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Chambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) online

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Sea, and there are very few days in a season when a landing on it
can be effected. Being thus continually washed by the salt spray,
there is no vestige of vegetation on its surface, except a few tufts of
scurvy-grass. Bare and slippery as it was, we found on it a level
spot, where, exhilarated by our success, and appetised by the pure
air of the sea, we sat down to a sumptuous fete-champetre, if that
name can be applied to a picnic feast on a rock in the midst of the
ocean. In this hearty meal our boatmen performed an active part,
quenching their thirst with a liquid called bland, which I had never
before seen or tasted. It is the whey of churned milk, separated
from the milk by heating ; and, being slightly acidulous, is grateful
and refreshing, and will keep, if bottled, for a considerable time. I
believe this method of using butter-milk is common only in Shetland,
where the whole milk of the cow, not the cream alone, is regularly
churned. The practice is economical ; for the curd forms a solid
food, and the preserved whey a wholesome and inexpensive drink
the invariable beverage of the Shetland peasant at home, and of the
fisherman when at sea.

Having finished our meal, and packed everything up, we bade
adieu to the Utsta, and turned our course homewards, landing by
the way on several skerries or small islets, which afford pasture for
two or three sheep during the summer months. In winter, they are
shrouded for the most part in tempestuous spray. We took occasion
to stop also at the foot of the tallest precipice on the mainland of
Unst, in order to view a rocky arch by which it is perforated. The
opening on the sea is fifty feet across, and a hundred feet high ; and
when fired into by a gun, the echoes reverberated like the rattling
peal of thunder. After passing through this magnificent archway,
in length 300 feet, we proceeded with our boat to explore the interior
of several other caverns. In these the boat was pushed forwards by
the hands on the sides of the rock, and the swell of the sea caused
it to rise and fall with a somewhat unpleasant motion. At the
farther end, in solemn darkness, on a low pebbly beach, the great
seals bring forth and nurse their young ; but the season was yet too
early to find them there. These caves are called hellyersj and in
September, the seals are often captured by spreading a net across


the mouth, and then alarming the inhabitants within, who, rushing
out to escape, fall into the snare, get entangled in the net, and are
either shot or drowned ; for a seal will be drowned as effectually as
a man, only it takes longer time to accomplish. They must respire
atmospheric air every fifteen, or at most twenty minutes, or else their
blood becomes black or venoid, causing apoplexy and death.

Still one novelty awaited us : by the kind attention of our host, a
fishing-line had been set at the mouth of the firth, and it having
remained the proper time, we had the pleasure of seeing it hauled
by our boatmen. It was the same kind, though not so large, as that
used at. the deep-sea or haff fishing. A rope of about 400 fathoms
long, with buoys and corks to float it, is stretched in a tide-way, if
near shore, or on the well-known bank, when far at sea ; to this is
attached at regular distances short lines, with lead for sinking, and
one or two powerful hooks baited with the young of the coal-fish.
Beginning at one end, the lines are drawn in. We were extremely
successful ; almost every hook held a fish : small tusk, large beauti-
ful cod, like that for which a Londoner would give half a guinea a
piece ; skate, conger-eels, saithe or full-grown coal-fish, but, above
all; halibut of various sizes, some of them gigantic, above six feet
long. When these large fish, or a powerful cod or skate, appeared
on the surface approaching the boat, the poor animal's struggles
became frantic ; and a skilful hand, armed with a short staff, with
a large and very strong hook attached, strikes his weapon into the
gills, and thus assists in dragging it into the boat. Our excitement
at this novel spectacle was quite intoxicating, and frequently we
received showers of brine, which the floundering of the fish and the
yielding of the boat washed in upon us. What signified that ? We
got a noble haul, and in the highest good-humour proceeded home,
which we did not reach till nearly midnight, by the soft twilight and
lovely moon, the most exquisitely beautiful of all hours in this lati-
tude. Need it be said we slept soundly after the many hours' exposure
to the pure and healthful sea-air, and the pleasurable excitement we
had undergone ?

It was now the 5th of July, and the weather still continuing favour-
able for boating, we went to a neighbouring island to see one of the
principal stations where the boats rendezvous during the three
summer months for the prosecution of the ling-fishery. Most of the
men are several miles distant from their families, whom they only
visit on the Saturday evenings till Monday morning ; consequently,
they erect slight lodges at these temporary stations, in which they
cook and shelter when on shore. We landed on a beach of large
rough stones, of some extent, partly natural, and partly set for the
purpose ; this was spread with ling, tusk, and cod, in the course of
being dried, a score of boys being in constant attendance to turn
them, and, in case of showers, gather them in heaps. The boats
were just about putting off to sea as we arrived a little after mid-day.


Each boat is manned by six men, or more usually five men and a
boy, the latter being a kind of apprentice the first year, and receiving
only a small share of the earnings. The, dress of the men going to
sea consists of a loose covering of barked sheep-skin, the form of an
English labourer's smock, over trousers of oiled cotton or linen, arid
high boots of barked horse-hides, with generally a knitted woollen
cap of divers colours. A small jar of bland, with a thick cake of
oatmeal, is all the refreshment they carry with them on these excur-
sions. When they have reached their fishing-ground, which from
this point may be about twenty-five miles off the land, they set their
lines towards evening, and some of the men may have a short nap
by turns. Having hauled before midnight, if the weather be favour-
able, they bait and set again, and return in the morning. Should
the weather look unsettled, they return without the second haul.
Sometimes they remain out two nights, and fill their boats. When
they have taken much fish, every interval is busily employed in
gutting them ; all the entrails being thrown overboard. The heads
and livers are alone preserved, and are the perquisites of the men.
The livers are cooked fresh, with oatmeal in bread, or a sort of fish
haggis ; and what is not so used, is allowed to become rancid, and
boiled for oil. Skate and halibut, when caught, are also reserved by
the men for the use of their families. All Shetlanders, both high
and low, prefer fish for eating, of whatever sort (except herring and
halibut), in a half-putrid state. It is simply washed in sea-water,
and hung up in the air for ten days or a fortnight ; or the ling and
cod heads, and the small sillacks, are laid in heaps in a dark place,
for four or five days, till they have acquired the favourite flavour.

When the fresh fish are landed, they are weighed and delivered
to the curer, who keeps an account of the quantity brought by each
boat. Ling and tusk are allowed the highest price per hundred-
weight. The cod-fishing was hardly thought of in Shetland till a
very few years ago, but now it is extensively carried on ; and the
cod in the cured state, which formerly fetched not above two-thirds,
now brings as much as the others ; which appears to me singular,
as I should think there could be no comparison in the delicacy of
the food they form. But the cod, I believe, are chiefly sent abroad,
the Catholic countries of the continent taking many cargoes both
from Shetland and Norway. I had often heard that the stock-fish
of Norway were preferred to those of Shetland ; and it became a
great object to obtain for the latter a higher character, and constant
good market.

We now witnessed a numerous fleet of boats put to sea, not, it
will be believed, without breathing heartfelt wishes for their safety
and success, as we reflected how many a stay of helpless families
these little skiffs bore to a scene of peril. Afterwards, we turned to
look into the fishermen's temporary dwellings, or lodges as they are
called. The walls are so low that one can hardly stand upright


within, and are built of loose stones and turf; about fifteen feet
long, and half that width. At one end is a broad dais of turf, on
which straw and blankets are spread : this is all the sleeping-place.
A hole in the roof at the other end shews that beneath is the hearth
for the peat-fire, with a raised seat of turf around it. Here each
boat's crew sleep and eat when on shore, both operations being as
uncertain as the wind and weather snatches of repose, and hasty
meals of porridge, or fish and potatoes, being all that these hardy
men can command ; yet do they never enjoy such excellent health
as at these seasons. I find that the herring-fishery is not likely ever
to compensate its prosecution in Shetland, though it has been
attempted with very unequal success for more than forty years.
The season for the herring does not commence here till after the
summer ling-fishery is over that is, the end of August and then
the weather becomes squally, and the men's attention is occupied
with reaping the little harvest of their fields ; for, be it always
remembered, a Shetland peasant is not merely a fisherman. In his
variable climate, he could not make a subsistence by fishing alone ;
he must have his little farm to help to furnish food for his house-
hold. And though the females do a great part of the farm-work,
yet still, in many instances, especially when the families are young,
the father's assistance on land in spring and autumn is absolutely
necessary. Before leaving the interesting and busy scene we had
been contemplating, we partook with the superintendent of delicious
fresh tusk and potatoes, both boiled in sea-water, which is, I do not
know why, a great improvement in their preparation.

Returning from this visit, we landed at the nearest point of Unst,
and sent the boat round, intending to walk home across the island.
In the course of our ramble, we visited a gentleman's- house, when,
after being kindly entertained with tea, we went to a hamlet in the
neighbourhood, in which the inhabitants were keeping an annual
festival, in honour of having finished their peat-harvest. Peats, as
I formerly mentioned, are the only native, fuel in Shetland, and are
dug in May. At the middle or end of June, according as the
weather has been favourable, they are ready for being brought home,
sometimes a distance of several miles ; and this is done on the
backs of ponies, in open straw baskets hung on wooden pack-

The different gangs of ponies are driven by boys. A young
female of the family remains for the purpose of lading and taking
care of the ponies, till all the peats are carried away, which may
occupy from one to four weeks. Though the labour is heavy and
incessant, the young women rather enjoy it as a relaxation than
endure it as a task, and always lay in a stock of robust health with
their embrowned complexions. In each hill or peat-moor, therefore,
is formed quite a village of lodges, like those of the fishermen, but
much smaller, and built wholly of turf, the roof being removed each


season when it ceases to be wanted. As we approached one of
these groups of singular and most primitive habitations, we found
bonfires blazing in different places in honour of the festival, round
which the boys were congregated, supplying fuel, and amusing
themselves, as other boys do around a bonfire. In the green huts,
on a sofa of turf, round a table of the same, were gathered the girls
and their guests, among whom were hardly any of the other sex ;
and here, even amidst smoke and darkness, we might distinguish
fair faces and modest looks, which might have graced more polished
scenes and, moreover, it is always refreshing to see young counten-
ances beaming with mirth and happiness. The feast, which is the
main thing, consisted of tea, smoked mutton, and pork ; eggs and
oatmeal cake, or ship-biscuit, and, in some instances, pancakes or
buttered cake of flour or barley-meal. Each maiden was dressed
in a neat cotton gown, and ribbons in her cap. By and by were
heard the sounds of a violin, though by no very practised hand, and
the young people danced on the turf around their bonfire. The
Shetlanders appear to be excessively fond of music, and its natural
accompaniment, dancing ; and, as may be supposed, seize all proper
opportunities for indulging in them.

July 17. Yesterday we enjoyed the sport of a whale-hunt. Early
in the morning, a messenger was sent to the proprietor of the land
lying round the bay, to inform him that a shoal of whales, of the
smaller species, were lying in the narrow sound leading into it. Not
long did the laird indulge in sloth after this summons ; in a very
few minutes he was up and dressed, issuing orders all the while he
performed his toilet, and sending messengers to his tenants, desiring
them to hasten to put themselves under his direction at the scene
of action. In an incredibly short space of time, many boats were
gathered, and filled with men and boys armed with weapons and
instruments of noise as well as of slaughter. Happy was he who
could boast the possession of some rusty ancestral sword or cutlass,
or a harpoon acquired in some Greenland voyage ; and in absence
of, or addition to, all these, the boats were loaded with stones of all
sizes, hastily gathered from the beach at starting. The laird was
provided with a heavy gun, loaded with two balls, a weapon which
had been fatal to the lives of many seals and otters. The boats
proceeded singly, and in silence, the men straining every nerve, in
suppressed but bursting eagerness, in order to get between the whales
and the expanse of the ocean. When all were collected in a close
phalanx to which boats from neighbouring shores, and lairds from
adjacent islands, were each moment gathering the chase commenced
in earnest. Every voice was raised in shouts and wild cries ; showers
of stones were flung by every hand not employed with the oars ;
kettles and saucepans were rattled, and various violins tuned, not
so much to harmony, as to discord : all combined making a chaos
of sounds intended to confuse the timid group, which were seen



floundering in alarm till the water was like a boiling caldron. The
whales were thus, slowly followed till they were driven fairly past the
narrow sound or entrance, and into the bay ; but here the prospect
widening, it became rather a difficult matter to persuade the inhabit-
ants of 'the deep that it would be best for them to run on shore.
Boats continued to push from the land, terrifying still more, and
scattering the herd ; and strangers were not found willing to place
themselves under due direction and generalship. The shoal sepa-
rated in two divisions, and the hunters, in their eagerness, became
less and less amenable to discipline, so that an unsuccessful termin-
ation of the adventure was greatly to be dreaded. The laird and
his first-lieutenant and factotum became entirely hoarse with bawl-
ing, and the poor persecuted whales made several desperate and
dangerous efforts to break the barrier of boats that opposed their
return to the ocean.

Thus passed many hours, during which the hunters had enough
to do to keep themselves in safety, and prevent their prize from
escaping. The boats were tossed by the motion of the whales in
the water, as if it were agitated by a storm ; the day drew to its
close ; the evening twilight came ; but, though the sun's beams had
been hidden through the day, a slight breeze was now scattering the
low clouds, to make way for the bright rising of the full moon : the
wearied and anxious pursuers (many of whom had, in their eager
haste, left their homes without breakfast) were now making up their
minds to keep watch over their restless prey through the short night :
so the laird having sent on shore for refreshments, rested from his
exertions to snatch a hasty repast, and refresh his boatmen. While
he was thus engaged, the herd of whales once again united, and,
after a short interval of repose, suddenly made a simultaneous move-
ment towards the shore. At this joyful sight, and the apparently
near triumphant termination of their day's toil, hunger and fatigue
were forgotten, and all were again engaged with oars and voices,
stones and fiddles, in contributing to the wished-for result ; when
the leader of the herd, a large and powerful male, feeling the water
shallowing, turned back, apparently resolved to make one desperate
attempt for freedom and safety. His companions followed, taking
their way with the swiftness of lightning along the shore, seeking an
outlet, which undoubtedly they would soon have found, from the
position of the boats and the breadth of the bay ; but at this moment
of breathless suspense, the laird, whose powerfully-manned boat lay
nearest to the direction the whales were taking, sped like an arrow
to meet the poor prisoners thus gallantly struggling for release.
Vain struggle ! When within a few yards, the laird raised his
unerring gun, and fired at the leader of the herd. Stunned and
blinded, the poor animal turned from the direction of safety, and
despairingly, or unwittingly, ran directly on shore, just below the
proprietors dwelling. The whole herd of two hundred blindly



followed, as is their invariable habit. The hunters of course rushed
after them, and as the boats touched the ground, the men jumped
to their waists in water, in the midst of their helpless prey, which
were despatched with knives and harpoons without mercy, till all
appeared wading in blood rather than water. The laird's factotum
was a man of extraordinary strength and stature, and, armed with a
powerful family sword of his master's, stabbed and cut by the moon-
light till his athletic arm dropped from weariness, his whole person
dripping with the blood of the slaughtered whales, and his brain
fairly delirious with excitement and exertion. Ere midnight, the
whole herd lay dead on the beach, those which had been killed in
the water being dragged above the flood-mark.

This morning there were important doings. The laird and the
assessors of the booty met in solemn conclave, while an eager and
noisy, though respectful multitude, were gathered around the bodies
of the slain. In such cases, the capture is divided into three parts.
One part belongs to the admiral, as crown dues, another to the pro-
prietor of the shore on which the whales are stranded, while the
third is divided among those who have assisted in the chase. But
the admiral now, I believe, waives his right in favour of the captors.
On this occasion, the division was first effected justly, and to the
satisfaction of all, and then commenced the operation of flenching,
' or cutting off the blubber, which is the only part of this species of
whale here considered of any use.

Some of the participators chose to cany away their own shares,
while others were happy if their landlord would take theirs, the value
to be placed to their credit against rent-day. Amused and excited
with all I had seen, I mentioned that I should like to taste the flesh
of a young whale, which is considered a great dainty, as I was" told,
in the Faroe Islands. At dinner, my desire was gratified. A young
whale was selected, and from it were cut some very nice-looking
steaks, which were broiled over a glowing fire. The flesh looked
and tasted exactly like beef; rather coarser than the delicate Shetland
beef indeed, but with no peculiar flavour or odour to distinguish it
from ox-flesh, or to betray its origin. It is something for me to say
that I have made my dinner off a whale !

Notwithstanding the nutritious and palatable qualities of whale-
flesh, the Shetlanders have a great prejudice against it, which is
unfortunate. Could the repugnance be overcome, what a welcome
supply of food would the carcasses prove, which now are left to rot
on the beaches, or else to sink in the sea ; while the natives of
Faroe never suffer from famine, as the Shetlanders have done for a
succession of years, from failure of their crops and fishing. A more
extraordinary prejudice of the Shetlanders leads them obstinately to
refuse as food all sorts of shell-fish, even in the extremity of distress
from want. Lobsters and crabs, of large size and fine quality, as
well as many of the smaller Crustacea, no Shetland peasant or



fisherman will ever taste ; and when others do, they look on with
loathing and abhorrence.

July 23. To-day we visited the ruined castle of Muness, which
occupies a commanding situation among some cottages, at the dis-
tance of a mile from the sea-shore. It is a large massive structure,
of the date 1598, and appears, from a tablet on the wall, to have
been built by Lawrence Bruce, a gentleman of Perthshire, who had
fled to these distant islands in consequence of having slain a neigh-
bour in an affray. The building is tolerably entire, but has been
.long dismantled and deserted.

July 24. Weather rainy and misty, and the day has been spent
reading, and otherwise amusing ourselves within doors. An old
woman, full of old stories and legends of Hialtland, sung us some
curious ballads, illustrative of the ancient state of society in the
islands. In listening to them, I almost fancied that I was transported
back to the rude times of the Vikingr and northern sagas.

July 26. The weather is again clear and pleasant, and I begin- to
think of packing up and leaving my kind friends. To-day, intelli-
gence has arrived of a revenue cutter being seen in the Sound of
Yell ; and if she visit Unst, perhaps I may obtain a passage on
board to Lerwick or Kirkwall.

Having some days ago asked my accomplished hostess to furnish
me with a few notes of Shetland life and manners before my departure,
she has obligingly handed me the following


The Shetlanders, high and low, are distinguished for the love of
their native country. The gentry, unlike the same class of persons
in the Highlands and in Ireland, have never been absentees. Sent
to the metropolis or elsewhere for education, or travelling to see the
world, they return to their island-homes with delight. Though their
means might easily admit of their living in comfort in any more
favoured latitude, they are nobly and wisely content to spend the
long dull winter, as well as the short cold summer, among those
whom Providence has appointed to be dependent on their indulgence
and liberality for much of their comfort. Exclusiveness is no vice
of Shetland society; there prevails among the higher classes a
genial sociality of manners, accompanied with a rare spirit of hos-
pitality, which never abates the respect justly their due. In these
families, well-conducted housekeeping in Shetland must be some-
what as in Norway a complicated and arduous concern, requiring
no small forethought and management in the direction. A farm, of
course, is attached to the mansion-house, and several additional
servants, male and female, are kept on that account, and to attend
to the live stock. Seed-time, harvest, and peat-work are performed


chiefly by day-labourers, mostly females, whose wages are about six-
pence a day. There being no markets and no shops, of course each
family must lay in a stock of every article requisite in clothing and
foreign produce, and, besides, have duplicates of many of the most
indispensable articles of furniture, since weeks may elapse before
accidents can be repaired. For the daily table consumption, they
have, in spring, the superfluous calves ; in summer, lambs and
sheep ; in winter, fowls : these are all drawn from the farm stock, or
purchased from neighbours who may have them to spare. At Mar-
tinmas comes the grand slaughtering of the summer-fatted beef,
together with the attendant pickling, smoking, pudding and sausage
making, for the winter ; immediately following is the candle-making
from the tallow of the animals that have been killed ; then succeed

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 42 of 58)