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The Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state online

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is the western and largest one of the three, and its most western
part, called Mioness, is, on the chart, put down as a distinct
islet. In reality, however, it is only separated from the rest of
Housay by a rift or canon, known as the Steig, some seventy or
eighty yards long, and so precipitous as to be impassable to
any but Shetlanders or sailors. The Ward Hill of Mioness is
156 feet, that of Housay 121 feet, and of Bruray 170 feet.

Grunay is the eastern one of the three, and on tlie Bound
Skerry, a rock which lies on the north-eastern side of this
islet, is the Whalsay Skerries Light, as it is called by the
Commissioners of Northern Lights in order to prevent con-
fusion with Pentland and other skerries. The residences and
storehouses are on Grunay, which, with the Bound Skerry, is
held on 999 years' lease from the Trustees of the Busta Estate.
The harbour lies between Housay, Bruray, and Grunay, and is,
once you are inside, a beautifully sheltered land-locked spot.
In it is generally lying the lighthouse cutter, a craft of fifteen tons,
which brings the mails once a week or fortnight from the Main-
land. The north entry has a nasty baa on the western side at
the north end, and ebbs nearly dry in one place at low water.
On the western side of this passage a small voe runs up into
Housay, known as Stringa Voe, from which there is a very
fertile little strath to the West Voe. On the southern side of
this strath is the schoolhouse, and on the northern the
church, in which the schoolmaster, who is also catechist,
conducts worship. On the south-eastern corner of Housay,
and the south-western one of Bruray, are the lodges of
the fishermen who come here to fish during the summer.
These lodges gave rise to a fight ^ in the early jinrt of last

1 \V\\,htx\:> Shitland hks p 296.


century, known as "The Skerry Fight." Some fishermen on
the Busta estate had one year erected for themselves a booth,
in pursuance of an old custom, since endorsed by an Act of
Parliament, which permitted buildings to be run up on waste
ground for fishing purposes. This, the following summer, they
occupied again, and, evidently in the expectation of a row,
armed, and were besieged therein by the Sinclairs, headed by their
lady. Though Hibbert does not mention what Sinclair family,
it w^as probably the Sinclairs of Brough. After a discharge of
fire-arms on each side, Magnus Flaws, one of the Sinclair party,
on attempting to break in through the roof, was shot dead by
the Giffords, upon which the Sinclairs at once fled, leaving
their chieftainess in the hands of the enemy. Hibbert rem.arks
that the head of the Gifford family was at that time steward of
the islands, but that he did not think it necessary to take
cognizance of the misdeeds of the family dependants. He was
probably, therefore, the creator of that elaborate apparatus for
mischief-making called the " Society for Regulating of Servants
and Reformation of Manners." On one of the islands, too,
was wrecked, in 1664, a Dutch ^ Plast Indiaman called the
Can/ielan, laden with 3,000,000 guilders and several chests
of corned gold. When the vessel struck four men were aloft on
the look-out, and, on the mast snapping with the force of the
shock and falling on the shore, w^ere in this manner saved, as
the vessel at once went down with the rest of the crew. "When
she broke up, so many casks of spirits were driven ashore, that
every one on the islands was drunk for twenty days. Earl
Morton rescued som.e of the chests of gold from the deep, but
forgot to say anything to his sovereign about it, which is said
to have decided Charles the Second on revoking the grant
made to the Morton family.

On Bruray, at the head of the harbour, is a shop or store
occupied by the agent or factor of Messrs. Adie, who are
tacksmen of the Busta portion of the islands, the total pojjula-
lion of which, including the families of the lighthouse keepers,

' Ilib'jcrl's Shetland Isles, p. 295.



but excluding the fishermen who come for the haaf fishing,
is about 150.

In very favourable seasons enough oats and bere can be
grown for three months' consumption, and when one con-
siders the exposed position these very small islets occupy in
the wild North Sea one wonders how any cereals at all can be
got to ripen under such climatic difficulties. Peat has to be
boated all the way from the Skaw of Whalsay, so altogether the
life of the islanders can hardly be considered a lotos-eating
existence. From the summit of the Ward Hill of Bruray you
get a good view of the group.


After leaving Symbister the Earl of Zetland^ on her North
Isles trip, proceeds up Whalsay Sound, past Lunna Head and
the Horse of Burravoe, to Gossabrough, which is her first port
of call in this land of vast Serbonian bog.

Extending some sixteen miles from north to south Yell is
nearly divided into two islands in the centre by Whalefirth and
Refirth Voes, the waters of which are only separated from each
other by a narrow neck of land not a mile in breadth. At
present there is only one road in the island, extending from
Burravoe in the south to CuUavoe in the north. This will,
however, soon be extended to Ulsta, where the mails are
brought over Yell Sound from Mossbank. With the exception
of the Horse of Burravoe, a semi-detached rock, stuck on to a
rocky promontory, that makes a capital landmark for which to
steer, on the eastern side of the island there is nothing to
see. On the western side the coast-line is very low and
.sandy, till you come to the Noup of Graveland, where the
cliffs are very fine, rising at one point to 375 feet. There
are some pretty views from the hills above Burra Voe looking
across Yell Sound and towards Whalsay ; some more fertile,
than usual for Yell, spots about West Sandwick ; and one or


two walks in the northern portion of the island, in the course
of which some good views of Unst may be obtained.

Even if there was more to see the accommodation for tourists
on the island is at present very limited. You may get quarters at
Gossabrough ; there is a very good lodging-house at Gardiesting,
in Mid-Yell, kept by Mr. and Mrs. Pole ; and a small bed-room
and sitting-room might be got at Cullavoe in the house of Mr.
P. M. Sandison, the registrar. If wanting in scenic attractions.
Yell affords more good sea-trout ground than almost any
portion of the islands, but, as a matter of course, it is very
much over-netted. Still there are one or two places where the
angler ought to be tolerably certain of some sport in September
and October. Hamna Voe, at the southern end of the island,
into which the Arisdale Burn, the largest stream in the island,
flows, is said by experts to be very good ; the north-eastern
portion, where a small burn flows in, is, however, said to be the
best spot, and above it is an ayre loch, for which and this
portion of the voe it is necessary to get permission from Mr.
McQueen, of Burravoe. When the tide falls go round to the
Licker Ayre, a shingle beach on the west side of the voe, to
which the fish seem to retire at low water. Ulsta would be
the best place to fish Hamna Voe from, if you could get
accommodation at the post-ofiice, and there is also said to be
some sea-trout water close to Ulsta. From Mid-Yell you can
fish Vansansetter Loch and Voe, Refirth, Whalefirth, and
BastaVoes, to say nothing of having a lot of brown trout lochs
within reach. According to Munch ^ Refirth is nearly analogous
to Whalefirth {Hvalfjort)r) ; the old name of Refirth having
been Rey'^arfJonSr, from Rey^i', now called Jid'Sr or Hot;
in Norway {Fhyseie?- macroccp/ialiis, Black-headed Spermaceti
Whale). From Cullavoe you can fish not only the voe itself,
which is said to hold very large fish in the season, but also
Gutcher Voe and Loch, Basta Voe, and the Marepool at the
head of Gloup Voe.

There are several small lochs close to Cullavoe, one of which,

■■ Mcinoires it'es Antiquaires du Nord, 1850-63, p. 129.


Muscra Water, is said to hold fiibulously hea\y l)i'own trout,
and the lochs at the head of Dalsetter Burn are also said to be
worth trying. The walk from Cullavoe round the coast-line to
Gloup not only gives you some very pretty views of the Blue
Mull and the western coast of Unst, but also enables you to
see the remains at Papil of the old Norse church, dedicated
to St. Olaf, and which, till the middle of the last century, was
the parish church of North Yell. The grave-yard has lately
been surrounded by a neat iron railing, showing a certain
amount of reverential feeling generally conspicuous by its
absence in the Orkneys and Shetland.

The church, to which Dryden ^ assigns the fourteenth century
as the probable date of its erection, consists of Nave 20 ft.
3 in. by 14 ft. 10 in. inside, and Chancel 13 ft. by 11 ft. 3 in.
There is a doorway at the west end 2 ft. 7 in. wide by 5 ft. 4 in.
high, and another on the south side of the Nave i ft. 9 in. by
5 ft. 9 in., both square-headed. Over the western gable is a
bell cot. All the windows are square-headed. On the south
side of the Chancel is a sedile 4 ft. 7 in. high, by 2 ft. i in.
wide, and i ft. 8 in. deep, and raised i ft. 8 in. off" the floor.
On the north side a square-headed recess 3 ft. 4^ in. by 2 ft.,
and I ft. II in. recessed, which Dryden supposes to have been
an ambry, though possibly an Easter Sepulchre.

Gloup Voe, the principal, if not the only, haaf station in
the island, is a wild, weirdly picturesque spot, which at the
upper end is closed in by very steep hills, though of no alti-
tude, which inclose what is known as the Marepool.

The haaf station, as all such places do, reeks with foul
smells, and it seems something wonderful, that the men sleeping
in the lodges in the midst of them should escape with impunity.

There are a couple of Yell yarns that are perhaps worth
relating. " A girl in the island had been courted by one of
therepairing-staff connected with the telegraph, and thinking he
had neglected her for too long, what does she do but inflict
some injury on the insulators or something connected with
' Drvden's Kuiiiai Churc/us.


them to compel the faithless one to put in an appearance." It
is not said whether it proved the old saw Iroi amantium amoris
rcdintcgratio est. The other story is rather of the Handy Andy
order. " A gentleman who had a large flock of sheep on the
isle of Hascosea, told his shepherd, a Yellite, one hard winter
to be sure and see them put under shelter at nights. The
shelter was not large enough to accommodate the whole flock at
once, so the man wishing to be impartial put them under cover
in turns, with the natural result of making them so ' nesh,' as
they say in Lancashire, that the greater part, if not the whole
of the flock died oft"."


This, one of the pleasantest and most picturesque islands
in the group, is unfortunately, so far as the writer is aware,
utterly destitute of anything in the shape of lodging-house or
tourist-quarters. Till some accommodation is provided, there-
fore, the best plan for any one wishing to see the island would be
either to get ferried across from Mid Yell to Brough Lodge, or
else to charter a boat for a long summer's day from Gossabrough
to Tresta, or Aith, at the north-western and north-eastern
corners of the deep Bay of Tresta. The North Isles steamer
calls at these places once a fortnight, and every week at Brough
Lodge, on her way to or from Balta Sound. That would
enable you to land, but getting away again might not be
so easy, especially when most of the men are engaged at the

A broad rocky ridge runs from the south-western corner of
the island as far as the Foreland, presenting to Colgrave
Sound a wall of rock that, sinking as it goes northwards, gives the
island from that side the appearance of a huge cetacean. The
southern portion of this ridge is known as Lambhoga. As
you approach it from Gossabrough you see at tlie south-western
corner a curious shaped rock, which, from its outline, has given
the name of the Ramshorn to the point. After passing the


Ramshorn you come to a geo, which, from being the place
t'rom which the Fetlar people flit the peats cut on the headland
above, is known as Peat Geo. This the writer believes is the
only spot where peat is still to be found on the island. High
up on the face of this geo is a whitish patch conspicuous,
against the dark rock by which it is surrounded, for a long

This ^ is " a glistening yellowish-white " mineral or china clay
known as Kaolin. The vein, according to the late Rev. David
Webster, extends as far back as Grunie Geo, but Professor
Heddle is rather sceptical as to this from the strike of the
strata in Lambhoga, though he considers the mineral well-
suited for the manufacture of true porcelain.

Some distance away from the south-west the whole mass ot
Lambhoga looks not unlike one of the Landseer lions in
Trafalgar Square, but after opening up Mou Wick, of which Peat
Geo is, as it were, a recess, and drawing closer into Mouwick
Head, the outline changes into that of a most benign Sphinx.
A cavity behind the nose represents the ear, whilst a projecting
rock does duty for the hind-legs, and at low water a small reef
of rocks represents the fore-legs. The face of the rock is very
variegated and rich in colour, in places a peacock-bronze fringed
below with deep chocolate from the seaweed. 7\iminy JSories
(puflfins) apparently frequent this head, and may breed here,
and in former days it was a favourite nesting place of the

The manse of Tresta is, with the exception of that of
Tingwall, the most beautifully situated parsonage in the islands,
and covered as it is in summer time with wild trailing honey-
suckle, and surrounded by small elderberry trees, has a very
south of Pentland Firth look about it.

The loch, too, close to the manse, separated from the sea by

a sandy ayre, bounded on the west by the steep Fitchins Hill,

and on the north and east by luxuriant meadow ground, is one

of the most picturesque spots in Shetland. It is not merely

1 Mineralogical I\fagazine, vol. ii. p. 118,


beautiful to look at, but, if wooed in the vein, this loch, small
as it is, about three-quarters of a mile long and a quarter in
breadth at the widest part, should prove an angler's paradise.
The trout, as far as the writer can judge, must run three-quarters
of a pound each, or more, and like the Spiggie fish are perfect
bars of silver. The loch is partly glebe, partly Lady Nicholson's
property. The sand on the shores of the loch is highly charged
with black magnetic sand, and according to Mr. Webster, bog-
iron ore is to be found up the Dullans, the rather wild valley
that stretches from Tresta to Brough. Near Odsta, the north-
western point of the island, is a rock composed of sepentine
so charged with magnetite that at a knoll near Odsta Point it
deflects the needle south-west, and this, according to Professor
Heddle,^ is not the spot where it is most powerful. That dear
old swallower of the marvellous. Brand, - stated that in his day
it nearly rendered the compasses of vessels useless, when
navigating Colgrave Sound. How Brand would have chummed
with Sinbad the Sailor if they had met ! About a mile from the
loch brings you to the Free Church Manse at Houbie, close to
which are the remains of a couple of brochs. When Monteith ^
wrote, two hundred and fifty years ago, Fetlar had one church
for sermons and ten or eleven chapels.

When in the island the writer could only hear of the sites of
four. One near Kirkhouse, Strand ; the second the Kirk of
Tafts, near Funzie ; the third, Halliera Kirk, near Feal, not far
from the Free Manse ; and the fourth the Kirk at Odsta.
Halliera Kirk was in 1878 overgrown with weeds, and a sheep
cru, or fold, erected on the site. Can this chapel have been
dedicated to St. Hilary?

From the Free Manse you had better make for Aith, where
Messrs. Hay& Co.'s manager has his house and store. By the
way, it is possible a wayfarer might get accommodation here for
a day or so. From Aith strike across to Funzie, where the

^ Mineralopcal Magazine, vol. ii. p. 227.
- Brand's Orkney and Zetland, ^c, p. 105.
^ Sibbald's Zetland, p. 70.


lodges of tlie fishermen are situated. The coast-Hne from
Funzie up to Strandburgh Ness, is, tliough not anything very
great in height, very rugged, and varies in colour from the
almost pure white of Hrevdi Head to the deep black of Nusta
Ness. Close to Helinabretta, the Va/niela, ^ a Swedish East
Indiaman, was, about the middle of last century, lost with
about ;i^2 3,000 in specie and plate on board. About ^18,000
was recovered by means of divers shortly before Low's visit,
and, in calm weather, it is said the guns can still be seen lying
on the bottom. Not far from Helinabretta is a curious little
valley or natural depression some seventy yards by twenty,
called The Dal of Krugel, in which the sheeji take refuge in
snow-storms. There is some very fine rich pasture all along
this side of the island, very different from the barren parched
looking herbage you see on the Ward Hill, where the serpentine
is said to exercise a deleterious influence on vegetation. The
view from the summit of the Vord or Ward Hill is very
good considering the highest point of the hill is only
521 feet. Due south you have the Skerries, as it were,
spread out before you, then Whalsay, over which you see
the Noup of Noss and the Ward of Bressay ; following
up the coast-line, when the eye reaches Mid Yell you see
the summit of Rooeness Hill showing over the land of bog ;
looking north-west you see the Ormes Head of Shetland, the
Blue Mull, which, though much smaller than that fine Welsh
headland, is a very fine bold rock, and, if it could be moved,
would make the fortune of many a languishing seaside resort.
Straight north you see the twins Saxevord and Hermaness as
if standing sentinel over the wild North Sea. There is a
large circle of earth and stones laid flat, and surrounding a
small central circular tumulus just north of the remains of
the old ward tower, and another smaller circle on its southern
side. North again are the remains of another tower. A
short distance from the summit to the north-east you come
to the East Neap, a range of cliffs, nearly, if not quite,

' Low's 7'uiir. p. 170.


400 feet in height, that terminate in a very fine pro-
jecting headland known as the Clett. A good many
Richardson's Skuas breed here and in North Yell, and you
generally see, till they migrate, a few pair cruising about on
the Vord or Ward Hill, which also seems plentifully stocked
with golden plover. Otters are said to abound amongst the
geos about Funzie, and seals to be fairly plentiful about Ura
Linga, on the north-west side. Fetlar has always been
celebrated for its ponies, probably owing to the generous
food to be got in some of the limestone bottoms, and
Sir Arthur Nicolson introduced Arab, or Barb blood, some
forty years or so back. Some people say he turned a
Mustang stallion, that, at one time, had been the favourite
charger of Bolivar, of South American renown, loose ; others
that he imported a regular Arab sire. Wherever they get it
from, there is no doubt the Fetlar ponies are very fine animals,
though it is said their temper has not been improved by the
new strain. When Low ^ was in the islands the population of
Fetlar was about 600; in 1871, 517; and in 1881, 437. In
1768 a submarine shock is supposed to have taken place some-
where not far off, as fish of all classes and sizes, amongst them
conger eels seven feet long, were driven ashore along the coast,
and the sea in the bays and outside was for eight days so black
and muddy, that the fishermen, when hauling haddock, could
not see the fish till they were lifted out of the water.

^ Low's Toii7; p. 174.


From an etching by Mr. J. T. Irvine.


SHETL.VND. — THE NORTH ISLES — (confiuiicd ).


The most northern of the British Isles, Unst, tlie Oniyst or
Erne's Nest of the Norsemen, is, take it all round, bar Foula,
the most charming island in the Orkneys or Shetland, inter-
esting, not only to the traveller in search of grand bold cliff-
scenery, but also to the ornithologist, the mineralogist, and, in
a lesser degree, to the ecclesiologist. Professor Heddle, in the
Mineralogical Magazine for April, 1878, says: "There is no
county in Scotland which presents us with so many varieties
of rock as Shetland ; and there is no one of the islands which
has so many of these equally condensed in space as Unst ; and


as the points of junction of different strata are one of the
ricliest fields for minerals, Unst, therefore should yield these

Measuring some eleven miles from north to south, and with
average breadth from east to west of four miles, Unst can
show, not only coast-scenery of the wildest and grandest kind,
but also some verdant straths and luscious meadows worthy
ahnost of that isle which its inhabitants proudly denominate
the Garden of England. On the south-east and east the shores
from Uya Sound round to Balta slope gently down to the sea ;
from Balta round to Newgord on the south-west you have,
except where indented by bays, about as wild a coast-line as
you could wish to see ; and in the Blue Mull you find a fine,
and apparently isolated, headland, which, light-blue in colour,
glistens brightly in sunlight from the scales of mica, wqth
which its surface is studded. A valley runs almost the whole
way from Burra Fjord on the north to the ^^'ick of Belmont on
the south, a slight watershed, to the south of Loch Watley,
being the only break. The total population of the island by
the last census was 1,153, showing a decrease of 172 in the last
ten years. In Low's day the population was about 1,800. The
chief centres are Uya Sound, Balta Sound, and Harolds Wick,
of which Balta Sound may be considered the most important.
Unst is not only one of the most picturesque islands of the
group, it is also one of the most thriving, if not the most
thriving, districts in Shetland, rejoicing in an agricultural
society of its own, which holds a prize meeting every autumn,
at which cattle and sheep are shown, that would not be out of
])lace at similar meetings of much greater pretension in the
south. The natural advantages of the island of course will
account for a good deal of its prosperity, but some at least be credited to the Edmondstons of Buness, than whom no
families in either the Orkneys or Shetland have done more
for the well-being and improvement of those around them.
Arthur Edmondston, whose work on the islands, published over
seventy years ago, conveyed the best description of the mode of


life and surroundings of his countrymen, which had up to that
time appeared, was at one time a surgeon in the army, and
afterwards for some years in practice at Lerwick. His youngest
brother, Dr. Laurence Edmondston, twenty years his junior,
died in ALarch, 1879, at the ripe age of eighty-four. A great
contributor to the Memoirs of the Werneriafi N^atural History
Society, Laurence Edmondston was the first to recognise the
Snowy Owl, and the Glaucous, Ivory, and Iceland Gulls, as
members of the British Fauna. Thomas Edmondston, the
eldest son of Laurence, who published the only comj^lete
Flora of the islands that has as yet appeared, after being elected
Professor of Botany in the University of Glasgow at the age
of twenty, was accidentally killed whilst engaged as naturalist
on the Herald in the Pacific surveying expedition. A nephew
of Laurence Edmondston, another Thomas Edmondston, the
late proprietor of Buness, compiled the only glossary in ex-
istence of the Orcadian and Shetland dialects. By a third
Thomas Edmondston, the brother of Arthur and Laurence,
Biot, the French savant, was hospitably entertained at Buness
in 181 7, when engaged in determining the length of the
second's pendulum, and in the following year Captain Kater,
who was also engaged on the same subject, succeeded him.
i>iot was greatly struck by the freedom these northern regions
enjoyed from the hurlyburly of life that the Continent had so
long exhibited, and speaking of his Shetland experiences in his
journal^ says : —

" During the twenty-five years in which Europe was
devouring herself, the sound of a drum had not been heard

Online LibraryJohn R TudorThe Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state → online text (page 46 of 59)