People Past & Present

Bessie Millie: Stromness’s First Renewables Entrepreneur

Written by Harvey Johnston

The lunches of Orkney fare at the Peedie Kirk are among the highlights of the Festival each year, with the One O’Clock Toast to a notable Orcadian. For this year Harvey Johnston went back two centuries to a lady in Stromness who was visited by Sir Walter Scott. She lived on Brinkies Brae and sold winds to sailors.

Like an eagle in her eyrie

On the crest o’ Brinkies Brae

Bright eyes scanned her dominions

In her Bessie Millie way.

Fae her less than des res hovel

She’d see all ships come and go

Whether they cam in by Hoysoond

Or sailed right up through the Flow.

She cooldna write or read a word

She’d never thowt tae try

But read that open page above

Her textbook wis the sky.

The stars, the lunar cycles too

Each slight celestial sign

She kent as weel as Patrick Moore

Or Rousay’s Vetterlein.


Cumulostratus, Nimbus, these

Were words she’d never kent

But recognised their shape and form

And kent fine what they meant.


A wisp o’ ware fae Warbeth on

Her wall wid let her know.

Of the imminent arrival

Of a deep Atlantic low.

Wi’ that barometric knowledge

She could prophesy sincere

That a fairly stiff Soothwester

Wid be likely tae appear.

So winds on cue she’d “summon”

And they’d blow their very best

Than as the pressure rises

Hid wid ease aff tae the West.


So when bold Captains cam tae her

Tae speer what winds wid blow

She wid stert tae boil the kettle

And pit on a bit o’ show.


She wid mutter incantations

And some prayers too wid say

She’d tell him than what winds wid blow

And send him on his way


And when his ship departed

She wid watch from high and laugh

The result of her performance?

She wis sixpence better aff.


Cheust a very wise owld woman

Who intuitively kent

Whut wis gaan on all aroond her

In her own environment.

I applaud her green credentials

And her acumen of course

She wis simply utilisan

A renewable resource.

Her amazing business model

Wis not grasped upon I fear

By the citizens o’ Stromness

For weel on two hunder year.

Noo she’s been the inspiration

For new firms near her abode

Set up by Gareth Davies and

Of course by Neil Kermode.


Her’s was not by evil witchcraft

But by Science underpinned

She didna need a turbine tae

Mak money oot o’ wind.


For Orcadians of Science

I’d pit her weel up the list

Her skills were all o’ those that mak

A meteorologist.


A Georgian Judith Rolston

She depicted at her best

Bit withoot the big black glesses

Never spaek aboot the chest.

Her fame hid spread so widely

That she visitation got

Fae that great and famous writer

That became Sir Walter Scott.


Bit his depiction o’ her wis

Enough tae mak ye irate

He used her aura tae portray

Witch Norna in “The Pirate”.

A plague on you Sir Walter

Hid’s tae yer eternal shame

You stole her just identity

And much maligned her name.

What Sir Walter did tae Bessie

Wis the sam thing I wid say

That a mere score o’ years later

Charles Darwin did tae Rae.


A pair o’ proud Orcadians

Who did their best in vain

And were sore misrepresented by

The power o’ the pen.


Wur minded o’ Sir Walter

By his Edinburgh spire

Bit cheust wan stone on Brinkies Brae

For Bessie wid be higher.


So let us noo raise glesses

Tae her scientific wiles

A toast tae Bessie Millie

Wur Aeolus of the Isles.

About the author

Harvey Johnston

Harvey Johnston, from the parish of Harray in Orkney’s West Mainland, has spoken at events across Orkney, from Harvest Homes and community functions to commemorations for John Rae and St Magnus. He was a lecturer in agriculture and then deputy principal of Orkney College UHI, and is the convener of Orkney Islands Council.