We had often heard from older folk on the island that, long ago, two brothers had lived on the now uninhabited island of Switha; they had fallen out over a girl in Flotta and one had killed the other. The story we had heard was that the remaining brother felt guilty and had then jumped over a cliff. However, the following dramatized version of the story appeared in the John o’Groat Journal of 28 July, 1854. Unfortunately there was a hole in the page of the newspaper and so some of the words are missing, indicated here by a solid line. If anyone happens to have a complete copy of this, then we would be pleased to fill in the missing words. Spellings have been left exactly as shown in the newspaper. If anyone has heard another version of this tale, please let us know.
A Tale of Switha
Among the larger islands in Orkney there are here and there interspersed small uninhabited islets or holms, on which, in the summer season, sheep and cattle may be seen pasturing. One of these, called Switha, lies due south from Flota, and only a short distance from it, near the entrance of the Longhope. It is a beautiful little spot – about two miles in circumference – green as an emerald – and from its highest point commands a fine view of a great part of Orkney, as well as of Caithness. Switha, like most other places in this interesting county, has its traditional history; and about two hundred years ago, it was the scene of a more than usually tragical event. At that period, there were a number of small proprietors or udallers, as they were termed, in Orkney, many of whom possessed only a few acres of land, which they cultivated with their own hands. Although more independent in means, they were not much superior in rank and intelligence to the ordinary class of peasantry around them. The lands of many of them, it is said, were very unfairly wrested from them. A few of those small proprietors are still to be found in Orkney.
Switha, at the time to which we refer, was jointly possessed by two brothers, Eric and Ronald Hercus, who lived in the same house with their widowed mother. Eric, the elder brother, was a tall, handsome, young man, of a sprightly, frank, and generous nature; the younger was also good looking, but his disposition was quite the reverse of that of his brother. He was morose, taciturn, and covetous. Notwithstanding the regularity of his features, there was at times something peculiarly forbidding in the expression of his countenance; and he was very cordially disliked by all his acquaintances. He was, however, the favourite of his mother, whose disposition was exactly similar to his own, with a greater degree, if possible, of the spirit of implacability and revenge. She was one of those unhappy mortals who never forget or forgive an injury. She humoured Ronald in everything; and whenever any slight difference happened to take place between the two brothers, she uniformly espoused his side of the question.
There was one Magnus Fea, of Downabout, in the island of Flota, against whom she bore a deadly enmity. When they were both young people, Fea had paid his ____ases to her, and being rejected, he secretly _____ to his rival, John Hercus, and did all he could to prevent him from marrying her. Thi______re. This hatred of Fea was still _____d by the belief that he had drowned her husband, when their boat upset in a squall _____ that he could have saved him, but _____ she firmly believed, though Magnus ____ the other surviving boatman maintained he had disappeared immediately as the accident occurred and, consequently, that it was not possible for any man to save him.
Fea had a daughter named Sibella, who was considered ____ young woman in the island. Her beauty was of a genuine Scandinavian cast, that is to say she had an exquisitely fair complexion, fine blue eyes ____, golden ringlets. She was highly accomplished ___ for the time in which she lived. She could read and write – was intimately acquainted with the Norse sagas, particularly the “Book of Flota”____ singing the old Norse songs with great tas___ She could, moreover, spin, sew, and ____ and, in addition to all these, she was dist____ her good sense, prudence, and econom____ Hercus, who had frequent occasion to be in Flota, became deeply enamoured of this young lady ____ almost unnecessary to say that she reciprocated the affection. Aware, however, of the bad feeling which his mother entertained towards Fea and his family, he concealed his attachment from her while, in the unsuspecting simplicity of his h____ made a confidant of his brother, and entrusted him all his love secrets. He frequently employed him in carrying messages to Sibella, and he had thus abundant opportunity of cultivating her acquaintance. The consequence was that he fell deeply in love with her himself, and in an underhand manner prosecuted his own suit, to further which he took every means of disparaging his brother’s character. The young lady very naturally felt disgusted at the baseness and treachery of his conduct. She indignantly refused his suit, and forbade him even to speak to her again on that subject. Deeply mortified, and stung with resentment, Ronald informed his mother of Eric’s attachment to Miss Fea, and assured her that in a very short time they would be married. On hearing this the old lady became almost choked with rage. “Married to Magnus Fea’s daughter!” exclaimed she, as soon as she had recovered from the paroxysm into which the unwelcome intelligence had thrown her; “married to Magnus Fea’s daughter! No, never shall Eric marry her, if I can help it. I would sooner see him lying a corpse on that floor, than wedded to the daughter of a villain. We must by fair means or by foul prevent it. The young woman must be put out of the way.” “And how can that be done?” enquired Ronald. “Why nothing easier in the world; there are rocks, you know about Flota. You can invite her some evening to take a walk with you about dusk – give her a push over some precipice – say that she accidentally stumbled and fell over – and whole thing is done.” Despite the depravity of his heart, Ronald was at first staggered at the diabolical suggestion. He mused for a little, and then said – “But, mother, this would be a very cruel action. My conscience, hardened as it is, tells me so; and, besides, I might be taken up for it, and my life, you know, would be the penalty.” “Pshaw!” cried his mother, with all the fiendish malignity and hardihood of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, “a fig for conscience! I see you are a coward. If the thing were done as I say, without witnesses, how could you be taken up for it? Hearken! For your encouragement there are not a few broad pieces in my coffer, and if you only execute my wish, I will make you heir to the whole.” She struck the right chord; and Ronald agreed at once to do her bidding, and gratify his own revenge and hers at the same time.
In pursuance of his wicked intention, he soon after went to Flota, and under the pretence that he had something particular to communicate, tried to induce Sibella to take a walk with him to Stanger Head; but there was something in his manner which frightened her, and she declined to do so. “If you have anything particular to say to me,” observed Sibella, “say it here. To tell you the truth, Ronald, I do not like your look to-night, and I will not on any account go out to walk with you.” He returned home, and told his mother how he had failed in accomplishing the object for which he had gone to Flota. She bit her lips with vexation, and said – “then we must try some other game.” For some days after this, Ronald and she had secret consultations together, in which the name of Eric, coupled with the broad pieces in her coffer, was frequently mentioned. It was evident that there was some dark plot hatching against him.
In the meantime, the wedding day was fixed. It was in the winter season, and the weather for a week past had been remarkably stormy. The wind blew from the south-west in violent and unsteady gusts, accompanied with showers of sleet and hail. The Pentland Firth raged and boiled in phrensied convulsion like a huge maelstrom, and flung its foamy billows with a voice of thunder on the beach of Switha. The genius of the tempest seemed to riot in the turmoil of the elements. It was a sublime and awful scene. But the storm at length spent its fury, and the morning of the wedding day was ushered in with calm and sunshine. It was one of those bright, balmy, spring-like days, which, like a smile on the cheek of melancholy, occasionally comes in the very depth of winter, to enliven the desolate landscape, and gladden the eye and heart of the spectator. The filmy gossamer lay like silver threads on the ground – the midges danced in the sunny ray – and the wild gull uttered a scream of joy.
Eric, after dressing himself, went out to give orders to the men who were to bring him across to Flota. The boat being launched, and everything prepared for starting, he returned to see if his brother was ready to set off with him, when he found him still undressed, and sitting beside the hearth in a more than usually dogged and sulky humour. He expressed his surprise, and asked if he really intended to go along with him. Ronald testily replied that he did not, and threw out some disparaging insinuations against his bride. Eric felt indignant at this base attempt to injure her character; high words arose between them, and, during the altercation, Ronald seized a large boat hook, struck his brother a heavy blow with it on the head, and felled him to the ground. He uttered only one groan, and instantly expired.
When the fatal tidings in the course of the evening reached the unfortunate bride, she gave a piercing shriek, and fell into a swoon. She lay for some time apparently lifeless, and when at length she recovered, it was found that her reason was completely gone. The shock had been too much for her. She was now a raving maniac. The mental malady, which was at first of a violent nature, gradually softened down into a sort of harmless idiotcy. She fancied that her lover was still alive, and coming to marry her. She would sit for hours gazing in the direction of Switha. She watched every boat that came to Flota, and ran down to meet her expected bridegroom; and when the boatmen, who were acquainted with her peculiar hallucination, told her that he had not come yet, she would say – “then he will be to-morrow,” and she would return home singing some snatch of a song, and clapping her hands with joy. She continued in this state for many years, until her hair became silvered by age; and the last dying words that she was heard to utter were – “he will be to-morrow.”
Ronald and his mother, the guilty actors in this melancholy tragedy, soon after left Switha, and for greater security betook themselves to one of the remotest of the North Isles. Eric was buried in Switha, where a rude standing stone still marks the place of sepulture, and attests the truth of the popular tradition. The small island was never afterwards inhabited. A curse was believed to rest upon it. The spirit of the murdered young man and that of his bride were said to haunt the spot, and unearthly shrieks and wailings were often heard at night by the passing mariner.
James T Calder
And we thought it was the selkies!
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