The story called ‘Lieutenant Bligh and two midshipmen’ is among a collection of short stories published in 1995 as ‘Winter Tales’. This story is about William Bligh’s first meeting with the Stewart family during the visit to Stromness of Cook’s Resolution, when on the home stretch of its return journey from the South Pacific in 1780. Bligh was master of the Resolution, as such he was responsible for navigation.
George Mackay Brown sets the scene by stating that George Stewart had had ‘no active part’ in the mutiny in 1789 but returned to Tahiti in the Bounty, after Bligh had been cast adrift, because he wanted to be with his ‘native wife’ and his daughter, ‘little’ Peggy. But all that -Tahiti, ‘native women’, the Bounty mutiny etc. -lies in the future. The story is about what Bligh first saw in the then 14 year old George Stewart.
It depicts George’s father Alexander Stewart as an unctuous, fawning ‘gold sweater’ – a successful merchant who owns several ships and has business interests in Newcastle and as far afield as Gothenburg and other Baltic ports. Alexander is aware of his own ‘uncouth northern accent’ when speaking English but has high hopes for his educated son George, who has already proved himself on one of his father’s ships as a competent seaman, well skilled in the art of navigation.Bligh recognises this.
The story contrasts George with one of Bligh’s junior lieutenants (Briscoe) – a scion of gentry who owes his rank to several ‘fops’ in the Admiralty. Bligh is disappointed, although he initially suspected as much, that Briscoe would prove incapable of minding his manners and not drink too much during dinner at the Stewarts’ table. Briscoe is portrayed as a roguish philanderer who, given half a chance, would even seduce and have his rakish way with the 12 year old Miss Elizabeth Stewart; whom he flatters and teases as the evening unfolds. Bligh steps in and ends the evening, which for him would have been a complete wash-out, but for being put in a position to observe young Stewart’s ‘steadiness of purpose’. The young man reminds him of the youth he once had been; he sees ‘great promise’ in the lad who unwittingly reveals to him that he is desperate to heed the call of the sea, as if -like Admiral Nelson- he harbours a deep-seated psychological compulsion to toy with Death.
The story also touches on Peter Linklater, another Orcadian who was involved in the Bounty saga; who was recruited from Stromness by one of Bligh’s officers to replace one of the Resolution’s carpenter’s mates who had died on the voyage.