A Shetland Short Story: Lowrie’s tale
In 2022, NorthLink Ferries ran a short story competition to celebrate Scotland’s Year of Stories. There were many brilliant stories sent in, and the winners were chosen by guest judge, Ann Cleeves! We hope you enjoy the winning Adult story set in Shetland, written by Leona Mullay.
He began to inch himself leftwards. Whilst his feet slipped on the seaweed, the shouts from the men above still rang through the rising storm
Lowrie’s feet hit the rock as the sea spewed its foam from below smashing on the rocks like a torrent of anger arriving at his feet for avoiding his ill fate. His rough booted foot slipped on the wet seaweed clinging to the rock he had landed on. As his heart beat in his chest he glanced upwards, to the cliff top he had scrambled down and the sky above, the dark clouds rolled in like boulders ready to knock down anything in their path. The ensuing darkness seemed to consume everything, and was the only hope he had.
Swiping his hands across his brow, he noticed the blood streaming from the cuts and gashes on his hands, he hoped reverently the blood trail would not give away his location to those hunting him. He shrunk against the rocks trying to still his breath as he struggled to keep his heart rate in check. The shouts of the men above him caused him to shrink further into the rock face as he tried to get his bearings. Whilst being well used to these rocks and the coastal area, he had never had to find his orientation in such life or death circumstances.
Looking around, and realising he had scaled the rocks slightly too far up the geo, he cursed himself as he now knew his path was more hazardous. However, escaping the onslaught of men had been the most imperative at the time. The steep over crop of rocks to seek safety, along with the storming sea below and the men above put his already perilous situation into more dire straits. Glancing around, he could find nowhere immediate to skulk into whilst the immediate danger from above passed, he had to press on and avoid detection at all costs. His thoughts passed to his little brother whom he had lost on the run, given the men above were still seeking he could only hope this was a good sign and Sinclair had given them the slip.
Through the oncoming storm, he knew moving to his left was the only option to reach safety. His two big cousins had already ‘been taeen’ and never heard of again, Auntie Mary was frantic with worry about them, her only sons, let alone his own concern of leaving Johan. He had met her at a wedding and was immediately enthralled with her natural grace, she was a beautiful dancer. He couldn’t help but be enraptured by her sweet smile and made it his mission to dance with her that evening, the waltz allowed a moment to get to know her, after plucking up the courage to learn her name he was quickly enraptured by her caring nature and quick, almost brutal wit. Travelling home on the cart that evening had allowed some close conversation under the guise of keeping warm against the evening chill and had cemented the pair as a courting couple. Being a Bigton boy fae da Runn, the walks to Channerwick to call on Johan was a pleasure, and never a hardship. Their courtship had been quick, but neither could deny their strong feelings, certainly neither could deny how much they loved each other. He could remember as if it was yesterday the feeling of slipping his croft beaten hand into hers on their walk down Channerwick burn whilst her peerie brothers Johnny and Geordie ran on ahead, completely unaware of the lovestruck couple behind them. Denying their feelings and lust beyond a kiss was becoming extremely difficult and, at times, all consuming. The need for an engagement had become paramount, and was happily announced in both kirks the previous Sunday, their happy story following on from those, less fortunate women, who found themselves in a worse certain condition who were forced to plead to the congregation of their church to believe them that promises of marriage were meant to force the guilty men to be honourable. He could never do that to his Johan, and, in two short weeks Johan would be his bride and he could live happily, at least that had been the plan…until this.
His immediate plan did not extend beyond surviving, and avoiding those who hunt him, those faceless men who would take him and throw him into the worst example of living hell. Tearing his shirt to wind round his torn hands, he steadied himself as he began his move towards ‘safety’. Steeling himself, and whilst clinging to the rocks he began to inch himself leftwards. Whilst his feet slipped on the seaweed, the shouts from the men above still rang through the rising storm, their incompetent shouts to scale the rocks and catch the men showed their lack of knowledge towards both the weather and their surroundings, the gold in their pocket all they cared about. As the storm heightened, and the sea below foamed farther up the rocks, he grimaced against the hanging out crop of rock with a sheer drop to the spewing sea below. Movement to the right spurred him on as he reached around to find a foot hold.
Thoughts of his future with Johan spurred him on, whilst his desire to not be caught caused him to move with less regard for his safety then he was used to. A cascade of loose rocks and shingle caused him to still his movement, and caused him to catch his breath. A rabbit burrowing too close to the bank had cast the loose shingle towards the sea, however it seemed to have also caused a still in the men from above as they regrouped and assessed their situation – was a catch worth risking your life over? Moving now would cause a raucous of shingle and stones and make his pursuers aware of his situation and location. However, he was in an increasingly dangerous situation given the overhang of rock he was desperately clinging to and needed to pass with the limited time he could hang on.
Selecting a reasonably sized stone and casting it heavily high to his right, he listened to his captures claiming to have found him from the ensuing rumbling of shingle towards the foaming sea. After taking a deep breath, and a prayer to the god he wasn’t sure he believed in, he took the plunge and swung out wildly to overcome the rock overhang facing him. Once past the worst and after his heart had stilled a little, he paused to make sure none of the men from above had either seen or heard him and were still wildly searching in the wrong location. Moving on towards safety, the noise of his pursuers diminished the further he moved around the coastline.
Nearing the cave entrance, he was overjoyed to see movement from within and increased his pace across the rock face. As his searchers were still to be heard in the distance, he felt confident that he had given them the slip and moved to the entrance of the sea cave. His younger brother, with a grazed face and a look that betrayed false jubilance reached for him, he gladly brought Sinclair into an embrace filled with thanks and gratefulness. The supplies of saat beef and dry bannocks that had been stored in preparation for this event would keep them going for at least a few days. Fresh water was their only issue now. He was confident that the men chasing them would give up after a few hours, assuming they wouldn’t fall over the cliffs to their death first. He felt secure in the knowledge they would be able to collect drinkable water without risk of immediate capture once they had moved on. However, from stories that swirled around the area about these gangs, they would pursue the family for weeks, almost relentlessly and threatening them to give up locations, until ordered to move on. He knew he would be in this cave with limited rations for many weeks to come, until word came the gang had moved on, even so, a couple of days saving grace would be given in case family members were followed by any lingering gang members. Meanwhile, he hoped Johan remained true to him and his family were able to sneak extra supplies to them before him and his little brother succumbed to starvation.
Slumping down against the damp rock of the cave, he allowed himself take a deep breath to calm his racing heartbeat. His brother looked worried and was pacing the entrance to the cave, realising Sinclair needed support and reassurance, he stood up slowly on his stiff legs, walked towards him and put his heavy hand on his shoulder.
His breath shuddering, Sinclair turned towards him and asked, ‘Why do dey shaste wis, why do dey tak wis, I’m heard spik o it round da table but never taen much notice’. Lowrie, knowing he had to step up to explain to his younger, innocent brother who was still too young to understand the way of the world asked him to sit, or perch, whichever he preferred. ‘Da war dat we are apparently fighting is a lang wye fae here, too far for folk lik wis to tink about, against folk wi wid never hae a chance o ever meeting. A peerie guy called Napoleon wants to tak ower Europe, da Navy is fighting against him hitting wir shores. Da folk in England have decided we are good seafaering men, so gangs are allowed to come and get wis, and force wis to serve in da navy, basically dey are allowed to kidnap wis. Dey dinna care wha we are, or wha we hae relying on wis, dey are paid for every man they hand ower. Da chances o ony o wis coming back are slim, beyond peerie as we are pit to wark in the worst conditions wi no chance o promotion or bettering wirsels, we are basically cannon fodder to those folk, it is living hell. Dey are allowed to use whitever brute strength dey see fit to git wis in, its brutal. Mind when wir cousins were gone and Auntie Mary was frantic wi worry till she realised dey had been taen and started grieving?’
‘Dey were taen?’ asked Sinclair, looking pale, unsure and worried. ‘I’m only 14, surely I’m too young?’ Lowrie faced him with a grim face, ‘Dey dinna seem to tak note of age, we are best here hiding, I hope dey think we are both geen ower da edge o da banks and will gie up on wis, but dey will hover round and watch wir family in case dey try and sneak wis food, we are on wir own for da next start. Thank god I hae someone to keep my sane!’
Lowrie and his brother stayed safe during this press gang visit, Lowrie was able to marry his sweetheart Johan and avoid any future gang visits. During the time of Press Gangs, Shetland gave a disproportionate number of men to the British navy through impressment. It’s thought that some 3,000 men were impressed. Most men who were impressed would never return home again.
by Leona Mullay