Torquil:nursling of the northern seas

I found the following reference to George Stewart in the 3rd edition (1851) of

 Guide to the Highlands & Islands of Scotland by George Anderson & Peter Anderson, (Adam & Charles Black, Edinburgh  1851)

Section IX – The Orkney & Zetland Iss, Part 1: The Orkney Iss  §22


“Although Stromness is of such modern origin, it is singular that the first novelist, and the first poet of the age, have obtained each a hero from its natives, or, at least, from those who are so connected with it as to be considered such. As to Gow or Smith, the hero of “The Pirate,” we do not wish to save him from the same ill-gotten fame as is attached to the memory of the jarls, or sea-kings, who preceded him; but we may remark, that some interesting details regarding his history will be found in Mr. Peterkin’s “Notes on Orkney;” and the remains of his father’s garden may still be seen on the cast side of the harbour of Stromness. But on “Torquil, the nursling of the northern seas,” we must, in justice, offer a few observations. The traveller will perhaps recollect the poet’s description of him, in Canto II. of Lord Byron’s “Island:”—

And who is he? the blue-eyed northern child,
Of isles more known to man, but scarce less wild,
The fair-lian’d offspring of the Hebrides,
Where roars the Pentland with his whirling seas;
Rock’d in his cradle by the roaring wind,
The tempest-born in body and in mind;
His young eyes, opening on the ocean foam,
Had from that moment deem’d the deep his home,” &c.

“As Byron has not condescended to enlighten the reader as to his real history, we shall endeavour very briefly to do so. The hero, George Stewart, was a son of Mr. Stewart of Masseter. who resided on a property on which was one of the first houses built with lime in Stromness; hence it is still called the White House, and here his sisters lately lived highly respected.

“He went to sea about the year 1780, and was a midshipman in the Bounty with Bligh, when he went to transplant the bread-fruit tree of Otaheite to our West India Islands, and he remained on board after the mutiny, contrary to his own wish. Stewart took no part in that transaction; and he is vindicated, in a late publication on the subject, by one who had access to the best information. He was one of those who perished on the sinking of the Pandora in the following August. We have been favoured with a perusal of two interesting letters, exculpating this handsome and promising youth, which were written to his father in 1792.”

It would of course be more than useful to  know who showed the Andersons these letters AND, more importantly, to know who wrote the letters to George’s father.

The “late” publication the Andersons refer to is probably Edward Tagart’s 1832 ‘Memoir‘ of Capt. Peter Heywood or Sir John Barrow’s 1831 ‘Mutiny & Piratical seizure...’

If so, it is probable that the 2 letters to George Stewart’s father in 1792 were from George’s Bounty ‘messmate’, fellow midshipman Peter Heywood who  – after the Royal pardon he had received- wrote an open letter to Fletcher Christian’s brother ‘exculpating’ Fletcher Christian. This open letter was published in a local (Cumbrian) newspaper and contributed to the ensuing controversy between Bligh and Christian’s brother Edward about ‘WHO WAS REALLY TO BLAME’ for causing the infamous mutiny: a subject that still can stir up debate and controversy and has been the stuff of more than 200 years of history- and mythmaking. Some of it fanciful, overdramatised and inaccurate.

It is noteworthy that the Andersons apparently felt (in the early 1830s when they were compiling their book) they should touch on George Stewart’s “True History” because it was ‘just’  to make their observations.

As if they were righting some wrong they felt may have been done; as if the Stewart family’s reputation had been indelibly stained by the accusation of piracy against their son. Readers are assured that no such perceptions properly exist in Orkney, where his  well-respected sister had lived all her life and 2 letters exist, that are testimony that George had had no hand in the mutiny. That notion moreover, recently re-inforced by the well-informed author of the”late” publication.

The Stewarts’ headstone in Stromness cemetery (Doug Allen 2005)

One of the sisters the Andersons referred to is George’s sibling Isabella, who never married and lived in the Stromness ‘White House’ until her death in 1821. She was buried in the Stromness cemetery in the same plot as her parents Alexander & Margaret Stewart.


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