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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 15


THE SKERRIES

Passage thither— Grief Skerry—East Linga—Seals—Cormorant— The Otter—Skerry Isles—Their Harbour—The Fishery— “The Skerry Fight”—Shipwreck of the Carmdan, and of a Russian Frigate—The Lighthouse—Lightkeeper’s Houses, &c.— Effects of the Sea—School—Shipwreck of the S. S. Pacific on East Linga, near Whalsey, in February 1871.

IN order to reach the Skerries, we shape our course north-eastward from the south end of Whalsey. Like the course from Lerwick to Whalsey, that from there to the Skerries is everywhere marked with detached rocks of various sizes, which stand up amidst the sea to tell us modems that the skeleton-like archipelago of Shetland was probably at some remote period one continuous island of no mean extent. However interesting to the geologist and dangerous to the navigator, some of these rocks are of considerable practical utility. One of them, bearing the ominous name of Grief Skerry, but really worthy to be called an island, besides affording excellent pasturage for sheep, is the rendez*-vous for the Whalsey boats during the haaf fishing. The isle is provided with a good beach, along which numerous small huts or lodges are arranged. Here the men land their fish, and enjoy occasionally a few hour’s repose in the midst of their arduous labours. From Grief Skerry, the fish are conveyed, in a small vessel, to Whalsey, to be cured. East Linga, a little to the westward of Grief Skerry, serves a similar purpose, but on a smaller scale.

Many of these small isles and detached rocks, lying far away from the usual haunts of man, were, in former times, the resorts of numerous seals. Within the last twenty or thirty years, however, they have gradually declined in numbers, and now are rarely to be met with. It is difficult to account for their disappearance. The number of sportsmen hunting them is scarcely sufficient to do so, nor even the epizootic, which destroyed so many, and sent their bodies floating over the sea, some years ago. The seal most numerous was the Phoca vitulinax or common seal. The Phoca barbata, or great seal, was also occasionally to be met with, but more rarely. Almost the only representative of animated nature to be found in their old haunts are troops of cormorants, who seem to consider themselves the garrison soldiers of all the small isles. They stretch out their necks and utter an indignant cry, on the approach of human invaders; and, it is only dire necessity which induces them to desert their strongholds, and seek safety in the water.

The otter, which chooses very similar habitations, is now more common than the seal A good many have lately been caught, by means of traps, in the Skerries, which it is now high time for us to reach, after all these digressions. This group of small islands lies by itself in the North Sea, eastward from the rest of Shetland. It is six miles northeastward from the nearest point of Whalsey, and about twenty-four miles, in the same direction, from Lerwick.

Of these oceanic isles, three (Brourie, Housie, and Gruna) are inhabited. Between them is a beautiful little harbour, thoroughly land-locked and affording good anchorage. It has three entrances, of which the north and south only are available for vessels, the east being so narrow and winding as only to admit boats. The south entrance, guarded by bold rocks on either side, is only about eighty yards wide. To the traveller who has been tossed up and down by the surging waters of the Skerries (and they are seldom still), it is truly charming to pass between these rocky pillars, and suddenly find himself in this placid and picturesque haven in the middle of the stormy ocean. The north entrance is broader, but it has a longer channel leading less directly to the harbour, and it is therefore less used than the opposite one.

The Skerries, which contain one hundred and sixteen inhabitants, form an excellent fishing-station, not only for their own population, but for many boats from the mainland. . It is chiefly the men of Lunnasting who resort hither in the summer time to prosecute the white-fishing, always returning to their homes at the end of the week. During the fishing season, therefore, these islands present a very animated and interesting scene. Six-oared boats are constantly entering or leaving the pretty little harbour. Generally the fishermen, on arriving from the deep sea, deposit their precious cargoes with the curers, and quietly retire to their huts for a brief season of repose. It has, however, not always been so, for Dr Hibbert tells us that, “ Early in the last century, a contention arose between two considerable families in Shetland, regarding this right {i.e., the right to erect temporary fishing-huts and booths on unenclosed grounds), which proved so serious that it is still traditionally handed down under the name of the Skerry Fight. The fishermen belonging to the Gifford family of Busta came armed, and obtained possession of a booth that they had erected the preceding year. The Sinclairs, also, headed by the valiant lady of the family, took the field. A siege commenced; there was a discharge of fire-arms from each party, with little or no effect, until Magnus Flaus, the champion of the Sinclairs, having tried in vain to break open the door of the booth which was occupied by the Giffords, mounted the roof and swore most stoutly that he would be in the building, though the devil should dispute him admission. On effecting an entrance, he was immediately shot dead by the occupants within, upon which the Sinclairs took flight, and, like dastards, abandoned their lady, who was by the opposite party made prisoner.” A vein of limestone runs through the inhabited isles, and hence the comparative richness of their soil. The crops are, however, frequently blighted by sea-breezes.

It is, however, their splendid lighthouse which chiefly renders the Skerries interesting to the general public. Never was a site better chosen for such a beacon; for the Skerries, and the many craggy isles intervening between them and the east coast of Shetland, have been the scene of many a heartrending shipwreck. It was on a rock near the southern entrance to their little harbour that the Garmelan of Amsterdam was cast away in 1664. She was bound to the East Indies, and was laden with three millions of guilders; and many chests of coined gold. “ The wreck happened on a dark night, when four men, placed among the shrouds, were endeavouring to discover land. They were not able to descry the land till the vessel was close upon it; and before they could warn the rest of the crew, the ship struck. The mast broke close to the deck, falling at the same time on one of the cliffs, by which means the four men were saved; but the ship itself sank in deep water, and all the crew on board immediately perished.” As formerly mentioned, “ a considerably quantity of spiritous liquors was driven ashore; and, for twenty days afterwards, the inhabitants of the Skerries were in a state of continued intoxication. When the Earl of Morton heard of the wreck, he repaired to the spot, and was actively employed in rescuing from the water several of the chests of gold. These ought to have come into the King’s treasury; and when Charles II. heard of the Earl’s private appropriation, he is said to have been decided in the views which he had before entertained of recalling the Crown estates of Orkney and Shetland that had fallen into the hands of the Morton family, on the fictitious plea of a mortgage of Charles I.” Another amongst the numerous shipwrecks this coast has witnessed may be here mentioned. “ In the year 1780, a Russian frigate was wrecked on the island of Whalsey. Mr Bruce Stewart, the proprietor of the island, ordered immediately his tenants to fit out proper boats to save what lives could be saved. Unfortunately, all their exertions, which were made at the risk of their own lives, could save only five of the Russian sailors. These five men were entertained by Mr Bruce at his hospitable mansion for several months, and sent home to their native country. From the report of these five men, the Empress Catherine of Russia gave orders to her ambassador at the court of London, to write, in her name, a letter of thinks to Mr Bruce of Symbister, which letter I have seen.”

Whalsey Skerries Lighthouse, which was first lighted in 1852, is built on a rocky islet, called the Bond, the most easterly spot in the group. Like those of Unst and Bressay, it was erected by Messrs. D. and T. Stevenson, Engineers to the Commissioners of Northern Lighthouses. The tower rises to a height of ninety-six feet, and contains very similar accommodation to that of its prototype of the Bell Rock. This light is a revolving one, showing a bright flash once every minute. It is visible at a distance of eighteen nautical miles.

A narrow sound intervenes between the Bond and a This group of isles is usually termed the Skerries, or Out Skerries. Their lighthouse has, however, been termed Whalsey Skerries Lighthouse, to distinguish it from similar erections built on other sherries, as Pentland Skerries.

Gruna, of which island the lightkeepers and their families are the sole inhabitants. The houses are fitted up—thanks to the generosity of the Commissioners— with every appliance to promote the comfort of the inmates that skill can suggest and money purchase. The keepers who guard this remote station are generally men of high character and great intelligence. The sound between Gruna and Bond is often so tempestuous that it is very difficult, and sometimes quite impossible, to land at the lighthouse. During a north-easterly gale in February 1870, the sea broke over the islet and carried away a great part of the* road leading from the landing place to the tower, some of the stones forming which were between four and five tons in weight, and had been firmly imbedded in the rock. From the top of the tower, one hundred and seventy-two feet above the level of the sea, an extensive view is obtained of the east coast of Shetland on the one hand, and a great solitary plain of ocean on the other. A fine little yacht, well adapted for these boisterous seas, acts as tender to the station, and makes passages to Lerwick, or elsewhere, as the business of the lighthouse requires.

There is no church in the Skerries; but a teacher supported by the Society, for Propagating Christian Knowledge combines the important functions of instructing the young and conducting divine service on the Sabbath. His school is about the middle of the largest isle.

The Skerries form part of the estate of William Arthur Bruce, Esq., of Symbister (a minor).

A dreadful shipwreck occurred on one of these isles since the above lines were written. In one of the last days of January 1871, the splendid iron screw steamer Pacific of Liverpool, of about a 1000 tons register, on leaving Norway with a cargo of wood, encountered a strong head wind and a tremendous sea; when, horrible to relate, her propeller suddenly broke with a fearful jerk, and the good ship became disabled and almost helpless. The weather, however, afterwards moderated, and the wind becoming easterly the vessel was enabled to proceed slowly on her course, with the aid of the few small sails she could set. Even on the 8th of February, hopes were entertained of reaching some port on the east coast of Scotland or England in safety. On that night, however, a fearful gale set in from the south-east. It continued with unmitigated fury all day on Tuesday the 9th, and was accompanied by blinding showers of dense sleet. In the forenoon the captain, descrying land on the lee, made an ineffectual effort to wear the ship. About half-past two the breakers came in sight. As the vessel was drifting directly broadside on them, one or two head-sails were set, in order to turn her head towards the rocks, and thus give the crew a better chance of saving their lives. But the sails were “ torn to ribbons,” and the ship went broadside on a reef, off East Linga. Two lifeboats were now lowered; but immediately smashed to pieces against the vessel’s side. The officers and all the crew went aft, save two men, who took refuge in the fore-rigging. The ship had not lain many minutes on the reef till she broke in two; the after-part gradually sank, and one or two tremendous waves, in the course of two or three minutes, swept the captain and twenty-five of the crew into eternity. Meantime, the forepart of the steamer was carried over the reef, and driven right against the side of the island; whereupon Daniel Coleman and Edward Johnsen lowered themselves down with ropes, and got on the dry land. Cold, wet, hungry, bareheaded, barefooted, and clad only in a ragged shirt and trousers, were these poor men when they came on shore. To add to their other miseries, they soon discovered they were on a small uninhabited island, without any kind of provisions. They would probably have been blown off their place of banishment by the violence of the hurricane, but for a hut used by the fishermen in summer. In this cold, damp, dilapidated erection, they got some shelter from the pitiless storm, and enjoyed occasional snatches of sleep. On Wednesday Johnsen hoisted a pair of trousers on an oar, placed on the highest point of the island; this signal was observed by the fishermen at Ska, in Whalsey, three miles off, but with such weather they could render no assistance. On Tuesday and Wednesday the only sustenance the survivors obtained was quantities of water they forced themselves to drink from a spring. On Thursday and Friday some grass was added, and on Saturday forenoon the sea, which had been running mountains high round their insular prison, having somewhat abated, they were enabled to approach the shore and pick a few limpets, ^which they greedily devoured. There were two sheep on the islet, but every effort to catch them failed.

Twelve of the brave men of Whalsey manned one of their powerful boats on Thursday, and attempted to reach East Linga; but the sea drove them back. Another attempt made on Friday also proved futile. On Saturday at noon they effected a landing with great difficulty, and carried the poor starving sufferers in triumph to Whalsey, where the utmost kindness was showered on them. From Whalsey they were sent to Lerwick, and thence to Hull. This narrative is taken from the lips of the survivors. Coleman belongs to Hull, and Johnsen is a native of Sweden. Strange to say, their health is almost unimpaired by the fearful sufferings they passed through.


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