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The Night that Mouat was lost By Tom Henderson

Based on true events, this short story by Tom Henderson (1957) became a classic.

Clearing out the old boat noust, among the rubble of sand and pebbles and ancient mussel shells, my shovel clinked against metal and I unearthed a bit of chain.  Half a fathom of studded four-inch links – not a very exciting find – and I knocked the rust off it against a stone with no more than a mild curiosity as to its origin.  It was too heavy for a herring boat or any other craft likely to make use of the beach of Spiggie.  Tossing it over to where my old friend sat smoking on the grass, I said, ‘Dat wid mak a good starn fast.  I winder whaar it cam fae?’

He did not answer at once.  Glancing over, I saw that he had the chain across his knee, and something in his face made me ask again, ‘Do you ken whaar yon cam fae?’

‘I dönna ken whaar it cam fae,’ he answered, ‘bit I ken foo it cam to be lyin whaar du fan it.  Dis was da starn fast o Moad’s boat.  Du's heard o da nicht whin he wis lost? Ah, boy, boy! Dis bit o shain brings dat nicht afore me again da sam as it hed been yisterday ............... lay by dee shivel an A’ll tell dee ...

‘Hit wis i da winter o ’87.  We got a on-lie o snaw aboot da beginnin o December.  A weicht o snaw, bit fine wadder an everything frozen doon. Hit brocht ootside wark til a staandstill.  Some o da men hereaboot wir wirkin at Boddam dat winter, biggin stables ta da doctor, an dey wir laid idle.  John Moad o Scousburgh wis wan o dem.

‘I mind him weel.  He wis athin his late fifties dan, no overly lang, bit weel-made and weel-cassin, a fresh göd-lookin man wi a full fair baerd.  He hed a faimily o lasses an twa boys.  Da auldest een, Geordie, wis in America, bit Sinclair, da youngest boy, bed hame and göd ta da sea.  He was a year or twa aulder dan me, an a boy at we aa laekit.  Dey said Moad wis a göd mason, an maybe dat wis true.  Bit first and last he wis a seaman, a seaman o a kind du'll no fin noo an'll never fin again.  Even i dat day o life, whin men socht der livin among da strings o da Rowst an a yoal skipper's first mistak wis his hinmost een, Moad wis a man ootstaandin.  Men at sood a kent said he wis da finest seaman sooth o Hallalee.

‘Some held at he wis ower rackless.  Hit wis true at he wis aye da last ta come whin da gale strack an da first aflott whin it wis by, an it wis said at sometime he widna come ava.  I saw him mesel bringing his saxaern inta Voe efter da ’81 gale at fower o'clock da followin efternön.  Aa dat terrible nicht an mornin dey wir been turnin up fae da leeward . . . . Bit he brocht her in wi aa body i göd shape an shö wisna started a ropeyarn. I dönna ken.  I wis little mair dan a boy dan; bit lookin back i later life it's been plain ta me at Moad hed great faith athin his ain skeel. He didna ken what faer wis, an I tink tö he laekit ta set himsel agains' da wild sea fir da pure joy o winnin.

‘Der wis plenty o fish apo da wast side dat winter o’87, an wi da fine cauld wadder da boats wis aff every day.  Whin da Boddam wark stoppit, Tammie and Lowrie Sinclair an Moad made up a crew.  Da Sinclair faimily wis flit fae Brake o Bigton ta Scousburgh jöst short afore an da Sinclair men wis brocht der boat wi dem.  Shö wis a muckle truss o a boat, shorter dan a yoal bit a lok deeper an a heavier craft aa ower.  Her sail, tö, wis nort trimmed wi a far sharper peak dan da Ness swares’l at haes hardly ony peak ava.  Among da raw o yoals apo da ayre at Spiggie shö lookit a gös among swans an da Spiggie men didna laek her.  Bit dat wis jöst da yoal-men's fröt. Da Sinclair men's boat wis strong an able, an very wadderly under sail

‘Da mornin o da nint o December, 1887, is veeve afore me ee noo.  Da frost wis killed da wind trowe da nicht an whin I raise he wisna a braeth.  I wis up shön, afore ony daylicht, got a air o tae fae da lasses i da keetchen, an set aff wi wir auld foolin-piece ta try for a djuck alang da bruggs o da loch i da lichtenin.  A dark mornin wi da stillness du gits whin da grund is buried i snaw.  Da freezin wis been keen an da snaw wis crumpin, bit da air wis mild an I tocht he micht be gyauin ta mak for towe.  I followed da loch ta Littlaness bit never a shot got I.  Da noise o my feet apo da hard snaw gluffed everything afore I wan near it, an da air ower da loch wis lood wi da whistle o da peerie divers' wings.  Comin hame ower da Vaddil I heard men spaekin an kent dem bi der voices for Moad an da Sinclair men gyauin ta da sea.

‘Eftir wir brakfast an da mornin wark wis by we göd ta Colsa wi hay ta da sheep - me faedir an me, wir Tammie an da servant boy.  He wis a boanie mornin dan, kind o askie wye, but sunny tö, an da wind a coarn o a laar fae da sooth-wast at you could hardly fin apo your face.

‘I aksed da aald man: “Is he gyauin ta towe?”

‘ “Naa,” he says, “jöst aesin his haund fir a better grip.”

‘Sax or seeven yoals wir awa fae da beach whin we flottit, some o dem at da inshore codlin snecks, bit Moad an twa idder crews wis taen da shance o da fine mornin ta try twa ling methes dey caa da Nort an da Sooth ships.  Da Sooth Ship is ten mile fae Spiggie.  Dey wid tink dat a piece athin a yoal noo bit dey tocht little o it dan.  Da sea wis slicht, a air o motion alang da laund bit naethin ta caa brack.  Tinkin back efter, I could mind apo nae single thing at wid a gaazed you tink at evil wis sae near.  Naethin ava, unless it wis somethin at A'm only seen wan idder time i my lang lifetime.  Aa da wye fae Spiggie ta Colsa da watter wis dat clear at du could see every ripple o saund apo da boddom, an shalls an waar-bleds eicht faddom doon.

‘Da rest göd ashore at da Owsen Gaets an I bed ta keep da boat.  Dey wir awa a while.  Da boys wis seekin rabbits an da aald man didna hurry dem.  Lyin by i da boat, I began ta notice at swall wis settin in.  Hit cam aa at wance an hit cam fast.  Sae at be da time me faedir cam abön da banks I cried til him ta get da boys an hurry or I wadna get dem in.  Even dan I hed ta take dem een at a time - du kens da wye wi a bad cast at Colsa.  An aa dis athin maybe a oor.  Hit made da aald man unaesy.

‘ “I wiss da boats wis ashore,” he said, “he's gyauin ta mak for a shange.”

‘Bit sae wan we hame da wind wis still dat saft breath fae da sooth-wast.

‘I cam oot efter da denner wis by an fan my faedir staundin at da gavel o da hoose.  Da sky wis dimsy dan an da sun wis geen an dir wis a bit o black clood ower Waas.  “He’s a shooer gyauin in ower da wast laund,” I said. ‘ “Yon's no a shooer,” da auld man ansered me, “An he’s no gyauin in ower da laund idder.  He’s tö-haulin!”

‘Hit maun a taen langer or dat, bit hit seemed ta me efter at hit wis only a maitter o a peerie start afore dat clood wis risin, black as tar, an fillin da hale nor-wast.  An dan da wind wis in ’im an freshenin wi every wapp.  An anunder da black trott o’im a white line at wis da sea liftin athin spöndrift.  Der wis jöst wan tocht dan: da boats an da men at da sea.  Every wye you lookit you saw folk stendin for da beach.

‘I ran in fir my jacket an whin I wan furt again da wind wis a stoarm.  A Rör’ick yoal wis crossin da saunds – dat wis Magnie Johnston o Clavil – an even in dere i da lee you could see at dey wir haein aa at dey could dö ta mak endin.  Jöst as I left da hoose, oot benort Colsa I got a glisk o a sail.  Whin shö liftit again I saw her clear – my een wis göd dan! – an kent her apo da instant be her sharp peakit sail for da Sinclairs’ boat.  Shö wis weel ta wadder o da Skult, a piece i da heicht still, an you wid a said shö wid a lyin in da sounds wi room ta spare.  Bit i da twartree seconds afore da snaw an da spöndrift hoidit dem I saw Moad keep her awa ta run a sea.  It did come i my mind at da sooth-gyauin tide wis in, an if he hed muckle o dat kind o wark he micht need aa his room.  Dan a flann cam howlin doon an a swidder o snaw took da boat fae me, an I set my head til it an wrastled fir da beach.

‘Ta my dyin oor, I'll never firyat da sicht at met my een whin I cam ower da brae here ahint wis.  Atween snaw an spöndrift da Soond wis blawin athin reek.  Athin nae langer time da sea wis gyauin i da girse.  Der wis a swarm o men aboot da beach. Some o da boats wis ashore, an nearly i da laybrack a Rör’ick yoal wis comin in. Muckle Eadie Arcus an his twa sons - swack, powerful men aa tree - bit you could see be da sag o dem dey wir nearly done.  Dey haunled der boat weel, fir aa dat.  Shö cam ridin in apo da back o a muckle lay, an as shö touched we claggit on till ‘er an ran her up ithin een o da empty nousts.  We hed ta hadd her doon till dey got da fasts apon her.

‘Dan someen cried. “Goad, boys, here's Moad!”

‘I turned me aboot, tinkin ta see da boat i da Peerie Soond; for, du sees, fae whaar shö wis whin I left hame I niver draemed bit what shö wid lie in benort Colsa.  Bit shö wisna i da Peerie Soond.  Across da mooth o da Muckle Soond, wi da flöd rinnin oot agains da wind, da string wis gyauin athin froath fae Klukkistack ta Colsa.  An oot by dat again, weel ta lee o da Black Skerry, wis Moad.  My hert lepp up i my trott whin I saw foo muckle grund he wis lost.  Far short o wadderin Colsa, hit wis gyauin ta be aa said if he made da Soond.

‘Fir a start we tocht he wid.  Da boat wis closs in an comin laek a racehorse.  Shö hed da string ta cut – an he wis a faersome thing ta see! – bit da Arcus men wis crossed nae time afore, and wi da speed Moad wis kerryin twartree seconds wid tak him in ower da warst.  Kennin foo closs a thing it was gyauin ta be an what hang apo da ootcome, we höld wir braeths.

‘He wis closs - boy, he wis closs!  Du wid a said he wis athin da string.  Dan he hed ta keep her aff for a sea.  He ran dat een - an anidder een - an a third een ..... tree watters da tane ahint da tidder afore he got her head up - an Göd be merciful ta wis aa, I kent dan he wis misforn.  Sae maun he a kent, John Moad, at needed nae man ta tell him at da grund he wis lost he could niver mak göd.  Bit bein what he wis, he wid never own baet.

‘Boy, A'm tellin dee, hit wis a terrible thing, an a stirrin an splendid thing tö, ta watch dat auld seadog fechtin oot his hinmost battle.  Da boat ran da tail o da third sea an shö wis ower far ta leeward dan.  Bit dey pressed her wi da sail an Moad gae her da weicht o his haund as he sneppit her up til her coorse.  We could see foo shö flattened.  Pör lads, dey most a been owsin sair.  Even dan for a moment I tocht he wid dö it, bit hit didna hae ta be.  A wadder lump lifted an he böst rin it or foonder, an afore da tail o dat sea wis spent da boat wis geen tö ahint da brack apo Klukkistack.  An fae Klukkistack ta Fitful du kens deesel what it's laek: der no a wilder piece o banks ithin Shetlan!

‘Fir da time at a man wid draw his braeth hit seemed ta me der wis a stillness ower wis aa.  We nidder heard da tempest nor fan da stang o da snaw i wir faces.  Till someen said laich in till himsel at last:

‘ “He's missed!  Oh Christ, he's missed!”

‘Sax o wis young eens set aff up trow Foraness ta see what wis come o’im.  Da snaw wis lifted a coarn, sae at whin we wir climbin ower da Spiggie hill-daek we could see da Vaadil.  Weemin wir comin buksin fae aa wye.  Du sees, dey wir still twa Spiggie boats missin forby Moad an twa fae Rör'ick, an though da Arcus men tocht dey wir run for Gerts Weeck, naebody kent.  Johnnie Shewan says ta me, “Boy, did du open da böth door?”

‘ “Na,” says I, finnin da key i my pooch.

‘ “Geeng aboot again an dö it an git yon weemin in oot o da snaw.  Du can follow wis efter.”

‘Bit whin I cam up trowe da hill da second time he wis a moorin kaavi for aa, an shön I began ta tink I hed mair shance o willin ower da banks-lip or finnin da rest.  So I gae it up an cam doon ta da böth.  Man, he wisna a very lichtsome place ta come.  Yon auld grey biggin is seen mony a little-wirt sicht bit never a mair hert-rendin een dan dat nicht.  Greetin weemin an men at wid try ta comfort dem bit kentna what ta say.  Moad’s dochter Marget wis dere an shö cried eence “Men, der saxaerns here.  Will you no tak een o dem an bring my faedir ashore?”

‘We turned fae da lass shame-faced, an nane hed da hert ta tell her at only a miracle o Goad could save her faedir noo.  An, puir lass, shö didna ken da warst.  I da end dey got her an some o da idder weemin ta geeng up ta da hooses o Spiggie.

‘Da nicht began ta mirken.  Wi da last hooms o day da boys cam doon oot o Foraness.  Dey wir seen da boat closs in i da neck o Klukkistack.  Dey wir gotten her head up an wir rowin trowe blöd-spring ta try an win aroond da point.  Dey wir never gotten da mast aff o’er an dat could shaw foo sair set dey wir.  Da boys wis watched till da nicht an da snaw took dem, bit dey wirna gainin.  Dey wir maybe a bit farder aff-shore, bit none ta win’ward.  Wan thing we couldna understaand.  Baith Johnnie Shewan an Tammie Robertson maintained at da boat wis rowin aa tree pair o aers an hit jöst wisna possible for tree men ta row apo da tree tafts wi da mast staandin.

‘An so da nicht cam doon.  Da gale skreiched aboot da böth an da snaw wis a blind moor at wis laek ta tak your breath.  I wis lichtit da auld böth lantern, an we sat aroond among da sails an gear.  Der wis naethin we could dö an we spak little, bit nane o wis wid geeng hame.  Dan a man cam stumblin up ta da licht o da door.  He wis klined white fae head ta fit, an hit wisna till he cam in an shök da snaw fae his whisker at we kent him for Alex Robertson o da Hee.  He wis been aff wi Moad's bridder, Sinclair Moad o Noss, an dem an da idder tree yoals wis aa made Gerts Weeck.  Dey wir hed a wild run bit dey wir safe.

‘Alex said da fower yoals wis aa at da Sooth Ship. Moad wis at da Nort Ship.  A yoal is a fine boat du kens, bit shö’s aye at her best wi a lowse head.  Shö’s no sae göd close-hauled.  At da first flan dey kent dey couldna mak Spiggie an dey böre up for Gert.  Moad bein dat bit farder ta win’ward an wi a far mair wadderly boat, took his een apo da wind for Spiggie.  We wir guessed dat muckle already bit Alex telled wis ee sorrowful thing at we didna ken.  Young Sinclair, Moad’s son, wis been gyauin wi his uncle.  Yon mornin Alex cam doon seekin a shance aff, an da boy offered ta geeng wi da faedir an lat Alex geen wi Sinclair.  So dey wir fower men, an no tree, i da boat at da back o Foraness, an we saw dan foo dey wir rowin sax aers wi da mast up.’

My old friend fell silent, fingering the rusty links on his knee.  I ventured a question. ‘Did dey ken what wis da end o da boat?’

‘Na,’ he replied, ‘only da Almichty kent dat.  Shö wis i splinters i da Nort Geo o Noss i da mornin.  Whidder shö swampit at sea, or whidder whin der strent göd dey cam doon apo da laund, nae man could tell.’

He gathered up the bit of chain and flung it jangling under a nearby boat.

‘Boy, o aa da folk at wis aboot da beach o Spiggie dat nicht, der hardly ony left.  Da maist o dem are dead.  What’s left are scattered ta da fower corners o da eart.  A’m wan o da few at’s here an da last sheckle is ower da win’lass wi me tö.  Hit’s a auld man’s foally ta rake up auld sorrowful things at are better foryat.  Bit du aksed aboot da shain, an A’m telled dee.  Never du pit ’im for a fast apo dy boat – an I wiss fae my hert du’d never fun him ta harass a auld man’s memory!’

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