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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 8


ROADS

None till End of Last Century—Those constructed by Highland Destitution Board — “Zetland Roads Act, 1864.”—Good Results of Roads—Illustrative Stories.

UNTIL the end of last century, Shetland was altogether unprovided with roads, and some of the extreme old Tories argued none were required, as the sea was the natural highway. While this state of matters lasted, many an arduous and dangerous journey on foot must have been undergone, for ponies were only available in the dry weather of summer, and other conveyances were out of the question. Not unfrequently valuable lives were lost on the hills. After Fort Charlotte was repaired, in 1781, the Government constructed several short lines in the neighbourhood of Lerwick, for the use of the troops. The best road thus made was from the Fort to the Knab; and it was intended for the transport of cannon, in the event of an enemy’s fleet entering the harbour. Shortly after this a road from Lerwick to Tingwall, running direct, “as the crow flies,” up hill, down dale, was constructed, at their own expense, by two gentlemen resident in that parish, Mr Scott of Scotshall, Sheriff-Substitute, and Mr Robert Ross of Sound.

The old adage, that “it is an ill wind that blows no man good,” was strikingly exemplified by the Shetland destitution in the years 1846-7-8-9, occasioned by the failure of the potato crop; for the Edinburgh Section of the Board for the Relief of Highland Destitution, after due inquiry into the circumstances of the sufferers, resolved to aid them with both meal and money, on condition that they would, in return, enter on some kind of work. Road-making was chosen, as being the most required public improvement^ and that most likely to prove of lasting benefit to the country. The terms on which the Destitution Board agreed to construct these lines were, that they would furnish two-thirds of the money required, on condition of the proprietors providing the other third. The affairs of the Board in Shetland were admirably managed by the local Inspector, Captain (afterwards Admiral) Craigie, to whom the county owes a lasting debt/ of gratitude, not only for the tact he displayed in inducing many proprietors to enter into the scheme for constructing main trunk lines likely to benefit the whole country, in opposition to small side-roads for the benefit of particular districts and individuals, but for his kindness in persuading the Board to make a much larger grant to Shetland than they had originally contemplated. The noble projectors of the Destitution Board were generously seconded by Government, who sent down' Captain Webb, an able engineer officer and a party of sappers and miners. Various proprietors, especially Mr Gifford of Busta, Mr Bell of Lunna, Mr Bruce of Sumburgh, Mr Cheyne of Tangwick, and Mr Black of Kergorjl, co-operated with Captain Craigie; and in the course of three years, from 1849 onwards, one hundred and twenty miles of trunk road were surveyed by Captain Webb, R.E., and constructed under his own personal superintendence, and that of his sappers and miners. These lines connect Lerwick with Dunrossness on the south, Scalloway, Walls, and Hillswick on the west, and Mossbank and Lunna on the north, while another runs through the length of Yell, from Cullivoe to Burravoe; and considering the economy with which they were necessarily constructed, and the want, until lately, of any adequate means of maintaining them, the roads have stood the test of time remarkably well.

In 1864, the “Zetland Roads Act” was passed through Parliament by the late member for the county. It gives extensive borrowing powers to the Road Trustees, and by this means the existing roads have been pretty efficiently repaired, especially those in the neighbourhood of Lerwick, and considerable progress made in the construction of new ones. New roads have been, or are being, made in the parishes of Dunrossness and Sandwick, and lines of great importance from Effirth to Sand and Reawick, in Sandsting, from Mossbank to Brae, in Delting, from Ollaberry to Hills-wick, in Northmavine, and from Uyea Sound to Balta Sound, in Unst.

The construction of roads very speedily led to the introduction of larger animals of the horse tribe than those peculiar to Shetland, while carts increased both in number and size; and gigs and other wheeled vehicles, hitherto unknown, became numerous. About the time when the. present century was entering on its second quarter, an invalid, residing in rather a remote parish, had daily carriage exercise prescribed for her; but how was that to be had without a road? Her ingenious husband at once solved the difficulty, by substituting a wheelbarrow; a contrivance, let us hope, as beneficial to his fair partner as it was amusing to her neighbours.

The erection of inns generally follows the opening up of roads nearly as quickly as vehicles. As yet, however, it has not been so in Shetland. The Aberdeen steamer and the Highland destitution together have greatly raised the price of all country produce. A story may perhaps best illustrate this. A good many years ago, an English tourist was, in the words of a local poet, for a short time

“Doomed to dwell Amongst the hills and the peat bogs of Yell.”

Having passed the night at a little wayside inn, the servant asked him next morning what he would have for breakfast. The meagre bill of fare having been quoted, the traveller replied, “I’ll have eggs.” “How many?* inquired the waiter. “Oh,” said the traveller, “say sixpence worth,” The maid disappeared, and "after some delay, re-entered the room carrying a huge tray well piled with eggs. Depositing her burden on the table, she said, “I'm sorry, sir, we have not a pan large enough to boil the whole, but the rest will soon be ready.” This was the first instalment of four dozen; for the eggs were then three halfpence a dozen.


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