Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. Poems of Places: An Anthology in 31 Volumes.
Scotland: Vols. VI–VIII. 1876–79.

Orkney Islands


By Robert Leighton (1822–1869)

(From Records)

FOR one whole week I breathed Orcadian air,—

So far up in the north that, all the time,

I felt among cloud-islands of the skies.

And Autumn lay asleep among the isles;

The fiords all had stilled their roaring throats,

Afraid to wake her, and, into themselves,

Murmured a drowsy bass; the grim-browed cliffs

Bent forward, half relaxed their savage looks

At seeing them reflected in the pools.—

As oft I stood upon a tiptoe hill,

The lesser islands sailed out in the bays,

And promontories drifted into isles.

It was enchanted land—some other world—

That hung within the void; and rounding all,

Beneath it as above, was calm blue sky.

High over all, the weather-beaten head

Of Hoy rises. On his scarréd brow

He wears a precious stone,—a carbuncle,—

Enough, ’t is thought, to buy Orcadia.

From certain points its fiery beams are seen;

And many an islander has marked the spot,

Then clomb the footless heights to snatch the prize,

And be forever rich. In vain his search!

The bright delusion’s never to be found.

But when he has retraced the perilous steep,

The thing he sought is in its place again,

And laughs at him. So are we ever fooled

On earth by things that glitter. Wealth and fame

When reached are never found. But, failing oft,

We learn at last our truest wealth is love,—

Best fame, approving conscience.
Up the cliffs

Of Hoy, there ’s another precious stone,

Suggesting richer wealth than diamond,

Ruby, or pearl,—yea, all the ruck of gems.

The breezy front of that high beetled rock

Presents, as if medallioned on the sky,

By Nature chiselled, the exact profile

Of Walter Scott. There has the wizard brow

Hung brooding o’er the isles from time unknown,

And seen enacted all the stirring lore

Of pirates, smugglers, jarls, and old sea-kings.

O storied Prince! from that high stand, on this,

Its northern bound, look southward and behold

Thy legendary empire.

In Orcadia we find the rocks

That Miller read,—the very rocks that gave

To him their “testimony,” in a type

Already ancient when our Adam came,

To which his Eden ’s but a minute since,

The fabled flood the rain that fell e’en now:

Those marvellous stone scriptures that reveal

What monsters trod the earth and swam the seas,

Or crawled in slime of half-created earth,

Age after age, ere yet the eye of man

Was there to watch; and how the aged woods,

Year after year, put on their roofs of green,

And waited eras with their oaken aisles,

Without one Druid soul to dedicate

Their silences to prayer: whose only sounds

Were of the winds and rains, the beasts that made

Fierce loves and fiercer wars, heaven’s fiery bolts

That rent the groaning oaks, the old-world screams

Of birds to us unknown; but surely not

The linkéd music of our modern woods;

For in my heart I read that merle and thrush,

Yea, all the voices of our woodland quires

Were given to Eve in paradise, long, long

After the writing of those books of stone.

Inland the explorer turns,—if inland be,

Where all is island, even the islands cleft

With reaches of the sea,—and he beholds

Stennis, the mystic Stonehenge of the north,

Upon a tongue of springy sward that parts

Two bleak, half-salted lochs. A stranger, he

Knows not what sight awaits him, passing down

The easy sloping road, when starts in view

A curve of visionary things, that shine

Like ghosts amid the sunlight, white or gray,

As pass the sailing shadows of the clouds.

With wondering gaze and speculative thought,

He nears and nears them, while by slow removes

They ’ve ranked themselves into a giant ring

Of hoary stones, and, in the centre, one

Of huger bulk than any of the rest.

Speak! ye dumb priests of eld, and say what kind

Of men they were that set you thus on end,

And to what purpose? Not a single word!

The yellowhammer sits on your bald crowns,

And mocks my queries with its moorland pipe:

Methinks a whisper runs from each to each,

But ’t is the wind upon your flinty sides,

And not your inward voices. Ye have slept

The dream of many ages, and your own

Is hardened into stone. It will not yield

To us the reflex of its inner self,

Long crossed Time’s dusky gulf, though living still

In some far circle of eternal light.

Yet underneath the springy sward, and through

The solid hearts of these old stones, I feel

The beating thought that raised them; and within

This almost mythic temple I am bowed

With worship deeper than mere stones evoke.

A haunted place,—the ancient forms of men,

And their devotion gone, all long, long gone!

But these gray stones that heard their songs and prayers,

Ring with their spirits yet; this grass has lived

Perennially since then,—the same they trod:

Yon sun, so old and young, looked down on them,

And saw their rites: he looks the same on me.

O Druid! we are one; I feel thy thoughts

Now climbing up to God. The form of thought

Goes with the age,—the thought is for all time.