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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 12


BRESSAY AND NOSS

East Coast of Bressay—Cave—Bard—“Giant’s Leg”—Holm and Neup of Noss—The Cradle—Dr Copland—Farm of Noss— Dangers of Noss Sound—Bressay again—Gar die—Maryfield —Parochial Statistics—Slate Quarries.

AND now for a visit to some of the “lions” in the vicinity of Lerwick. The Cave of Bressay and the Cliffs of Noss amply repay a day's excursion. Steering southwards through the Sound, and shaping our course along the Bressay shore, we pass, in succession, the mansion of Gardie, the house of Maryfield, the kirk, the manse, and the lighthouse, with various cottages and crofts interspersed between these buildings of greater note. Doubling the point of Kirkabister, and, if we are bold enough, sailing through a fine natural archway nearly underneath the lighthouse, we pass the lofty Ord, and direct our bark eastward to the root of the Bard. Here we find the cave, its entrance guarded by a skerry,1 not much above high-water mark. The entrance is a wonderfully symmetrical archway, pretty lofty, and wide enough to admit several small boats abreast. Here the water is very clear and deep; and the display of colours on the roof and walls remarkable both for brilliancy and variety. Our advance into the cavern is now attended with greater difficulty, as the passage becomes narrow and takes a curved direction. Soon the narrows are passed, and we find ourselves in a spacious hall. From its lofty ceiling hang numerous stalactites, many of them assuming very fantastic shapes. Pilasters of the same calcareous material have been formed on the walls. So great is their hardness that it is difficult, even with the aid of the hammer and chisel, to detach pieces. In this sea-paved hall reigns Egyptian darkness, save when it is dispelled by the torch of the visitor. Here the smallest noise, even the stroke of an oar, resounds like thunder. Beyond the hall we can penetrate to a considerable distance, but the inner reaches of the cavern become narrower and narrower. At length our skiff }s arrested by a sea-beach, from which a faint streak of light is to be discerned shining through a slit in the rock, a long way off. Beyond this, no mortal man is pigmean enough to advance. On a shelf near the mouth of this weird helyr, a native of the sister archipelago is said to have hid from the pressgang; and hence, it is sometimes called the Orkneyman’s Cave. Emerging from it, we for a few minutes steer south-eastwards and reach the Bard, in which Bressay terminates on the south. Here the most fantastic forms diversify the surface of the rocks. Nature has been the sculptor, employing the elements to remove the soft particles of which the cliffs are composed, while the harder remain. At the extreme point of the Bard, a narrow but somewhat lofty arch displays itself. The outer pier of this arch acts like a buttress to the precipice, which forms the inner. This curious buttress-like pillar is not inappropriately termed the Giant’s Leg. Tradition says that, ages since, a certain giant, in leaping from Shetland to Orkney, succeeded in getting one leg over, but left the other behind, and here it still stands at the Bard of Bressay.

Advancing north-eastwards for three or four miles, we come to the far-famed Holm of Noss. This is a small islet one hundred and sixty feet high, flat and well clothed with grass on the top, but precipitous on all sides. On one side, its cliffs are lashed by the full fury of the North Sea; and on the other, its base is washed by the conflicting currents which agitate the narrow strait separating the Holm from the island of Noss. A little to the north of the Holm is the Noup of Noss, a magnificent bluff precipice 577 feet high. All along the cliffs, but especially in those of the Holm and Noup, innumerable sea-fowl (gulls, kittiwakes, guillemots, puffins, <fcc.) have their nests. They build, for the most part, in curious rounded depressions which Nature has scooped out of the rocks. In the breeding season these stately cliffs present a very lively and interesting appearance. All the way upward, from a few feet above the water to within a corresponding distance from the top, they are garrisoned by close phalanxes of birds of various hues, whose shrill music forms a strange chorus to the deep-sounding sea. Fire a gun, and the air is instantly darkened by a dense feathery cloud, which dashes out seaward, expressing, in notes both harsh and loud, indignation against the intruders on this vast and solitary aviary.

From the heights of Noss a different view is obtained of the awful chasm between the island and the Holm. This space, sixty-five feet wide, was, for a long time, bridged over by a cradle or wooden box swung on two cables. By this means, the eggs of the many gulls which build on the top of the islet were removed, and sheep conveyed to and from its limited but rich pasture. But Mr 'jfV’alker, the late tenant of the island, has, very properly, caused this dangerous conveyance to be removed, lest its continuance should lead to that which marked its origin—the sacrifice of human life. The stakes supporting the cables, on which the cradle travelled, were originally fixed on the Holm by a daring cragsman, who scaled one of its beetling precipices. Not condescending to return by the new route he had opened up, he insisted on going back as he had come, and perished in the descent.

From its lofty Noup, the island of Noss gradually slopes away to a flat peninsula, facing the east side of Bressay. Here stands the old farmhouse, now occupied by a shepherd. In this solitary but romantic abode, Dr Copland, of London, “ the most learned of modern physicians,” and author of the Dictionary of Medicine, spent his childhood and youth. The doctor’s worthy father was long tenant of the island. Near the farmhouse are the ruins of a small chapel of ancient date.

Noss, which, with the exception of the shepherd’s garden, is now entirely laid down to pasture, is very fertile, yielding rich crops of grass. Together with Maryfield, Bressay, this island is now used by the Marquis of Londonderry for the purpose of breeding and rearing ponies to be employed in his lordship’s coalpits in the north of England. The noble Marquis is now making the first experiment in pony farming in Shetland on a large scale. Mr Walker effected a great improvement by placing a good stone wall round the precipitous part. At the narrowest point, Noss Sound is only two hundred or three hundred yards wide, and about six fathoms deep. The tide is therefore very strong. This circumstance, combined with the rocky character of its wider portions, and the absence of good anchorage, renders Noss Sound very dangerous, or even fatal, to such ill-starred vessels as have accidentally mistaken it for Bressay Sound.

Having safely crossed the boisterous strait, in the yawl of a good ferryman, we pursue our way westward across Bressay. Nothing of interest presents itself to the traveller until he reaches the heights above the western shores of the island, from which an extensive view is obtained, especially from their highest peak, the Wart, a fine conical hill 712 feet high. The handsome manor of Gardie, the residence of Miss

Cameron Mowat of Garth, proprietor of the island, with its hot-house, and well-kept gardens and lawns, is an object of much interest. Fanning, on the most approved principles, may be observed at Maryfield. Bressay has been in temporal, as well as eccesiastical affairs, under the judicious management of the Rev. Zachary Macaulay Hamilton, D.D., the best evidence of whose popularity is to be found in the fact that he is the only clergyman in Shetland who can boast of an undivided parish. In 1871 Bressay contained a population of 902. The island is five or six miles long, and two or three broad. It has two excellent schools—the Parochial on the east, and the Assembly on the west side.

Bressay'is chiefly composed of sandstone. Its slate quarries, the principal of which is situated at Aith, in the north end, are of some importance. Grey slate, formerly much used in Shetland, is too heavy for the modem style of housebuilding. The thicker portions of stone, however, are still in considerable demand for paving purposes. Lerwick is paved with Bressay flags. Bressay is rich in antiquities, among the most remarkable of which may be mentioned the ruins of a famous old church at Beosetter, and the now much more famous slab of stone, bearing on both sides inscriptions ip the Ogham character, which was found at Culbinsburgh a few years ago. This monument, probably the most perfect of the kind in existence, is now deposited in the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries, Edinburgh, in whose Transactions it is well illustrated.


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