John R Tudor.

The Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state online

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so short, that with plain soles you slip all over the place, and
at the end of a day's walking find the said soles polished as
smooth as glass. The difficulty as a rule is not in getting to
Foula, as no one who was not an idiot would think of starting
unless the weather looked favourable, but in getting stuck on
the island for many days, perhaps weeks. In most summers
however, there is not much danger in June and July of finding
yourself confined there beyond a few days at the outside.
When about half-way across, the water begins to shoal, and even
in the smoothest weather there is a certain amount of sharp,
jerking, roly-poly motion, that in bad weather is apt to become
a short, cho])ping, dangerous sea, This is caused by the tide









Scale 1 English Mle

StaTifard's Gtog^ I.stab'-


flowing over what is known as the Foula Banks, one of the
best cod-grounds in the islands. One cannot fancy any one
attempting to cross the stretch of water that intervenes between
the Mainland and Foula single-handed, and yet a poor insane
woman did so from Dale some thirty years ago. As soon
as her absence was perceived, and the boat she had taken
missed, a sixareen was at once sent in pursuit, as it was known
she was always yearning to reach the island. She was not
caught till she was just off Ham Geo. What made it the
more remarkable, she is said to have had only one oar, and
this she must have used against the north-going tide till,
when half across, the south tide swept her on to the island.
The hardest part of the story is, that her pursuers or rescuers
once they had caught her, whilst landing themselves, would
not allow her to do so, though it was the one end and object
of her poor crazed mind. Now to give some description of
the island before landing. Seen from the east, and when half-
way across from Vaila Sound, the island has a very serrated
appearance. In the extreme south you have the (comparatively)
low-lying land that forms the South Ness ; then the somewhat
blunted top of the Noup (803 feet), springing apparently out
of which, though in reality a glen called Wester Dahl inter-
venes between them, comes Hamnafield with its shapely
accentuated peak (1,126 feet), above which appears the equally
pointed summit of the Sneug (1,372 feet), towering over its
satellites, then the Kaim (1,220 feet), the highest cliff-point
on the island, below which stretches a comparatively level ridge
known as the North Banks and terminating in Soberley
(721 feet), under which again, is a much shorter plateau
ending in Easter Haevdi (Icelandic hoJ'iSi, a head), (253 feet),
close to which are seen the Friar Stacks, the finest of which,
the Gada Stack, would anywhere else be looked upon as
a very fine rock, but here seems dwarfed into insignificance.
According to Captain Veitch, R.E.,^ Foula is three miles
and a fifth in length from north to south, whilst from east
' Memoirs Wernerian Society. \o\. iv. p. 237.


to west it measures two miles and a-half in the broadest
part ; the general outline of the island on the map being
not unlike that of Africa. It is almost equally divided into
hill-ground and low-land, the hill portion commencing with
the Noup and with only the break of Wester Dahl extending
to Easter Haevdi, whilst the flat, or comparatively speaking flat,
ground extends along the eastern side from the South Ness to
Strom Ness and is bounded by a cliff line of which Darga
Ness (127 feet), North Haevdi (146 feet). Mid Hgevdi (130
feet), and South Hrevdi (107 feet) are the highest points.
Unlike Fair Isle, which is indented with geos innumer-
able, Foula has comparatively few, the principal landing-place
being at Ham in a very small creek, a little to the south of
which is the bight of Ham Little, where vessels discharging
goods anchor when weather permits. A short distance up the
little valley west of Ham, on the shores of which is the house
of the resident factor, Mr. Peterson, is the new school-house
lately erected by the School Board of Walls, under whose educa-
tional sway the island comes. About three-quarters of a mile
south of the school is the Congregational Chapel and Manse,
whilst the Established Church lies on the south-west side of
Ham Town, the most cultivated and thickly populated portion
of the island situated in the extreme south. Curiously enough
the population has risen from 257 in 187 1, to 267 in 1881, an
increase of over a hundred since Captain Veitch's visit.
Although marrying very much in and in amongst themselves,
only four women not natives of Foula having married into the
island for forty years, the evil effects of such in-and-in breeding
do not show to the extent that might otherwise have been
anticipated. The families as a rule are said to be small, and
couples without incumbrances more common than on the
Mainland. They very rarely leave the island, and if they do,
hardly ever return, and to this cause probably the increase in
population is chiefly due. Almost all belong to the Congrega-
tional body, and the few who still stick to the Established
Church are ministered to by a reader. Foula was the last


place in the islands where the old Norse survived, and Low ^
took down phonetically from the lips of William Henry of
Guttorm, a ballad of thirty-five stanzas describing the lives
of an Earl of Orkney and the daughter of a King of Norway. -
He also found that though the inhabitants knew little about
the rest of Europe they had " Norwegian transactions at their
fingers' ends." You would therefore naturally expect in an
island like Foula to see the fair-haired Norse type very marked,
and the writer was astonished at finding fully half the children
at the school quite dark-haired and with almost swarthy com-
plexions, the exact opposite to what he found in Fair Isle,
where, if the Spanish tradition has anything in it, he ought to
have noticed it. Seven sixareens fish from the island, and the
Foulaese have the reputation of being the finest boatmen in
the islands. They get cod principally, and also a good many
saith in the rapid tideways around the Havre de Grind reef a
few miles to the eastward. Low was charmed with the people,
and Veitch, who spent twenty-two days encamped on the
Sneug, contrasted them very favourably, physically and morally,
with the Fair Islanders, saying, " In Fair Isle the natives are
in general half-starved and ill-clothed, even squalid and
unhealthy, and have a look of savage apathy. In Foula, the
reverse is the case : in every respect the inhabitants seem
much at their ease, are decently clothed, and are of a cheerful,
inquisitive character. Indeed I met no peasantry in Shetland
to equal them. Their frank, free disposition, simple primitive
manners, render them a very amiable people." Veitch came
to the conclusion that smuggling was the cause of the differ-
ence in a great measure, and yet, if local traditions are to be
trusted, cargoes were now and then landed on Foula. As soon
as you are ashore, if weather permits, engage a boat to
explore the western side of the island, as it is not every day
you are able to do so, and it is as well to take the first
opportunity. There is nothing much to interest you till you
come to the North Bank, a furious rush of tideway off
^ Low's Tour, p. 109. ^ See Appendix R, p. 628.



Strom Ness, the northern point of the island. Here, calm as
the sea may be elsewhere, the mere strength of the tide
sends the white horses leaping over the baas^ which with a
setting sun bring out the most beautiful prismatic effects, as
you plunge into what for a short distance appears like a huge
seething caldron. Clear of this you cross War Wick, and
come to Hura Wick or North Wick, from the further end of
which two boats fish, and a nice wild exposed fishing-station
it is too.

Here the Friar Stacks come in sight, the easternmost one of
which, called the Stack of the Brough from the ruins of an old
broch on its summit, is connected with the shore. Then the
Sheepey Stack, a little distance out, inside of which, though
further west, is the Gada Stack, by far the most picturesque
one of the three. This, which Professor Heddle ^ compares to
a dog sitting on its haunches, with fore-legs stiffened and head
erect, is from one hundred and fifty to two hundred feet in
height, and runs from north-west to south-east. Right through
the rock is a magnificent arch extending nearly to the summit,
and the south-west side is pierced by a circular window. Guille-
mots occupy the upper portions of this grand hall, and kitti-
wakes in hundreds breed below. Next you come to Trolli Geo,
and then to Selchie Geo, a glorious amphitheatre of reddish
brown rock which gets its name from the quantity of seals that
in former years frequented its rocks and skerries. Easter
HcTsvdi, the western extremity of Selchie Geo, is pierced from
east to west by an arch, the mouth of which on the eastern
side is like the muzzle of a huge bell-mouthed blunderbus.
This arch is known as Kittiwake Hall, and in Veitch's day
was the only breeding-place on the island of those birds. It is
not so at the present day ; still so numerous were they, when
the writer was there in 1880, that the air seemed as if filled
with gigantic snowflakes. Here the really sublime pano-
rama of the western side of Foula may be said to commence,
opening with the North Banks, not quite a mile of cliff-face
^ J\/ineralogical Magazine, vol. iii. p. 46.


ranging from 698 feet to S42 feet. A magnificent range of
cliff it is too, with a face here Hchen-covered, there inter-
spersed with grassy ledges, favourite breeding spots of the
puffins. In former times it is said the North Banks were
regularly divided amongst the crofters, each of whom had, as it
were, so much frontage. Low,i in speaking of the sea-fowl of
Foula, says:

" Neither the Fulmar, Great Auk, nor the Solan build here,
which is something surprising. It is the number, not the
variety that amazes one, and indeed all the flights I had before
seen were nothing to this; as far as the eye can stretch, the
whole precipice swarms, the sea around is covered, and the air
in perpetual motion, flocking either to or from the rock. This
puts one in mind of a capital city to which the whole kingdom
resorts once in a year ; here they are in perpetual motion, to
and again passing and repassing, going and returning ; every-
thing is noise and uproar, bustle and hurry reigns, every
creature attentive to the great law of nature hasting to perform
its function before the return of winter, when it knows it must
take its departure. All birds except shags and cormorants,
leave Foula in winter, as I was assured by all the inhabitants."

The puffins are the most numerous, and from their building
nearest the summit are the birds whose nests are most harried.
Low 2 thus describes the mode adopted in his day :

" Their methods of getting at the wild-fowl and their eggs
are very dangerous. I observed in many places a stake stuck
about six inches into the bank, and this in many places so
rotten as to fly all to pieces with a slight blow ; and in all
so loose as to shake with the least touch of one's foot ; nay,
they often strike the blade of a small dagger they usually wear,
into the ground, and throwing a noose of a fishing-cord over
any of these, slip down without the least apprehension of
danger. They give however a very pretty good account of the
matter ; they tell us they never trust too much to the rope nor
the stake, that there is little strain either on one or the other

' Low's Tour, p. 98. '^ Ibidem, p. 104.

L L 2


when once they have got a footing on the rock, and they
depend more on their own chmbing. But with all this there
are frequent instances of their perishing, and few who make
this a practice for hfe die a natural death."

So matter of course was it for a man to be killed on the
Banks, that the regular saying was — " His gutcher (grandfather)
guid before, his father guid before, and he must expect to go
over the Sneug too ;" and if one man wanted to insult another
he said, " My father died like a man on the banks ; yours like
a dog in his bed." ^ There have been, it is said, no cliff acci-
dents of late years, which, considering the modus operandi is
the same it was in Low's day, is something wonderful. Som.e-
where at the southern end of these cliffs is a spot discoloured
with iron ore, which is said to have given rise to the local
legend of there being a carbuncle under the Kaim. The
Kaim is, if one may use the phrase, double-jointed, the
Little Kaim being a projecting ledge about half-way up,
which, if anything, overhangs the water. The steepest
portion of the cliff, to which the term Kaim is applied,
is 82°, or 8° off perpendicular. This in a cliff-face of 1,121
feet is not bad, and from the water you cannot tell that it is
not perpendicular. Somewhere about the Little Kaim was
for many years the breeding-place of a pair of ernes or white-
tailed eagles, but they have deserted it for some time past. It
is said the young birds remained with the old ones till the
following spring, when they were driven away to start an
establishment of their own, and Saxby - remarks on the celerity
with which, if the female be shot during the breeding season,
the male bird contrives to get a new mate. In the bight
between the Kaim and Nebbefield (1,020 feet), and which is
known as the Geo of Rogar, is a curiously shaped stack called
the Stab, which, from one point of view looks like a sphinx, and
from another is absurdly like a barrister wigged and gowned in
the act of yawning. Nebbefield is very fine, the outline
being very sharply defined, and the sweep round to Wester

^ llibberl's Shetland Isles, p. 588. ^ Saxby's Bii-ds, p. 6.


Hsevdi is very grand, though the diffs fall off in size at Wester
Haevdi, being only 486 feet. At the northern end of this
bight at the water's edge are a lot of huge cyclopean boulders
known as the Scrud Herdins. So deep however is the water
here, that the writer was told of a person, whose boat was
actually touching the rocks, catching cod on a hand-line in
fifteen fathom water. The stratification of Nebbefield is very
marked and uniform.

In the centre of this bight, in fact in the very oxter, is a
very fine cave, in which thousands of kittiwakes breed. On
rounding Wester Ha^vdi you have another grand, in fact the
grandest, sweep round to the red cliffs of the Noup. At the
northern end stretch, next the water, a long range of cliffs,
known as the Muckleberg, gradually tapering down from 635 feet
to 219 feet, above which comes a vast expanse of treacherous
grassy slope known as Ufshins, the most dangerous spot in the
island, and where it is said more deaths have occurred to
fowlers than anywhere else. Above Ufshins is another cliff
wall, known as the Heads of Hamar, the summit of which is
not far below the Sneug. At the southern end of Muckleberg
you come to the western end of Wester Dahl, in which is a
curious crevice or fissure, known as the Sneck of Smalie,
about, according to Professor Heddle, 300 yards long, 100
feet deep, and 6 feet wide at the top, though broader below.
Somewhere hereabouts occurred one of the few wrecks that
have occurred at Foula — ^so different in this respect from Fair
Isle — that of a brig named tlie Ce7-cs^ of Belfast. All the crew
were lost except one man, named Samuel Black, who, it is
said, when the ship struck, jumped from the bowsprit on to the
rock, and scrambling up with the greatest difficulty, was found
in a state of insensibility on the top by a man who had come
for peats.

Though the Noup, like that of Noss, slopes backwards, the
precipitous slope extends, according to Professor Heddle, to
nearly the summit, being 795 feet. The Noup, to follow out
Low's simile of the birds coming up to the capital for the


season, may be termed the Hotel des Lyres, or the town-house
of the Manx Shearwaters. The Rooeskie (484 feet), which
probably owes its name to its red rock, is, overhanging as it
does in places, a magnificent clifl", and may be said to termi-
nate the rock glories of Foula, as immediately after it the
rock face is no higher than 173 feet. Having come thus far
under the cliff-line from Easter Hsvdi, instead of pulling
home to Ham round the South Ness, have the boat pulled a
mile or so out to seaward, and then, keeping that distance
from the island till you reach Strom Ness, return the way you
came. This will enable you to realise the sky line, which
when pulling close under the cliffs you are unable to do. The
writer is only sorry he was unable to do so himself when there,
as his companion was so tired out from the effects of something
like nine hours' open boat-work, as to compel them to get
back as soon as possible.

There is practically only one way of ascending the hills and
making the circuit, so far as it can be made, of the western
cliff-line, and that is from the south. A Foula man, or a
member of the Alpine Club, might think nothing of making
the round from north to south, but for ordinary pedestrians it
would be out of the question. Walking up the little valley
past the school-house, and round the picturesque mill Loch
of Ham, you strike the lower end of the main ridge or
back-bone of Hamnafield. It is a stae brae, but otherwise
not difficult walking. About two hundred yards before you
reach the cairn on the apex of Hamnafield is a heap of stones
said to cover the Lum of Liorafield, first mentioned by Brand
and then by Low,^ who, however, was not allowed to see it,
" from a superstitious notion among the people that he who
opens the Hole of Liorafield the first time he is in the island
dies immediately after, and this was the only thing I could
find them sly in." Veitch was told that it descends perpen-
dicularly to the level of the sea, and is then connected with
the ocean by a subterraneous passage ; and the Foulaese

1 Low's Tour, p, 115.


alleged, in support of this, that a sheep pursued by a dog
precipitated itself into the Lum, and was followed by the dog ;
both being afterwards found by the mouth of a small cave on
the sea-shore. As the top of the Lum can be very little short
of 1,100 feet, that sheep and that dog must have mastered,
and that thoroughly, what Assheton Smith called the whole
art of falling. The Ordnance cairn on the crest of Hamnafield
is used as the hamlet clock, when the sun is over it announcing
six o'clock in the evening to the people of Ham. Descending
from Hamnafield, you ascend another ridge, known as Townie-
field, which brings you to the Sneug. It is, unfortunately,
rarely during summer months without a nightcap of fog or
mist, and even if the summit is free, there is generally a haze
on the sea which prevents your getting any view of the Main-
land. Low, who was on the island for seven days in July
1774, never once saw Shetland proper ; and, out of the twenty-
two days spent by Veitch's party encamped on the Sneug,
seventeen are recorded in their weather register as more or less
foggy. Veitch thus describes the view when the atmosphere
is clear : —

" From the summit of the Snuke, the highest and central
peak of the ridge, an extensive view of Shetland is obtained,
the Ossa Skerry, a remarkably detached rock, and Ronas
Hill, forming interesting features on the left of the scene,
while FitfuU Head and Fair Isle, objects of no less interest,
terminate the view on the right hand, including a space of
about seventy miles chiefly occupied by the Mainland of
Shetland. In very fine weather five hills in Orkney may be
descried, appearing like clouds on the horizon, but to the
naked eye giving no clue to their identities. From these
hills, however, the island of Foula assumes an appearance
not to be mistaken. Its precipitous west end, as seen from
Westra, in Orkney, a distance of seventy miles, forms a
striking object."

Foula and Unst are now the only two spots in Britain
where the Lestris Cataractes, or Great Skua, still breeds ; and


it is to be feared, if the depredations of the egg-steahng
fraternity, instigated by the demand afforded for their stolen
goods by the closet-school of naturalists, are not soon stopped,
this rarest of British birds must shortly become as extinct
as the Greater Bustard' or the Great Auk — at least, so far as
this kingdom is concerned. That at one time they bred on
most of the lofty hills in Shetland there can be little doubt.
The Bonxie Hill, south of Quarff, was probably one of
their haunts, as Bonxie is the name by which the bird is
generally known in Shetland, though in Unst they are called
Skooi. Rooeness Hill was occupied by them within the
memory of living men, and to a well-known naturalist from
the Orkneys is said to be due the credit of their extermination
there, he having encamped on the hill till he shot them all
down — an easy job, as during the breeding season bolder
birds do not exist. They arrive in Shetland, according to
Saxby, about the end of April, and remain till the middle of
August, when old and young leave for other climes.

Measuring^ about 22 inches from end of beak to tip of tail,
and 52 inches across the wings, the bonxie is a somewhat heavy
bird, weighing, according to Low,^ 3 lbs. o oz. 4 drs., and armed
with a powerful bill, measuring 2\ inches from base to tip, and
which, like the talons and web of the feet, is a deep black ;
general colour of the bird a deep brown-black, with a con-
spicuous white patch on the wings. The tail is spread out fan-
fashion when flying. The eggs are said to be similar to those
of some of the gulls, whose eggs are sometimes sold for those of
the skuas. The young birds, in the downy stage, look not unlike
young goslings, and the contrast between the deep black of the
neb and feet, and the greenish-yellow of the rest of the bird, is
very marked. You are not allowed to approach their breeding-
place with impunity ; the moment you appear to be approaching
the nest, the parent bird charging you with a rush. Sheep, dogs,
and ponies too, if found wandering about the tabooed ground,
at once get notice "to get out of that." Owing to their driving

' Macgillivray's Manual, pt. ii. p. 255. - Low's Touvy p. loi.


off all other raptorial birds, they were at one time specially
preserved in Foula, a fine of xds. 8d sterling (a big sum in
those days) being levied, in Low's time, on any one who shot
them or destroyed their eggs. They get their living chiefly by
making the greater gulls hand over, and, according to Saxby,
robbing the nests of the other gulls. In Faroe they are said
to attack the lambs, but this is stated never to be the case in
Shetland. If taken from the nest they are easily reared, and
become very tame. In Veitch's day they all bred on the
Sneug, and he estimated their numbers at thirty pair. A few
years back they were nearly exterminated by the gunning cads ;
and, had not the late Dr. Robert C. T. Scott, R.N., of Melby,
come to the rescue, they would have become extinct, so far as
Foula is concerned. At the present day probably fifteen pair
may breed on the island, a few still on the Sneug, but the
majority at the back of the Kaim. Whilst waiting on Townie-
field for the mist to clear one evening, the writer saw a most
beautiful aerial coursing match. A couple of Scoutie Allans
came past in chase of a bonxie, who, thinking he might shake
off his persecutors, kept circling round the writer and his
guide, and so close that the smack of the allan's wing as he
stooped for the bonxie could be heard distinctly. As a rule,
when the allan stooped, the bonxie made a sort of half turn
upwards, upon which scoutie shot up like a rocket, leaving his
companion to take up the running, or rather flying, and wait
upon the bonxie. One word before saying good-bye to the
bonxie ; no eggs of the Great Skua offered for sale in Shetland
can have been honestly obtained, as the proprietors both of
the Melby and Buness estates forbid their being taken. Any
one, therefore, buying the eggs, is a receiver of stolen goods.
From the Sneug you descend by the very steep grassy slopes
of Hannerley to the back of the Kaim, and had better descend
from there to the end of Wester Hsevdi, from whence the
view of Muckleberg, Ufshins, and the whole sweep round to
the Noup is very fine. Nebbefield, towering wall-like above

Online LibraryJohn R TudorThe Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state → online text (page 43 of 59)