While unravelling a celtic legend, Paul Charman invokes ‘the Wicker Man’ and claims to be stalked by both UFOs and a sea lion

The prospect of crossing the Roaring 40s to research legends from the sealing days filled me with unease earlier on this month.

On this, my third voyage to Sub-Antarctic, the sense of foreboding was helped along by strong seasick medication taken ahead of the trip.

We were headed to New Zealand's most southern territory, 700 km south of Invercargill, to investigate the story of a forlorn female castaway of the early 1900s.

Some say she was a Jacobite princess, who was banished from France after being suspected as a spy, others a just a lady fallen on hard times.

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Our voyage to find out which necessitated New Year's Eve in Invercargill, ahead of joining fully ice-strengthened expedition ship, "The Spirit of Enderby", at Bluff the following day.

Invercargill residents were friendly and hospitable, welcoming us to the city's Scottish Hall for Hogmanay celebrations.

Members of Invercargill's St Andrew's Scottish Society celebrate Hogmanay. Photo / Paul Charman
Members of Invercargill's St Andrew's Scottish Society celebrate Hogmanay. Photo / Paul Charman

But there seemed a slight hardening, perhaps the hint of suspicion when I stated our business in town.

At the mention of "The Lady of the Heather", those St Andrew's Scottish Society members looked at me as if I was, well, the Wicker Man.

I wasn't surprised, for the great Scottish race embraces both light and darkness - or so it seemed to a man high on antihistamines.

Yes, having been raised on works of Robert Louis Stevenson, I understood the two sides of the Scottish psyche pretty well.

One the hospitable Scot, full of kindness, generosity and all the bigness of life - demonstrated by those who plied us with coffee, savories and haggis at the Hogmanay.

But the other side, as represented in Stevenson's works, was introverted, dour, even treacherous.

Uncles had their nephews kidnapped; respected doctors transformed into nocturnal fiends and - to a man - a crew of decent-looking sailors turn out to be pirates!
And some say this celtic katzenjammer was exemplified by Captain William Stewart (1776 to 1851).

He was supposedly in on the plan to have the illegitimate grand daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie kidnapped and banished to Campbell Island.

The Lady of the Heather was supposed to be the illegitimate grand daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, kidnapped and banished to uninhabited Campbell Island circa 1827. Photo / Paul Charman
The Lady of the Heather was supposed to be the illegitimate grand daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, kidnapped and banished to uninhabited Campbell Island circa 1827. Photo / Paul Charman

(Bad enough to abandon somebody to an uninhabited island where it rains most days, worse again for a proud Stuart to be marooned on an island named "Campbell").

I've long believed this "princess version" to be mere legend, and that the lady was more likely to have been one of the ship girls who joined sealers for a fee of one hundred pounds in Sydney.

These women sailed along on the sealers' adventures and misadventures, enduring with them the hardships of many a rocky southern coastline.

Some seem to have gone to Campbell Island during the great quest for southern seals.
At least one such woman lived in what is now called "The Lady of the Heather Hut" at Camp Cove, or perhaps another sod hut at Tucker Cove, from 1834 till 1838.

English whaling captains John Balleny and Thomas Freeman came upon three men and a woman in Campbell's North West Bay.

They told the castaways to make their way to the other side of the island to be picked up later, and the four were then divided between two ships, heading for Antarctica.

Bellany apparently commandeered the castaways meagre take of seal skins - just 165 to 170 - as a fee for their rescue.

It was discovered they had been put ashore by the schooner "New Zealand" four years earlier, but this ran aground and burned on the south coast of the South Island, leaving nobody to report the castaways on Campbell Island. Two of the castaways (we don't know if the woman was one of them) then died when one of the rescue ships - the Subrina - sank during storms during the voyage home.

Reading such histories in my cabin did nothing for my morbid mood.

I tried diverting myself by photographing waves out the porthole but that didn't help much.

Thanks no doubt to the atmospheric conditions, these shots made it look as if our vessel was being shadowed by UFOs and that is not a nice thought when you're high on your seasick meds.

Conditions aboard the Spirit of Enderby made it appear that UFOs were shadowing us. Photo / Paul Charman
Conditions aboard the Spirit of Enderby made it appear that UFOs were shadowing us. Photo / Paul Charman

Don't get me wrong, our 10-day voyage was something splendid, with fine weather most days and we were able to photograph abundant wildlife on Snares, Auckland and Campbell Islands (see five reasons to cruise the Sub-Antarctic).

But as well as snapping some splendid photos, I felt burdened to solve the riddle of "The Lady of the Heather".

It was agreed to put myself and my wife, Debra-Rose, ashore at Camp Cove for about an hour to make a short video.

Our plan was to record things as they may have appeared to a tartan-wearing castaway circa 1827, when the ship girl/princess is said to have first appeared.

Unfortunately our filming suffered one interruption after another.

We arrived at Camp Cove at the same time as a climate scientist, taking core samples from the solitary 100-year-old Sitka spruce there.

But after lending a hand with that job, a curious but vocal seal lion kept bounding up to us looking for attention.

By the time Debra-Rose was in her costume, over the horizon came a little squadron of eco-tourists keen to get pictures of the famous spruce.

We only managed some hasty footage a few stills in the time allowed.

Difficulties filming Camp Cove's sod hut and nearby grave site are nothing new.

Campbell Island historian Norm Judd reported reported troubles photographing them 1981.

Parts of Campbell Island bear an uncanny resemblance to the Scottish Highlands. Photo / Paul Charman
Parts of Campbell Island bear an uncanny resemblance to the Scottish Highlands. Photo / Paul Charman

His film camera developed light leaks which distorted the images he took of the hut and grave site at Camp Cove, while similar distortions appeared in photos taken at the same spot back in 1909.

Early last century heather mysteriously grew in abundance at Camp Cove, though it disappeared again years ago.

Perhaps it was planted by those wishing to help the "princess" legend along a little.
That was certainly what a journalist named Roderick Carrick accomplished, when he published his version of the princess legend in the Dominion in 1891.

But was Carrick's newspaper beat-up of the legend perhaps based upon a real ship girl who once lived at Camp Cove.

Maybe she was a tartan-wearing former Sydney convict.

Perhaps she even claimed to be a princess.

Mt Honey looks down on lonely Camp Cove, where remains of a sod hut and an old grave site are located. Photo / Paul Charman
Mt Honey looks down on lonely Camp Cove, where remains of a sod hut and an old grave site are located. Photo / Paul Charman

We'll probably never know - despite the cursory conservation efforts, including some modest test pitting, which DoC has planned for "The Lady of the Heather" site in April.

I've concluded the riddle is best left to the sea lions, the penguins and mighty albatross, for these animals, plus the lapping waves seem, to be the legitimate guardians of lonely Camp Cove.

Paul Charman's trip to Campbell Island was supported by Heritage Expeditions and The Scottish Shop - Dunedin.