John R Tudor.

The Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state online

. (page 18 of 59)
Online LibraryJohn R TudorThe Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state → online text (page 18 of 59)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

centric heaps extend across the valley indicating pauses in
the retreat of the glacier. Again, in the Mainland, the moory
ground between Finstown and Maes Howe is dotted all over
with conical moraine heaps deposited by glaciers, which moved
off the northern slopes of the Orphir Hills.

Erratics do not abound in the Orkneys, but there is
one which is worthy of special mention. It occurs in the
island of Sanday, and is termed the Savil boulder. Above
ground it measures 6^ X 6 X 2^ feet, but its base is buried
underneath the surface. It consists of hornblendic gneiss,
containing beautiful crystals of striated oligoclase felspar, dark
green hornblende, with some mica. Professor Heddle, who
has minutely examined this rock, suggests that it may possibly
be of Scandinavian origin.

In the Orkneys there is no trace of raised beaches, nor of
those widespread sheets of gravel belonging to the Kaim
series in Scotland.



Tipyn o Bob Peth.

" Land of the whirlpool — torrent — foam,
Where oceans meet in maddening shock ;
The beetling cliff — the shelving holm —
The dark insidious rock :
Land of the bleak, the treeless moor—
The sterile mountain, sered and riven ;
The shapeles'; cairn, the ruined tower,
Scattered by the bolts of heaven :
The yawning gulf — the treacherous sand —
I love thee still, my native land."

David Vedder.

Lying between 58° 41' and 59° 24' North Latitude, and
between 2° 22' and 4° 25' West Longitude, the Orkneys
are said to comprise some fifty-six islands and holms, or
islets. Of these Pomona, or the Mainland, is the largest and
principal island, which for descriptive purposes may be divided
into two districts, Kirkwall and the East Mainland, and
Stromness and the West Mainland. With the East Mainland
may. be combined the thriving island of Shapinsay and the
smaller isle of Copinsay. All the islands lying to the south of
^the Mainland are known as the South Isles, of which Burray,
South Ronaldsay, Hoy and Walls, Flotta, and Gracmsay arc the

o 2


principal ones. Lying off the eastern and northern sides of the
Western Mainland are Gairsay, Veira or Wyre, Egilsay, and
Rousay, which, for distinction's sake, may be termed the
Western Isles. All to the north of the Westray and Stronsay
Firths are known as the North Isles, and comprise Stronsay,
Sanday, North Ronaldsay, Eday, Westray, and Papa Westray.
Although Copinsay, South Ronaldsay, Ueerness, and the
southern end of Stronsay present some fair cliffs to meet the
waves of the German Ocean, all the finest coast scenery is to be
found on the western coasts. Hoy is the only island to which
the term mountainous can be applied ; and even there the
highest altitude, that of the W'ard Hill, is not more than 1,564
feet in height. There is a wild moorland district between
Kirkwall and the Loch of Stenness, of which the Ward Hill
of Orphir, 880 feet, is the highest point ; and the island of
Rousay, with its three hills, Blotchinfield, Knitchenfield, and
Kierfea, has a certain wild beauty of its own, which impels
patriotic natives at times to call it the Orcadian Highlands. No
other portions of the islands can be dignitied with any other
appellation than hilly, and some of the North Isles are very flat.
Apart from the really grand scenery of Hoy the Orkneys have,
however, a charm of their own, in the wonderfully brilliant
colour effects, which alternate light and shade produce, and
which seem intensified at times in the weird twilight of a
northern summer. The fierce tideways which sweep through
the sounds and firths have probably something to do with the
wonderful varying tints you sometimes notice in the colour of
that sea, that is so rarely at rest around the storm-swept Orcades.
Sweeping down from the north-west, the tidal wave, the
strength of which is comparatively slight a short distance
from the coast, increases in velocity, as it forces its way
through the islands, attaining a rapidity in many places of
from six to seven knots an hour, and in the Pentland Firth
at the Great Lother Skerry, off the southern end of South
Ronaldsay, rushing at the rate of ten, and being perceptibly
higher by one or two feet on the stream side. With such tide-


ways the slightest inequahly in the bottom produces a ripple on
the surface, increasing in places to the dangerous whirlpools
called rosts or roosts, which have in the case of the Pentland
Firth so long given it a bad name amongst mariners. What
these rosts are, especially when a flood spring is met dead on
end by a gale from the opposite quarter, only those who have
seen them or similar tidal-races can realise.

Of the Swelkie off the north-western corner of Stroma, in
which one of King Hakon's ships was lost on his return from
Largs, a curious legend is narrated.^ A certain King Frodi
possessed a magical quern or hand-mill called "Grotti," which
had been found in Denmark, and was the largest quern ever
known. Grotti, which ground gold or peace for King Frodi
as he willed, was stolen by a sea king called Mysing, who set
it to grind white salt for his ships. Whether Mysing, like
many another purloiner of magic-working implements, had only
learned the spell to set it going and did not know how to stop
it, is not stated. Anyhow, his ships became so full of salt that
they sank, and Grotti with them. Hence the Swelkie. As the
water falls through the eye of the quern, the sea roars, and the
quern goes on grinding the salt, which gives its saltness to the

In August, 1858,- three fishermen named Hercus, whilst
saith fishing, were sucked into the Bore of Papa, as a dangerous
roost to the north of Papa Westray is called, and drowned,
and probably many instances could be cited of similar accidents,
though, owing to the Orcadians being compelled to study the
run and set of the tides, not so many as might be expected.
Some few years back when the Channel Fleet were in the
north, they attempted to pass to the westward through Westray
Firth, in the teeth of a strong spring flood, but all the Queen's
horse-power and all the Queen's men could not do it, and they
had to turn tail.

The Orcadians have a weather proverb that expresses a good
deal in a few words. " When he blaws and she wets, it makes

' Ork. Sa^., note, p. 107. * Maidment Co lit c lions.


a dirty firth." Captain F. W. L. Thomas/ R.N., from whose
survey the present chart of the island was compiled, thus
describes Orcadian gales : —

" In the terrific gales which usually occur four or five times
in every year, all distinction between air and water is lost, the
nearest objects are obscured by spray, and everything seems
enveloped in a thick smoke ; upon the open coast the sea rises
at once, and striking upon the rocky shores, rises in foam
for several hundred feet, and spreads over the whole country.
The sea, however, is not so heavy in the violent gales of
short continuance as when an ordinary gale has been blowing
for many days ; the whole force of the Atlantic is then beating
against the Orcadian shores ; rocks of many tons in weight are
lifted from their beds, and the roar of the surge may be heard
for twenty miles ; the breakers rise to the height of sixty feet,
and on the North Shoal, which lies eight miles N.W. of
Costa Head, the broken sea is visible even at Skail and
Birsay." In most years, however, botli the Orkneys and
Shetland are, during the summer and early autumn months,
more troubled with fogs than gales. Some few years back the
St. Magnus, owing to fog, was sixty hours between Lerwick and
Kirkwall, a passage she usually makes in eight to nine hours.
A propos of fogs, a good story is told of the late Captain
Parrot of the Prince Consort. In a dense fog he had run
his vessel against Noss Head, just north of Wick Bay ; luckily
with comparatively slight damage. Some short time after
observing a steerage passenger, at one of his ports of call,
coming on board with a lot of furniture, he asked, in his
usual stentorian tone, was he going to start a second-
hand furniture shop ? " Na, na Captain," was the reply, " I
am just taking them south to pad Noss Head 'gin the next
time you come by." Skipper subsided. In both groups
too the few thunder-storms they are visited with occur in
the winter months. Owing, probably, to the influence of the
Gulf Stream, a much more equable temperature is maintained
^ Tides of the Orkneys.


all through the year than is the case in Scotland or Eng-
land, and, though anything like extreme heat is rarely felt
in summer, the intense piercing cold, that cuts to the very
marrow on the east coast of Scotland, is likewise unknown.
Mr. Scott, of the Meteorological Office, has pointed out to the
writer that the special characteristic of the Orcadian climate is
the limited range of its temperature throughout the year, only
amounting to i4""5 ; in which respect it resembles the' south-
west of Ireland and the Scilly Isles, where the range is re-
spectively i4"'5 at Valentia, and i5^'5 at the Scilly Isles,
though in both of these latter stations the average yearly
temperature is five or six degrees higher. Mr. Scott has also
called the writer's attention to the somewhat remarkable fact
that, m both the Orkneys and Shetland, the coldest month in
the year is March, instead of January, as in other parts of the
United Kingdom. In this respect, the Orkneys and Shetland
are affected by the temperature of the sea, which washes
their shores, and which reaches its lowest point in March.
Nothing shows the comparative mildness of the Orcadian
climate better than the hedges of fuchsias, that are to be
found in many gardens, and its antiseptic nature was noticed
by Shirreff, who ^ wrote, that turnips, which have been partly
bitten by rabbits, skin over, as it were, in the Orkneys, whilst
in any other part of Britain they would at once rot. He
also referred to the well-known mummies of Osmundwall and
Stroma, as proving the same thing. Neither cattle-plague nor
rabies ^ have ever been known in the group. The tables
taken from the third volume of the new series of the Scottish
Meteorological Society's y^oiirjial, given at length in Ajjpendix J i
(p. 6 id), will enable the reader to form some idea of the
climate of the Orkneys and Shetland, so far as temperature
and rainfall are concerned.

Up to the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832 the Orkneys
had a county member all to themselves, and the royal burgh

^ ShirrefTs Orkney, pp. 19, 20.

2 As to rabus see First Statistical Account, vol. xv. p. 310.


had a share in another member in conjunction with Wick,
Dornoch, Tain, and Dingwall ; whilst the poor Shetlanders,
though paying their due quota of cess or land-tax, were left
utterly unrepresented. Now, the proud Orcadians have to
share their county member with their poor cousins in the
north ; and, whenever there is a redistribution of seats, Lerwick
will probably be added to the list of Northern Burghs. In
former days there does not seem to have been such a run
on the Scottish Parliament as there now is to be elected a
member of " the most comfortable club in London," and in
1628 we tind ^ the gentry of Orkney pleading that they were
" hot meane gentilmen and fermoraris," and none of them
rich enough to be able to serve. Even if financing, com-
pany-floating, and guinea-pigging were not invented, both
the British Solomon and his unlucky son of pious memory
were not supposed to be above jobs, and there were mono-
})olies, though probably the fattest of these were provided
in England. At an election in 1836 the conveyance of the
polling books, from Orkney alone, is said to have cost ^1,400,
and in those steamerless days canvassing the storm-swept
Orcades and the wilds of Ultima Thule must at times have
been the reverse of pleasant ; though, by the way, the seat was
long considered the private property of the Dundas family.
Even at the present day, people who have tried, say canvassing
the Isles, especially when the equinoctials are on, is apt to be
more exciting than pleasant. Now the Orcadians look down
on the Shetlanders, but, ever since the days of Summerdale,
they have positively hated the Caithness people. Their feelings
may be imagined therefore, when one sheriff- depute was con-
sidered an ample supply of appellate wisdom, not only for
their own isles and Shetland, but also for the hated Caithness.
Amongst other good men who have been sheriff-deputes of
Orkney and Zetland, are conspicuous, rollicking, racy Lord
Neaves, to spend a night with whom was said to be a treat far
beyond any afforded by the Nodes A/>ibrosiaricB,—Sind Bon
* Acts and Statutes of the La~uling, p. 57.


Gaidtier Aytoun. Neaves was hardly " the man for Galway "
in one sense, however he may have been fitted in others, at
least, if we may judge from his Sheriff's Life at Sea, one
verse of which, says : —

" So the Sheriff" here must needs resign,
For his inside 's fairly gone, boys :
And he calls for a glass of brandy-wine,
And to bed with his gaiters on, boys, {bis.)
Lying here,
Dying there
Drearily, wearily,
Groaningly, moaiiingly.
Prostrate laid by fate's decrees
Seems the Sheriff now at sea, my boys."

The man who wrote The Massacre of the Macpherson was
more at home in the far north ; a keen angler, several lochs
are said to have been favourite haunts of his, especially loon-
frequented Funds Water, with its shores strewn w^ith pink
boulders, a liking that speaks volumes for his artistic sympa-
thies to any one who knows the loch. In addition to the
Aluckle Shirra, who, like Jove from Olympus, steps down

" On the Ultima Thulian world,"

each group has a Peerie Shirra of its own, whose life is so
easy-going and monotonous amongst the blameless Norsemen,
that, it is believed, they both would welcome a rising of the
Scandinavian sympathisers by way of variety.

On the abolition of episcopacy, the Orkneys formed one
Presbytery in the Synod of Caithness, but, in 1725, they were
divided by the General Assembly into the three Presbyteries
that now exist, of Kirkwall, Cairston, and the North Isles,
which together form the Synod of Orkney. In 1S61 the
population for the whole group was 32,395, whilst by the
census of 1881 it wns 32,037, showing a falling off of 358 in
the twenty years. ^ If, however, the total po})ulation shows a
^ See Appendix K, p. 612.


slight decline in the twenty years, the rental of the islands has
during the same period risen from ;^'"44,2i4 14^. in 1861, to
^79,539 I3J-. 3^. in 1 881, giving the enormous increase of
;^"'35,324 I9J-. 3^/. Of the landed proj^rietors, except amongst
the peerie lairds of Harray, the representatives of the old
Norse families have, with the exception of Dr. Baikie, of
Tankerness, become extinct in the direct male line. Mr.
Heddle, of Melsetter, through his grandmother, represents
the Moodies of Breck Ness, who are said to have been
descended from Harald Maddad's son. There are plenty of
Moodies, however, still to the fore, out of the isles, at the
Cape and in Canada. Mr. Balfour, of Balfour and Trenabie,
is said to represent Queen Mary's Master of the Horse through
a collateral line. Mr. Traill, of Holland, in Papa Westray, is
the head of all the Orcadian and Caithness Traills, the original
forebear of whom came, like so many others of the founders of
Orcadian families, from Fife, in the train of the Stewarts.
Bishop Graham is represented by Mr. Sutherland Graeme,
of Graemeshall, and Mr. Graham Watt, of Breck Ness and
Skail, though through the female line in each case. Earl
Patrick, according to Burke,^ left an only child, ]\Iary, who
married Stewart, of Graemsay, and whose only daughter, Mary,
married Andrew Honeyman, Bishop of Orkney, whose great-
great-grandson, William Honeyman, titular Lord Armadale, as
one of the lords of session, was created a baronet in 1804,''
and was the grandfather of the late well-known commercial
lawyer and judge. Sir George Honyman. The present head
of the family is the Reverend Sir William Macdonald Hony-
man, of Coton Hall, Salop, wlio, however, owns no property
in the Orkneys. According to the Fasti, vol. v. p. 459, Lord
Armadale was descended from Robert Honeyman, son of the
bishop by his Jirst marriage witli Eupham, daughter of a
Mr. Cunningham, minister of Ferry-port-on-Craig ; though tho
Fasti goes on to say that there was another son, Robert, by thei
marriage with Mary Stewart, which last son inherited Graemsay.
^ See Burke's Peerage under " Honyman."


Mrs. M. E. Bruce,! ^g-iin, says Earl Patrick died without male
issue, but left a daughter who married the first Bruce of
Sumburgh in Shetland. Bishop Mackenzie is represented by
the Rev. J. H. Pollexfen, of Cairston.

If, amongst the Commissioners of Supply, the representatives
of the old Norse families are almost entirely absent, amongst
the Harray lairds and the voters for burgh and county a large
number of the old Norse names still survive. Many of the
Harray lairds, it is said, like the statesmen of Westmoreland
and Cumberland, hold the same lands their ancestors did
[centuries back. And, though the old Odal succession has long
given way to the ordinary rule of inheritance common over
the whole kingdom, except where gavelkind or other special
tenures survive, they still hold their lands by prescriptive
right, and depend in no way on charter or deed as the root
of title. Harray was the last stronghold of the old Norse
tongue in the islands, where it is said to have survived as late
as 1757.- Although the Norse patronymics are still to be
found in considerable numbers throughout the population, and
the names of places ^ remain almost unchanged from the days
of the old Jarls, the influx of Scottish settlers from time to
time has, to a considerably greater degree than in Shetland,
influenced both the dialect and the very appearance of the
people. The Orcadian dialect is harsher and more Doric, if
the phrase may be used, than that of the northern group,
which grates far less on English ears, and Scott,* during the
short time he spent in the two groups, was struck by the
difference in appearance between the Shetlanders and the
Orcadians, saying in one place, " the Fair Isle inhabitants
are a good-looking race, more like Zetlanders than Orkney
men." The very gait of the two populations differs, the

^ Bruces and Cummings, p. 337. 2 Barry's Orkney, jx 230.

^ Those interested in the old Norse place-names of the Orkneys and
Shetland should read the two papers (both in EngHsh) by the late Professor
Munch on the subject, in the Menioins de la Sociclc Royale dcs Antiqttaires
dii Nord (vols. 1844-49, 1850-60).

■* Scott's Life, vol. iii. p. 176.


Orcadians, fine, powerful men as many of them are, walking
with the deliberate, plodding step, common to all agricultural
districts, whilst the Shetlanders swing along with the elastic,
springing stride of a race that would as soon walk barefoot as
not, and, if they must protect their feet with some sort of
covering, prefer the soft, easy feel of rivlins, to the rigid,
unyielding boot of so-called civilisation. Each district in
the islands has its own Tee-name, or nickname. Tradition
says, that many of these names date from the building
of the cathedral, and were given from the provisions the
several detachments brought with them. Thus the Papa
Westray folk are known as Dundies (poor cod), the Westray
people as Auks (the Common Guillemot), and the inhabitants
of Walls as Lyres (Manx Shearwater). That many of these
names are of respectable antiquity is shown by Jo Ben, who
wrote in 1529, saying of the Walls folk, "Wais, Pomonienses
vocant Incolas" (the Lyars of Wais). Some of the names,
however, seem to have altered since his day, as of the Harray
people, who are now known as Crabs, he states, " Hara alia
parochia, ubi ignavissimi fuci sunt, ideoque dicuntur " (the
Sheep of Harray). Sheep is nowadays applied to the in-
habitants of Shapinsay. A list of these tee-names is given in.
Appendix L.

A complete Fauna Orcadensis has yet to be written. Low's,
considering his time and opportunities, was very good, but is
far from complete, and wrong in many instances. The Historia
Naturalis Orcadensis, compiled by the late Dr. Baikie, the
African explorer, and the late Mr. Robert Heddle, a brother
of the well-known Professor of Chemistry at St. Andrew's,
only reached the first volume, comprising the mammalia and
birds up to that date (1848) observed in or around the islands.
Of the ichthyology and other branches very little has as yet,
if at all, appeared in a collected book form, except by
Low. Only some of the more special points relating to
the fauna on the islands can be dwelt on here, and the
reader, who wishes fuller (so far as it can be got) informa-


tion, is referred to the pages of Baikie and Heddle, fiom
which the writer has compiled the greater part of the following

That deer existed, in prehistoric times, in the Orkneys is
clear from the immense number of antlers that have, from time
time, been found amongst the animal remains in the brochs,
eirde houses, and scattered everywhere here and there in the
peat throughout the islands ; but that they had become extinct
by the Norse times is almost certain from there being no
mention of them in the islands in the Saga^ though we read
of Jarls Rognvald and Harald going over to Caithness to hunt
the red and the reindeer. The late Mr. Heddle of Melsetter
introduced red-deer some years back into Hoy, but, as they
could not be kept out of the cultivated ground and were con-
stantly swimming off to other islands, the present proprietor
has had to shoot them down. One stag in particular is said to
have swum down as far as Skail, and after spending a fortnight
or so in the old hunting-grounds of the Jarls, thence called
Birgisherar^, now Birsay, took soil again for Hoy. He is also
said to have once landed on Flotta and so frightened the
inhabitants, that some of them took boat at once for Scapa,
and rushed into Kirkwall to announce the arrival on their
island of the devil, horns and all.

Reindeer were also tried some years back, but, according to
the late Mr. Heddle, died off the first winter from the climate
not agreeing with them. Hares we know to have existed in
Norse days, as Jarl Harald is said, in one place in the Saga,^ to
have been away from home on one of the islands hunting
them ; and according to Mackaile, either the common or the
mountain hares were still to be found in Hoy about the com-
mencement of the seventeenth century. The common hare,
after an unsuccessful attempt by Malcolm Laing the historian,
was introduced on the Mainland by his brother, the translator
of the Heiviskringla, and the late Mr. Baikie of Tankerness,
about 1830, and since then has multiplied amazingly, not
1 Ork. Sag. p. 173.


only on the Mainland but also in Hoy, Shapinsay, Rousay,
Eday, and Papa Westray. So quickly did they increase, that
Mr. Fortescue of Swanbister started, about 1848, a pack of
harriers, by drafts from the Huxwall, Eainont, and Holker,
and kept it up for many years, as narrated by " Druid." ^
The mountain, or white hare, was introduced on the isle
of Gairsay a few years back, and is said to be doing well
there. Ground vermin of the weasel and stoat kind are un-
known in Orkney. Rats, however, are abundant, and some
years ago, the old black rat {Mus rattiis) was still to be found
in South Ronaldsay, but at the present day it is said to be
extinct even there. Baikie and Heddle mention, that the
common rat, which had been very numerous in Rousay, sud-
denly disappeared some twelve years before they wrote, and
that they did not think they could have escaped by sea on
account of the strong tides. This, however, is not so certain
if the statement which follows is correct. A friend of the
writer was told last year by a gentleman, that in his youth he
was standing with his father on the shores of Shapinsay, when
they suddenly became aware of vast bodies of rats moving
through the grass to the shore, when they deliberately entered
into the String to swim over to the Mainland. Both the
common and the field mouse are said to abound, and in May,
1 85 7) 3)41° were killed at Housebay in Stronsay, when the
stacks were being threshed out. According to tradition,
neither rat nor mouse can exist on the islets of Eynhallow and

Online LibraryJohn R TudorThe Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state → online text (page 18 of 59)