‘Two sailing vessels belonging to Messrs. Berwick of Methil [that] were lost on the 8th March 1827. The THOMAS & NANCY was lost with all hands off Kirkcaldy and the EUPHEMIA was wrecked off Buckhaven.’
Black Tam's Nose
Transcribed and annotated by Philip Barnes.
Among the se-faring folk of Fife, the fisher folk especially, a nickname was, and to a great extent is yet, the rule rather than the exception. ‘Black Tam,’ therefore, received the addition to his baptismal name with the same feelings as Highlandmen and Lowlanders accept those which, with their posterity, became the family name, as Roy, Dow (Dhu), Bain, Gorm, Reid, Black, Fair, Blue, etc.
He had resolved to remain on shore after this, and spend the remainder of his life in comforting his old wife, and getting a little fun out of his grandchildren, while more seriously preparing himself to anchor safely in Heaven’s harbor.
Black Tam’s whiskers were now as white as “the border of an auld wife’s mutch [i.e., a close-fitting cap],” and his head was as bald as the truck of the mainmast. But he wore a wig, a good black wig with a fair sprinkling of grey in it.
During these weeks, as during all his years as master mariner, no kind of strong drink came wrong to him. Lager beer, gin, Rhine wine, rum, schnapps, French brandy, Russian vodka, Scotch whisky, were all acceptable and accepted.
At all ports, during this his last call, Charlie Carmichael, the cabin boy, a smart little nipper, kept his eye on him, and reported to Swan where he had cast anchor, and the mate, giving him ample time, would call in and get him away and on board in good condition for a watch below.
At Christiansand he had the merriest and severest bout of all with Skipsreder* [= ship owner] Kirsebom, Kornhandler [= corn dealer] Kallevig*, and Bager [= baker] Preus. With these three Black Tam made a furious, fuddling foursome. [* misspelled “Skibsreder” and “Kallenig” in original]
When Swan arrived at the quiet Vertshus [= inn] to which they had betaken themselves, he found the four in a most mellow condition. They must drink a bumper to the new skipper, and another one in honor of the old one, who then drank farewell to his old cronies - the shipowner, the corn dealer, and the baker, in succession. Then “en stort Glas” (Danish for “one large glass”) or jorum (= a jug of punch) was swallowed by all, as a final bon voyage was wished.
When daylight came, however, it was soon discovered that the ship had sprung a leak and water was fast pouring in. The pumps were manned, and though the gale had somewhat abated, the Jean ran before the wind, with foresail -only, at fully 12 knots an hour in spite of her increasing depth in the water.
When Black Tam's voice was heard in mid-forenoon, Swan ran down to the cabin at once, and gave him a double strong cup for his “morning” and had the satisfaction of seeing him drop off to sleep again. He put the nipper on the watch, with orders to give the captain whatever he should ask for. Black Tam thus, on his last voyage across the North Sea, was drunk the whole time. Only on the morning of the second day, he jumped out of bed, and by that time the water was over his ankles in the cabin. He was then dimly aware that something was wrong, and steadied himself to get up the companion hatchway. His wig tumbled off, but he went on deck without it. The cool morning air playing round his lockless scalp refreshed him and helped to restore him a little to his sober senses.
The water had now gained so much on the vessel, and the crew were each and all so fagged, that they could do no more. Swan's only hope for their lives and some salvage now was that she might drift on a shelving shore.
An undeviating home course had been kept all along, and still was; but though he believed that the schooner was now “not far from Scotland's shore” the fog gave him an uneasy uncertainty. He had told the men to rest and to make their peace with their Creator; for he knew not when their end might come disastrously on a rockbound part of the coast.
The astonished and astonishing roar of Black Tam as his bald head emerged from the companion, and he saw the abandonment apparent everywhere, roused and raised the mates and men either from vain regrets or bended knees.
The mate had been watching the captain lapsing into insensibility again as he sank on deck by the companion hatch, and he felt certain qualms of conscience for his share in the cause of his condition. However, he followed Charlie down into the cabin, and there indeed he saw what might easily, in the dull light there, be taken for a thrush swimming in its nest. When, however, he approached and bent to seize it, the mavis turned out to be a rat which took to the water, and the nest was the captain's wig.
‘The nipper’ had been telling them all about the mavis in its nest, and when he saw the ghost of a smile on some of their faces he gave utterance to an idea that he seemed to be choking with. What he said brought back all their fears, but had a grotesqueness about it that fairly overcame the second mate's temper. He gave the lad a smart box on the ear that sent him sprawling on the deck. There the mate found him sitting when he had administered the refresher to Black Tam and had laid him comfortably on the deck. Charlie was holding his face in his hands to hide his mouth not his grief, and Swan said to him, sharply,
“The water's not rising any more, lads. Let's have another turn at the pump. Who knows but we may get safe ashore yet? — Get us something to eat and drink, Charlie.”
Charlie brought them some bread and cheese and a pannikin of grog [small cup of rum] a-piece and they all set too with a will, and were glad to see that they were 'lightening' the schooner. While they were all busy working for their lives they had not noticed that the fog was lifting, until Charlie cried: