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  Jo Ben's 1529 "Descriptions of Orkney"


The first island is North Ronaldshay, towards the north, and the land is on a level with the sea, and is often times the cause of shipwreck to English and other navigators; it is distant from Kirkwall sixty miles, and in circumference four.

The people are altogether ignorant of divine discourse, because they have seldom or ever been taught.

It is fertile in corn, viz., barley and oats. The people in winter live upon barley bread and in summer on small fishes and milk.

In that part of the island, viz., the north, large native animals (selchis)* are captured in nets made of hemp, and there is also there a large rock distant from the land half a mile, called Selchskerey, where sea fowl live and nest. On that rock the animals before mentioned, when the tide flows, ascend to the top, but on its ebbing they fall into a well shaped cavity, where by no means they can get out, there being no exit.

The people of the island, interchanging grumbles among themselves at delays coming in the way, approach the rock with large hazel sticks.

At first the animals, eyeing them with anger and gnashing of teeth, strive to move away with wide-open mouths; then they attack with all their strength, and freely carry on the combat. If the first beast escapes without injury, all the others attack the men with their teeth; but if the first fall and die, all the others take to flight and are easily captured, and I have seen sixty taken at one time.

They are without fuel, except dried seaweed, but they use sandy turf, which lights very little. In winter they enjoy light obtained from the guts of the fishes and out of the abdomen. From the dung of the cattle spread on a wall and sun-dried, the best fuel is obtained.

Neither frogs, mice, or toads live here; and if a ship brings mice here, they quickly perish as if by poison.

* - selkies, or seals.

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