It was Midsummer Day, and the Peel Herring Fleet, with sails half set, was ready for sea. The men had their barley sown, and their potatoes down, and now their boats were rigged and nets stowed on board and they were ready for the harvest of the sea.
It was a fine day, the sky was clear and the wind was in the right airt, being from the north. But, as they say, ‘If custom will not get custom, custom will weep.’ A basinful of water was brought from the Holy Well and given to the Wise Woman that sold fair winds, as she stood on the harbour-side with the women and children to watch the boats off. They told her to look and tell of the luck of the Herring Fleet. She bent over the water and, as she looked, her face grew pale with fear, and she gasped: “Hurroose, hurroose! An’ do ye know what I’m seeing?”
“Let us hear,” said they.
“I’m seeing the wild waves lashed to foam away by great Bradda Head…
…I’m seeing the surge round the Chicken’s Rock an’ the breaker’s lip is red…
…I’m seeing where corpses toss in the Sound, with nets an’ gear an’ spars…
…An’ never a one of the Fishing Fleet is riding under the stars.”
There was a dead hush, and the men gathered close together, muttering, till Gorty, the Admiral of the Fishing Fleet, stepped forward, caught the basin out of her hands and flung it out to sea, growling:
“Sure as I’m alive, sure as I’m alive, woman! I’ve more than half a mind to heave you in after it. If I had my way, the like of you an’ your crew would be run into the sea. Boys, are we goin’ to lose a shot for that bleb? Come on, let’s go an’ chonce it with the help of God.”
“Aye, no herring, no wedding. Let’s go an’ chonce it,” said young Cashen.
So hoisting sails they left the port and when the land was fairly opened out, so that they could see the Calf, they headed for the south and stood out for the Shoulder.
Soon a fine breeze put them in the fishing ground, and every man was looking out for signs of herring-perkins, gannets, fish playing on the surface, oily water, and such like. When the sun was set and the evening was too dark to see the Admiral’s Flag, the skipper of each lugger held his arm out at full length, and when he could no longer see the black in his thumb-nail he ordered the men to shoot their nets. And as they lay their trains it all fell out as the witch had said.
Soon the sea put on another face, the wind from westward blew a sudden gale and swelled up the waves with foam. The boats were driven hither and thither, and the anchors dragged quickly behind them. Then the men hoisted sail before the wind and struggled to get back to land, and the lightning was all the light they had. It was so black dark that they could see no hill, and above the uproar of the sea they could hear the stirges pounding on the rocky coast. The waves were rising like mountains, breaking over the boats and harrying them from stem to stern. They were dashed to pieces on the rocks of the Calf, and only two men escaped with their lives.
But there was one boat that had got safe back to port before the storm, and that was the boat of the Seven Boys. She was a Dalby boat and belonged to seven young men who were all unmarried. They were always good to the Dooinney Marrey, the Merman, and when they were hauling their nets they would throw him a dishful of herring, and in return they had always good luck with their fishing. This night, after the Fleet had shot their nets sometime, the night being still fine and calm, the Seven Boys heard the voice of the Merman hailing them and saying:
“It is calm and fine now, there will be storm enough soon!”
When the Skipper heard this he said: “Every herring must hang by its own gills,” and he and his crew at once put their nets on board and gained the harbour.
And it was given for law ever after, that no crew was to be made up of single men only; there was to be at least one married man on board and no man was bound by his hiring to fish in this same south sea, which was called ‘The Sea of Blood’ from that day.
As for the witch, they said she had raised the storm by her spells and they took her to the top of the great mountain Slieu Whallian, put her into a spiked barrel and rolled her from the top to the bottom, where the barrel sank into the bog.
For many and many a long year there was a bare track down the steep mountain-side, where grass would never grow, nor ling, nor gorse. They called it ‘The Witch’s Way,’ and they say that her screams are heard in the air every year on the day she was put to death.
(source: Manx Fairy Tales by Sophia Morrison (1911); artwork is ‘The Herring Net’ by Winslow Homer http://bit.ly/1P0VZRP)