Orkney's George Mackay Brown

Letters from Hamnavoe
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Letters from Hamnavoe
Steve Savage Publishers (2002)

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WHALING ON A SUNDAY by George Mackay Brown

The Kirk Session had given long and anxious consideration to the appointment of its first Kirk officer. They debated the matter for six months and more. He must above all be a pious and good-living man. The election fell upon John Louttit. His salary was to be one guinea a year, plus threepence at every baptism.

For more than eight years we must assume that John Louttit performed his office faithfully and well; carrying up the bible to the pulpit on the Sabbath, keeping the new building above the Plainstones swept and garnished, touching his forelock to the elders in the Kirk door.

Then suddenly a dreadful thing happened. On 15th October 1822 John Louttit was charged with Sabbath profanation. It was as if a thunderbolt had fallen into the sheepfold.
Early one Sunday morning John Louttit was lighting his blink of fire in his house at the pier (and it was a terrible job sometimes to get those red peats from the side of Brinkie's Brae to take light) when he heard folk running along the street, and the sound of boats being pushed down the nousts. 'Tut-tut' said John Louttit. He made his breakfast, a poor meal of bread and buttermilk. (You could hardly live like a king on a guinea a year.)

More young men ran past his window. Oars splashed in the harbour. The women, who should have been putting on their best grey shawls for the morning service, were clucking like hens in every door. John Louttit heard the word 'whales'. That was the cause of all the excitement. There was a school of whales somewhere in the west. The pagans of Stromness were setting forth - Sabbath or no - for the great round-up and slaughter.

John Louttit, putting on his stiff white collar, debated the matter seriously. He was one of the best whale hunters in Orkney. Nothing delighted him more that to yell and clash metal behind a blundering panic-stricken herd, until at last they hurled themselves to death on the beach at Warbeth or Billia-Croo. Then it was time for the knives and the barrels. John Louttit saw in his mind's eye with great vividness the red whale steaks. Well salted, a man could live off them all winter. He could sit up late over a yarn and a dram, by the light of a tallow candle that came out of the whale also.

Sabbath profanation was a serious matter. On the other hand, a man was permitted on such a day to do 'works of necessity and mercy'. Winter was coming on and John Louttit's cupboard was not overstocked. A guinea a year was not a princely salary. John Louttit removed his stiff high white collar. He took down the sharp flensing knife ... put on his oldest moleskin trousers ... took the oars from the rafters. He went gravely down the steps to his dinghy.

The minister had to carry the bible up to the pulpit himself that Sabbath. A week after the original charge, John Louttit made a second appearance before the Session. It is recorded that at the meeting of 22nd October 'he did not express that sense of the evil of such a notorious profanation of the Lord's Day as was wished or expected. It was agreed that he should be rebuked before the congregation...'

There is no end to the story. We have no idea whether he was sacked in disgrace, or reinstated; if so, perhaps he had to give all his whale meat and tallow to the poor, and go on living piously and poorly on his salary of fourpence a week.

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