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Scenes and Stories of the North of Scotland
Chapter VII. - The Shetland Islands


A familiar story is told of a south-country minister who spent a summer holiday in Shetland, and lectured to his own people when he returned. Choosing the Islands as his theme, he selected as his text the appropriate declaration, “There shall be no night there". As regards some six weeks in summer, the words are really true to fact, for, though Shetland is not absolutely the “land of the midnight sun,” it comes nearer to that description than any other spot under the British crown, at least in Europe. This is at least one reason why of late years so many travellers visit the Islands. I trust they will not be sorely offended if I tell them that they so become what the Orkney people used in disdain to call “Ferry-loupers;” that is, lecipers over the ferry between these groups and the mainland of Scotland. To see the sun very near to midnight is an interesting sight, but Shetland has far greater and more permanent attractions. To those who know them I need not say that I refer to the magnificent sea-board scenery of the Islands, and the picturesque aspects of life among a people not yet spoiled by contact with the grosser adjuncts of civilisation. We are still at some distance from the time when a cantilever bridge shall be thrown over the Pentland Firth or the Roost of Sumburgh. I know that the visitor to Shetland may have to endure at times a very considerable tossing by the way, but what can he expect? We all have our ups and downs in this life whether on land or sea, and we must just grin and bear them. Only the other day I read the following sentence and took a careful note of it for the benefit of others. “There was never yet such a storm but it was AEolian music to a healthy and innocent ear.” There you have a choice morsel of philosophy for inward digestion at sea when you can eat nothing else. If you are, or even desire to be thought, healthy and innocent, then be sure you do not grumble at the Atlantic swells which may come from the far west to pay you their respects between Fair Isle and Sumburgh.

Lerwick, the chief, or rather the only town in Shetland, lies on the eastern side of the main island, which is called Mainland to distinguish it from those which are smaller. The houses are piled up the steep sides of a deeply-curved bay, the opposite side of which is formed by the island of Bressay. Run your eye along the ridge at the top of the town. It seems as if some powerful giant had brought to the edge a mighty waggon laden with walls, roofs, windows, gables, doors, and chimneys, and had tilted them all over to tumble down the slope and find a resting-place anywhere from the crown of the height to the shelving shore. Many of the houses stand up to their knees in the water, as if they had come down to the beach to cool their feet and did not mean to return. Their walls are so stained as to mark plainly the level of high water, at which time a native may dive into the sea, or step into his boat, from a back door or window.

The one main street twists in and out round the sweep of the bay with thin blocks of shops and houses between it and the sea, and, on the opposite side, steep lanes which clamber up to the ridge above. This is of course the great thoroughfare and business mart of the town. The street is paved with flagstones; and is in many parts very narrow and tortuous. The reason is not far to seek. Owners and builders have stuck Avails and gables at every conceivable angle one to another, and just as far out into the street as seemed good in their own eyes. The result is picturesque but awkward. If you make up your mind to walk forward in the twilight ten or twelve yards in a straight line, the chances are you will either smash your face against a gable or topple through a shop window. In this main street you may meet, in strange medley, Dutch sailors, whaling crews from Dundee, fishermen and crofters from all the isles, women bearing heavy keysies (creels) of peats and knitting as they go, ragged Shetland ponies, and jolly tourists in every freak of humour and costume. Here, also, you may note on the faces of the people the plain tokens of their Norse descent, for their Scandinavian blood is purer than that of the people of Caithness or even Orkney. These are the true-blue sons of the Vikings, who can sing of their ancestors—

“Ho ! We were a band of rovers,
Sailing here and sailing there ;
Sailing where the wild winds bore us,
None to stay our course might dare !
Gaily blew and roared the breezes,
Waved our ravens on the gale !
Forward bounded Norway’s galleys
Winged with many a bellying sail.”

Being the pure Norseman lie is, the real Shetlander does not consider himself a Scotchman. When I first took lodgings in one of the islands, I was advised to visit a farmer, a Mr Grant, some two miles away, because, said they, “He’s a Scotchman, like yourself.” As, however, the islands have belonged to Scotland for not a few centuries the Shetland dialect is Scotch, with the admixture of many Norse words. You may hear its peculiar half-lisped, Quaker-like tones and forms at any corner in the main street of Lerwick.

Before launching out among the islands, I select two incidents from my memories of the chief town. On the evening of my first Sunday in Shetland, I was lodged along with a friend in the house of a respectable merchant, who did a humble trade in the town. At a somewhat late hour our landlord came into our room and sat down between us at the fireside. He had come to enjoy a chat, or, as we say in Scotland, a “crack.” He was a strong man on the side of religion, and our conversation took that direction. At length—I forget how—we came to speak of the patriarch Job and his troubles, and to discuss whether his wife had been a good, pious woman or no. After some arguments, proand con, had been advanced, the conversation took the following turn, and the turn soon led to its termination.

“Well,” said our host, “I have long had a strong opinion upon that point.”

“Come along, then, Mr H---,” said one of us; “we have been having our say; we shall be glad to hear your view.”

“Well,” replied he, abruptly, “I believe she was out and out a bad woman.”

“That is decided enough in all conscience,” said the former speaker; “but we should like to hear your reasons. They ought to be strong to support so sweeping a charge against the old lady.”

We were prepared to listen to a chain of argument made up of various particulars, but our host’s logic was as concise as it was clinching. As nearly as I can remember, his words were—

“God permitted Satan to take all his good things from Job, and if his wife had been good she would have been taken too. If his wife, being a good woman, had been left to comfort him, his trial would not have been complete.”

No theologian, it seems to me, could have put the matter more conclusively; and few will wonder that our after conversation took a new direction.

Some years later, during a brief visit to Shetland, I heard of a misfortune which had befallen an old friend. He was a skipper belonging to one of the northern isles, and every inch a sailor. Most vividly can I see at this moment his round, ruddy face, and hear the rapid rattle of his cheery voice. Just before the time I speak of he had been master of a splendid sloop—once a gentleman's yacht —which we shall call the Evangeline. With her he had been trading between Shetland and the Faroe Islands. Magnus had a keen eye to business and profit, and was said to have netted more than once a fair sum by smuggling. Made rash by impunity, he ventured on larger risks, and at last came to grief. He had left the Faroe Isles with an ordinary cargo of fish, to which he had added several kegs of brandy and a considerable quantity of tobacco. His intention was to land these important extras in a quiet voe (i.e., sea-loch) on the north-west of the Mainland, and then proceed to Lerwick with his proper cargo. The plan miscarried, like many others of the “ best laid schemes of mice and men.” He had crept into a quiet bay, and had no sooner dropped anchor for the night than great folds of mist enveloped them. Gliding down from Rona’s (Ronald’s) Hill, they wrapt the Evangeline round and round. Early next morning Magnus and his crew crawled slowly out to seaward, hoping to get clear of the land-born fogs. In this aim they succeeded, but, alas ! it was to their intense chagrin and serious loss. As soon as they could see a mile or little more, there lay a revenue cutter with her raking masts and bis; white sails at no great distance off. In a moment puff came the powder-smoke from her side, and a ball shot whirring across the bows of the sloop. Magnus and his men, maddened and vexed, did their very utmost, crowding all the sail they could upon the Evangeline, but in the light fitful wind which came through the mist they had no chance. Soon their only concern was to sink the evidences of their guilt out of sight. Creeping almost on their knees, they rolled the kegs of brandy to the gangway on the further side from the cutter, and dropped them as gently as possible into the sea. Package after package of tobacco went the same way; but a considerable quantity still remained when the cutter came alongside and the officers boarded the sloop. Magnus and his crew were at once arrested, and soon after tried at Lerwick. The skipper was sentenced to a term of imprisonment, and was confined in Fort Charlotte.

Having obtained permission, I visited him in his cell, and heard from his own lips—in true sailor lingo and with ample details—the story of his capture. I ventured to suo-o-est how foolish and dangerous it was—to use no stronger terms—to break the Queen’s laws and defy the officers of the Crown. To this view of things he made no reply. At length, however, he “turned his sad soul into smiling,” for, just as I was about to leave, he brought down his fist briskly upon some invisible object, and with mingled pride and anger exclaimed: “Say what you like, if I had only had a bit of a breeze, I would soon have let them see my stern.” I fear Magnus was incorrigible, and perhaps even suspected I should myself have enjoyed such a flight and chase.

If you ask me whether or no there is any smuggling still going on among these islands, I shall give as suggestive a reply as I dare. The tobacco used by the Shetlanders generally is of one well-known variety, which you will not see exposed in shop windows, but which I think I could get you almost anywhere without much trouble. Moreover, I should not advise a tobacconist to go and settle in Shetland; his occupation is not needed. I remember well how on one occasion a most excellent man save me a cake or two of first-rate tobacco. When 1 discourteously and foolishly asked him where he had got it, he flung the authority of St Paul at my head by saying with a peculiar smile, “Eat that which is set before thee—asking no questions for conscience’ sake.” I accepted the rebuke meekly, and ate, or rather smoked, with much satisfaction.

The Shetland Islands are an archipelago lying more than 100 miles north-east of Caithness, and separated even from the Orkneys by some 50 miles of open sea. The chief isles of the group are four—Mainland, Yell, Unst, and Fetlar—the first of these being about 60 miles long, the other three less than a third of that size. In addition, there are about a hundred more, which diminish gradually from those of fair dimensions like Bressay, Whalsey, and Muckle Rooe (pronounced Roo) to small holms and islets, many of which are both tenantless and nameless. The group as a whole is most irregular and ragged in contour, as if winds and waves had conspired to tear it into shreds and tatters, so that there is not a spot in Shetland three miles from the sea. Inland, the islands are bare and bleak in the extreme, and their stony or mossy undulations seldom rise even to the rank of hills; but the coast scenery, especially in the north and west, far surpasses anything of the kind elsewhere in the United Kingdom. If I should attempt to describe with any measure of fulness the cloudy cliffs of Foula, 1300 feet high; the marble pillars and deep-sounding caves of Papa Stour; the fantastic freaks of nature along the coast of Hillswick; the countless groups of stacks and arches and tunnels which belong to this island or to that, I should swell out this chapter far beyond its intended limits. Therefore I ask you to visit with me two districts only of widely diverse character—the one taking its name from Yell, the other at Hillswick on the extreme north-west of Mainland.

We shall first visit the Sound of Yell, which runs for nearly 20 miles between that island and the Mainland. More than once have I stood upon the hill-top of Clothan in Yell, and feasted my eyes upon the immense and varied panorama of earth and sea which is visible from that elevated spot. Looking first westward and then to the south, the entire length of the Sound lies immediately before us. The outline of its shores is most irregular, for they often approach each other in capes, and as often recede from one another into half-hidden bays. To use a homely simile, the shape of the Sound is that of a high boot, of which the top is to the north, the heel to the south, and the toe pointing out to the east. You must, however, remember that the main colour is blue, dotted here and there with patches of brilliant green, and these again girt round about with a ragged fringe of brown rock and white foam. From this hill-top the eye may range over three quarters of the compass—from north to west, and west to south, and south to east; and the view embraces half the islands of the entire group and every feature of its scenery. Eight over against us is the Mainland, dark and hilly, with alternate cape and sea-loch (voe in Shetland), as if earth and ocean had interlaced their fingers in a firm and friendly clasp. Twelve miles away, in the northwest, is the further extremity of the chief island, terminating in savage splintered cliffs which frown upon the sea. Still further out, a group of giant stacks, like brown icebergs cut adrift, struggles far to seaward. Neptune has wedged his way between and cut them off from the shore. In time of storm they become his playthings. The western waves creep quivering up their precipitous sides, fall in weighty masses on their heads, and then sink down in cataracts of foam, like the white tresses on an old man s shoulders.

All up and down the course of the Sound lie islands and clusters of islets like green leaves, some of them tinged with grey or brown, floating down the broad current. Between these the tides rush and roar incessantly, and in many places dash along at the rate of ten miles an hour. Sometimes they form wide whirling curves, with tiny white threads of foam upon their edges ; at other times they leap and dance like thousands of pointed flames, and then woe betide the silly boat which ventures among them ! How the natives laugh and jeer when they see a whaling steamer attempting to pass up the Sound against the flood-tide ! Well do they know that engines and helm are alike useless, and that very soon she will turn aside and run for some sheltered voe where she may hide from view her failure and her shame. Away to the south lie cape and then bay, cape and then bay, as far as the bold headland of Noss, and on the eastern horizon you may see the long line of the Out Skerries, large and small, like a fleet of boats with white sails full set making for Norway cc over the faem.” Looking once more over the moorland ridges and hills of the Mainland, we behold, standing up against the distant sky, the stupendous precipices of Foula, not less at their loftiest point than 1300 feet high. Supreme over all their kind, they rear their iron front defiantly against the western ocean. Yet again, far overhead, as we sit on this hill-top, the kingly eagle in stately sail looks down with scorn upon the world beneath ; and from the rocks below there rise fitfully the babbling and screeching of thousands upon thousands of sea-birds, ever flitting and whirling over land and tide.

There is little in the scene before us, extensive and varied though it be, to be called sweet or beautiful as these terms are generally understood. There is not a tree to be seen within range of the eye from this spot ; no broad fruitful fields ; no gardens of flowers ; little delicate shading and softness of colour. Yet there is breadth, and strength, and grandeur; variety to feed the mind with ever-new discoveries ; bold and cunning strokes of nature’s handiwork to stimulate and inspire.

“Here rise no groves and here no gardens blow,
Here e’en the hardy heath scarce dares to grow ;
But rocks on rocks, in mist and storm arrayed,
Stretch far to sea their giant colonnade—
With many a cavern seamed, the dreary haunt
Of the dun seal and swarthy cormorant.
Wild round their rifted brows with frequent cry
As of lament, the gulls and gannets fly,
And from their sable base, with sullen sound,
In sheets of whitening foam the waves rebound.”

The sea—the wild, the glorious sea—is the dominant power over all. It fills and feeds the eye everywhere with its fascinating works and ways. It cuts a blue pathway to the shadowed roots of the hills; it presents a foreground and mirror to the stately cliffs above; it becomes a bed of blue in which an emerald isle may float and dream; it is a nether sky in which the ocean birds swim and dive.

We are sitting on a hill-top in Yell, an island which is in bad odour among writers on Shetland. It has certainly got a bad name, but, for all that, it will take a lot of hanging. One writer says the word means barren, and is therefore most fitting and appropriate. But the complacent ignoramus gives us no hint of the derivation. It looks as if he keeps his etymological dictionary on that surface shelf of his mind which is labelled imagination. The name is said to be derived from an old Norse word "Yala,” signifying health, and this is at least more probable, for, barren though it be, it is certainly a healthy island. It may also be well in this connection to warn all witty persons that already every possible outrage in the shape of pun or joke has been committed upon the name ; but alas! none of the offenders have yet been brought to justice. A reward of one hundred pounds offered in the press for a really new specimen might entrap the next criminal, while the money itself would be absolutely safe. To show intending competitors to what level they must attain, I may quote the best example of success in the past. There is a parish on the mainland called Brae ; and the story goes that two young clergymen were sent north by the same steamer—the one to Brae and the other to Yell in the exercise of their office ! Anything which falls short of that standard of excellence must be condemned.

For myself, I have many pleasing memories of Yell. In it I learnt more of the people of Shetland—their character, circumstances, and manners—than anywhere else in the islands. Allow me only a few words upon their homes. A Shetland township consists of from five or six to ten or twelve families—sometimes even more. Their houses and cultivated land are enclosed by a turf dyke not less than six feet high—the common protection and boundary of the settlement. Outside, the sheep and cattle all graze upon the scathold or common ; inside, the cultivated ground is commonly divided on the ran-rig system, that is to say, the first ridge belongs to one family, the next to another, the next again to a third, or in other cases they are held alternately by two tenants. The natives look to the sea to provide them daily food and oil for light, to the in-field for bread and the sustenance of beast and fowl, and to the out-field for pasture and fuel. The houses are in general built of stone and fairly comfortable, but too many of them are homes in which “ nature is cook, and necessity caterer.’5 The Shetlanders rarely indulge in fresh animal food, and yet more rarely in luxuries, with the exception of tobacco. As to the interior, the houses closely resemble those of Lewis, but they are cleaner, more roomy, and more airy. In one particular there is a notable difference. In many Shetland houses the “but” end contains not only the family, but also the live stock of the farm with the exception of cattle and horses. Sheep and calves mingle with the children; the poultry bob about everywhere picking what they can find ; the young pigs lie sleeping among the ashes around the central fire. All these creatures have in not a few cases the free run of this part of the premises; they have obtained burgess tickets for the “but” end of the dwelling.

By the way, some of the Shetland breed of pigs are most uncouth and repulsive-looking, being small, longnosed, and covered with bristles almost like those of a hedgehog. Regarding these, a story is told which, si non e vero, e ben trovato. A Shetland vessel carrying a large number of pigs to the London market was wrecked off the Yorkshire coast, and two of the carcases were washed ashore. Never before had the natives beheld such creatures, and many conjectures were afloat as to their nature, name, and genus. At last they came under the skilled eye of the curator of a local museum. After due examination, he pronounced them to be marine monsters of a rare and remarkakle type ; and proved the sincerity of his opinion by buying them, stuffing them, and giving them a place among his treasures and curiosities of natural history.

Looking from Clotlian Hill toward the south, there lies over some moorland ridges the bay of Hamnavoe, an excellent and almost land-locked place of anchorage. Several incidents of a varied kind are among my memories of that arm of the sea. On one occasion a party of young men, seven in number, of whom I was one, sailed into Hamnavoe about sunset and dropped anchor for the night. Our yacht, which we shall call the Ruby, had had a rattling run from Lerwick of less than four hours —the mainsail reefed, and the water swishing in through the lee scuppers. After some visits on shore we dropped below for the night, and, after supper and a smoke, prepared for rest. Meanwhile the wind, which had been high all day, rose into a moderate gale, and millions of heavy rain drops hissed and pattered on the deck above our heads. Being the party chiefly responsible for the cruise, I had many things to occupy my thoughts and could not drop into sleep. About midnight I thought I heard a cry as of a human voice. Listening intently I at length caught in a lull of the wind the words, “Ruby a-hoy!” Knowing that two of our party were sleeping ashore, and fearing that something was wrong with them, I sprang up, and rapidly drew on some clothing. On reaching the slippery deck, the cry came again through the wind and rain, “Ruby a-hoy ! ” “Aye, aye,” I shouted in reply, “what do you want?” By this time I had discovered that the voice came not from shore, but from a schooner-yacht which had crept into the voe at a late hour and anchored at no great 4distance from us. The cause of their distress was soon told.

“Our boat’s gone; the painter broke, and she’s ashore somewhere among the rocks. Can you help us?” Well, it was neither a pleasant nor a very safe enterprise on a dark stormy night, but I called up one of the men from the forecastle, and we determined to do what we could. Dropping into our own boat and shoving her off, we pulled near to the schooner, and then allowed ourselves to drift down upon the shore where the waves were spending themselves in very bad temper upon the rocks. The sea was not really high, for no wind can raise great rollers across a narrow bay; but still it was ticklish work to drift in amone; the broken water after the truant boat. We found it at last, and having secured it with difficulty, towed it away in triumph, the only cost to ourselves being two or three nasty bumps upon the rocks, and a pretty considerable wetting. The party on the schooner were, I have no doubt, glad to get back their boat, but I am sorry to say I can remember no vote of thanks. The sailor and I had no chance of presenting our little bill for what we had done, for when we came on deck next morning the schooner was gone, and had not even left a P. P. C. card behind her. Is not this an ungrateful world?

After a storm, a calm; so it proved next morning. A more lovely inspiriting dawn I have seldom known. Summer had evidently set in, as Horace Walpole once said, “with its usual severity.” Before breakfast some of our party went ashore as usual for milk, butter, and eggs, while others, if not all the rest, had a refreshing plunge overboard. On this particular morning, one of our company, a student, who could not swim, resolved to have a bath like his neighbours. Accordingly he tied a rope round his naked waist, and gave his comrades the other end to hold. Of course they promised not to betray him. Then he sprang from the gangway, not head foremost, but on his feet, as if taking a long leap at some athletic gathering. Down—down—down he sank, his head last covered by the in-curling waters, while the rope went whirring over the bulwarks, as if an anchor was at the end of it. How deep he went neither he nor anybody else can tell, for we forgot to measure the rope ; but “it’s a long lane that has no turning.” Of course he came up again in due time, and shook his dripping head. For a moment—only a moment—he was speechless with wonder at what he had seen below, but at length he found voice enough to cry, “Haul me in! Quick! Haul me in!” There was the ring of true sincerity in his words, so his friends responded to his appeal as well as laughter would allow them. His little escapade was an excellent sauce to breakfast both for him and us. Perhaps he sometimes thinks of it even in the Colonies.

Hamnavoe has frequently been the scene of a whale hunt. Never did the fiery cross rouse the Highland clans to greater fury of enthusiasm than does the cry of “Whales! whales!” in a peaceful Shetland township. I have said township; I might have added “or congregation;” for the great shoals of whales are said to have a special preference for the Day of Rest as a fitting season for their sportive incursions into the voes. Not once or twice, but frequently, have sermons been cut short, and churches emptied in sixty seconds, by the electric contagious cry of “Whales! whales!” On one occasion a minister, either in Shetland or Orkney—I forget which— bitterly complained of his hearers, not because they rose and left their pews to take to their boats instead, but because they would not give him time to get down from the pulpit, that he and they might start fair in the race for the shore. About twenty-five years ago a shoal of whales came into Hamnavoe on the sacred Day, just before the hour of public worship. Not a man went home to doff his Sunday clothes, and neither would they, even if attired in the richest of court costume. In ten minutes every tub that could hold water was launched and manned, and even those who had to run round to the opposite side of the voe for their boats soon put off from shore and joined in the chase. Not having been a witness, I shall not attempt to describe the exciting details of the hunt. Suffice it to say, that for a time the cordon of boats across the mouth of the voe, using every means of terror, vocal and mechanical, drove the whales inward, until some of them were almost ashore upon the beach. Then the finny monsters seemed all at once to realise their danger, and a panic set in. Lashing the waves in their fury, they charged wildly in amongst the boats, capsizing some, half-swamping others, and in a frantic stampede spread out fan-like into the open sea, and were gone. When the men, wet, weary, and dejected, returned home, there were some who said, “ Served them right,” and looked upon the escape of the whales as a providential rebuke for the abuse of the Day of Rest.

Now comes the point of special interest. One elder of the kirk, a man of excellent character, was among the raiders, and was taken to task for his share in the proceedings. His defence before the minister and kirk-session was very remarkable in its way. If true, it was, to say the least, peculiar; if not true, it was ingenious. He was ready for church when the Fiery Cross cry reached his ears. He saw the whales sporting in the voe, and the rush of men and women to the shore. His own boat was down upon the beach, and he went to secure it, lest some one who had no right to do so might launch and use it. When he arrived on the spot his worst suspicions were realised. His boat had already been drawn down to the water’s edge, and her stern was actually afloat. What could he do but spring in, and warn off those who were to use his property for an unlawful purpose ? Unfortunately the wicked men whose hands were on the gunwale did not see it in that light, so no sooner was the elder in his boat than they shoved her off, and took him with them to the chase. Whether he lay down, sullen and vengeful, in the bottom of the boat and groaned the time away over his misfortune, I cannot say; indeed, I have heard some whispers to the contrary. What the upshot was I really do not remember, but his action forcibly reminds me of a notable name in British history. When Charles the Second came to Scotland, he signed the Solemn League and Covenant. To many, knowing what manner of man he was, this must have seemed a strange act on his part. The explanation has been neatly put in brief words. “They compelled him to do it voluntarily.” If the elder had known this little episode in Scottish history, he might have used it as a defence or excuse. This much is certain, that if it amounted to any palliation in the ease of the king, it would surely have been more than sufficient in the ease of the fisherman.

Let me present one picture more e’er we descend from the Hill of Clothan. Most of you have, I daresay, heard of a June midnight in Shetland. One such at least I have spent on this height, and several others in open boats at sea. If anywhere in this United Kingdom midnight is truly a “witching” hour, it must be in the north isles of Shetland.

“Here the light of evening lies
Longer than in summer skies.”

So I certainly found it on the Hill of Clothan. When I reached my point of observation—the heap of stones on this heathery brow—the last faint streaks of gold were fading out of the northern hills of the mainland. The purple rays of the sun grew like the petals of a flower out of the far Atlantic, and then spread outwards and upwards like a fan over the western sky. Thin fleecy banks of cloud edged with orange and yellow lay here and there across the heavens; and beneath them, in the far north-west, the great orb rolled himself over the horizon and dropped out of sight. But delicate tints, like tender memories of some loved one departed, yet lingered in the sky and slowly glided over the northern sea, which caught their colours on its face. On and on, even to and beyond the midnight hour, every headland and island and voe retained their distinct outline and familiar features. They were far less obscured than I had more than once seen them on a dark day of storm. About midnight the deeper colours melted imperceptibly into lighter shades, and at length the sun rose again, now in the far north-east, under a fresh canopy of yellow and gold. One had not fully realised his absence till he began to creep back over the shoulder of the world and look you in the face again. He had lain down as it were for a brief rest, and now he greeted us again after a fresh bath in the Arctic seas.

The parish of Hillswick, on the north-west of the Mainland, contains scenery of quite peculiar interest. Its ragged and contorted coast-line is exposed to the unbroken force and fury of the Atlantic billows, and Neptune has carved the rocks into many a weird and wanton form. Some of these our yacht party were anxious to see, so we left the Ruby at Ollaberry one morning, and trudged over hill and moor to Hillswick. On the way out to the more distant points of the coast, we had striking views of cliffs whose heads seemed to nod over the waters, picturesque stacks out at sea like a group of fishing boats with their brown sails hanging idly in a calm, and rocky islands pierced with tall arches, like great sea-elephants stooping to drink, and unable to lift their heads again. By and by we came to a solitary enclosed churchyard, and wandered among the tombstones in search of anything interesting or curious.

Our quest was not in vain, for we found the following epitaph :—

“DONALD ROBERTSON,
Born 1st January 1785 ; died 4th June 1848.
Aged 63 years.

He was a quiet peaceable man, and, to all appearance, a good Christian. His death was very much regretted, which was caused by the stupidity of Laurence Tulloch, of Clothester, who sold him nitre instead of Epsom salts, by which he was killed in the space of three hours after taking of it.”

Who the cultivated and considerate writer of the inscription was, I cannot tell; tradition ascribes it to the parish minister. This, however, is, I believe, true and well known, that ere very long the unfortunate Laurence was obliged to flee from the islands and hide himself in the shadows of Edinburgh.

From the graveyard we had still a long and stiff’ walk to the cliffs we wished to see. Some of our company had already dropped off, wishing us bon voyage, and engaging to have all ready for us on board the yacht when we returned. Acting on the Bulgarian proverb that a shower cannot hurt him who is wet to the skin, the rest of us scorned our fatigue, and resolved to see all we could. I ventured, having been there before, to promise my comrades that they should not be disappointed. At length we reached a table-land of soft rich grass, the further edge of which dropped in wild walls of rock sheer down into the sea. Here indeed were great wonders of nature.

Almost ere we were awTare, we came upon the edge of the Holes of Scraada. These are immense cavernous pits, perhaps one hundred feet deep from the grassy verge above to the level of the restless water below. They are connected with the ocean by means of a long black tunnel, for the front of the cliffs is some 300 yards away. It is said that a boat has passed through from the sea outside into the great pit in front of us, but it scarcely seems possible. The bottom of one of these awful holes is half beach and half water; in the other only water and no beach is to be seen. In storms they are filled with tossing, raging foam, and the spray rises in pillars of cloud above the surrounding grass.

Still further along the green plateau above the cliffs, a still more wonderful sight may be witnessed. It is called the Grind (or Gateway) of the Navir, but I have been unable to discover the origin or meaning of the latter word. Has it anything to do with the Latin navis, a ship, or with the termination of Scandiwawa ? Here the ocean waves have burst an entrance through the cliffs from without, and delight, when tide and wind are high, to rush in and out between the jaws of rock. The doorposts of this gateway are immense masses of unyielding porphyry. If ever there was a lintel over their heads it has long ago been torn away and tossed in fragments far in upon the land. In times of wild western tempest the waves lift from the bed of the sea and from its shore great masses of rock—sometimes six, eight, and ten tons in weight—and hurl them like pebbles through the raging Grind on to the plateau behind. Probably no human eye ever saw this deed done, for no one dare approach the spot at such times ; but the evidences of its reality and frequency are plain enough. The threshold of the Grind is fairly level, but behind there are enormous boulders and stones piled one above another over a wide area—like the debris of one of Nature’s great quarries, out of which were built the giant cliffs of Foula and Noss and the Skaw of Unst. Many a man would give almost anything if he could safely stand just inside the gateway in a storm, and behold the ocean in the very wantonness of conscious power thus sporting with its toys. For those who can be impressed with figures, I may add that many of these huge cubical masses have been tossed inland 180 feet; and it has been estimated by the highest authorities that the pressure of the waves at the Grind must often be not less than 6000 lbs. on the square foot.

Near by these striking objects, there is yet another worthy of notice. Beneath one of these lofty cliffs the waves rush into a deep cavern, whose recesses are hidden far out of sight. At its inner end it must be curved upward, for it opens out on the face of the cliff again like the mouth of a cannon, and so the Cannon it is called. From this singular freak and phenomenon of Nature comes a most striking result. In high westerly gales, when immense billows roll inward from the ocean, they dash into the cave and fill to the very full its every recess. Then the pressure from without forces the water upward, and from the Cannon mouth it bursts out at intervals as with the speed of lightning and the boom of a thunder peal. All around this Hillswick coast—the scenery of which is often fantastic and as often sublime, it may well be said—

“The everlasting waters flow,
And round the precipices vast
Dance to the music of the blast.”

Many of my readers may desire to know something of the Shetland dialect. I have already spoken of it as a form of broad Scotch with a considerable sprinkling of Norse words and idioms. As spoken by the islanders generally, it is sweet, simple, almost tender; yet it is capable of expressing the most powerful emotions. The two features which first and most strike a stranger are the almost entire absence of the th sound, for which the letter d or dh is always substituted, and the use of the singular pronoun du and de (or rather dim and dhe) for the plural you and ye. In this respect their speech resembles that of the Society of Friends. Many English words are also cut short or softened so much that strangers with difficulty recognise them at all. Here I had intended to make an attempt to reproduce some scraps of conversation between natives and myself, but I have found a safer and more excellent way. At Fetha-land or Feidaland, the extreme northern point of the Mainland, there is a summer fishing station, to which boats resort in large numbers from both sides of Yell Sound. There are two kinds of fishing recognised in Shetland. If it be carried on in small boats near shore, it is called the Eela, referring probably to the isles round about which it is prosecuted. The other is the “Haaf” fishing, when the men go in large six-oared boats far out to sea, and generally remain out two nights at least at a time. I do not know the origin of the name. Well, I have before me a description of a voyage to the Haaf fishing as given by a fisherman at Fethaland, and I cannot do better than embody it here. I leave the spelling almost untouched, but have ventured to insert some explanatory words in parenthesis.

“Mony a foul dae hae I seen at da Haaf, but I tink Martanabullimas dae fearn year (year before last) wis ta warst dae I ever saw. He wis a bonny morning, but a grit lift (great swell) i’ da sea, an’ a hantle o’ brak itil ’im. Sae I sed ta wir men, ‘ We hae a guid nebert (quantity) 0’ bait; he’s bonny wadder (weather), an’ I tink we’ll try da deep watter.’ Sae we gat wir tows an’ cappiestanes (sinkers) itida (into the) boat, an’ we set aff, an we rowed oot upon him (i.e., the sea) till we sank da laigh land, an’ dan (then) we began an’ led fram (seaward), an’ whin we cuist (cast) wir ooter bow (buoy) deel a stane o’ Shetland cood we see incep (except) da tap o’ Roiinis Hill an’ da Pobies 0’ Unst. Noo he begood (it began) ta gro (blow hard) frae da sud-aest, sae whan we’d sitten a peerie (little) while, we tuik wir bow an’ begood ta hail an’ haith! afore we gat in ae packie 0’ tows (one bundle of lines) fower men cood dii nae mair ir keep hir ida (in the) kaib (thowl). We gat twa ir tree fish frae dat, an’ at last sic a grit weight cam’ upuda (upon the) line dat it tuik a5 mi strent ta hail (all my strength to haul), an’ whin it cam’ tida wyle (gunwale) what wis it bit a grit devil 0’ a skate. Sae I sed ta Tammie, ‘ Cut hir awa’, wha’s gawn ta row in onder hir wi’ sic a dae.’ Sae he tuik da sktinie (knife) an’s needed (cut) da tome (small line with hook). An’ at last we gat in wir tows an’ liaith! we wir gotten a braw puckle 0’ fish. ‘ Noo,’ says I, ‘boys, i’ Gude’s name, fit ta mast an’ swift ta sail, da aest tide is rinnin’, an we’ll sail wast-an’-be sooth ipun him.’ Sae I gaed ida starn, an’ jtiist as we led till ta sail, he med a watter aff 0’ da fore kaib, an’ whin ’e brook (broke), he tuik Heckie aff 0’ da skair taft (after seat) an’ led ’im ida shott (stern). Dan I cried ta Gibbie, ‘ for Gudesake strik (strike) ta heid oot 0’ da drink kig an’ owse (bale) de boat,’ for da watter wis up ta wir fastabaands (cross-beams); bit wi’ Gude’s help we gat hir toomed afore anider watter cam’. Whin da aest tide wis rin aff, I says, ‘ Boys, we’ll tak’ down ta sail an’ we’ll row in ipun him,’ an’ sae we did, an’ whin ta wast tide med, we gae sail ageen, an wTe ran aest ipun him, an’ haitli! we lay ipa Vaalafield in Unst, an’ we vrocht on rowin’ an sailin’ till, by Gude’s providence, we gat ta wir ain banks aboot aucht o’clock at nicht. Oh, man, dat wis a foul dae.”

It has always been understood in Shetland that the fairies—the “ guid folk ”—show more regard to the wishes of some human beings than others. When one whom they are wont to obey desires to send them away home, he uses this most interesting formula—

“Da twal, da twal aposels,
Da eleven, da eleven evengelists,
Da ten, da ten commanders,
Da nine da brazen sheeners,
Da eiclit da holy waters,
Da seven starns i’ da heavens,
Da six creation mornins,
Da five da tumblers o’ my bools,
Da four da gospel makers,
Da tree triddle trivers,
Da twa lily-white boys dat clothe demsells in green, boys ;
Da ane, da ane, dat walks alon, an’ now ye’se a’ gang lnune, boys.”

Now I l've found, as much to my surprise as to my regret, that many Shetland people have scarcely heard of any such lines, and—still more strange—I can get no one to interpret them all. Twelve apostles; eleven evangelists ; ten commandments : so far, all is plain sailing. Nine brazen sheeners ; lamps, I suppose, but what or where they were, I cannot guess. Eight holy waters; perhaps eight sacred rivers, but if so, what are they % The next two are evident, seven stars—the Pleiades; and six mornings of creation. Number five is a complete mystery, and will, I fear, remain so. The four are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The three gave me much trouble, but through aid from a friend well acquainted with Norse, I think I have got the key. Triddle may mean treadle, the part of a loom wrought by the feet. Then there is a Norwegian word trive or triver, to drive. Putting these two together, the expression seems to point to the Fates—Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos—weaving the web of human destiny. The remaining lines are plain enough. I remember the police in a German university town chanting similar lines through the various watches of the night. The Shetlander sometimes uttered his word of command to the fairies in much briefer language, such as—

“Skeet liowe hame, guid folk,”

that is, “slide quickly home, good folk.” What a pity they are so few in number, or so rarely seen,

“The joyous nymphs and light-foot fairies,
Which thither came to hear their music sweet,
And to the measure of their melodies,
Did learn to move their nimble-shifting feet.”

A few days before leaving Lerwick on the occasion of my last visit, an advertisement of a pleasure excursion caught my eye and took my fancy. The North Isles steamer, the Earl of Zetland, was to make a special run to Sumburgh Head and Fitful Head, which, with the fine bay of Quendal between them, form the double southern extremity of the Shetland Islands. Having time and leisure I resolved to take advantage of the opportunity for a day’s “ outing.” There were, I should fancy, about two hundred on board—a medley company of all ranks and classes. As is invariably the case on such occasions, there were several clergymen in the number, disguised in suits of russet and grey, and therefore less threatening than they often are to the public in general. It is matter of common experience that, if you wish to prevent overcrowding in a railway carriage, all you have got to do is to show a baby or a white necktie at the window—the former as small as you like, the latter the larger the better. We had also at least one limb of the law, a number which is decidedly below the general average in human society, for legal gentlemen have abounded, one might almost say like birds of prey, in all ages. You remember how on one occasion Pope Innocent claimed from the Marquis of Carpio a levy of 30,000 swine. The marquis could not supply so large a number, but told the Pope that instead of these useful animals he was willing to put 30,000 lawyers at his service. As to whether Innocent was innocent enough to accept the alternative tribute, history is silent. Then we had a journalist on board, who was, of course, “takin’ notes,” and has, I believe, printed them since that time. He was a jolly specimen of the cynical, critical class, one of whose functions it is, like servants, to cc brush the dust out of gentlemen’s clothes.” On the upper deck we had a fair sprinkling of ladies, married and unmarried alike. Among the latter, it is almost needless to say, there were one or two spinsters, of strong convictions and stationary age. Some recollections of past history led me to the conclusion that they had come into the world by bad luck a century later than their proper epoch. It flashed across my memory that, according to thoroughly reliable records, a female parliament was proposed or established in Edinburgh more than a hundred years ago. Whether it still exists or no, I cannot tell; but rumour says that there are persons, practices, and proceedings in and about the Parliament House to this day which minister to the impression that some of the honourable members, now advancing in years, still linger within the precincts. It is, however, with the past that we have here to do. Among other measures annually introduced, or proposed to be introduced, into the said parliament was, of course, a budget. It had a preamble, and in that preamble its object was defined to be, “To raise the necessary supplies of husbands throughout the country.” I only mention this because I am sure that one, at least, of our company on board the Earl of Zetland would, if financial minister at the time, have made a speech on that subject compared with which Mr Gladstone’s finest efforts would seem poor indeed.

On the lower deck there was evidently quite as great a variety as on the upper deck and bridge; and in that region, before our voyage came to an end, everybody, including the crew, seemed to know everybody else, and the utmost harmony prevailed.

Steaming out by the southern strait of Bressay Sound, we skirted the rugged promontory of the Knab, of which a curious old story may be told. Paul Jones, the celebrated pirate, once approached this spot in his vessel with the amiable intention of sacking the town of Lerwick. But as they drew near, he and his crew observed that the crest of the Knab was covered with figures in brilliant scarlet. AY ho could these be, thought they, but a few stragglers from a garrison of red coats, sent thither by the Government for the protection of the town? AY hat if he had known his error? They were only groups of Shetland women arrayed in gorgeous petticoats of the warlike hue! That interesting discovery, as it might have been, he did not make. On the contrary, nearer approach only confirmed his suspicions, and ere long he turned his ship’s head, and fled the coast with all convenient speed.

After an hour’s sail we passed the island of Mousa, with its lofty circular Broch or castle, one remnant and evidence of the very early Pictish occupation of these islands. Shetland possesses many such Brochs or their remains, but of all these Mousa is the most perfect, and therefore the most valuable in the eyes of the antiquary. That gentleman, rarer surely than he once was, or less distinctive in appearance and habits, is not a bad sort of fellow after all, when you come to know him well. How he has been lashed alike in prose and poetry let two extracts show. Pope tells all of them who care to listen that they are

“Foes to all living work except your own,
And advocates for folly dead and gone.”

Even more severe are the words of Samuel Butler, who says, “He despises the present age as an innovation, and slights the future; but has a great value for that which is past and gone, like the madman who fell in love with Cleopatra.” The truth is that the work of the antiquary is to himself an innocent and great delight, and may prove in many directions of immense value to his fellow-men. In most cases all that he needs to make him an agreeable and useful member of society is to convince him that Dr Chalmers was right in his declaration, “Truly speaking, we are the fathers; the ancients are the children.”

By the time we were abreast of Mousa, we should have been able to see Sumburgh Head, but, alas for the success of our expedition! down came a thick mist over land and sea alike. We reached with some difficulty and risk the opening of Grutness Voe—about three miles short of the famous promontory, and into it we slowly crept and dropped anchor. The captain told us he dare not go any further in such a fog, so he landed the whole company to wander where they pleased, but charged us all to return to the vessel not a moment later than six o’clock.

The party, of which I formed one, visited first the ruins of Jarl’s Hof, famed as the residence of the “Pirate,” and thence, after a stiff walk, the lighthouse of Sumburgh Head. From the latter great elevation we gazed down as well as the mist would allow over the stem cliffs and fearsome goes—those narrow gullies of rock in which the waves crawl and swirl—which surround the headland. Peering over the dizzy heights, it was a scene to recall the words of Gloster—

“The murmuring surge That on the unnumber’d idle pebbles chafes Cannot be heard so high ; I’ll look no more Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight Topple down headlong.”

Right in front of the rocks we could hear to right and left, as well as immediately before us. the murmuring roar of the tide in the dreaded “Roost” of Sumburgh, so happily chosen by the great wizard Seott as the scene of the wreck of the “Pirate.” There the Gulf Stream, setting eastward towards Norway, and finding the long Mainland of Shetland an obstruction in the way, sweeps at the rate of 12 or 14 miles an hour round the headland—rushing, curling, leaping, diving—ever restless, ever roaring—a wonder by day and a terror by night.

When we regathered on board the steamer at the appointed hour, the mist had “lifted” just a little, and the captain thought he might venture out in the hope that the sky might be clearer over the open sea. It was a bold venture, but, alas! a vain hope. Scarcely had we cleared the voe of Grutness than the mist fell down denser than ever. We could not be safe anywhere near so wild and rocky a coast, seeing that we could not see even a faint outline of anything in the shape of land. Treacherous currents might sweep us away in any direction in a very brief space of time. Accordingly, it was not long before the captain turned the ship’s head due east and gave the command, “Full speed ahead.” Had they understood anything at all, not a few on board might have supposed that they were off on a jaunt to Norway. Many will at once recall the remarkable adventure of the old woman a few years ago who, helpless and alone, yet safely after all, was drifted in a sloop from Shetland to one of the fiords of the Norsemen. To some of us, however, the captain had confided the comforting secret that he meant to steam straight east for at least two hours until well clear of the land, and then let the vessel roll about in the sea as she pleased for the night. This was a cheering prospect, and it was fully realised.

In a short time the hatches were removed, and the hold down in front of the bridge was transformed into a ballroom. At first there was a certain shyness on the part of the young ladies. By way of breaking the ice, one or two couples of the sterner sex opened the dance to the screeching and scraping of a fiddle. The said instrument, I regret to say, was not a Straduarius. Still, it served its purpose for want of a better ; and ere long men and maidens many, with vigorous hochs and hoochs, twisted and whirled in the giddy dance, while the spectators below and others looking over the rim of the hatches supplied a further accompaniment of gabble and laughter. For a time we watched the proceedings from the bridge with much interest and amusement, but I confess there came a gradual but decided change of feeling. The interest gave place to indifference, that indifference to annoyance, that annoyance to irritation, and that irritation to something on the very borderland of resentment.

There were, if I remember aright, only four berths in the dingy, stuffy cabin, so that the ladies could not seek refuge either in retirement or sleep. Besides, there were at least thirty or forty persons to ballot for the places, even if they had been a little more attractive than they were. Supper might have been a relief or an interlude, but, alas! the steward’s pantry had long since been despoiled of everything except dishes and glasses. These, however useful on a table, are generally considered unsuitable for human food. There was nothing to drink, for even the fresh water was all gone, and nothing to eat, so that the cook could not, even if so inclined, make our meat our misery. Despite all this, we were wonderfully happy on the bridge, and might have been almost perfectly so, but for the racket and noise below, and especially the everlasting squeak, squeak, squeak, squeak, of the wretched, waspish fiddle, out of which evidently only one pretence of a tune could be produced. I also confess that more than once

I began to question whether dancing really is after all “the poetry of motion.”

Those long midnight hours were, without doubt, a fitting season to moralize. We had two great consolations. One of these, the lesser, was the fact that, despite the fog, the sea was smooth, the air mellow, and the wind far away. Only our outer garments were dusted over with tiny globules out of the mist, and the sleeping vessel at times turned uneasily in its bed, as people often do when away from home.

Our other comfort lay, as you have doubtless guessed already, in the society of the ladies. Here of course I dare not enter into particulars, for I was not a Benedict, though alone for the time being ; but I am sure we on the bridge, not less than our brethren and sisters in the hold, were confirmed in the belief that neither sex can do without the other. Poetry—always a faithful interpreter of human life and feeling—has fully recognised this fact. Think, too, how impartial she is, giving due weight to both sides of the question ! We all remember Campbells lines,

“Without the smile from partial beauty won,
Oh, what were man? A world without a sun!”

That is one side of the picture; now, look at the other-—

“Take man from woman—all that she can show
Of her own proper, is nought else but wo!”

We found the nice balance of these two companion truths sweetly realised on the bridge of the Earl of Zetland, not less than twenty miles to the east of the Shetland Islands.

When morning dawned we crept cautiously westward again, and by-and-by fell in with a fishing boat. We hailed the crew, and asked where we were. They told us we were just off the Island of Mousa. Turning our ship’s head to the northward, we sailed straight for the Sound of Bressay, and landed at Lerwick just in time for a late breakfast. John Foster, in his journal, says, that all pleasure must be bought at the price of pain, and that the difference between false pleasure and true is just this : for the true, the price is paid before you enjoy it—for the false, after you enjoy it. In view of that nice distinction, I am at a loss whether to call that breakfast a true pleasure or a false, for we paid for it both before and after the enjoyment.

If my readers have found as much pleasure in perusing these “Scenes and Stories” of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland as I have had in writing them, my work shall not have been in vain.


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