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The Laird o' Clestrain

Sailing Ship: Illustration by Sigurd TowrieOver 200 years ago, there lived a good man named William Honyman, the Laird of Graemsay.

The Laird lived at Clestrain, on the border between the Orkney Mainland parishes of Orphir and Stenness.

Clestrain was a beautiful place where he could gaze across the blue sea to his little green island of Graemsay.

Now, this Laird had a considerable amount of money, but, nevertheless, supplemented his income by trading. If some of the local gossips in Stromness were to be believed, he also had his hand in some smuggling.

Each summer, after the seed had been safely planted, the Laird would load a large boat with meal, whereupon he would make his way around the north-west tip of Scotland to the islands of the Hebrides.

One particular voyage, in the year 1758, caused some bickering between the Laird and his wife. Honyman wanted his eldest son, Mungo, to accompany him on that year's trading expedition.

The Laird's wife, Mary Honyman, was set against the idea, considering that her boy was too young to make the potentially hazardous trip.

But the Laird was a forceful man and eventually his wife bowed down to his wishes. Smiling because he had once again got his own way, the Laird busied himself making his arrangements for the long-awaited voyage.

Just before boarding the waiting ship, the Laird, with the help of his personal servant, an islander named John, carried a box of valuables up the hillside. Once out of sight of prying eyes, the men set to burying the box, taking care to note the landmarks surrounding the hole so that they might return to it easily.

The box contained a large sum of money, some fine pieces of family jewellery, and a bag of Spanish dollars.

Honyman tramped back down the hill and stopping by his house, instructed his wife to keep careful watch over the old turf boundary dyke that ran along the lower slopes of the hill. Once satisfied she would do his bidding, he headed to his ship and completed loading her.

Hoisting the billowing sails, he took on board his son, Mungo, and his the servant, John. On the evening tide, the Laird's ship slid proudly from the sheltered waters of Hamnavoe.

Aided by a fair wind, the heavily-laden vessel was soon passing through Hoy Sound and out into the glistening Atlantic.

Three months passed and no news of the boat came back to Clestrain.

Then, one evening in late August, when the golden summer sunlight washed across the land and sea, the Laird's boat was seen sailing homewards through Clestrain Sound.

Hurried on by an eager Mary Honyman, the servants scurried to the beach to carry ashore the expected cargo. They noticed then that there were three people standing on deck and that the Laird stood proudly at the helm.

Slicing swiftly through the glassy water, the ship sped towards its anchorage. As she approached the land, she grew larger and larger, her size emphasised by the rapidly failing light.

Then, just as she reached her accustomed moorings, the servants shrieked and pointed with wide-eyes. The ship had faded away, just as a shadow swallowed by sunlight.

For half a heartbeat, a ghostly-faint shape remained, then blinked into oblivion. Where once was sail and rigging was now only sea gulls soaring in the warm evening air.

The appearance of the phantom boat had terrible effect on Mary Honyman. Distraught at losing her beloved son and husband, she died soon afterwards.

Her friends declared that she remained ever faithful to her husband's last instructions for a sorrowful lady, clad in a long white dress, could often be seen walking in the vicinity of the boundary dyke where the Laird's treasure was said to be buried.

During the century that followed Mary Honyman's death her pale ghost was frequently seen.

And as for the Laird and his son?

The unfortunate news arrived at last, informing the shocked islanders that the ship had sunk in the Pentland Firth and all hands had gone to a watery grave.

As was only to be expected, the rumour of buried treasure soon spread. Excited islanders, lured by the prospect of instant wealth, assailed the hillside, digging in all the likely places along the line of the dyke.

One tale tells us that once a young man dreamed of the treasure night after night, until he was convinced that he had somehow been directed to find it.

Setting out to find the Laird's treasure, the man arrived on the hill and began digging. Late in the evening, he looked up from where he was digging and saw to his horror that a silent lady in black was approaching.

The young man paid the ghostly visitor no heed but instead continued with his work - such was the attraction of wealth. The next time he looked up, a sad, very sweet-looking, lady in white was standing close by him.

Whether the man found the treasure, I do not know.

What I do know is that on certain evenings, as the light began to fail, many islanders declared solemnly that at the landing-slip below the Laird's grain store, they could clearly distinguish the ghostly figures of the Laird and his servants, working busily with their boats.

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