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of assembling the crews for prayer, and the consequent influence of the uninterrupted atten-
tion to religious observances. The men gain usually from 20 to 40 on the voyage. If
they do not return in time for the harvest, it is gathered in by their wives and sisters.
Orkney does not furnish a single vessel for this trade.' Sketches of tlie Coasts and Islands
of Scotland, ty Lord Teignmouth.

* It was on the shores of Fair Isle that the Duke of Medina Sidonia was driven during
his flight northwards, by the tempest which so nearly completed the destruction of the
Spanish Armada, in the memorable year 1588. In this small island the great Spanish noble
(his huge unwieldy ship having gone to pieces), with two hundred men, was nearly starved
for want of provisions. He afterwards made his way to the house of Malcolm Sinclair in

Suendale Bay, in the mainland of Shetland, and eventually landed in safety at Dunkirk,
ne of the most curious results connected with the temporary residence in Fair Isle of
the foreign sailors, is, that the natives acquired, and their descendants have ever since
preserved, a knowledge of the peculiar patterns of gloves and caps worn by the Spaniards,
and to this day work them in various-coloured worsteds exactly resembling the corresponding
articles produced at Cadiz. Wilson's Voyage Round the Coasts of Scotland.


a relation of my fellow-traveller. Before saying a word about this
strange-looking town, let me glance at the


The Orkney and Shetland Islands appear to have been visited
by the Romans, by whom they were considered the Ultima Thulej
in an after-period they were conquered and taken possession of by
the Northmen or Norwegians their numerous bays or voes afford-
ing the best refuge for their vessels. Indeed, from the latter circum-
stance, these Danish rovers acquired the name of. Vikingr; that is,
Voe or Bay Kings. From the voes of Shetland, as well as from
Orkney and the north and north-west of Scotland, these northern
pirates made descents on the rich coasts of Europe, and devastated
them with fire and sword. By these rovers, Shetland is said to have
been first named Hialtland or Hetland, either word signifying the
high or lofty land ; and from this term the modern name Shetland
or Zetland is derived. The vikingr, after a pretty long possession
of Shetland, and fortifying themselves in burghs or towers on the
headlands, were at length, in the tenth century, subdued by Harold
of Denmark, and the islands added to his continental dominions.
Both from the vikingr and the more regular governors who suc-
ceeded them, the inhabitants of Shetland acquired the Norwegian
character, laws, language, and manners. If the earliest inhabitants
were of a Celtic race, like their neighbours on the mainland of
Scotland, they lost every trace of this origin, and in the course of
ages became in every respect a different people from the inhabitants
of either the Highlands or the Lowlands.

Under the kings of Nonvay the Shetlanders enjoyed liberal treat-
ment and government. The principal inhabitants were called
Udallers, from the conditions on which they held their lands ; the
word udal being compounded from osde and dale, signifying a waste
or uninhabited dale. A udaller was at first nothing more than the
proprietor of land previously accounted waste, which he had enclosed
for his own use. But as land became more valuable, the expression
gradually lost its primary signification, and was applied to the holders
of large tracts of land which were enclosed, and free from scat or
taxation. Latterly, it came to signify any wealthy proprietor.

Shetland being separated from Orkney by a wide and stormy
channel, had a distinct prefect or governor appointed over it, who
acquired the name of Foude, an office which likewise included in
it the guardianship of the revenues of the country. The country
at the same time acquired the name and character of a Foudrie.
The relics of antiquity connected with the Norwegian government
of Shetland are various. Courts of judicature, or (ings, were held
in the open air, the erection being for the most part constructed
of loose stones piled together in a circular form. Of these tings,



the sites of many of which are still visible, there were three kinds.
The lowest was a herad, or parish ting, over which the foude of
the parish presided an officer who, in the Scottish period of the
history of these islands, afterwards assumed the name of bailiff.
The foude was assisted in his magistracy by a law-right man, whose
particular duty it was to regulate the weights and measures, and by a
number of men named rancelmen. The ting, to which these men
gave their service, could only doom or give judgment in small
matters, namely, in those which related to the preservation of good
neighbourhood, as in questions of minor trespasses on land, &c.
A higher court was a circuit ting, over which the Earl of Orkney
presided, or, in his absence, the great foude, so named in contra-
distinction to the subordinate or parish foudes. In his judicial
capacity, the great foude was the lawman of Shetland, and gave
doom according to the Norwegian Book of the Law. The lawman
made his circuit round the whole of the more comprehensive
juridical districts of the country ting sokens each ting soken
including several minor districts, which were severally under the
subordinate jurisdiction of parish foudes. He here heard appeals
against the decrees of parish tings, and tried weightier offences, such
as were visited with heavy fines, or confiscations, or capital punish-
ments. A third ting was named the lawting, because it was a legis-
lative assembly. This was held once a year, and here also the
lawman presided. All the udallers owed to it suit and service. The
lawting was held within a small holm or islet, situated in a fresh-
water lake, the communication with the shore being by stepping-
stones. The valley in which the lawting was situated bore the name
of Thingvollr, now corrupted into Tingwall. Here the udallers
exercised the power of reversing the decrees of inferior courts, of
trying important causes, and of legislating or making by-laws for
the good of the whole community. The highest appeal was to the
king at Bergen, in Norway.

Excepting for such appeals, and the imposition of a tax, Orkney
and Shetland had little actual dependence on the crown of Norway.
They were very much under the immediate sway of the Earls of
Orkney, a Scandinavian race, who continued in power from 922
to 1325, when the direct line failed, and the earldom passed to a
collateral branch in Malis, Earl of Stratherne, and afterwards into
the family of St Clair about 1379. The renewal of the title in the
Stewarts, at a considerably later period, has already been noticed.

The Orkney and Shetland Islands belonged to Nonvay till 1468,
when they were impledged to James III. of Scotland, as a portion
of the dowry given with his queen. The sum for which Orkney was
pledged was 60,000 florins. The money not being forthcoming, the
islands were declared to be forfeited, and, with all their inhabitants,
were formally annexed to the crown of Scotland. On being finally
emancipated from the earls and other court favourites, to whom the



Scottish kings had inconsiderately assigned them, they" fell under
the ordinary rule of sheriffs and other magistrates ; the old udal
holdings were abolished ; and the laws of Scotland were extended
over them. The two groups of islands now form one county, with
a representative in parliament*

It is much easier to alter laws and other civil institutions than
to change the language and social habits of a people. This has
required four centuries ; and even yet, in the greatly modernised
state of things in Shetland, there are many interesting traces of
Scandinavian manners.

Accustomed to associate Orkney and Shetland as one remote
chain of islands, it is somewhat difficult to comprehend that they
have very little intercourse or connection with each other. The
people of Orkney contemplate their remote neighbours, the Shet-
landers, with nearly the same feeling of strangeness which we our-
selves entertain. Though having a common origin, from the greater
intercourse with the continent of Britain, the people of Orkney have
less peculiarity of manners than those in Shetland. In both groups
of islands the Scandinavian language has vanished, and been super-
seded by English, purer than the ordinary Lowland Scotch ; but
everywhere Norwegian terms are common, along with some peculiar-
ities in the mode of utterance. For the universal spread of the
English tongue, the islands are indebted to the introduction of
schools and parochial ministrations ; also the residence of the higher
and mercantile classes, who are connected with the best society in


It was not without a feeling of interest and curiosity that I found
myself settled in a town nine hundred miles north from London, and
in the midst of a comparatively foreign, though British people.
Every such feeling was soon enhanced by the hospitality of our
reception, and the expectation of making several excursions to
different parts of this insular country. There was little to detain us
in Lerwick. Situated on a piece of irregular ground, it stretches

* The Orkneys consist of sixty-seven islands, thirty-eight of which are uninhabited, the
whole scattered over a space of forty-five miles in length by twenty-five in breadth. The
largest, forming the mainland, is called Pomona, and on this Kirkwall is situated. The
islands are generally bare and pastoral, but there have been considerable advances in
agriculture of late years. The Shetland Islands lie at the distance of about fifteen leagues
north-east of the Orkneys, and forty-four leagues west of Bergen, in Norway, which is the
nearest point of continental Europe. With the exception of two, the Shetland Islands are
contiguous to ea_ch other, and lie between 59" 48' 30" and 60 52' north latitude. There are
three principal islands in the group Mainland ; next, on the north, Yell ; and still farther
north-east, Unst. On the east of Yell lies Fetlar, which is the largest of the inferior islands.
The next in point of size is Bressay, which lies opposite Lerwick. The smaller islands are
Whalsay, Out Skerries, Samphray, Big Island, Mukle Roe, Papa-Stour, House, Baray,
Trondray, besides a great number of islets, holms, and skerries or mere rocks. The
population of the Shetland Islands is 32,000.



in the form of a crescent upon the margin of the spacious harbour
of Bressay Sound, and consists but of a single street, with a variety
of buildings jutting out into the sea, and some creeping up an
adjoining height on the west. At the north end of the town, on a
small rocky edifice, stands Fort Charlotte, which commands the
harbour, and could effectually protect it from any external attack.
At present, it is used chiefly as a prison and court-house, and its
guns are, I suppose, seldom fired, the whole garrison consisting of a
single functionary. The houses, like those of Kirkwall, are generally
built without order or regularity, and many of them have their ends
to the street, if I may be allowed to apply that term to the leading
thoroughfare in this curiously-constructed town. A lane, winding
and zigzagging, would be the more appropriate phrase. This chief
thoroughfare, however, and its tributary alleys, are pretty well paved
with flag-stones, and not inconvenient to foot-passengers. No
vehicle of any kind is to be seen, or indeed could proceed over the
ups and downs, and through the intricacies of the Lerwegian streets.
As at Venice, all traffic is carried on by sea, the boats and larger
vessels bringing or taking away goods being able to sail in close
to the warehouses on the margin of the harbour. I observed a
number of shops or stores for the sale of miscellaneous articles, and
' I was shewn a small inn, which has recently been opened for the
accommodation of travellers. The population had generally a
seafaring look, and there were on all sides signs of industry and
comfort. I was particularly struck with the busy movements of a
number of the females. Almost every woman of humble rank whom
I met, even while carrying a loaded basket on her back, was busily
engaged in knitting wool into stockings, or some other article of

The country around Lerwick possesses nothing to attract. There
is some cultivation, but the country generally is pastoral, swelling
into hills, and bleak and bare from the absence of trees or shrubs.
On the day after our arrival, we paid a visit to a gentleman in
Scalloway, a small town at the head of a bay some miles to the west
of Lerwick. Here, in a garden, I remarked for the first time some
trees and fruit-bearing bushes ; the latter, however, were under the
wall, with a southern exposure. I am told that the absence of trees
in Shetland does not altogether arise from the coldness of the climate,
for trunks are found in the peat-mosses ; and in one or two places
some tall trees of the sycamore kind still flourish.* Whatever be the

* In one or two gardens, sycamores and other trees, planted probably a hundred years
ago, have attained the height of forty or fifty feet, the girth within three feet of the
ground being above six feet. That trees have formerly grown in abundance in Shetland,
can hardly, I think, be doubted, from the absence of any appreciable peculiarity in
climate or soil fatal to their growth, and from the general diffusion of their remains in
the peat-moors. Some of those peat-trees were of no inconsiderable dimensions ; but for
the most part they are of small size. From this, however, it cannot be fairly inferred that,
generally, the native trees were diminutive. Timber must always have been valuable in


reason for the decay of the original forest, the defect is likely to be
soon in part supplied by planting. Various proprietors have begun
to plant forest trees ; and the more opulent among them have also
now made laudable efforts to improve the poor horticulture of the
islands. In the garden of a gentleman in the island of Bressay, a
hothouse has been erected, and is said to yield a good crop of
large grapes. At Scalloway, I visited the ruin of an old castle,
which had been built by Patrick, Earl of Orkney, in 1600, doubtless
for the purpose of aiding in his cruel oppression of the Shetlanders.
In the scattered little town of Scalloway there are some good houses,
the place having once been the capital of Shetland, and, until com-
paratively recent times, the residence of a number of opulent families.

In going and returning on this short excursion, we had occasion to
pass one of those large peat-mosses, which I afterwards found were
so common in these islands. Without native wood or coal, the
common fuel of the Shetlanders is peat, dug from the black mossqs
interspersed over the country, and whose origin may perhaps be
traced to the wreck of ancient forests, with the subsequent accumu-
lation of vegetable matter. The peat is dug with a long-handled
spade, the delver cutting out and laying aside a peat at every jerk
with his instrument. After being dried, the peats are carried home,
very commonly in baskets, on the backs of ponies.

My friend being anxious to reach his home in one of the northern
isles, we agreed to quit Lerwick on the second day after our arrival,
and bespoke a boat for the purpose. The Shetland boats are built
on the model of the ancient Norwegian yawls, pointed fore and aft.
They are exceedingly graceful in form, and are considered both swift
and safe, though the single mast is usually too high, and the sail too
large, so that at sea the boat looks like a butterfly all wings. It was
yet early when our handsome craft, manned by six good rowers, and
propelled by a gentle wind, which bent the sail, sped swiftly out of
Bressay Sound. The weather was clear and lovely, and nothing
could be more exquisitely tranquil and joyous than our ten hours'
voyage among the lonely isles which lay in our course. The glassy

this country, and the inhabitants would naturally consume all that was of any respectable
size, especially as no spot of ground is six miles from the sea in every direction, and there-
fore the woods would be easy accessible. But it is the opinion of some, that trees in size
and quantity cannot now be reared in Shetland. The experiment, however, has never been
fairly made. Let an intelligent and experienced forester, residing long enough in these
islands to modify his experience to suit their climate, superintend for a sufficiently long
period, and on a scale of adequate magnitude, the culture of various kinds of hardy trees, and
then, and not before, can the capabilities of Shetland, with regard to aboriculture, be ascer-
tained. It is to be hoped that some spirited and far-sighted proprietor will ere long put the
matter to the proof. On a question such as this, a priori opinions, thrown out at a venture, are
entirely to be disregarded. It is a curious fact, for which there is high botanical authority,
that cones of the silver fir (Abies p^cea] have been found in some moors in Orkney. This tree
is not indigenous to Scotland, but is common in Norway. It may, however, have been planted,
or its cones sown, by some of the energetic and sagacious Norwegian Yarls who so long
ruled the Orkney and Shetland Islands, and who were as remarkable for their attention to
husbandry and lishing as to politics and war. Neva Statistical Account of Scotland, No.

60 9


ocean reflected the rocky shores as we threaded our way among
numerous green islets, peopled by the screaming sea-fowl, or glided
close to the overhanging cliffs of the larger islands.

In this day's voyage we may be said to have skirted the whole
eastern shores of the islands, passing Whalsay, the Out Skerries,
and Yell, and finally arriving in Unst the most northerly in the
group ; and not only so, but the most northern scrap of inhabited
land in the United Kingdom. When we reached our destination, I
soon became aware that the more completely I made myself at home,
the more pleased our host and his family would be. The island,
I found, was not without objects of interest, or space wherein to
perambulate. In length it is twelve miles, by from three to four
in breadth, with a generally level and fertile surface, diversified by
several ridges of hills, some of considerable height. The shores are
remarkably indented with small bays or voes, offering boundless
scope for fishing ; and the hills possess some mineralogical curios-
ities. In the evening of our arrival, we took a walk to see a neigh-
bouring quarry of chromate of iron, which was discovered in several
parts of the island above forty years ago. The quarry is of great
depth, the ore lying embedded, apparently in abundance, in veins
through the rock of which the hill is composed. The working of
this mine gives employment to upwards of fifty men and boys each
summer, and many hundreds of tons of the metal are annually
exported. It is used chiefly as a pigment, producing a fine bright
yellow paint ; and as none is elsewhere found in Britain, it is the
source of considerable revenue to the proprietors.

In the evening, it was arranged that next morning, after an early
breakfast, we should proceed on an expedition by sea round the
northern coast of the island. The weather was fortunately propitious.
The sun rose to our wish in unclouded splendour, though not with
that overpowering heat of July in more southern latitudes. Not a
breeze rippled the surface of the water, and sails were accordingly
useless. The boat in which we embarked was like that already
described, but fitted up with much comfort as a pleasure-barge.
Passing some rugged and precipitous cliffs, and one or two small
bays, we reached the north-east point of the land, and here we met
numerous boats returning from the deep-sea fishery. Nearly forty
miles had these canoe-like skiffs been distant from the land, and two
nights at sea ; and we rejoiced to see them now filled with fine
cargoes of ling and tusk two kinds of white fish caught for the
purpose of exporting in a dried and salted state. Passing this fleet
of boats, manned by a hardy race of seamen, we at length reached
the two precipitous headlands which form the northern point of
British land. The western promontory consists of an uncultivated
waste of coarse pasture ; but near the sea the ground is thickly
strewn with the nests of a variety of sea-fowl ; and here is one of the
rare breeding-places of the skua-gull. The other promontory is still


higher ; and between the two is a narrow firth, which penetrates a
certain distance into the island. We had determined to proceed as
far westward as we could, before stopping at any point, keeping,
however, close to the rocks, and exploring various caves and inden-
tations the latter called gios in hopes of finding some of the seal-
tribe: Once, by the aid of a pocket-glass, we saw several of these
creatures reposing on the rocks, and apparently unaware of our
approach. We immediately took measures to approach them
stealthily ; but a few herring-gulls being on the outlook, dashed
down among the seals, even to touching them, and roused them with
a peculiar cry, so that, alarmed for their safety, they plunged into
the sea and disappeared. This curious method of giving the alarm
to slumbering seals is invariably practised by the herring-gull, which
seems to constitute himself the sentinel to watch over this persecuted
tribe of amphibii.

Crossing the mouth of the voe, we were rowed among some striking
scenery precipitous cliffs indented by narrow ravines, down which
tumbled the mountain rill like a thread of silver ; detached rocks
scattered along the shore ; and, most striking of all, the wide ocean
stretching westward and northward, sublime in its extent, desolation,
and repose. From a contemplation of inanimate nature, we were
recalled by the screaming of the multitudes of birds which rose in
clouds from the rocky cliffs. At this season the animals were tending
their young, and more than usually alive to the presence of strangers.
Each species of birds, I was informed, has its own domain on the
rocks. Some of the cliffs were appropriated entirely to the kittiwake
(Larus rt'ssa), the smallest of the gull species ; and it is these gentle
and beautiful creatures that the fowlers most unsparingly plunder of
their eggs and young. A few of the proprietors of the ground are
very anxious to prevent depredations among these and other feathered
denizens of the shores ; for, besides the dangerous nature of fowling,
it leads to idle desultory habits. Notwithstanding the general
prohibition, we saw several persons on these dizzy heights, hanging
by a slender hold on the face of the precipice. They seldom use
ropes here, as at Faroe and St Kilda, but clamber, fearlessly and
alone, down and up the craggy steeps, where one false movement
would consign them to destruction ; yet are they enthusiastically
fond of these feats of daring, and rarely any accidents occur.

Proceeding on our excursion, we now took a sweep farther from
the land, to the Utsta, or Outstack, an insulated rock, of a form not
unlike a lion rampant. We approached it cautiously from the lee-
side, as here we hoped to find one or two seals. Landing in silence,
we scrambled up the side, and one of the party best acquainted with
this kind of sport peeped over the top ; and there, to be sure, was
a pair of seals lying close to the water's edge, unconscious of
approaching danger. Creeping round the edge of the rock, to gain
a better position, he fired, which was the signal for us to rush


forward. The shot had been successful. A male seal, an enormous
animal, lay dead in his resting-place ; and it was not without a pang
that I learned that it was the mate of a female which, with a wailing
cry, had plunged into the water. The female was not again seen ;
but she wandered near the spot, and was shot a few days afterwards.
The seal which had been killed was truly a noble specimen of its
species. He was almost black in colour, with a beard on his muzzle
(Phoca barbata), was twenty feet in length, and yielded twenty gallons
of oil. After heaving him, with some difficulty, into our boat, we
paused to consider our adventurous position. The rock on which
we stood is, for the most part, submerged in the waves of the North

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 41 of 58)