I do love these ancient ruins —
We never tread upon them but we set
Our foot upon some reverend history;
And, questionless, here, in this open court,
(Which now lies naked to the injuries
Of stormy weather,) some men lie interr’d,
Loved the Church so well, and gave so largely to it,
They thought it should have canopied their bones
Till doomsday; — but all things have their end —
Churches and cities, which have diseases like to men,
Must have like death which we have.
Duchess of Malfy.
The ruinous church of Saint Ninian had, in its time, enjoyed great celebrity; for that mighty system of Roman superstition, which spread its roots over all Europe, had not failed to extend them even to this remote archipelago, and Zetland had, in the Catholic times, her saints, her shrines, and her relics, which, though little known elsewhere, attracted the homage, and commanded the observance, of the simple inhabitants of Thule. Their devotion to this church of Saint Ninian, or, as he was provincially termed, Saint Ringan, situated, as the edifice was, close to the sea-beach, and serving, in many points, as a landmark to their boats, was particularly obstinate, and was connected with so much superstitious ceremonial and credulity, that the reformed clergy thought it best, by an order of the Church Courts, to prohibit all spiritual service within its walls, as tending to foster the rooted faith of the simple and rude people around in saint-worship, and other erroneous doctrines of the Romish Church.
After the Church of Saint Ninian had been thus denounced as a seat of idolatry, and desecrated of course, the public worship was transferred to another church; and the roof, with its lead and its rafters, having been stripped from the little rude old Gothic building, it was left in the wilderness to the mercy of the elements. The fury of the uncontrolled winds, which howled along an exposed space, resembling that which we have described at Jarlshof, very soon choked up nave and aisle, and, on the north-west side, which was chiefly exposed to the wind, hid the outside walls more than half way up with mounds of drifted sand, over which the gable-ends of the building, with the little belfry, which was built above its eastern angle, arose in ragged and shattered nakedness of ruin.
Yet, deserted as it was, the Kirk of Saint Ringan still retained some semblance of the ancient homage formerly rendered there. The rude and ignorant fishermen of Dunrossness observed a practice, of which they themselves had wellnigh forgotten the origin, and from which the Protestant Clergy in vain endeavoured to deter them. When their boats were in extreme peril, it was common amongst them to propose to vow an awmous, as they termed it, that is, an alms, to Saint Ringan; and when the danger was over, they never failed to absolve themselves of their vow, by coming singly and secretly to the old church, and putting off their shoes and stockings at the entrance of the churchyard, walking thrice around the ruins, observing that they did so in the course of the sun. When the circuit was accomplished for the third time, the votary dropped his offering, usually a small silver coin, through the mullions of a lanceolated window, which opened into a side aisle, and then retired, avoiding carefully to look behind him till he was beyond the precincts which had once been hallowed ground; for it was believed that the skeleton of the saint received the offering in his bony hand, and showed his ghastly death’s-head at the window into which it was thrown.
Indeed, the scene was rendered more appalling to weak and ignorant minds, because the same stormy and eddying winds, which, on the one side of the church, threatened to bury the ruins with sand, and had, in fact, heaped it up in huge quantities, so as almost to hide the side-wall with its buttresses, seemed in other places bent on uncovering the graves of those who had been laid to their long rest on the south-eastern quarter; and, after an unusually hard gale, the coffins, and sometimes the very corpses, of those who had been interred without the usual cerements, were discovered, in a ghastly manner, to the eyes of the living.
It was to this desolated place of worship that the elder Mertoun now proceeded, though without any of those religious or superstitious purposes with which the church of Saint Ringan was usually approached. He was totally without the superstitious fears of the country — nay, from the sequestered and sullen manner in which he lived, withdrawing himself from human society even when assembled for worship, it was the general opinion that he erred on the more fatal side, and believed rather too little than too much of that which the Church receives and enjoins to Christians.
As he entered the little bay, on the shore, and almost on the beach of which the ruins are situated, he could not help pausing for an instant, and becoming sensible that the scene, as calculated to operate on human feelings, had been selected with much judgment as the site of a religious house. In front lay the sea, into which two headlands, which formed the extremities of the bay, projected their gigantic causeways of dark and sable rocks, on the ledges of which the gulls, scouries, and other sea-fowl, appeared like flakes of snow; while, upon the lower ranges of the cliff, stood whole lines of cormorants, drawn up alongside of each other, like soldiers in their battle array, and other living thing was there none to see. The sea, although not in a tempestuous state, was disturbed enough to rush on these capes with a sound like distant thunder, and the billows, which rose in sheets of foam half way up these sable rocks, formed a contrast of colouring equally striking and awful.
Betwixt the extremities, or capes, of these projecting headlands, there rolled, on the day when Mertoun visited the scene, a deep and dense aggregation of clouds, through which no human eye could penetrate, and which, bounding the vision, and excluding all view of the distant ocean, rendered it no unapt representation of the sea in the Vision of Mirza whose extent was concealed by vapours, and clouds, and storms. The ground rising steeply from the sea-beach, permitting no view into the interior of the country, appeared a scene of irretrievable barrenness, where scrubby and stunted heath, intermixed with the long bent, or coarse grass, which first covers sandy soils, were the only vegetables that could be seen. Upon a natural elevation, which rose above the beach in the very bottom of the bay, and receded a little from the sea, so as to be without reach of the waves, arose the half-buried ruin which we have already described, surrounded by a wasted, half-ruinous, and mouldering wall, which, breached in several places, served still to divide the precincts of the cemetery. The mariners who were driven by accident into this solitary bay, pretended that the church was occasionally observed to be full of lights, and, from that circumstance, were used to prophesy shipwrecks and deaths by sea.
As Mertoun approached near to the chapel, he adopted, insensibly, and perhaps without much premeditation, measures to avoid being himself seen, until he came close under the walls of the burial-ground, which he approached, as it chanced, on that side where the sand was blowing from the graves, in the manner we have described.
Here, looking through one of the gaps in the wall which time had made, he beheld the person whom he sought, occupied in a manner which assorted well with the ideas popularly entertained of her character, but which was otherwise sufficiently extraordinary.
She was employed beside a rude monument, on one side of which was represented the rough outline of a cavalier, or knight, on horseback, while, on the other, appeared a shield, with the armorial bearings so defaced as not to be intelligible; which escutcheon was suspended by one angle, contrary to the modern custom, which usually places them straight and upright. At the foot of this pillar was believed to repose, as Mertoun had formerly heard, the bones of Ribolt Troil, one of the remote ancestors of Magnus, and a man renowned for deeds of valorous emprize in the fifteenth century. From the grave of this warrior Norna of the Fitful-head seemed busied in shovelling the sand, an easy task where it was so light and loose; so that it seemed plain that she would shortly complete what the rude winds had begun, and make bare the bones which lay there interred. As she laboured, she muttered her magic song; for without the Runic rhyme no form of northern superstition was ever performed. We have perhaps preserved too many examples of these incantations; but we cannot help attempting to translate that which follows:—
“Champion, famed for warlike toil,
Art thou silent, Ribolt Troil?
Sand, and dust, and pebbly stones,
Are leaving bare thy giant bones.
Who dared touch the wild-bear’s skin
Ye slumber’d on while life was in? —
A woman now, or babe, may come,
And cast the covering from thy tomb.
“Yet be not wrathful, Chief, nor blight
Mine eyes or ears with sound or sight!
I come not, with unhallow’d tread,
To wake the slumbers of the dead,
Or lay thy giant relics bare;
But what I seek thou well canst spare.
Be it to my hand allow’d
To shear a merk’s weight from thy shroud;
Yet leave thee sheeted lead enough
To shield thy bones from weather rough.
“See, I draw my magic knife —
Never while thou wert in life
Laid’st thou still for sloth or fear,
When point and edge were glittering near;
See, the cerements now I sever —
Waken now, or sleep for ever!
Thou wilt not wake? the deed is done! —
The prize I sought is fairly won.
“Thanks, Ribolt, thanks — for this the sea
Shall smooth its ruffled crest for thee —
And while afar its billows foam,
Subside to peace near Ribolt’s tomb.
Thanks, Ribolt, thanks — for this the might
Of wild winds raging at their height,
When to thy place of slumber nigh,
Shall soften to a lullaby.
“She, the dame of doubt and dread,
Norna of the Fitful-head,
Mighty in her own despite —
Miserable in her might;
In despair and frenzy great —
In her greatness desolate;
Wisest, wickedest who lives,
Well can keep the word she gives.”
While Norna chanted the first part of this rhyme, she completed the task of laying bare a part of the leaden coffin of the ancient warrior, and severed from it, with much caution and apparent awe, a portion of the metal. She then reverentially threw back the sand upon the coffin; and by the time she had finished her song, no trace remained that the secrets of the sepulchre had been violated.
Mertoun remained gazing on her from behind the churchyard wall during the whole ceremony, not from any impression of veneration for her or her employment, but because he conceived that to interrupt a madwoman in her act of madness, was not the best way to obtain from her such intelligence as she might have to impart. Meanwhile he had full time to consider her figure, although her face was obscured by her dishevelled hair, and by the hood of her dark mantle, which permitted no more to be visible than a Druidess would probably have exhibited at the celebration of her mystical rites. Mertoun had often heard of Norna before; nay, it is most probable that he might have seen her repeatedly, for she had been in the vicinity of Jarlshof more than once since his residence there. But the absurd stories which were in circulation respecting her, prevented his paying any attention to a person whom he regarded as either an impostor or a madwoman, or a compound of both. Yet, now that his attention was, by circumstances, involuntarily fixed upon her person and deportment, he could not help acknowledging to himself that she was either a complete enthusiast, or rehearsed her part so admirably, that no Pythoness of ancient times could have excelled her. The dignity and solemnity of her gesture — the sonorous, yet impressive tone of voice with which she addressed the departed spirit whose mortal relics she ventured to disturb, were such as failed not to make an impression upon him, careless and indifferent as he generally appeared to all that went on around him. But no sooner was her singular occupation terminated, than, entering the churchyard with some difficulty, by clambering over the disjointed ruins of the wall, he made Norna aware of his presence. Far from starting, or expressing the least surprise at his appearance in a place so solitary, she said, in a tone that seemed to intimate that he had been expected, “So — you have sought me at last?”
“And found you,” replied Mertoun, judging he would best introduce the enquiries he had to make, by assuming a tone which corresponded to her own.
“Yes!” she replied, “found me you have, and in the place where all men must meet — amid the tabernacles of the dead.”
“Here we must, indeed, meet at last,” replied Mertoun, glancing his eyes on the desolate scene around, where headstones, half covered in sand, and others, from which the same wind had stripped the soil on which they rested, covered with inscriptions, and sculptured with the emblems of mortality, were the most conspicuous objects — “here, as in the house of death, all men must meet at length; and happy those that come soonest to the quiet haven.”
“He that dares desire this haven,” said Norna, “must have steered a steady course in the voyage of life. I dare not hope for such quiet harbour. Darest thou expect it? or has the course thou hast kept deserved it?”
“It matters not to my present purpose,” replied Mertoun; “I have to ask you what tidings you know of my son Mordaunt Mertoun?”
“A father,” replied the sibyl, “asks of a stranger what tidings she has of his son! How should I know aught of him? the cormorant says not to the mallard, where is my brood?”
“Lay aside this useless affectation of mystery,” said Mertoun; “with the vulgar and ignorant it has its effect, but upon me it is thrown away. The people of Jarlshof have told me that you do know, or may know, something of Mordaunt Mertoun, who has not returned home after the festival of Saint John’s, held in the house of your relative, Magnus Troil. Give me such information, if indeed ye have it to give; and it shall be recompensed, if the means of recompense are in my power.”
“The wide round of earth,” replied Norna, “holds nothing that I would call a recompense for the slightest word that I throw away upon a living ear. But for thy son, if thou wouldst see him in life, repair to the approaching Fair of Kirkwall, in Orkney.”
“And wherefore thither?” said Mertoun; “I know he had no purpose in that direction.”
“We drive on the stream of fate,” answered Norna, “without oar or rudder. You had no purpose this morning of visiting the Kirk of Saint Ringan, yet you are here; — you had no purpose but a minute hence of being at Kirkwall, and yet you will go thither.”
“Not unless the cause is more distinctly explained to me. I am no believer, dame, in those who assert your supernatural powers.”
“You shall believe in them ere we part,” said Norna. “As yet you know but little of me, nor shall you know more. But I know enough of you, and could convince you with one word that I do so.”
“Convince me, then,” said Mertoun; “for unless I am so convinced, there is little chance of my following your counsel.”
“Mark, then,” said Norna, “what I have to say on your son’s score, else what I shall say to you on your own will banish every other thought from your memory. You shall go to the approaching Fair at Kirkwall; and, on the fifth day of the Fair, you shall walk, at the hour of noon, in the outer aisle of the Cathedral of Saint Magnus, and there you shall meet a person who will give you tidings of your son.”
“You must speak more distinctly, dame,” returned Mertoun, scornfully, “if you hope that I should follow your counsel. I have been fooled in my time by women, but never so grossly as you seem willing to gull me.”
“Hearken, then!” said the old woman. “The word which I speak shall touch the nearest secret of thy life, and thrill thee through nerve and bone.”
So saying, she whispered a word into Mertoun’s ear, the effect of which seemed almost magical. He remained fixed and motionless with surprise, as, waving her arm slowly aloft, with an air of superiority and triumph, Norna glided from him, turned round a corner of the ruins, and was soon out of sight.
Mertoun offered not to follow, or to trace her. “We fly from our fate in vain!” he said, as he began to recover himself; and turning, he left behind him the desolate ruins with their cemetery. As he looked back from the very last point at which the church was visible, he saw the figure of Norna, muffled in her mantle, standing on the very summit of the ruined tower, and stretching out in the sea-breeze something which resembled a white pennon, or flag. A feeling of horror, similar to that excited by her last words, again thrilled through his bosom, and he hastened onwards with unwonted speed, until he had left the church of Saint Ninian, with its bay of sand, far behind him.
Upon his arrival at Jarlshof, the alteration in his countenance was so great, that Swertha conjectured he was about to fall into one of those fits of deep melancholy which she termed his dark hour.
“And what better could be expected,” thought Swertha, “when he must needs go visit Norna of the Fitful-head, when she was in the haunted Kirk of Saint Ringan’s?”
But without testifying any other symptoms of an alienated mind, than that of deep and sullen dejection, her master acquainted her with his intention to go to the Fair of Kirkwall — a thing so contrary to his usual habits, that the housekeeper wellnigh refused to credit her ears. Shortly after, he heard, with apparent indifference, the accounts returned by the different persons who had been sent out in quest of Mordaunt, by sea and land, who all of them returned without any tidings. The equanimity with which Mertoun heard the report of their bad success, convinced Swertha still more firmly, that, in his interview with Norna, that issue had been predicted to him by the sibyl whom he had consulted.
The township were yet more surprised, when their tacksman, Mr. Mertoun, as if on some sudden resolution, made preparations to visit Kirkwall during the Fair, although he had hitherto avoided sedulously all such places of public resort. Swertha puzzled herself a good deal, without being able to penetrate this mystery; and vexed herself still more concerning the fate of her young master. But her concern was much softened by the deposit of a sum of money, seeming, however moderate in itself, a treasure in her eyes, which her master put into her hands, acquainting her at the same time, that he had taken his passage for Kirkwall, in a small bark belonging to the proprietor of the island of Mousa.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00