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

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the drying, grinding, and sifting of the oats and bere for meal. This
is besides the constant dairy-work, and is all included in the cares
of the Shetland lady and her assistants ; and yet, on the often unex-
pected arrival of guests and strangers, they will find all things as
much comme il faut as if shops and markets were at hand. There
are indeed no morning visitors to receive, and few dinner-parties to
prepare for ; but, instead, when the Shetland gentry visit each other,
it is for days together. Ponies are the only means of travelling,
when the distance is in the same island ; and these familiar animals,
with an attendant, are therefore included in the requisite hospitality.
They are, though the smallest variety of the horse kind, very strong
and spirited. In some islands, where the ground is firm and stony,
they run along with head drooping, picking their own way, and
requiring very little of the bridle management ; in others, where
quagmires, peat-moss, and brooks abound, the sagacious animals go
invariably at a canter ; and the rider requires to be on his guard
constantly, lest a flying leap over what his well-instructed steed
knows to be unsound footing, should startle him into a somersault.

In the more remote islands, families of a humble rank are perhaps
the best off for society; those of a higher grade are, in some
situations, nearly deprived of any congenial acquaintanceship, and,
to fill up the void, are accustomed to occupy their leisure with
attention to the animal creation, in all the varieties within their
reach. Ponies, dogs, cats, gulls, geese, seals, and sea-otters are
among the ordinary domestic pets ; and it is astonishing how friendly
all live with each other; an otter and dog being perhaps seen
gamboling together round the kitchen-fire, or nestling on the same
couch. Seals are not easily tamed. We have frequently attempted
to rear the cubs of two species common in these islands; but
unsuccessfully, except in one instance. She was captured in a
dangerous and almost inaccessible cave, after a severe struggle, when
a few weeks old. From her having acquired vigour by the ordi-
nary nursing of the mother, she was easily fed on fish (of which
she devoured an incredible quantity), and grew very rapidly; but,


on the other hand, she never lost altogether her native ferocity, nor
would suffer herself to be touched, or even too nearly approached,
by any but the individual who had her peculiarly in charge ; and,
strange to say, with that person she was, from the first, confiding and
gentle. After a time, however, she became much more domestic,
traversing the house, apparently seeking society or caressing lan-
guage, of which she seemed exceedingly sensible. The unreclaimable
wildness of her nature was then only perceivable in the piercing
glance and strikingly intelligent expression of her large and beautiful
eyes. Her voice was singularly expressive, and of various modula-
tion. Plaintively pleasing and prolonged were the notes when singing
her own lullaby, or perhaps one "might fancy (we often did) that she
pensively mourned for her native haunts of rocks, billows, and
freedom. When impatient for food, her cry was precisely like that
of a child ; when disturbed or irritated, it was the short howl of a
dog. Her gait on land was awkward, and apparently uneasy, as
she was always anxious to be carried the few hundred yards' distance
to the water ; and there, indeed, her motions were all grace and ease ;
diving for amusement, or after the pieces of fish which were thrown
to her, or else presenting an air of the haughtiest and most dignified
defiance to the Newfoundland dog, which, on his part, anxious as
he ever was to encounter a wounded seal, dared not too familiarly
or nearly approach the ferocious glance of that expressive

It appears that diving is necessary for the health of these animals.
They usually remain from a few minutes to a quarter of an hour
under water ; their blood then becomes more venoid ; and with this
condition their brain appears formed most to agree. It is imagined
to be this condition of the blood that gives rise to the powerful odour
of coal-tar, or carburetted hydrogen gas, emitted from their bodies
both dead and alive. I have observed it to be more powerful from
this animal when angry, or just after returning from her daily visit
to her native element. Our, sealchie lived with us for six months,
and grew to the size of above seven feet. She was then permitted
to go at large on the sea ; but on being called, though at a consider-
able distance, she would immediately answer in the plaintive sound
expressive of pleasure and recognition ; and on returning to the
house, we would soon find her swim to land, and patiently wait on
the beach for her carriage ; or else, if called and encouraged, make
her ungainly way over stones, grass, and gravel-walks to the lodge
appointed for her. She was thus amusing herself on the sea one
day, when a sudden storm of snow came on, and we observed one
or two wild seals of the smaller species swimming about her : the
clouds thickened, the snow drifted from the land, and we never saw
our interesting prote"ge"e again, though a boat was instantly sent
in search of her. We conjectured that she had been attracted round
a point of the land by the wild ones during the thickness of the


weather ; for next day our favourite found her way into a neighbour-
ing inlet, not to be welcomed and regaled with warm milk, as she
had been accustomed to, but, when she confidently approached the
dwelling of man, only to be knocked on the head and eagerly
despatched (we hope thoughtlessly, though she was well known in
the island) for the sake of her skin and blubber. Poor Finna !
long wast thou regretted, and bitterly was thy cruel fate lamented.

Several pairs of the white-tailed or sea eagle breed in the cliffs
and precipices of Shetland. Some years ago, an adventurous climber
scaled one of these cliffs, and made prisoner an unfledged eaglet
from the nest. It was carried to a young gentleman in a neighbouring
island, and in time grew to be a very large and noble bird, but
never became in the least degree tamed. A hut was built for his
dwelling-place, and he was permitted to go at large, with his wing
clipped, to prevent escape; but the only dispositions he ever 'dis-
played were fierceness and voracity. Many a poor straggling hen
and duck became the victims of the savage guest ; even the person
who approached him with food was fiercely attacked ; and the
servants preferred many weighty complaints regarding torn garments
and wounded hands. At length fears were entertained for the little
children just beginning to run about the premises, as even the
thatched roof of his hut was not sufficient to resist the force of his
efforts to escape confinement, and after a sojourn of eighteen months
he was reluctantly destroyed. Another eagle, of the same species,
but a full-grown one, was captured in a very surprising manner by
a daring fowler, whose favourite recreation it was to scale, fearless
and alone, the dizzy precipice, every nook and cranny of which was
familiar to his footsteps. This man had been aware for several
years that a pair of eagles built on an almost inaccessible point of a
cliff several hundred feet high. Long he had searched for their
nest ; but in vain. At length he stumbled upon it one day by
accident, but imprudently, as it turned out, carried off the only egg
it contained. Again he visited the spot ; but no nest was there.
The parent birds had been aware of the spoiler's visit, and removed
their residence to a place still more concealed and inaccessible. Not
discouraged, the enthusiastic cragsman renewed his search ; and,
after a patient cowering among the rocks in the face of the precipice,
he saw the eagles at their nest, but in a situation so lofty, and
encompassed by so many difficulties, that it appeared altogether
beyond his reach. The daring cragsman, however, resolved to make
the attempt ; and after many perils, and much fatigue in climbing,
he reached the wished-for spot. He saw three eggs in the nest ;
but, rendered wise by experience, he resolved to wait till they were
hatched, and contented himself with carefully marking the situation,
and the safest approach to it. It was not always that, daring as
was our cragsman, the state of the rocks, of the weather, and of his
own feelings, permitted him to make the dizzy attempt. At length,


one season he accomplished it. On reaching the place, he perceived
the white tail of the parent bird, as, brooding on the nest, it projected
over the shelf of rock on which she had built. With dauntless
bravery, perceiving that she was not aware of his approach, he flung
himself on the back of the powerful and ferocious bird. She seemed
to be at once cowed and overcome by the might and majesty of
man, before whose glance, we have been often told, the fiercest
beasts of the desert quail. In what a situation was our adventurer
now ! standing on a flat ledge of rock, a few feet square, a precipice
overhanging a hundred feet above him, while underneath, at six
times that distance, roared the abyss of ocean, and screaming over-
head soared the male eagle, as if hesitating whether or not to attack
the spoiler. We can hardly imagine a more dreadful, nay, sublime
position : but the cool courage and self-possession of the cragsman
carried him safely through the adventure. First he twisted the
strong wings of the bird together ; loosening one garter, with it he
bound her bill, and with the other her legs. Thus fettered and
gagged, she lay quietly at his mercy, and he paused a moment to
draw breath, and ask himself if it were possible that he had accom-
plished a feat so extraordinary. Much he wished to preserve his
captive uninjured, to make his triumph appear the more questionless
and complete ; but thus loaded, he could not have attempted the
dangerous path by which he had to return ; so, after a few anxious
cogitations, he threw his prize over the precipice. Bound and help-
less, she dashed from rock to rock as she fell, till she rested on a
point which he knew was quite easily accessible to him, and then he
took his eager and joyful, though, to any other than himself, hazardous
path, to where she lay, struggling yet with the remains of life, so
that it became a matter of humanity to finish her death at once.
Her bereaved mate followed the successful spoiler on his homeward
way that evening, soaring low, and screaming fearfully ; but he has
never been seen since. To his indulgent landlord the adventurer
carried his extraordinary prize, and told his tale with modest enthu-
siasm, receiving a handsome present when he had finished, as well
as unqualified praise for his brave and daring deed.

Ponies, I have said, are the only means of travelling in this
generally roadless country. What the camel is to the Arabian,
the pony is to the Shetlander. Without boats for external, and
ponies for internal communication, the islands would indeed be
very unendurable. Ponies form a remarkable feature in all the
larger rural establishments. Left very much to themselves, and
growing up without the refinements of grooming, troops of these
hardy animals may be seen browsing on the ' hills and heaths, and
flocking on occasions to the shelter which the walls of the outhouses
afford. In summer, these diminutive specimens of the pachydermata
diminutive, probably, from climate and slender fare thrive on the
wide wastes ; but in winter they are to be pitied for their privations.



At this inclement season, when a storm is apprehended, the farmer
and his family are careful in seeing that the flock of ponies comes
home for food and protection. Arriving at a trot from the hills, all
go out to welcome them. There they are, twelve, twenty, thirty,
perhaps so many as forty of them, old and young. A scanty meal
of hay or coarse dried grass is given them, while the young people
endeavour to keep the elder animals from sponging on the younger ;
for when their own share is finished, the old horses are very apt to
be domineering and vicious to their own kind, as well as voracious,
and sometimes kick off the others, and injure them to the breaking
of a limb. They therefore require to be watched when thus fed in
numbers together. Next morning the ground is covered with snow ;
the ponies scrape the fleecy carpet with their feet, endeavouring to
obtain a mouthful ; and morning and evening they receive from their
protectors a spare meal as before. A very stormy night is appre-
hended, and some young or weakly foal, peradventure the pet of one
of the little girls, walks into the kitchen, and there very quietly and
demurely takes up his quarters, to the great delight of the children,
who run to feed him from time to time with oat-cake or potatoes,
and a draught of sweet warm milk, all which attentions he receives
with becoming gravity.

These hardy little horses are never stabled ; the side of a house,
or of a stone wall, is all the shelter they receive ; and many of their
companions are left to do as they best may on their native hills
and shores, receiving, during a long snow, a handful of hay or straw
once every two or three days, and sustaining their life chiefly by
seeking the beach, and eating the drift sea-weed, of which cows are
also fond, and eat freely. It is observed amongst us that the horse
is not nearly so sagacious or affectionate as the cow, and is much
more selfish and obstinate. However much he may be indulged
or taken notice of, he very rarely displays definite attachment or
discriminating sagacity : he will, indeed, carry his rider safely home
through a thick mist or drifting snow, if the reins are resigned to
him, thus in all probability avoiding a plunge in a snow-wreath or
a flounder in a quagmire ; but so will any animal seek and find
its native place, or the shed where it is accustomed to receive food.

The Shetland pony, however, is docile, rarely vicious, and admir-
ably adapted for the half-savage life he is doomed to lead in these
islands, where even the steeds kept for the family's use in riding
receive little better usage than the rest, and never know the luxuries
of currying, stabling, or supping on oats. Some of these ponies
are very diminutive ; the largest are about eleven hands ; while some
do not exceed thirty-three or even thirty inches. One of the latter,
a dun-coloured mare of exquisite symmetry, could stand under a
dining-table, and a lady who is rather petite could seat herself on
its back without lifting her feet from the ground. This gentle and
beautiful creature was lost by falling over a precipice, but the foal


she had with her was found, and carefully nourished, and is still
alive ; the same in colour, but rather larger than its dam. The breed
of ponies is degenerating within these few years ; for the handsomest
and best are usually exported. Only one circumstance and it is
rather a melancholy one is in favour of the breed, namely, that
the late severe seasons have carried off the weakly ones in hundreds.
The trying and variable Shetland winter may thus prove a necessary
and beneficial, though it may be a rough regenerator.

Of the cow I have little to say ; she is staid and matronly, and
well treated, as she always deserves to be ; her milk, though small
in quantity, is peculiarly rich. Oxen are almost always employed
in the plough, or the light cart used on the proprietors' farms. The
ox is very sagacious, docile, patient, and enduring. Only one we
ever saw was inveterately obstinate, and averse to labour. He was
a young and beautiful animal, milk-white, without a spot. He used
invariably to fall down when about to be yoked, as if deprived of
the use of his joints ; and no coaxing or beating could induce him
to rise, so that it required five or six men to set him on his legs. He
appeared in good plight, but almost everybody supposed he was
really weak, so well did he feign ; till one day his owner came with a
powerful horse-whip, and gave him a severe chastisement, to the no
small surprise and scandal of the bystanders at the imagined
cruelty of this procedure ; however, ere long, the ox started up with
the greatest agility, and that day worked steadily and vigorously, as
he had done indeed for a few weeks before this fancy struck him.
Next morning, however, again he lay as if dead or dying ; but the
instant the author of his castigation appeared at some distance
coming towards him, he jumped up as before. This was often
repeated; but as his master could not be always at hand, and he
was found utterly incorrigible, and not amenable to any other
discipline whatever, he was reluctantly devoted to the knife.

Last season, after much procrastination, and with many regrets,
we were compelled to sign the death-warrant of a very old and
faithful servant, a work-ox, who had reached his twenty-first year,
and was still, to all appearance, in possession of as much activity
and vigour as ever. No animal could by possibility be more docile/
sagacious, and affectionate; he distinctly knew and acknowledged,
under any circumstances, the persons belonging to his owner's
family, or who were accustomed to drive him ; and he was so per-
fectly aware of what was required of him, that one would have
imagined he understood human language. Though it is a defect
in the character of the lower class of Shetlanders, that they only
value their animals for the use they can make of them, and indulge
in no sentiment towards even the most attached of their dumb
dependents, yet of this animal, all who knew him said he was so
intelligent as to be able to do everything but speak ; nor could any
but strangers be got to butcher him at last, so well was he known,


and so highly appreciated. I may just add, that his flesh was finely
flavoured and tender, as well as fat, and that it is quite usual in
Shetland to keep both cows and oxen to the age of sixteen or
eighteen years before slaughtering them.

Sheep are a leading source of revenue to the Shetland farmers
and proprietors, the short scanty herbage being suitable for these
animals. On every islet having food for no more than one or two
sheep, there are they found, being taken and brought away in boats
by the shepherds at the proper seasons. The mutton of the Shetland
sheep is highly flavoured and dark coloured, like the Welsh ; but the
animal is as much prized for its wool as its flesh. The wool is
exceedingly soft and fine, and this quality appears to arise from
peculiarities in the climate and herbage; for when the animals are
removed to more southerly latitudes, or to better pastures, their wool
degenerates. Nature is always bountiful in providing a covering
suitable to the necessities of animal existence. Less as an article
of export than of home manufacture is the wool of Shetland prized
by the natives. The manufacture is domestic, and affords universal
employment. While the hardy adventurous fisherman seeks his
livelihood on the dangerous ocean, the females of his family add
materially to their too often scanty resources, and at least always
provide their own clothing by the produce of their knitting, which is,
indeed, the only remunerating branch of industry within their reach.
The wool is so fine that it may be spun into a thread as small as one
of cambric, and this on a common lint-wheel. Some idea of this
may be formed from the fact that one thousand yards are frequently
spun from one ounce of wool, each thread being threefold, or three
thousand yards in all ! Stockings knitted from thread of this quality
are so light and fine as to be capable of being drawn through a finger-
ring, and for such, so high a price as two guineas, and even more,
has been paid. These used to be the most recherche' articles of
Shetland manufacture ; but within these few years the cottage girls
knit a variety of elegant shawls and scarfs in numerous ingenious
patterns, mostly their own invention, which are as beautiful as lace,
and not above three or four ounces in weight. These shawls and.
scarfs, generally pure white, or of a dark 'gray, are now largely
exported to Edinburgh, where they are purchased by ladies as an
elegant article of dress. Some have likewise found their way to
London, where they are sold at an enormously high price, con-
sidering the original cost, and where also they are, like everything
rare and valuable, the subject of commonplace imitation. Political
economists may perhaps allege that, by employing machinery, the
Shetlanders would make more of their wool ; but this I take leave
to doubt. The time occupied by the females in knitting costs
nothing, and is generally worth nothing; while the employment is
not only profitable, but amusing.

Unless when afflicted with the calamity of a bad harvest, or a


failure of the white-fishing, the small farmer of Shetland enjoys a
reasonable degree of comfort and satisfaction in his existence.
Meal, potatoes, and milk his farm affords ; and fuel in abundance is
included in his holding. Fish, and oil for the lamp, the bountiful
ocean at his cottage-door supplies. On the common or hill, he has
the right to keep as many ponies, sheep, and geese as he can attend
to, without boundary or restriction, merely putting his own proper
mark on them, to distinguish his property ; pigs and poultry, of
course, also, he need cever want His cottage is, for the most
part, about thirty feet long, and from ten to fifteen wide ; the walls
low, and built of stone and clay, but sometimes with lime, and
often plastered inside and outside with mortar ; the roof covered
with turf, and then scantily thatched. It consists of two divisions :
the larger and outer one is the common family apartment, with an
earthen floor ; it has no chimney, but only a hole in the roof above
a raised hearth at the one end ; the beds, enclosed like a cupboard,
and one over the other as on shipboard, serve as a partition from
the smaller or ben end; this latter is wooden-roofed and floored, is
the sleeping-place of the heads of the family, a parlour in which to
receive guests, provided with a glazed window and a chimney, but
no grate ; the peats, indeed, burn much better and more cheerily on
the ample well-swept hearth. Sometimes the space above this latter
room is boarded in, and forms a sleeping-place for the young men of
the family. Very few households do not consist of double families ;
a son or daughter, and often both, or two, when married, remain with
the parents, share the labour and the rent-paying, and thus form
quite a patriarchal household, with a community of comforts which
separate establishments could not so easily afford. Sociality is
greatly desired by the Shetlanders, and no pride in having a house
of her own can compensate to a youthful wife for the gossip of her
sisters, or the. indulgence of her parents' society.

There is one consequence of the association of these family groups
which is sometimes lamentable. The father, sons, and sons-in-law
frequently purchase a boat for themselves (it is, indeed, their grand
object of ambition to do so), or they insist on being placed together
for the fishing by their landlord. Should that boat be lost at sea,
what desolation falls on one unfortunate family ! It has happened
very lately that one female has in this way lost husband, sons, and
brother at a stroke.

For such a cottage as I have described, with its appurtenances,
and as much land fit for tillage as may measure six to eight acres,
the rent is from 4 to j. The tenants hold their farms from year
to year, and they invariably prefer this to leases, though often the
same family keeps the same farm from generation . to generation.
The mode of agriculture would be called slovenly elsewhere, but the
soil being poor and shallow, it is perhaps best adapted to the cir-
cumstances. Ploughs are little used by the peasantry : the spade



alone is employed, and it is a primitive and unique implement. The
blade is only 5^ inches long, and the same broad : the handle is 45
inches long. Three or four persons stand in a row together, press
their spades into the ground with the right foot on the small cross-
bar, and then simultaneously turn over the turf thus loosened, and
step onwards to the right, till the breadth of the furrow is reached.
Children, or the weakest hands, are placed in the middle positions,
where the strength required is least ; and thus it is amazing how much

Online LibraryWilliam ChambersChambers's miscellany of instructive & entertaining tracts (Volume 4) → online text (page 43 of 58)