John Budge of Graemston

                                                                 A true story from Sandy Annal

[This story was originally printed in the now defunct magazine The Orkney View and passed to me by George Esson of St Margaret's Hope]



It was about the year 1830 that John Budge lived at Gossigar, a farm overlooking the Pentland Firth, and with John o’ Groats on the north coast of Scotland clearly visible just six and a half miles across the sea. John Budge was a little short of six feet tall, strong and muscular, carrying no surplus fat. He was blond haired and with a short stubby beard – not yet thirty years of age. He had lived and worked where only the fittest of men could survive – a seaman on the "Davis Straits" 900-ton whalers. He had travelled around two thousand miles across Northern Canada from Hudson Bay to Edmonton on foot and by canoe – half the time wearing snow shoes. He had returned to Orkney – not by any means rich, but with enough money to make him the envy of most young men. John did not take long to decide that James Rosie of Gossigar’s beautiful daughter was the lady he wanted for his life partner and wife. The happy couple got married. Their wedding was a great affair, for James Rosie, the bride’s father was a man of considerable means and a leading personality in the island, so it behove to be generous and hospitable on the occasion of his daughter’s happy marriage. 


Little did anyone think about the great tragedy that could take place in the lives of this happy pair.


I am writing this narrative on the 3rd December 1985 – one hundred and fifty –five years after the events l am now going to make known to you were enacted.


The story I am going to tell is true and has never been recorded before, and you may well say how can I be sure of the truth; however, many people in Caithness and South Ronaldsay can tell you of the tragedy and events that followed, otherwise the family of Budge of Graemston would have ceased to exist 155 years ago.


Even so, you may say why so suddenly should I decide to record this. I am sitting beside the kitchen stove. There is a roaring fire, a howling gale outside and I can hear the roar of the sea and the breakers pounding on the shore on the East side of South Ronaldsay. But I am not thinking of tonight’s gale – I am thinking of similar gales, and the pounding of the waves on the island of Swona where I have spent many happy nights with my dear wife’s family – having crossed on a comparatively fine day and then being marooned on the island for several days before a boat could cross again. 


Sitting alone with my memories I recall the fact that my wife’s family, the Rosies of Swona, were of the Rosie family of Gossiyar, and that the Budge family of Graemston were on the female side descended from the Allan family of Swona. 

ltJell, it was on a night like this, a howling gale and a high sea running, that during a lull in the storm a new born baby was taken across the Pentland Firth before it had got one suck of the mother’s milk. John Budge’s wife was in labour, about to have her first baby. The birth was difficult. The mother had been in labour all day – all the skilful women of the island were there to help and save the lives of the mother and child, but to no avail.


John Budge had been walking back and forth at the sheltered end of the house all day, hoping and praying that his wife and child would survive. John had spent many a night in the open wastes of North America where only the fittest can surviv8, but this was the most trying day of his life.


Suddenly the storm ceased. It was calm, a great gap appeared among the clouds in the western sky where the light shone through. John knew that it would only be an hour or two before the storm would return with all its fury. For a few moments his thoughts wandered from his wife and unborn child . He suddenly felt a kindly hand touch his arm – one of the women had come out of the house and with tears in her eyes she said. “John, you have got a son, he is well, but his mother is dead . We could not save her.”


It was a terrible blow to John. It was some time before he gave answer – his first words were, "Do not give the baby cow’s milk – it will kill him. I am taking him across the Pentland Firth tonight. My sister who is married to Danny McKay of Ratter Farm in Caithness had a baby last week. She will breast-feed him along with her own baby – I know she will. We will be there in two hours. It now is the last hour of the east going flood tide, it will carry us straight south to Duncansby Head and by that time the west going ebb tide will carry us right west and we can land at Scarfskerry quite near Ratter.”


John was grief-stricken over the loss of his wife. He was determined that his son must survive, and he was aware that nearly all the cows in the island were affected by tuberculosis that was infecting most of the young children, the majority of whom died, so therefore his only hope was to get his baby son over to Caithness where his sister would breast feed the boy.


John’s next order was to send a messenger to Gillie Mowat the skipper of the ferry boat – “I know he will cross and send messengers to the six crewmen. They will all come. Tell them I am taking my son to Caithness.”


Folk were wondering who would take the baby, none of the women at Gossigar were able to withstand a crossing of the Firth that night.


John did not send a messenger to ask anyone – he went himself to ask Maggie Brown of the Biggy to help him save his child. Maggie lived with her parents at the Biggy and made a livelihood by brewing ale and perhaps whisky for sale to those who wanted a drink. Maggie was not married, but had two sons, one Jimmy Brown and the other Samuel Louttit – the bishop Louttit of Florida knew he was a direct descendant of this Samuel Louttit, for he told me when we met. But Maggie was a kind hearted soul, strong and fearless. John Budge knew she would cross with the baby. Maggie put the baby inside her clothes next to her skin to keep him warm and plenty of blankets were wrapped round her for the voyage.


By the time Maggie and the baby arrived at the seashore, Gillie and his men had the boat launched and with Maggie and the baby aboard, they were away immediately with six men at the oars. They quickly got out of Burwick and set the sails – by now the wind was starting to rise so they made a fast crossing to Caithness, catching the first of the ebb tide going west to Scarfskerry. In about two hours they were landed and soon arrived at Ratter where John Budge’s sister Mrs McKay gave the little mite his first sustenance in this world. Little John Budge grew up to be a sturdy lad, fed on the best food, for Ratter was a good farm with plenty of everything. He stayed there until he was twelve years of age, then he returned to his father who was by then farming Graemston.


John Budge, his father, did not marry again. His loss had been too great, but he was glad to have his son back with him. 


It was this boy and his offspring who kept the name of Budge in Graemston for another 155 years. 


No sooner had the boat landed in Caithness, when the storm broke out again in all its fury – lasting for some days before the return voyage could be made.



From The Orkney View 

See the original here