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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 2


Sumburgh Roost—Fitful Head—Quendale—Iron Mines—Quendale Bay—Fishing Stations—Fisheries—Sumburgh Lighthouse— Jarlshoff—The Hall—Lord Robert Stewarts House—Battle on Sumburgh Links—Gruitness—Voe— Accommodation.

ADVANCING northwards, and beginning to encounter the strong currents and heavy billows of the “Roost,” we feel ourselves approaching classic ground. The scenes of the “ Pirate ” appear in view. On our left is the lofty precipice which gave title to “Noma of the Fitful Head,” and, on the right the less towering, but still stately cliff of Sumburgh Head, with a lighthouse perched upon its summit Between these bold headlands is the capacious bay of Quendale, opening towards the south. Some of its associations have been already dwelt on. Others may be mentioned of even a more desolate character. At the head of the bay, two centuries ago, was the snug little estate of Sinclair of Brow, worth, even at that time, £200 a-year. It was soon afterwards blown over with sand, and nothing now remains to mark its site but a sandy desert, and “some small patches called outsets or pendicles.” The well-cultivated farm of Quendale, and the bustling fishing station of Garthsness, on the west, contrast favourably with the sand and solitude of its northern and eastern shores. On the farm is a large com. mill and the manor house, now unoccupied, as the proprietor, Andrew J. Grierson, Esq. of Quendale, does not reside on his estate. The summit of Fitful commands an extensive view of the islets, rocks, headlands, hills, sounds, and bays of the west coast. It is composed of clay slate, the lustre of which is somewhat pearly, when exposed to a bright sunshine, and hence the Norsemen called it Fitful, or the White Mountain. A large vein of iron mica runs through the Fitful Head. It has never been 'wrought; but a bed of iron pyrites, at the extremity of Garthsness, was carefully explored, and its contents subjected to every form of chemical process, some eighty years ago, by a Dousterswivel from London, who hoped to obtain large quantities of copper. Not existing in it, this metal could not be extracted from the ore, and the labours of the alchemist ended in the chief product they evolved—smoke.

Three unimportant grazing isles partially close in the mouth of Quendale Bay. Although lying about midway between the towering headlands of Fitful and Sumburgh, it is properly bounded, on the west by Garthsness, and on the east by Scatness. Both promontories, as if in contrast to their lofty neighbours, are low-lying, fertile, and useful to man. Scatness, which stretches farthest into the sea, is peopled almost to its very end. The shores of the West Voe, which lies between it and Sumburgh Head, are valuable for fishing stations; and thither men from many parts of Dunrossness resort in the summer season.

Saith or grey fish has hitherto been almost the only product of the fisheries here, and at Garthsness, on Quendale Bay. The boats used were small bow-built “ Ness yawls,’’ manned by three men each, and propelled chiefly by oars. But, within the last few years, many white fish (ling, torsk, and cod) have been landed at, both places; and it has been found necessary, to a great extent, to supplant the yawls by ordinary six-oared sailing boats. The fishermen are thus enabled to venture out further from land, where they have a better prospect of obtaining white fish, which are much more valuable than the grey.

The stately Pharos, which tops the giddy heights of Sumbtirgh, and lights up the dark waters of its tempestuous Roost, was erected by the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses, in 1820, under the superintendence of Mr Robert Stephenson, the builder of the Bell Rock tower. This is the first lighthouse the shores of Shetland ever saw. It stands 300 feet above the sea, and can be seen, in clear weather, at a distance of at least twenty-five miles. In thick weather the light was sometimes imperfectly seen by ships, owing to its height above the sea-level, a defect which has probably been remedied by the recent substitution for the dioptric of a more powerful catoptric illuminating apparatus.

The lofty head of Sumburgh, while terminating in an abrupt precipice towards the sea, slopes away gradually, on the other side, towards a low neck of land, on which stand the ruins of Jarlshoff, and very near them The Hall, the castellated residence of John Bruce, Esq., youngter, of Sumburgh. This building, which has recently been erected, is by far the prettiest mansion in Shetland. It commands an extensive view, extending to Mousa on the north-east, and Fair Isle on the south-west. Lord Robert Stewart had a residence near Sumburgh, the ruins of which are still to be traced. On the links of Sumburgh was fought, at a date not ascertained, a battle between the men of Dunrossness, under one of the Sinclairs of Brow, and a party of Highlanders from the island of Lewis. The • battle was sanguinary. The Lewis men were completely routed, and none of them is said to have returned home to tell the tale. Previous to this affray, the Highlanders, pursuing an ancient feud against the Scandinavians, were in the habit of visiting Shetland every summer, and returning home after they had obtained a sufficiency of cattle or other plunder to repay the voyage.

The low sandy tract of ground, which connects Sumburgh with the rest of the mainland, is indented, on the east, by a small inlet called Gruitness Voe. This is a place of commerce, but good anchorage is to be obtained only with certain directions of the wind. It would appear that merchandise is nothing new here, nor good cheer either; for Sir Robert Sibbald, writing in 1711, tells us that, “ On the south-east side of this Foe, and near about the middle of it, is Gratness, or Greedy-Ness, where the Dundee merchants have their booths, as also some taverxiers, who in the summer time have their residence there, for selling of ale, beer, and brandie to these merchants, and their customers, who resort thither.”

About three miles north from Gruitness is the rocky creek of Voe, where the sub-marine telegraph cable lands, and a haaf-fishing is carried on. The head of this inlet, which is scarcely a mile long, forms a very convenient central point for the tourist, who, having taken up his quartets at the comfortable little inn at Boddam, may easily make excursions to all parts of Dunrossness. If a lover of aquatic sports, he may readily gratify his tastes, either on the five large lochs of Brow and Spiggie, or on the open sea; while the presence of four churches and a good school in the neighbourhood, and of a telegraph, a well-made road, and two shops, at the door of his hostelry, is sufficient to remind the stranger that the Ultima Thule of his sojourn is by no means a barbarous country.


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