prepossessing rock at the top of a hill close by. It’s of a compass rose about 12 inches across, of the 32-point cardinal type, made of concentric circles and radiating lines and surrounding it were incised names, and initials, some legible, others eroded with age and all overlaid with a patina of lichen. The carving has given the small hill top the local dialect name of ‘Compass wart’ a wart being the local term for a lookout point. Like all good rock art this has a story attached to it, in this case that a vessel had been wrecked on the Rusna Stacks and at least some of the crew had survived by climbing the mast of the sinking ship to crawl up over the cliff edge and gain the safety of land. It is said that the survivors then made their way to the hill-top where they carved the compass. It is also said that a small cove or ‘bight’ a little way further into the sound called ‘Neus’ was where the news of the wreck was first heard - so it’s called locally ‘the bight of the neus’. These scant details are at that is known although there is good evidence that the compass was there in the 1850’s.

Among the names there appears only one date, the year 1611 carved close to the north point, the numeral six of this date has that scribed look rather than copperplate which makes me think it is authentic and the north point itself is not an arrow but a cross, carved within two opposing curves, called a Vesica Piscis making an almond shape, again a very old form of compass point. It’s obvious some of the other graffito is later from the lettering styles, and many have been scratched over older, fainter ones.

If this compass was carved in the year 1611, it is remarkable at a literary level in that it was in this year on 1st November (All Saints Day) in which Shakspeare’s ‘The Tempest’ was performed for the first time at Whitehall palace in London. ‘The Tempest’ of course is a story of storm, shipwreck, natural magic, revenge and love on an enchanted island. Now I’m not for a moment suggesting that West Shetland is, or ever was Prospero’s Isle (no matter how enchanting in reality it without doubt is) but the play does give an insight into the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean mindset in which belief in magic worlds parallel to our own, superstition, witchcraft and sorcery was universal.

 Imagine then a small group of exhausted and frightened, shipwrecked sailors, perhaps from another country, unable to speak the local Norn dialect, arriving on this desolate coastline fearful of making their way to habitation in case they are taken for spirits or simply pirates. Caution born of superstition may well have caused them to huddle on a small hill-top far from habitation, close to where the wreck of their vessel was gradually being eaten by the pounding waves, and wait out the storm with the few possessions they had managed to salvage from the wreck, one of which we know for sure was an accurate compass because the carving on the rock points unerringly to magnetic north. In Shakespeare’s day not all "magic" was considered evil, indeed Prospero’s magic in ‘The Tempest’ was benign and was more akin to science, rationality, and divinity, than to the occult. The reliability of the magnetic compass to truthfully point the way may have seemed a powerful talisman of this kind of life saving magic in a storm filled world of darkness and unspoken fears. While waiting, perhaps for days in this condition what would have been more natural to one of these sailors than to idly scratch with a knife blade an image of the talisman to which they trusted their salvation? All we know for sure is that this enigmatic petroglyph still weathers the storms year upon year in its rocky isolation and that happily it still prompts stories to be woven in front of a glowing peat fire with wet dogs and a malt whisky of an ancient shipwreck and another world.

He doesn't often give way to these flights so it's very much a testament to place 


  1. Stone the crows, Scottish One! That was most interesting. More please. I reckon you've got a hidden talent for writing Gothic horror fiction!
    I really enjoyed that!

  2. I enjoyed it too - but we're still hunting down the truth!

  3. I should say the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth - but local colour doesn't go amiss either.