John R Tudor.

The Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state online

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Damisay, and Baikie and Heddle say they never had been
known there. Jo Ben said of North Ronaldsay, " nee ran^e,
glires nee bufones hie colunt ; et si navis hie adduxerit glires
cito pereunt quasi veneno."

The hamster is reported to exist in South Ronaldsay, and
with the short-tailed field-mouse, the common shrew and the
water-shrew, and the rabbit, comprise, with the exception of
the domesticated animals, the more terrestrial of the Orcadian
mammals. The otter is very common ; several were killed
^ Dixon's Field and Fern, p. 34.


within the last year in Kirkwall itself, having come up into the
Peerie Sea.

A walrus was killed in Eday in 1825, another seen in Hoy
Sound in 1827, and Professor Heddle ^ informed Mr. Harvie
Brown that he had seen one, accompanied by a cub, on the
coast of Walls in 1849 or 1850. Seals, as might be expected
from the nature of the seaboard, are fairly plentiful around
the Orkneys, and are said to be on the increase again, having
probably got over their original dread of the steamboats,
that are nowadays so constantly churning up the waters of
the various sounds and friths. Low - speaks of a murrain
having attacked the seals four years before he wrote, and
says they came ashore in quantities on the coasts of the
Orkneys and Caitlmess, very much swelled though nothing
but skin and bone, and that the Orcadians of his day used
every year to make trips to Suli Skerry for the purpose of
clubbing the seals there. This skerry, and the stack close to
it, on which Soland geese breed, though lying off Cape Wrath,
and some forty miles or so from Hoy Sound, are part of the
county of Orkney, and belong to Mr. Heddle of Melsetter.
According to Baikie and Heddle, the Phoca Barbata, great
bearded seal, or Haaf-Fish as the Shetlanders term it, is a con •
stant inhabitant of the Orkneys ; and they speak of the grey
seal, Halichcerus Griseiis, or Gryphus^ as if rare. Southwell ^
quotes Dr. Brown as saying, "The grey seal has no doubt been
frequently confounded with other species, particularly Phoca
Barbata and P/ioca GrcKnlandica. Such has been undoubtedly
the case, and a specimen in the British Museum, long regarded
as Phoca Barbata, has been referred to this species. There is,
I believe, no sufficient evidence that Phoca Barbata has ever
occurred on the British coast." That the grey seal must be
fairly abundant in the Orkneys the writer had ocular evidence in
May 1881, when, for upwards of an hour, in company with Dr.

^ Soutliwell's Seals and Whales of British Seas, p. 35.

^ Low's Fauna, p. 17.

^ South\\eirs Seals and Whales of British Seas, p. 2S.


Traill, he watched a herd of some eight or more, within less
than forty yards, on Seals Skerry, North Ronaldsay. Seal
remains from the broch of Burrian in that island have been
identified by Professor Turner as those of Halichcerus Griseus,
or Gryphjis, and the head of a seal shot at Seals Skerry was
pronounced by Sir Walter Elliot, a skilled comparative
anatomist, as that of the grey seal. According to Baikie and
Heddle, specimens of Phoca Hispida, the rough seal, have
been obtained in the islands, also one of the Greenland seal,
the cranium of which had been figured by Sir Everard Home.
They also state that specimens of the crested seal had been
killed at Rousay and Papa Westray. The Cetacea are largely
represented in Orcadian seas, from the true whales down to
the porpoise. Baikie and Heddle say that Balccna Mysticetits,
or the Greenland whale, is occasionally seen around the islands,
and that specimens, generally diseased, have been driven
ashore at times. According to Southwell,^ this is probably
a mistake for BalcBiia Biscayensts^ a shorter and more active
animal than the other, and one which is always infested with
barnacles, from which the Greenland whale is free. Specimens
of the High-Finned Cachalot, Physeter Tursio ; of the Great-
Headed Cachalot, or Spermaceti Whale, Physeter Microps ; of
the Sharp-Lipped Whale, Balcenoptcra Boops, and of the Tooth-
less Whale, Aodon Dalei, have, according to Baikie and Heddle,
been obtained in the islands. The Finner, as it is always called
in the north, or the Round-Lipped Whale, Balceiioptera Musculus,
is the most common of the larger cetacea amongst the
Orkneys. Very large whales have been from time to time
reported in the press as being driven on shore, but owing,
probably, to there being no one capable of identifying to what
species they belong, it is rarely stated what kind of whale they
were. Thus in 18582 a whale seventy-five feet long was found
dead off Shapinsay and sold for ;^'2o. Occasionally some
curious incidents occur ; thus somewhere about 1860^ d. firmer,

^ Southwell's Seals and Whales, p. 61 et s'q.

' Maidment Collections. 3 Ibidem.


got Stranded amongst the Pentland Skerries, and, as the spot it
was aground on was not convenient for flinching, the would-be
flinchers proceeded to tow it off, when the whale, who had
been playing possum, immediately gave them fin-bail. An
almost identical case occurred at Longhope on the 24th of
August 1 88 1, when a whale, said to have been about sixty feet
in length, got ashore at the head of the bay on Salt Ness close
under Melsetter. The whale was supposed to have been
slain, and a " fit-each " driven to the hilt in its forehead.
A rope was then made fast to the tail, and they proceeded to
tow it off, when, after cutting across the bay once or twice, it
went away at a good eight knots an hour out of the sound.
As there was a danger of the boat being towed under they had
to cut, and master whale went away with the " fit-each " still
planted in him. Another, and this time successful, attempt
to capture a Ca'ing Whale or Bottle Nose, of which species more
hereafter, was made at Herston, in Widewall Bay, South Ronald-
say, early last December. Mr. Linklater, the innkeeper there,
observing a bottle-nose aground under his house, to make sure of
it, cut with a knife a large hole it its head, in which he fixed the
fluke of an anchor, made fast to the shore by an iron chain ;
and as the whale seemed likely in its flurries to break away, he
let go another anchor in its blow-hole. The papers were full
some years back of the fight between threshers and swordfish
versus whale, witnessed by the Marquis of Lome from one of
the Allan steamers on his road home. A similar incident was,
in September, i860, witnessed by Gavin Mowat ' and his crew,
when fishing some six miles east of the Noup Head of Westray.
The whale, one of the kind locally called herring hogs, on
being attacked by the swordfish, which struck "its lethal
weapon into the whale's body just behind the large fin," leaped
six feet out of the water. The thresher kept striking the
whale on both sides in the middle.

The DelphifiidcB are very common in Orcadian waters, though
probably not to so great an extent as on the Shetland coast.

^ Maid til en t Collections.



The Common Porpoise, Delphinus F/ioc(zna, may often be seen
turning over like a London Arab doing a Catharine wheel ; and
the Grampus, or Killer, Delphinus Orea, the most ferocious of
all cetacea, is not uncommon, and is dreaded by the fishermen.
If the grampus of the Atlantic is at all like Killer of the
western coasts of North America the fishermen have some
reason to dread them. Scammon ^ speaks of the Pacific Killer,
— N.B., this is not a goak — attacking the largest baleen whales
in packs of three or four, and of their having actually taken
a large whale, which had been slain, from its captors. He also
says that one has been known to swallow four porpoises running;
that another was killed that, although it was only 1 6 feet in
length, had thirteen porpoises and fourteen seals inside it.
Heavens, what a swallow ! The White-Sided Dolphin, Del-
phinus Acutus, is, according to the late Dr. Duguid,^ often seen,
but rarely secured, though twenty were landed at Kirkwall on
2 1 St August, 1858.

The Cetacean of the Orkneys and Shetland, however, par
excellence, is the Ca'ing Whale, the Delphinus Dediictor of
Scoresby, and the Grind Whale of the Faroes. The name
" ca'ing " is applied from the driving or herding process used in
its capture, and is the same word as "kaing," which is applied
in Shetland to driving the sheep into the era for rovin or mark-
ing. The name Delphinus Dediictor, the best of all the
technical names applied to these marine sheep, is given from
the habit of the herd to follow the old bull as sheep do a bell
wether. Large numbers have been killed at a grind, as a
whale-hunt is termed in the Faroes. In 1861, sixty, from
eighteen to twenty feet in length, were slain at Sourin, in
Rousay, which realised ;^2 6o. Seven hundred escaped in
Pierowall Bay in 1865, and three hundred were captured in
Linga Sound, Stronsay, a few years back. They, if possible,
always run up wind, and, if only the leader is once ashore, the
rest follow as a matter of course.

^ Scammon's Mamtiialia, 6^c., p. 91.
* Southwell's Sea's, &=c., p. 125.


An acquaintance of the writer was "in at the death " of
430 ca'ing whales in Thorshaven Harbour on September the
7th, 1879, and wrote a very graphic description of the whole
grind, which appeared in 77;^ ^/V/^ of December 20th the same
year. Southwell remarks that these Cetaceans are easily killed
with a rifle bullet in the throat. An instance in proof of this
occurred in Linga Sound, Stronsay, in May, 1881, when
Mr. Sinclair, of Ariegarth, shot one from a boat ; another was
shot on the iSth of February, 1879, by Mr. Heddle, of
Lerwick, whilst strolling, with his rifle, round the Ness of
Sound, when, after being shot, the whale was good enough
to run itself ashore, which saved retrieving.

If the list of Orcadian MammaHa, excluding the Seals, the
Walruses, and the Cetaceans, is a very restricted one, the orni-
thology of the islands is very varied, embracing according to
Dr. Clouston no less than 236 species. All the Falconidcp.
included by Macgillivray in his Rapacious Birds of Britain,
with the exception of the Rough-Legged Buzzard, the Bee
Hawk, and the Orange-legged Falcon, have been killed or
observed in the islands. The Golden Eagle was at one time
by no means uncommon. Wallace tells a story of one John
Hay who, as a child, was carried away by one of these birds.
Both the Golden Eagle and the White-Tailed Sea-Eagle, thanks
to the egg-collecting mania, no longer breed in the Orkneys.
Fifty years ago the Erne, as the White-tailed Eagle is called in
the Orkneys and Shetland, bred on the Red Head of Eday,
Costa Head in Birsay — White Breast, Dwarfie Hamars, the
Old Man, Berry Head, and Braebrough in Hoy ; and in South
Ronaldsay. The Golden Eagle appears to have bred only at
the Sneug, some other rock to the west of it, the Meadow of
the Kaim, and the Dwarfie Hamars, in Hoy. How numerous
the eagles must have been in the Orkneys in former times is
shown by the numerous references to them in the Old Country

Mr. Forbes, formerly parochial schoolmaster at St. Margaret's
Hope, and who is still alive, supplied Macgillivray with a good

p 2


many of his data and facts concerning the eagles in the
Orkneys. Amongst other incidents, he mentioned ^ that a
liawk (probably a Goshawk), had suddenly launched out from
the Black Craig near Strom ness, and struck an eagle, when
both birds fell in the sea and were picked up by some people
who were fishing in a boat close by. A clergyman ^ in Hoy saw
an eagle flying away with a young grunter four weeks old.
Sucking ^ pig seems to have been a special weakness of master
Erne, as one flying over Harray with a hen in its talons, dropped
the hen to make a grab at one of a litter of pigs it espied.
The sow, however, beat off" the Erne, which after all had to
fly home empty-clawed, as the hen in the meantime had
escaped into the house. At that time (before 1836), pig-
styes were made on the hills in a conical beehive form of
turf, with a hole on the top. A pig"* had by some means
been left to die from hunger in one of these styes, when an
eagle flying overhead, espying the carcass, immediately went
for it, and gorged himself to such an extent that he was caught

Of the other Fako?iidce, Baikie and Heddle mention the
Peregrine, the Merlin, the Sparrow Hawk, and the Hen Harrier
as common, especially the three last named. According to
Low,^ Copinsay supplied, in his day, the King's Falconer with
Peregrines for which he paid five shillings a nest. In the
Register of the Privy Council for Scotland, vol. ii. p. 611, is an
entry of the 15th of May, 1577, which shows that the royal
falconer was looked upon at that day, as the Dog-Tax Man
was a few years back in Foula. It runs " Anent Halkis,"
and after reciting that His Majesty's Falconer had been
evil handled in Orkney and Shetland, it was ordered that
no one in those isles should reserve the hawks, but provide
entertainment for and show every assistance to the King's

1 Macgjillivray's Rapacious Birds of Britain, pp. 72, 73.

- Ibidem, p. 73. 3 Ibidem.

* Ibidem, p. 74. 5 Low's Toitr, p. 45.


Of the Strigida ; the Eagle Owl, Biiho Maxii/ms, the
Long-eared Owl, Otiis Vulgaris, the Short-eared Owl, Otus
Brachyotus, the Barn Owl, Strix Flanimea, the Tawny Owl,
Uhda Stridula, the Snowy Owl, Syrnia Nydea, and the
Little Owl, Nodiia Passerina, have all, it is said, been seen
in Orkney. The short-eared owl is the commonest, the eagle
owl, white or barn owl, and the tawny owl, were all, when
Baikie and Heddle wrote, supposed to breed in the islands,
but were far from common. The others have only been
noticed as rare visitors.

Of the Corvidx ; in former years, only the Raven and Royston
Crow were at all numerous ; and the Rook, when Baikie and
Heddle wrote, was only an occasional visitor. Within the last
few years the rooks, having been evicted in Caithness, have
started three large colonies in Orkney, at Muddisdale, in the
gardens in Kirkwall, and at Tankerness Hall. To such an
extent did they swarm in Kirkwall last year, that they became
a perfect nuisance, because of their everlasting cawing and their
dropping propensities. Jackdaws though not numerous are
said to be on the increase. The Orcadian bird, however, is
the Starling, which simply swarms, occasionally taking posses-
sion of pigeon cots to the exclusion of the lawful owners. The
number said to have been killed in a pigeon-house at Holland,
in Papa Westray, at one time is something almost fabulous.
Several Rose-coloured Pastors, Pastor Roseus, have from time
to time, been seen in the islands. The improvement in agricul-
ture, the number of small plantations that are springing up here
and there, and the increased care bestowed upon the gardens
have not only modified the habits of many species, but have
also increased the number of many species formerly only of
rare occurrence. Of the Meriiiidce ; the Common Thrush is
the most numerous ; the Blackbird is said to be much more
common than it was; the Fieldfare a regular winter visitant in
large numbers ; the Redwing chiefly in autumn ; the Ring-
Ouzel and Missel Thrush very rare. Of the Silviadce ; the


Golden-Crested Regulus numerous in winter ; the Robin Red-
breast not very numerous. The Wheatears fairly numerous in
summer ; Hedge Accentor or Hedge Sparrow, Redstart, Black
Redstart, Stonechat, Black-Cap, Willow Warbler, and Lesser
Petty Chaps occasional, or very rare. Of the ParidcB ; only
one specimen of the Blue Tit has been observed. Of the
MotacilUdm ; the Pied Wagtail numerous; the Grey Wagtail
and the Yellow Wagtail rare. Of the Anthidce. ; Rock Pipit
abundant ; Meadow Pipit common ; Tree Pipit occasional.
Of the AlaudidcE. ; only the Skylark, which is very numerous.
Of the Emberizidce ; the Common Bunting and the Snow
Bunting very plentiful, though the latter bird only in winter ;
the Black-headed Bunting and Yellow Bunting rare. Of the
FrhigilHdcc ; House Sparrow, Lesser Redpole, and Mountain
Linnet very common all the year round ; Chaffinch, Green
Finch, and Common Linnet autumn and winter visitants.
The Mountain Finch, Baikie and Heddle thought might be a
frequent winter visitor though it had only once been noted
when they wrote ; Common Crossbills occasionally frequent in
winter ; Bullfinch, only one specimen had been obtained. Of
the PicidcE ; the Green Woodpecker, the Great Spotted Wood-
pecker, the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and Wryneck have all
been observed but very rare. Of the Certhiadce; the Common
Wren is common ; Common Creeper occasional ; and of the
beautiful Hoopoe several specimens have been obtained. Of
the Ciiculidce ; only the Cuckoo, and only apparently in certain
localities. Of the Meropidce ; several specimens of the beauti-
ful Roller have been got. Of the Hirundinidce ; the Common
Swallow, the House Martin, and the Sand Martin regular
visitors but apparently confined to particular localities ; the
Common Swift occasional. Of the Caprimulgidce ; a few
Nightjars have been obtained. Of the Coliimbidce ; the Rock
Pigeon or Blue Rock is very abundant all along the rocky
coast-line, and shooting them from a boat as they come like
greased lightning out of the caves is a very different thing to


potting them from a trap ; the Ring Dove or Wood Pigeon
formerly rare now breeds regularly at Muddisdale and in
Shapinsay ; one Turtle Dove is recorded by Baikie and Heddle
to have been seen when they wrote, and one is said to have
been since observed. The Red Grouse are the only repre-
sentatives of the TetraofiidLZ in Orkney at the present day,
and, as they did in former years in Caithness, lie well to dogs
in October and November. Grouse disease has never been
known in Orkney, and the birds, which are lighter in colour than
on the Mainland, are said to weigh more than, or as much as,
any grouse in Scotland. Ptarmigan existed in Hoy till about the
year 1825, and are said to have been exterminated by the
officers engaged on the Trigonometrical Survey. Partridges,
which are abundant in Caithness, have been introduced over
and over again, from before Low's time down to the present
day, but though they sometimes seem to thrive for a time, they
always die off in the end. Whether it is the want of hedges
and cover generally that prevents their taking to the soil, or
whether some subtle climate influence is the obstacle no one
seems able to tell. To all outward appearances many of the
farms look the perfection of partridge ground. Two Quail are
reported to have been killed in Orkney, one in Sanday in 1833,
and one at Papdale in 1854, and about 1876 a Great Bustard
was shot in Stronsay. Of the Charadriidce. ; Golden Plover are
very abundant in winter, and a few remain to breed, though not
in the numbers they do in Shetland. Dotterel Plover, that
invaluable bird to the fly-dresser, seems not uncommon at
times in the Orkneys, though only one specimen has been
obtained in Shetland. The Ringed Plover or Sand Lark
and the Oyster Catcher or Sceolder are very common, the
Turnstone is a regular winter visitor, and the Grey Plover and
Sanderling are occasionally seen in winter. Of the Grnidcc ;
the Common Heron is very abundant all the year round
amongst the Southern Isles, and may be seen at times in very
large flocks on the island of Hunda and on the Lochs of


Stenness and Harray ; and specimens of the Little Bittern, the
White Stork, and the White Spoonbill have been obtained.
Of the ScolopacidcB ; Snipe, formerly very abundant, are said
to have been decreasing of late years. Jack snipe are said to
be fairly abundant in winter. Woodcock are found chiefly in
Rousay and Hoy, though they are spread more sparsely all
over the islands. The Curlew or Whmip, is common all the
year round, the Whimbrel during the breeding season. The
Redshank and Dunlin are indigenous. The Common Sand-
piper, the Greenshank, the Black-tailed Godwit, and the Purple
Sandpiper are more or less rare winter visitors. The Knot,
that puzzle to the naturalist as to where it does breed, is
occasionally seen in large flocks, and the beautiful Ruff is at
times very abundant for so rare a bird. Of the Rallida; ; Land
Rails, Water Rails, and Water Hens are all more or less
numerous throughout the islands. Of the Lobipedidce ; the
Common Coot breeds in several places, and both the Grey
Phalarope and the Red-necked Phalarope, are said to breed
in the islands. As might be expected, the Orkneys are rich in
water fowl. Of the AnafidcB ; the Grey Lag Goose, the Bean
Goose, the White-fronted Goose, the Bernicle Goose, and the
Brent Goose, are all visitors, of which the first and the last two
are the most abundant.

The old superstition was that the Bernicle was hatched out
of barnacle shells. Mackaile says that the -islands abounded
with wildfowl, " geise of several sorts, and particularly ' clock '
(another name for the Bernicle) geise, which come thither in
the end of harvest, and go away immediately before the spring ;
yet Monteith of Egilshay informed me, that one year they did
hatch their eggs in his Holme, which confirmed me in my
unbelieving that these geise are generate out of trees." Butler,
in Hiidibras, has a rather muddled reference to the barnacle
shell theory, —

" As barnacles turn soland geese
In th' i lauds of the Orcades."


The Hooper, or Whistling Swan, is very common some winters,
several were shot in Rousay and other parts during the winter
of 1881-82, and a flock remained all the winter through on
a small loch in North Ronaldsay, owing their immunity from
lead to Dr. Traill forbidding their being disturbed.

Amongst the Ducks ; the Shieldrake or Burrow Duck, the
Mallard, and the Teal, all breed in the islands, whilst the Pin-
tail and Wigeon are common in winter, and the Common
Shoveller, the Gadwall, the Garganey, are rare visitors. Of
the Scaup Ducks ; the Eider or Dunter is common, and breeds
in the islands, the three Scoters, the two Scaup Ducks, the Long-
tailed Ice Duck, and the Golden Eye are regular winter visitors.
Of the Mergansers ; the Red-Breasted Merganser remains all
the year through, and the Goosander is only seen in the winter.
Colytnbidcz ; of the Grebes, the Little Grebe is indigenous, as
also the Sclavonian Grebe, whilst the Red-necked Grebe is a
winter visitor. Of the Loons ; the Red-throated Diver or
Rain-Goose is common, and breeds; the Great Northern Diver
is common, but whether it breeds is uncertain, and the Black-
throated Diver not uncommon. Many small tarns or lochs up
in the hills in both the Orkneys and Shetland are known as
Loomie Shims, from being the breeding-places of the Red-
throated Diver. Of the Alcadce ; the Common Guillemot, the
Black Guillemot or Tystie, and the Razor Bill breed and
remain all the year, the Puffin, or Tammy Norie, breeds, but
leaves for the winter, and the Little Auk is only seen in the
winter. Of the Felkatiidce ; the Soland Goose breeds on the
Stack near Suli Skerry, and is generally to be seen in the
sounds and firths, and both Cormorants are common. Laridce ;
of the Terns the Common, the Arctic, and the Little Tern
are all visitors, and of the Gulls the Small Black-headed or
Lams Ridibundus, the Kittiwake, the Common or Lants Caniis,
the Lesser Black-backed or Lams Fuscus, the Herring or
Larus Argenta/us, and the Great Black-backed or Lams
Marimis, are all more or less common, and specimens of


the Ivory, Iceland, and Glaucous Gulls have been killed in
the islands. Richardson's Skua breeds in Walls and Eday,
and, it may be, other places, and does a deal of harm to the
young broods of grouse. The Manx Shearwater or Lyre breeds
in Walls, Westray, and Papa Westray, and the pretty little
Mother Carey's Chicken or Stormy Petrel nests in several



The Flora of the Orkneys, though particularly mteresting in
several respects, is by no means rich, and offers small attrac-
tions to any one save the botanist, being deficient in ferns, and
other popular plants.

There are sixteen different species of ferns in the islands,
besides varieties, and one or two more reported, and possibly
but with one exception, namely, a variety of adder's tongue,
none are rare in other parts of Scotland. Among the least
common may be mentioned N. yEmiiluvi, with its crisp curling

Online LibraryJohn R TudorThe Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state → online text (page 19 of 59)