John R Tudor.

The Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state online

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in Unst, scarcely in Lerwick ; during twenty-five years the
door of the house I inhabited had remained opened day and
night. In all this interval of time, neither conscription nor
press-gang had troubled or afflicted the poor but tranquil in-
habitants of this little isle. The numerous reefs which surround
it and which render it accessible only at favourable seasons,
serve them for defence against privateers in time of war ; and

' Wilson's Fcjd^t- /;/ 1S41 rctind the Coasts of Scotland, vol. ii. p. 312.


what is it that privateers would come to seek for ? If there
were only trees and sun, no residence could be more pleasant ;
but if there were trees and sun everybody would wish to go
thither, and peace would exist no longer."

By the way, if Biot was right about Unst having been ex-
empt from the visits of the press-gang, it was remarkably
fortunate, as Arthur Edmondston,i who had written in 1809,
only eight years previous to Biot's visit, complained bitterly of
the system and said :

" Some have perished in the rocks in their attempts to
escape from this dreaded severity, and others have had their
health irrevocably ruined by watching and exposure during
inclement weather. The panic is not confined to the young
and the active, its sympathetic influence extends even to old
men and boys, and the appearance of a boat resembling that
of the impress service, is taken as a signal for a general flight.
And not without reason, for often while celebrating with inno-
cent and unsuspecting mirth the wedding of some youthful
pair, or engaged in the usual amusements of a winter night,
the harmony of the scene has been rudely terminated by the
sudden appearance of a press-gang, and their victims dragged,
amidst tears and lamentations, to the general rendezvous."

How enormous, considering the total population of the
islands did not at that time much exceed 22,000, a number of
seamen Shetland supplied to the Royal Navy during the last
French war may be gathered from the fact that between 1793 and
iSci, 1,100 were enlisted at Lerwick for the navy, and that when
Edmondston wrote over 3,000 were actually serving. If French
privateers did not molest the Shetland Isles much in the last war
it was probably because they found better fish to fry elsewhere, and
in former wars they certainly were not deterred by the reefs, as,
according to native accounts, their crews are credited with the
destruction of several of the old chapels that were so numerous
formerly, and, as has already been mentioned,^ actually once

1 Edmondston's Zetland Islands, vol. ii. p. 68.
- See ante, p. 119.


carried away the daughter of the minister of Unst from

In spite of Biot's assertion, the sun does shine now and then
in Unst ; and Balta Sound on a cahn summer's evening with
its unruffled surface reflecting the purple glories of sunset, and
its serpentine hills with their chrome-coloured slopes bathed
in one vast flood of golden hues, is a Turneresque study in
colours, that has to be seen to be thoroughly realised. At the
head of this grand land-locked harbour is situated the very
scattered village of Balta Sound. Buness is on the north side
of the harbour, and in the garden a stone has been erected to
commemorate the stay there of the French savants. A little
to the west of Buness is HalHgarth, for years the residence of
Laurence Edmondston, around wliich are the trees he planted
and was so proud of as evidencing what might be done in the
way of arboriculture in the far north. Many birds hitherto
supposed to have been unknown in Shetland were discovered
in the gardens at HaUigarth both by Laurence Edmondston and
his son-in-law, the late Dr. Saxby, whose ornithological tastes
had first brought him to Shetland. At the very head of the
voe is Mrs. Hunter's lodging-house, a wonderfully good place
of its kind, but unfortunately having far too limited accommo-
dation for the swarms who at times descend on it from the
steamer. As there is a telegraph station here you can always
ascertain whether you can get accommodation before leaving
Lerwick. There is said to be very good sea-trout ground at
the head of the harbour where the burn flows in, and in July,
1878, sea-trout were being killed with fly as far down as
Haraar. The little, long, rocky, and sandy isle of Balta,
which in shape is not unlike some of the clubs to be seen in
museums that have been brought from cannibal isles in the
Pacific, is worth a pull on a calm summer evening if only for
the sunset etifects to be gained from it. You should, however,
get permission to land there from Mr. Edmondston, of Ordale.
Although of no great height, the highest point on the isle
being only 143 feet, the eastern side is perfectly serrated with

o o


Ijicturcsque geos l)y the constant attacks of the wild North
Sea, which is slowly but surely eating its way through.

In the centre of the island near the landing-i)lace on the
west side may still be traced the grass-grown foundations of
St. Sunnifa's cha])el. It has never been planned, and as far
as the writer could judge from the numerous traces of buildings
all round, it is not improbable there has been at one time a
regular monastic establishment there. St. Sunnifa, V.M., ac-
cording to the Scandinavian legends,^ was the daughter of an
Irish king who lived in the latter part of the tenth century.
A Viking fell in love with her, and, because her father hesitated
a])out accepting him as a suitor for his daughter's hand, kept
on harrying his proposed father-in-law's territories. Sunnifa,
therefore, to save her country, set sail from the isle of saints in
company with her brother Alban and a ship full of virgins.
Sailing away cast they eventually landed on the island of Selja,
off the Norwegian coast, where they lived u])on fish. This
island was used as a sccte7-, or summer pasture for their cattle,
])y the inhal)itants of the adjacent mainland, who, seeing
Sunnifa and her companions moving about on the isle, took
them for pirates and aj^plied to King Hdkon for an armed force
to dislodge them.

On this force landing the saint and her companions fled into
a cave, whereupon the rock closed over them. In Olaf
Tryggvi's son's reign a farmer found a head .surrounded by a
phosphorescent halo and took it to the king, who caused a
search to be made, which resulted in the discovery of a cave
full of bones. On these bones being found Olaf caused two
churches to l)e erected on the spot, one dedicated to St.
Sunnifa and the other to St. Alban. Baring Gould is evidently
of opinion St. Sunnifa is a bogus sort of saint and considers the
whole legend a Scandinavian version of St. Ursula and the
Eleven Thousand Virgins. Unst was remarkably rich in chapels
in former times, no less than twenty-two or twenty-three having
been known to exist on the main island and an additional one
' Baring Gould's Z^/''« (t/"///^ &j;/«',r, vol. vii. p. T95.


on the small isle ot Uya. Four of these have been planned
by Mr. J. T. Irvine and are described in Dryden's Ruined
Churdies, Norwick, Kirkaby, Colvidale, and Uya. Colvidale
is about three miles or less from Balta Sound. Only a few
very small fragments of the wall were still standing when it
was planned in 1863, but sufficient remained to show that the
Nave measured 12 ft. by 11 ft. inside; and the Chancel, 7 ft.
9 in. by 7 ft. 6 in. ; that the Chancel arch was cijual in
width to the Chancel, and tliat the door was probably at the
west end. A mile or so south of Colvidale, in the graveyard
of Sandwick, are the ruins of a Post-Reformation Church,
measuring, as well as the writer could make it, 47 ft. 8 in.
by II ft. 5 in. Mr. Irvine saw some keel-shaped slabs
placed horizontally as tombstones, also some upright stones
nearly rectangular, with crosses incised on them in this grave-
yard \ and they may be there still ; but when the writer was
there, the yard was waist-deep in weeds. From Sandwick a
mile of tolerably easy walking brings you to Muness Castle,
erected by that Laurence Bruce, or Brus as the name was then
spelt, of Cultmalundie, who so ably aided his bastard brother,
Lord Robert Stewart, in stressing the Odallers. Laurence
Bruce, on being appointed Foud of Zetland, in 1571, came
north, leaving his eldest son behind him to look after the
Perthshire estate, but bringing with him his second son Andrew,
the ancestor of the Muness Bruces, who became extinct in
the last century.

It is said that Laurence Bruce had been com])ellcd to leave
Perthshire from having had the misfortune to slay his opponent
in a brawl. With him also came William Bruce his " nevoi " and
" follower," who got a grant of the estates of Symbister and
Sumburgh, and from whom Mr. Bruce, of Sumburgh, the head
of the Orkney and Shetland Bruces, is lineally descended.

The castle consists of a parallelogram measuring 72 ft. from
S.E. to N.W., and 26 ft. from S.W. to N.E. ; and having at
the southern angle a circular tower attached, of 15 ft. 5 in. in
diameter, and at the northern angle another tower of 19 ft.

o 2


6 in. in diameter; whilst at the western and eastern angles
circular turrets are corbelled out in the Scotch fashion. The
doorway is on the south-western side and not far from the
southern tower. Above the doorway can still be seen, more
or less weather-worn, the following inscription : —

" List ye to knaw this building quha began
Laurence the bruce he was that worthy man
(luha ernestlie his airis and afspring pray is
To help and not to hurt this Vork alway is.


Entering through the door, on your right hand, is the grand
staircase to the first floor ; facing you is the entrance to the
passage leading to the apartment at the south-eastern end, from
which a back stair leads up to the first floor, and access is had
to the lower chamber of the southern tower. Along the south-
western side runs a passage, into which opens a couple of
chambers, and at the further end of which you enter the
kitchen, of which the fire-place is ii ft. i in. wide by 3 ft.
Qij in. deep. xA.t the back of the fireplace in one corner is a
circular oven, and from the northern corner of the kitchen you
enter the ground chamber of the northern tower. All the
ground floor is vaulted, passages and apartments.

Ascending the grand staircase you enter the Great Hall,
28 ft. 3 in. by 19 ft. 2\ in. on the south-eastern side, from
the southern and eastern corners of which access is had to
the other two apartments on this floor of the main building,
and from them to the octagonal rooms in the tower. Above
this story was another from which you entered the corbelled
turrets, and above the second floor attics. The Muness Bruces
became extinct some time last century, and probably the castle
has not been occupied since. Even when Low was in the
islands in 1774 it was roofless. Sir Henry Dryden has kindly
called the writer's attention to the foct that Noltland, Scalloway,
and Muness castles have many characteristics in common : —

That they each consist of a parallelogram with a rectangular or


circular tower at one or two of its angles, to which arc added,
in Muness and Scalloway, corbelled turrets at the other angles ;
that they have one entrance, which opens towards the south,
south-west, or south-east ; that the ground-floor is vaulted,
contains offices, has very small windows, and is loop-holed
for musketry.

In Scalloway there is only one stair which originates near
the entrance, and radiates from a newel.

In Noltland and Muness, besides this main stair near the
entrance, there is a smaller one not round a newel.

That in Noltland and Scalloway is a well, and that probably
there is one in Muness also, though now hidden by rubbish.

That the principal rooms are on the first floor (over the
vault), a large hall being the main apartment. That the stair-
foot, being near the entrance, gave easy access from outside to
the chief rooms. That above the tier of principal apartments
was a second tier, and over that attics — in all four stories.
That the roofs were covered by ridged roofs, roofs slated, with
a wide passage between the eaves and parapets.

The door-knocker of Muness, which was presented by the
late Mr. Thomas Mouat, of Garth, to the father of the present
Mr. Bruce, of Sumburgh, and which is now at Sandlodge,^
"measures 12-^ inches by 7 inches, and appears to have been
cast in brass or bronze, and the arms and lettering to have
been afterwards engraved with a tool. The knocker plate is in
the form of an armorial shield, with helmet, crest, and mantling,
the helmet being ingeniously contrived to form the hinge for
the knocker, which is in the form of a dolphin. The shield
bears the arms of Grey and Bruce quarterly, above the helmet
is the crest, a hand holding a heart between two wings, and
within the shield is engraved the motto, ' Omnia Vincit Amor,'
and the name Andro Brus." On the way from IVIuness Castle
to the village of Uya you pass a remarkably fine standing
stone on a height overlooking the bay. Not far from this
standing stone some armour in a very oxidised state was

1 Proc. Scot. A lit. vol. xv. p. 95.


found some few years back. Unst was formerly very rich in
grave mounds, and in 1865 Dr. James Hunt,^ President of
the Anthropological Society, was sent up on behalf of the
Society, in consequence of some kist vaens of chloritic
schist having been found under the Muckle Heyoags near
Balta Sound, to prosecute inquiries on the spot. He found,
however, that a zealous local Wesleyan preacher, "who had
been more successful as a 'revivalist ' than (to judge from the
results of his self-imposed labours) as a scientific investigator,"
had been ransacking all the barrows for upwards of thirty
years, selling his finds he knew not where ; some to a " Swiss
gentleman," others " to a gentleman in England who is now
dead." The Goth pleaded in defence of his vandalism "that
no one in the island cared about these things but himself, and
that he had not got enough to pay for his labour." Thus was
one of the finest fields for the trained elucidator of prehistoric
lore ruined by one, who had better have stuck to his tub.
There is a little, very little, loch, Scatta Water, close to Uya
Sound, into which sea trout are said to run late on in the
season, and the ayre, or beach, on the west side of the sound
affords some sport at times.

The chapel^ on the isle of Uya consists of a Nave 16 ft.
9 in. by 13 ft. inside, with walls from 6 ft. to 7 ft. 6 in.
in height still standing. At the east end is an arch formed by
overlapping stones, as in the case of the roofs of the cham-
bers of the brochs. It is 2 ft. 2 in. wide, "with parallel
unrebated jambs, and a semicircular head, with simple un-
moulded projections for caps." At the west end of the Nave
is a ruder arch 2 ft. 6 in. in width, but without caps, and
above which, 6 ft. 4 in. of the gable was standing when it
was planned in 1855. Through this arch is an apartment
resembling a Chancel 10 ft. east and west, by 10 ft. 2 in.
north and south, and of which 9 ft. 6 in. of the west gable
was standing. In the south wall of the Nave a rough stone

^ Memoirs of Anthropological Society, vol. ii. pp. 294-347.
^ Drycien's Ruined Churches.


stoup has been built in. The building is a puzzle, but on
the whole Dryden is of opinion that a Chancel existed at one
time, of which the opening at the east end was the arch, and
that the building at the west end has been added at a
later period. In the churchyard in 1855 were some rude
stone coffins.

Due west of Uya Sound are the Lochs of Stoural and
Belmont. The latter, sometimes called the Loch of Snarra
Voe, used to be one of the best in Shetland, but some years
ago Major Cameron, of Garth, who owns the greater portion
of the loch, deepened and cleared out the stream leading to
the voe-head, since which it is said the fishing has fallen
off. ^The trout are a beautiful level lot of fish, five the writer
caught a iow years back weighed five pounds all but an ounce,
and were all of a size, and as silvery almost as salmon in salt
water. The loch is now strictly preserved by Major Cameron
and Lord Zetland. It is, however, a heart-breaking loch to
fish, so dour are the fish to rise. There is a fly said to be a
deadly medicine at times on this water, tied as follows : —
Peacock bluish-green silk body, ribbed with gold tinsel, ginger
red tackle for legs, and four sprigs of the serrated green -sword
feathers of peacock tail over red landrail for wings. Snarra Voe
is also said at times to be worth a trial for sea trout.

On Ogan Ness, to the south of Belmont, is a mound, evi-
dently covering the remains of a broch, surrounded by what
looks like a dry ditch, outside of which is a very deep fosse,
with a more ])artial one outside all. There is a small geo on
the north side, in which the inhabitants of the broch could
keep their boats. On the summit of a hill on the western
side of the Lochs of Belmont and Stoural is a small loch,
known as the Loch of Snaburgh, on the shores of which were
the remains of a broch with three chambers similar to those at
Mousa. According to Low's ^ plan, there was, on the landward
side, first a dry ditch, then a rampart, outside of which was a
wet ditch in j)laces cut through the rock. From Snaburgh a
^ Low's Tour, p. 152.


walk of about a mile will bring you to the Blue Mull. There
is a fine rocky bight at the southern end into which projects an
arched stack. This must be the Burgh-Holm referred to by
Low, and on which, even in Hibbert's time, the remains of a
broch were to be seen. Across the neck of the Mull, too, was,
in Low's day, a very strong wall, since destroyed, and within
it a number of small huts. There is, from the top of the Mull, a
good view of the north part of Yell and of Blue Mull Sound,
one of the strongest tideways in Shetland, and through which
the current goes swirling in eddies like a mill-race. There is
a roofless Post-Reformation Church in the graveyard on the
shores of the Wick of Lund, a pretty sandy bay. At the head
of the marshy valley, which runs up from the bay, is a stand-
ing stone, 12 feet 6 inches by 8 feet 6 inches at the broadest
part. The farm of Lund was for a long time in the occupa-
tion of a brother of John Stuart Mill, a retired Indian judge,
who, according to the accounts of the district, must have
been decidedly an eccentric character. From Lund you
had better make for the road, which skirts along the eastern
side of Watley, a black-looking loch, abounding in trout
weighing some five or six to the pound. From this loch
a burn runs into Loch Cliff, which at its lower end is a
fairly large one for Shetland. There are several spots some-
where near the Loch of Watley that are said to be haunted
by " Da Trows," if not by the dreaded Ahiggle itself, which
resides in the Yella burn, which flows either into the Loch or
Burn of Watley. Coldbacks, the hill to the north-east of the
loch, well deserves its name, and in bad weather is about as
dreary a spot as you can find. The whole round including
Colvidale and the Blue Mull is rather too much for one walk,
and had better be divided into two excursions, in which case
the route home from the Blue Mull might be varied by
passing through the haaf-station at Newgord, and then along
the cliff line as far as the crest of Vallafield, whence you can
strike a bee-line for Balta Sound. The writer has not been
along this strip between Lund and Woodwick, but as far as he


could judge from the north end of Yell, it must be fairly
picturesque, though not up to that lying between Tonga and
Burra Fiord. Like the southern half of the island, the
northern may be divided into two pedestrian excursions, to
which, weather permitting, can be added a trip to the caves
of Burra Fiord, and the Muckle Flugga Lighthouse. To take
the eastern walk round Saxevord first.

The road to Haroldswick passes under the eastern slopes of
the Muckle Heyoags, one of which is said to have been the
place of execution in the days when the Al-Thing was held in
Unst. Not far from the top of Crucifield are two sets of
concentric circles, which still remain as Low^ described them,
and of which he gives the following dimensions : —

Diameter of the outermost, or stone circle

Second, or outermost earth circle ...

Innermost earth circle


Distance between the centre of this and the neigh-
bouring monument of the same kind, but less,
and having only two circles

Diameter of the outermost lesser circle ...

Diameter of the second

Diameter of the nucleus

There is another circle close to the old ruined kirk at
Balliasta : —

Feet In.














Diameter of the stone circle, littl

First earth circle

of which now

67 o

54 o

40 o

12 o

Hibbert - supposes the circles on Crucifield to have been the
places of trial ; the central mound being reserved for the Foud,
prisoner, and witnesses, whilst the circles were respectively

Low's Tour, p. 156. - \\\\)\,tx\:

Online LibraryJohn R TudorThe Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state → online text (page 47 of 59)