by David James Ross
On Brinkies breezy Brae,
Humpbacked behind Stromness,
Bessie haunts her peat fire.
Oracle in an Orkney chair,
She is rocking and stroking her
Witch’s bow-sprit chin.
Cassandra thrusts out a claw,
Clutches your unerring sixpence,
Its silver suddenly shrouded.
A whirlwind now of whispers,
This shape-shifting, sibilant Siren
Is shaveling her salmon jaw -
Sibyl is whistling up a hissing
Syllable-squall. You salvage the words
You wish to hear. ‘East - east!’
So. The winds are propitious.
Vertiginous vennels usher you down
To the pier. You sail with the tide.
In the glow of peat embers,
Anchorite Bessie bites on salt silver,
Cackles, breaks blustery wind.
A real-life resident of Stromness in the 18th and early 19th century, Bessie Millie used her boiling kettle to predict favourable winds for mariners in exchange for a silver sixpence. In 1814 she was visited by Sir Walter Scott. She told him the story of her fellow-Orcadian, Pirate Gow, who had failed to consult her when he visited Stromness in January 1725 and who came to grief shortly after his departure. In addition to supplying a description of the historical Bessie, Scott featured her in the guise of the ‘Queen of the Elements’ - Norna of the Fitful Head - in his novel ‘The Pirate’, loosely inspired by the life of Pirate Gow. As her ability to remember events in 1725 attests, Bessie must have been over a hundred when Scott encountered her.