The Literature of
Orkney and Shetland

Lord Byron and Orkney

Lord Byron and Orkney

The idea for Walter Scott’s The Pirate, set on Orkney and Shetland, started with Lord Byron’s hugely popular poem The Corsair of 1814.

Noticing the success of Byron’s poem, Scott’s publisher, Archibald Constable, prompted  his best-selling author for a novel on a pirate theme and suggested an incident from the 17th century in which three signatories to the death-warrant of Charles I fled to America and were captured by pirates.

Scott, of course, ignored Constable’s suggestion and based his title character on the Orcadian pirate John Gow.

But perhaps the connection with Byron doesn’t end there.  A year after Scott’s The Pirate, Byron published the narrative poem The Island, a fictionalised account of the mutineers from The Bounty and their exploits in the South Pacific.  The hero of The Island is Torquil, who falls in love with the Polynesian woman Neuha.   The poem repeatedly notes the physical difference between the fair-haired, blue-eyed Torquil and Neuha, who is  ‘Dusky like Night’, while at the same time stressing that they are  both islanders who are ‘born beneath a Sea-presiding star’.

But which island is Torquil from?  The poem isn’t very helpful about his origins:

And who is he? the blue-eyed northern child,
Of isles more known to man, but scarce less wild,
The fair-hair’d offspring of the Hebrides,
Where roars the Pentland with his whirling seas;

Byron seems to place him as from the Hebrides and to be a bit vague as to where they are, moving them to Pentland Firth, actually the position of the Orkney Islands.  Elsewhere he associates the Nordic-sounding Torquil with his what he calls his own ‘Celtic’ memories of the Highlands of Scotland (Byron spent his childhood in Aberdeenshire).  But another clue to what Bryon had in mind lies in his historical source for Torquil. George and Peter Anderson’s Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland of 1851 identities George Stewart, the Orcadian midshipman on The Bounty:

 As Byron has not condescended to enlighten the reader as to his real history, we shall endeavour very briefly to do so. The hero, George Stewart, was a son of Mr. Stewart of Masseter. who resided on a property on which was one of the first houses built with lime in Stromness; hence it is still called the White House, and here his sisters lately lived highly respected.

Torquil is probably best described as a composite islander, associated with both the Western and Northern Islands of Scotland.  But one last connection with Orkney leads us back to Scott.  In January 1822 a friend of Byron saw him ‘devouring’ with great pleasure the ‘new novel of Sir Walter Scott’s’.  That novel was probably The Pirate, which had just been published so perhaps, just as Scott was influenced by the success of Byron’s Corsair, so The Island owes a little bit to Scott.

 Read The Island  here.


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