Poetry of the Old Man of Hoy

from a longer poem ‘Orkney’ by John Malcolm of Firth 1795-1845

THE OLD MAN OF HOY

Upon Orcade’s rocky strand
There stands a man alone
One foot amongst the briny weed
The other one is gone.

Old people yet remember it
Although it is many years
Since it was lost by wind and frost
And the old man dropped some tears.

When this man was created
We have no date at hand
I think it must have been before
Old Odin delved the land.

There are some others of his clan
Of the same date and day
They stand somewhere near John o’ Groats
And are called the Men of Mey.

Some say he was a drover
From the far off land of Wick
And was banished out of Caithness
For stealing people’s sheep.

I think there is some truth in this
For I have heard the old folks say
That he came across the Pentland Firth
On the Horse of Copinsay.

As they were passing Flotta Isle
The Old Man began to laugh
For ne’er in all his travels
Saw he such a monstrous calf.

And when he tried to lift him up
He kicked up such a row
That he dropped a barrel of butter
And the Calf in Scapa Flow.

If this old man from Caithness came
He has not got his way
For he came to Orkney naked
And is naked to this day.

They say this old man never drinks
But it must be confessed
He is often half seas over
When the wind comes from the west.

But I think he only gets a wetting
When stormy winds do blow
For most of men exposed like him
It often happens so.

But though now his head is bent
For he is an upright man
And covets not his neighbour’s goods
Nor yet their bits of land.

And although he gives no charity
To those through hunger pressed
He has been known to shelter safe
The Eagle on his breast.

In solitude repenting
He stands upon one leg
This poor old man who cannot work
And is too high to beg.

I do not wonder at his pride
For his pedigree is long
Belonging to that Greek family
The Orkney red sand stone.

If you wish to see this wonder
The man who had no birth
You must steer your barque to Stromness town
North across the Pentland Firth

And when you land ask for the man
Who never was a boy
And anyone will tell you where
To find the Man of Hoy.

For there is one thing sure and certain
For it is a well known fact
When ferryloupers northward steer
They care not to go back.

Poem as given to David Sinclair of Lurdy, Flotta by Jimmy Sutherland of Whanclett
the poem, in another version, is attributed to Betsy Manson of Park, sister of Isaac Moar
Caithness has been suggested as a possible origin.

image from Barbara Watt

THE OLD MAN OF HOY
from The Selected Poems of John Stuart Blackie 1896

The old man of Hoy
Looks out on the sea,
Where the tide runs strong, and the wave rides free ;
He looks on the broad Atlantic sea,
And the old man of Hoy
Hath this great joy,
To hear the deep roar of the wide blue ocean,
And to stand unmoved ‘mid the sleepless motion,
And to feel o’er his head
The white foam spread
From the wild wave proudly swelling,
And to care no whit
For the storm’s rude fit
Where he stands on his old rock-dwelling,
This rare old man of Hoy.

The old man of Hoy
Looks out on the sea,
Where the tide runs strong and the wave rides free :
He looks on the broad Atlantic sea,
And the old man of Hoy
Hath this great joy,
To look on the flight of the wild sea-mew,
With their hoar nests hung o’er the waters blue ;
To see them swing
On plunging wing,
And to hear their shrill notes swelling,
And with them to reply
To the storm’s war cry,
As he stands on his old rock-dwelling ;
This rare old man of Hoy.

The old man of Hoy
Looks out on the sea,
Where the tide runs strong, and the wave rides free :
He looks on the broad Atlantic sea,
And the old man of Hoy
Hath this great joy,
When the sea is white and the sky is black,
And the helmless ship drives on like wrack,
To see it dash
At his feet with a crash,
And the sailors’ death-note knelling,
And to hear their shrieks
With pitiless cheeks,
This stern old man of Hoy.

The old man of Hoy
Looks out on the sea,
Where the tide runs strong, and the wave rides free
He looks on the broad Atlantic sea,
And the old man of Hoy
Hath this great joy,
To think on the pride of the sea-kings old,
Harolds, and Ronalds, and Sigurds bold,
Whose might was felt,
By the cowering Celt,
When he heard their war-cry yelling ;
But the sea-kings are gone,
And he stands alone,
Firm on his old rock-dwelling,
This stout old man of Hoy.

The old man of Hoy
Looks out on the sea,
Where the tide runs strong, and the wave rides free :
He looks on the broad Atlantic sea,
And the old man of Hoy
Hath this great joy,
To think on the gods that were mighty of yore,
Braga, and Baldur, and Odin, and Thor,
And giants of power
In fateful hour,
‘Gainst the great gods rebelling :
But the gods are all dead,
And he rears his head
Alone from his old rock-dwelling,
This stiff old man of Hoy.

But listen to me,
Old man of the sea,
List to the Skulda that speaketh by me ;
The Nornies are weaving a web for thee,
Thou old man of Hoy,
To ruin thy joy,
And to make thee shrink from the lash of the ocean,
And teach thee to quake with a strange commotion,
When over thy head
And under thy bed
The rampant wave is swelling,
And thou shall die
‘Neath a pitiless sky,
And reel from thine old rock-dwelling,
Thou stout old man of Hoy !

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