The Lonely Rock

The lonely rock is a shared descriptive short story told of a young girl recovering. It has a unique touch of enchantment all of its own. An experience shared from one to another, a most enjoyable narrative which leads you into another unique tale. It is from a collection of short stories by Jean Ingelow, an English author and poet and was originally published in 1865. With the addition of some illustrations, and only a few – slight – changes to enhance a more modern reading experience, we hope you enjoy this short and pleasant tale.


Three summers ago I had a severe illness, and on recovering from it, my father took me for a change of air. It was not to one of our usual pretty townish watering-places, but up to the very north of Scotland. A place which he had himself delighted in when he was a boy, a lonely farm-house, standing on the shore of a rocky bay in one of the Orkneys.

My father is a Highlander, and though he has lived in England from his early youth, he retains, not only a strong love for his own country, but a belief in its healthfulness. He is fond of indulging the fancy that scenery which the fathers have delighted in, will not strike on the senses of the children as something new and strange, but they will enter the hereditary region with a half-formed notion that they must have seen it before, and it will possess a soothing power over them which is better than familiarity itself.

I had often heard my father express this idea, but had neither understood nor believed in it. The listlessness of illness made me indifferent as to what became of me, and during our steam voyage, I cared neither to move nor to look about me. But the result proved that my father was right. It was dark when we reached our destination, but I no sooner opened my eyes the next morning than a delightful home-feeling came over me; I could not look about me enough, and yet nothing was sufficiently unexpected to cause me the least surprise.

It was August, the finest part of the northern summer; and as I lay on pillows, looking out across the bay, I enjoyed that perfect quietude and peace so grateful to those who have lately suffered from the turmoil and restlessness of fever. I had imagined myself always surrounded by shifting, hurrying crowds, always oppressed by the gaze of unbidden guests; how complete and welcome was this change, this seclusion! No one but my father and the young servant whom we had brought with us could speak a word that I understood, and I could fall asleep and wake again, quite secure from the slightest interruption.


The Lonely Rock short story, narrative of a story shared

By the first blush of dawn I used to wake up, and lie watching that quiet bay; there would be the shady crags, dark and rocky, lifting and stretching themselves as if to protect and embrace the water, which, perhaps, would be lying utterly still, or just lapping against them, and softly swaying to and fro the long banners of seaweed which floated out from them.

Or, perhaps, a thin mist would be hanging across the entrance of the bay, like a curtain drawn from cliff to cliff; presently this snowy curtain would turn into an amber colour, and glow towards the centre; once I wondered if that sudden glow could be a ship on fire, and watched it in fear.

Soon I saw the gigantic sun thrust himself up, so near, as it seemed, that the farthest cliffs as they melted into the mist appeared farther off than he—so near, that it was surprising to count the number of little fishing-boats that crossed between me and his great disk; still more surprising to watch how fast he receded, growing so refulgent that he dazzled my eyes, while the mist began to waver up and down, curl itself, and roll away to sea, till on a sudden up sprang a little breeze, and the water, which had been white, streaked here and there with a line of yellow, was blue almost before I could mark the change, and covered with brisk little ripples, and the mist had melted back into some half-dozen caverns, within which it soon receded and was lost.

I used to lie and learn that beautiful bay by heart. In the afternoon the water was often of a pale sea-green, and the precipitous cliffs were speckled with multitudes of sea-birds, and bright in the sunshine I loved to watch at a distance the small mountain goats climbing from point to point; wherever there was a strip of grass I was sure to see their white breasts; but above all things, I loved to watch the long wavy reflection of a tall black rock which was perfectly isolated, and stood out to sea in the very centre of the bay. I was the more occupied in-fancy, with this lonely rock, because, unlike the other features of the landscape, it never changed.

The sea was white, yellow, green and blue a long way off and, the sands were bare. Then the sea came back again and, was rushing between every little rock, and powdering the tops of them with spray. The sea was clear as a mirror, and white gulls were swimming on it by thousands. Then the sea was restless, and the rocking boats were tossing up and down on it. And the cliffs? In the moonlight they were castles, and they were ships. In the sunshine, they were black, brown, blue, green, and ruddy, according to the clouds and the height of the sun. Their shadows, too, now a narrow strip at their bases, now an overshadowing mass, gave an endless variety to the scene.

But this one black lonely rock out at sea never seemed to change. In appearance at that distance, it was a massive column, square, and bending inward at the centre, so as to make it lean towards the northern shore. Considering this changeless character, it was rather strange that in my dreams, still vivid from recent illness, this column always assumed the likeness of a man. A stern man it seemed to be, with head sunk on his breast, and arms gathered under the folds of a dark heavy mantle; yet when I awoke and looked out over the bay, the blue moonbeams would not drop on my rock, or its reflection, in such a way as to make it any other than the bare, bleak, bending thing that I always saw it.

In a week I was able to come out of doors and wander by the help of my father’s arm along the strip of yellow sand by the sea. How delightful was the feeling of leaf-like, pebble, sand, or seaweed to my hand, which so long had been used to nothing but the soft linen of my pillow! Everything looked beautiful and fresh out of doors! How delicious was the sound of the little inch-deep waves as they ran and spread briskly out over the flat green floors of the caverns! Yet even more delicious the crisp rustling of the displaced pebbles, when these capricious waves receded!

And the caverns! How I stood looking into them, sunny and warm as they were at the entrance, and gloomily grand within! What a pleasure it was to think that the world should be so full of beautiful places, even where few had cared to look at them! how wonderful to think that the self-same echo, which answered my voice when I sang to it, was always lying there ready to be spoken with, though rarely invoked but by the winds and the waves; that ever since the Deluge, perhaps, it had possessed this power to mock human utterance, but unless it had caught up and repeated the cries of some drowning fisher-boy, or shipwrecked mariner, and sent them back again more wild than before, its mocking syllables and marvellous cadences had never been tested but by me!

And the first sail in a boat was a pleasure which will never be forgotten.

The Lonely Rock short story, narrative of a story shared

It was a still afternoon when we stepped into that boat—so still that we had oars as well as the flapping sail; I had wished to row out to sea as far as the lonely rock, and now I was to have my wish. On and on we went, looking by turns into the various clefts and caverns; at last we stood out into the middle of the bay, and very soon we had left the cliffs altogether behind. We were out in the open sea, but still the rock was far before us; it became taller, larger, and more important, but yet it presented the same outline, and precisely the same aspect, when, after another half-hour’s rowing, we drew near it, and I could hear the water lapping against its inhospitable sides.

The men rested on their oars, and allowed the boat to drift down towards it. There it stood, high, lonely, inaccessible. I looked up; there was scarcely a crevice where a sea-fowl could have built, not a level slip large enough for a human foot to stand upon, nor projection for the hand of a drowning man to seize on.

Shipwreck and death it had often caused, it was the dread and scourge of the bay, but it yielded no shelter nor food for beast or bird; not a blade of grass waved there — nothing stood there.

We rowed several times round it, and every moment I became more impressed with its peculiar character and situation, so completely aloof from everything else — even another rock as hard and black as itself, standing near it, would have been apparent companionship. If one goat had fed there, if one sea-bird had nestled there, if one rope of tangled seaweed had rooted there, and floated out on the surging water to meet the swimmer’s hand — but no.

I looked, and there was no one. The water washed up against it, and it flung back the water; the wind blew against it, and it would not echo the wind; its very shadow was useless, for it dropped upon nothing that wanted shade. By day the fisherman looked at it only to steer clear of it, and by night, if he struck against it, he went down. Hard, dreary and bleak! I looked at it as we floated slowly towards home; there it stood rearing up its desolate head, a forcible image, and a true one, of a thoroughly selfish, a thoroughly unfeeling and isolated, human heart.

The Lonely Rock short story, narrative of a story shared


Now let us go back a long time, and talk about things which happened before we were born. I do not mean centuries ago, when the sea-kings, in their voyages plundering that coast, drove by night upon the rock and went down. That is not the long time ago of which I want to speak; nor of that other long time ago, when two whaling vessels, large and deeply laden, bounded against it in a storm, and beat up against it till the raging waves tore them to pieces, and splitting and grinding every beam and spar, scarcely threw one piece of wreck on the shore which was as long as the bodies of the mariners.

I am not going to tell of the many fishing-boats which went out and were seen no more—of the many brave men that hard by that fatal place went under the surging water, of the many toiling rowers that made, as they thought, straight for home, and struck, and had only time for one cry—’The Rock! the Rock!’ The long time ago, of which I mean to tell, was a wild night in March, during which, in a fisherman’s hut ashore, sat a young girl at her spinning-wheel, and looked out on the dark driving clouds, and listened, trembling, to the wind and the sea.

The morning light dawned at last. One boat that should have been riding on the troubled waves was missing—her father’s boat! and half a mile from his cottage, her father’s body was washed up on the shore.

This happened fifty years ago, and fifty years is a long time in the life of a human being; fifty years is a long time to go on in such a course, as the woman did of whom I am speaking. She watched her father’s body, according to the custom of her people, till he was laid in the grave. Then she lay down on her bed and slept, and by night got up and set a candle in her casement, as a beacon to the fishermen and a guide. She sat by the candle all night, and trimmed it, and spun; then when day dawned she went to bed and slept in the sunshine.

So many hanks as she had spun before for her daily bread, she spun still, and one over, to buy her nightly candle; and from that time to this, for fifty years, through youth, maturity, and old age, she has turned night into day, and in the snow-storms of winter, through driving mists, deceptive moonlight, and solemn darkness, that northern harbour has never once been without the light of her candle.

How many lives she saved by this candle, or how many a meal she won by it for the starving families of the boatmen, it is impossible to say; how many a dark night the fishermen, depending on it, went fearlessly forth, cannot now be told. There it stood, regular as a light-house, steady as constant care could make it. Always brighter when daylight waned, they had only to keep it constantly in view and they were safe; there was but one thing that could intercept it, and that was the Rock. However far they might have stretched out to sea, they had only to bear down straight for that lighted window, and they were sure of a safe entrance into the harbour.

Fifty years of life and labour—fifty years of sleeping in the sunshine—fifty years of watching and self-denial, and all to feed the flame and trim the wick of that one candle! But if we look upon the recorded lives of great men, and just men, and wise men, few of them can show fifty years of worthier, certainly not of more successful labour. Little, indeed, of the ‘midnight oil’ consumed during the last half-century so worthily deserved the trimming. Happy woman—and but for the dreaded rock her great charity might never have been called into exercise!

But what do the boatmen and the boatmen’s wives think of this? Do they pay the woman?

No; they are very poor; but poor or rich, they know better than that.

Do they thank her?

No. Perhaps they feel that thanks of theirs would be inadequate to express their obligations, or, perhaps, long years have made the lighted casement so familiar, that they look on it as a matter of course.

Sometimes the fishermen lay fish on her threshold, and set a child to watch it for her till she wakes; sometimes their wives steal into her cottage, now she is getting old, and spin a hank or two of thread for her while she slumbers, and they teach their children to pass her hut quietly, and not to sing and shout before her door, lest they should disturb her. That is all. Their thanks are not looked for—scarcely supposed to be due. Their grateful deeds are more than she expects, and as much as she desires.

How often, in the far distance of my English home, I have awoken in a wild winter night, and while the wind and storm were rising, have thought of that northern bay, with the waves dashing against the rock, and have pictured to myself the casement, and the candle nursed by that bending, aged figure! How delightful to know that through her untiring charity the rock has long lost more than half its terrors, and to consider that, curse though it may be to all besides, it has most surely proved a blessing to her!

You, too, may perhaps think with advantage on the character of this woman, and contrast it with the mission of the Rock. There are many degrees between them. Few, like the rock, stand up wholly to work ruin and destruction; few, like the woman, ‘let their light shine’ so brightly for good. But to one of the many degrees between them, we must all most certainly belong—we all lean towards the woman or the lonely rock. On such characters, you do well to speculate with me, for you have not been cheated into sympathy with ideal shipwreck or imaginary kindness. There is many a rock elsewhere as perilous as the one I have told you of—perhaps there are many such women; but for this one, whose story is before you, pray that her candle may burn a little longer, since this record of her charity is true.

illustration of a little girl to say finish

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Original short story by Jean Ingelow

Retold by A Moffat

Illustrations by

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