Alone on the Ocean
I have all my life been passionately fond of the ocean. Although a denizen of the Highland glens from my infancy, I have almost yearly sacrificed a few of the longest summer days to the indulgence of a coast ramble, to the excitement of climbing the immeasurable crags, exploring the depths of the black coves, or proving my powers of swimming amid the waves of some sunny bay. Frequently, also, although by no means a master of such arts, I have borrowed the boat belonging to an acquaintance, and solaced myself with the novelty of an aquatic expedition. Of all thirst for the latter enjoyment I was at last completely cured by an occurrence which I am about to relate.
On a fine forenoon about the beginning of August I put to sea, with the intention of fairly crossing the watery horizon - of having the satisfaction of seeing the far-off headlands sink away behind the waves. The day was hot and calm, without a breath of wind to fill a sail, but I knew nothing of the management of such matters had the case been otherwise. After I had fairly left the shore I discovered that the weather was by no means favourable to observation. Grey wreaths of mist were creeping with a sinister-like motion among the low grounds of the interior country, and a slight haze was beginning to be visible far out on the sea; but those dreary accompaniments of a warm and moist morning would, I persuaded myself, entirely disappear as the day strengthened: so on and on I pulled. Although the land indeed became somewhat more indistinct, I seemed, after an hour or two of severe labour, to be but a very little nearer my purpose than when I first dipped my oars in the brine: I could still discern the white line of foam along the beach. My chagrin at this was by no means abated on discovering that the mists which boiled in the far-off hollows were reinforced by a squadron of dun clouds that came trailing over the distant hills. Their dense skirts at last stole across the sun, the mists boiled up higher, and, dropping my oars; I stood up and looked around. There were few signs of tempest or foul weather, I thought, yet the safest course was to turn towards the shore, which I accordingly did. Scarcely had I wheeled my little bark landward when a light breeze swept past, casting around me the vapour of the ocean like a thick snow-shower. In one moment the land was invisible, and the fog continued to roll up astern, and close and near, until nought was discernible except the mist that tumbled around me.
Never had I laboured with such eager perseverance as I now did. I was beyond measure terrified, and yet it might have been thought there was little cause for dread. What could be more simple than to row straight on to the very spot which I had left in the morning? At all events, I thought it would certainly be impossible to miss the land, and my greatest dread was of the wind strengthening, but happily it remained moderate. I had hoped to reach the shore in a much shorter space than I had required for rowing out, now that my energies were fully awakened; but after three hours of unintermitting toil neither land nor rock appeared, and I began, with accumulating horror, to think that, after all, I might possibly be steering a wrong course. The dreadful idea gathered strength, every moment; yet what could I do? To rest on my oars and wait for brightening weather would have been intolerable, to alter my course worse than useless. I had no compass, not the slightest notion of how far from the blessed land I might be, and, worst of all, the mist surrounded me on all sides.
At five p.m. there was still no sign of land. Oh! What a priceless joy would it have been to hear the town-clock strike - nay, even the scream of a sea-bird, telling that life was near! I had provided for no contingency, and was now necessarily hungry and heartless. Visions of a lingering death by famine began to arise on my disordered senses, and I cursed the folly which had tempted me to trust to the ocean on such a day of clouds and vapour as this, plainly enough I now thought, threatened to be at its commencement. And still the thoughts of death struck hardest on my heart, and rendered me weak and tremulous. To perish alone on the waste of waters, to have a grave among the rocks a thousand fathoms down! The thought is awfully startling to the man of strong mind, but to the green feelings of fifteen it comes in a shape still more appalling. I shuddered as if I had heard my own death-song in the moan of the waves. Suddenly, by great good-fortune, I caught a glimpse of the western clouds as they blushed in the farewell gleam of the sinking sun. In that direction lay the land, and at that time I was steering exactly contrary, and should not have noticed the glorious landmark had not the sudden splendour thrown across the waters enforced my attention. I whirled my boat round, and once more, with renewed hope and courage, tugged on manfully.
The night fell speedily—a black starless night, accompanied by drizzling rain. Hours passed heavily away, and brought no rest for the lonely pilgrim of the waters. I began to dread the probability of having again varied from my course; or what if, after all, the clouds of evening might have been treacherous guides! Again frightful thoughts began to oppress me; the wind seemed to have a boding wail, the ceaseless voice of the waves seemed tuned to a song of death. But while the scalding tears of despair were gathering into mine eyes I came with a thump ashore. I started upright in my boat and gazed eagerly through the gloom. The low-drifting rack rendered every object indistinct, but my quickened vision satisfied me that the longed-for land was there—a shore of precipices indeed; but what of that. Nothing was so dreadful as the wide barren sea. I wore my boat cautiously along by the bases of the black crags, and at length ran into a small creek, where I found it possible to land.
I had no means of mooring my little vessel, so I left it a prey to the waves, and, clambering up the rocks, overcame obstacles which day would happily have shown in a light too horribly discouraging for man to encounter. At last I felt the soft grass under my feet, and the land-gale blew freely around me. A little farther on, and I heard the rustling of cornfields, the harsh cry of the landrail, and, what was still more grateful, the sound of fiddles, frequently drowned by bursts of boisterous jollity.
The music and merriment led me to a large barn on the outskirts of a group of houses. It was past midnight, but the revellers within seemed only to have newly reached the pitch of their exultation. The doors were wide open, and figures glanced about within in restless succession. I knocked, and a crowd came forth and pulled me into the middle of the barn, where they good-humouredly turned me round and round, apparently in the hope of recognising some acquaintance in disguise. My tale was soon told, and my raging hunger appeased by the refreshments put before me by the good-humoured party, who were fishers, assembled to celebrate the union of a favourite youth and maiden of their own tribe. The name of their village is Portlethen; it stands about seven miles south of Aberdeen, the town which I had left on the preceding day. When I was sufficiently refreshed I was dragged forward to dance, and when once fairly on the floor I speedily forgot the toils of the past day, and, with no small honour to myself, assisted in the prolongation of the merriment until the broad sunlight forced us from the stage of noisy enjoyment.
The above story was found in a work of literature called “The Book of Battles; or, Daring Deeds by Land and Sea” by an author called E. Shelton written around 1867. Whether this small piece is an autobiographical account or a work of the author’s imagination, I have no idea whatsoever, and I’ll leave it up to you to decide.