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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 19


UNST—continued

Itinerary—Belmont—Uyea Sound—Muness Castle—Balta—Balta Sound—Buness—M. Biot—Some Distinguished Natives of Unst—Chromate Quarries—“Fenian Invasion”—Parochial Statistics—North Coast—Lighthouse.

IN order to enumerate the various objects of interest in their order, let us return to our method of following the coast, commencing in the south. Overlooking the troubled waters of Blue Mull Sound, and commanding a fine view of the small island of Linga, and the opposite shores of Yell, Belmont, the tasteful mansion of Major Thomas Mouat Cameron, the principal proprietor in the island, stands at the head of a pretty inlet. The Major resides chiefly at Annsbrae, Lerwick, only occasionally visiting Unst. In the olden time, Belmont was celebrated in the far north, as the almost constant residence of his relative, Thomas Mouat, Esq. of Belmont, a gentleman much esteemed in his day for his learning and varied accomplishments. Mr Mouat, together with the Rev. James Barclay, then minister of the parish, wrote the first Statistical Account of Unst, published by Sir J. Sinclair. He also lent material assistance to Dr Hibbert in the preparation of his great work on Zetland.

Advancing eastward from Belmont, we enter the safe roadstead of Uyea Sound, protected by the island of the same name. The shores of the bay, on the Unst side, are pretty well liued with buildings, consisting of dwelling-houses, shops, cottages, and the plain but commodious church. A standing stone, of ancient date, is a prominent object on the heights. There is a good pier, where an extensive herring-fishing is carried on in the autumn. The island of Uyea is rich both in arable and pasture land. It is inhabited merely by the proprietor, the farmer, and their servants. Outside Uyea are the very fertile grazing islands of Haaf Grunie, and Wedderholm. Grunie yields serpentine of a superior quality, which takes on a high polish, and might be useful for ornamental stonework.

Leaving Uyea Sound by its eastern entrance, which is rather shallow, we reach the point of Muness, the site of a celebrated feudal castle, now in ruins. It is surrounded by a group of cottages, and belongs to the estate of Garth. “ It consists of an oblong building, with a round tower at the north-western angle, and another at the south-eastern, while at the other two angles are hanging turrets, with beautiful machicoles delicately wrought in an extremely hard freestone. Several of the shooting-holes are ingeniously contrived with a deep cut or groove from right to left, and also up and down (giving a starlike sculpture to the stone), so as to allow an increase of range to the archer or musketeer. Over the door is the date of erection, 1598, and a tablet inscribed with ancient Gothic letters, beautifully raised

“List ze to know this building quha began?
Laurence the Bruce, he was that worthy man,
Quha earnestlie his airis and affspring prayis,
To help and not to hurt this wark alwayis.”

“This self-praising Laurence was a Perthshire gentleman, who (like Moses of old), had fled from his native country in consequence of having slain a neighbour in some affray. He was son of Euphemia (daughter of Lord Elphinstone), who, having borne as a natural child to James V. him who was afterwards Robert Stewart, Abbot of Holyrood, and Earl of Orkney, married Bruce of Cultemalindie. This castle might even yet be repaired so as to make an excellent habitation, although the secretary observed, with xegret, many of the finely carved stones built into, and forming a portion of, the dry masonry of the dykes and cottages adjoining. The 4 worthy man9 above mentioned is said to have perished in a boat with all his people during a sudden squall.”1 His recorded deeds clearly prove that Cultemalindie had as little title to worth as his half-brother Lord Robert Stewart, or to honesty, as his friend and accomplice Thomas Boyne, Foude of Tingwall. Both friends praised themselves, probably because no one else would; and both inscribed their praises on stone, evidently hoping future generations would ascribe to them virtues which their own knew too well they were utterly devoid of.

Having doubled the point of Muness, we advance northwards along a rather uninteresting coast towards Balta Sound, passing, as we reach its south entrance, the small island of Hunie. Balta Sound is a rather narrow voe or bay, running nearly two miles into the land. It is rendered completely land-locked by the island of Balta, which lies directly across its mouth. Balta is about a mile and a half in length: towards the ocean it is precipitous, but towards Unst it slopes gradually down to a sandy beach. The island, which is now uninhabited, is of a peculiarly light green colour in summer, owing to its luxuriant grass, which feeds ample flocks. It is infested by numerous rabbits, whose burrowing amongst the sand, together with the action of the elements, has carried away a good deal of the soil.

Balta Sound is a very safe harbour, affording good anchorage. On its north side stands the neat manor house of Hammar (Mrs Spence of Hammar), and near its head is Buness, the residence of Thomas Edmond-stone, Esq. of Buness. This is a very elegant mansion, surrounded by well laid-out gardens' and lawns. An important addition has recently been made to the house by the present proprietor. It was at the house of Buness that M. Biot, the celebrated French philosopher, dwelt for several months in the year 1817, when engaged in measuring the time of the seconds pendulum. Here also Captain Kater carried on similar observations the following summer.

The connection between Buness and these men of science is recorded on a monumental stone, erected within the grounds by the late laird, who was the host of both during their sojourn in the. island. For the hospitality shown theiSa, Mr Edmondstone received the warm thanks of the National Institute of France, and the Royal Society of London* It may be not uninteresting to the reader to give some of M. Biot’s impressions of Shetland. “ It was no longer,” says the philosopher, “those fortunate isles of Spain, those smiling countries, Valentia, that garden where the orange and lemon trees, in flower, shed their perfumes around the tomb of Scipio, or over the majestic ruins of the ancient Saguntum. Here, on landing upon rocks mutilated by the waves, the eye sees nothing but a soil wet, desert, and covered with stones and moss, and craggy mountains scarred by the inclemency of the heavens; not a tree, not a bush, to soften the savage scene; here, and there some scattered huts, whose roofs covered with grass allowed the thick smoke with which they are filled to escape into the fog.” Considering the distracted condition of his own fair but unhappy country, immediately before the time he wrote, we are not surprised to find the French savant reflecting on the civil tranquillity of the Ultima Thule. “ During the twenty-five years in which Europe was devouring herself, the sound of a drum had not been heard in Unst, scarcely in Lerwick; during twenty-five years the door of the house I inhabited had remained open day and night. In all this interval of time, neither conscription nor press-gang had troubled or afflicted the poor but tranquil inhabitants of this little isle. The numerous reefs which surround it, and which renders it accessible only at favourable seasons, serve them for defence against privateers in time of war;—and what is it that privateers would come to seek  If there were only trees and sun, no residence could be more pleasant; but if there were trees and sun, everybody would wish to go thither, and peace would exist no longer.”

The Edmondstone family has done much (probably more than all others combined) for the literature of their native country. The late Dr Arthur-Edmondstone, F.R.C.S.E., a very talented physician, long resident at Lerwick, besides a host of trenchant pamphlets on various controversial subjects, wrote his “View of the Zetland Islands” in 1809. Notwithstanding an unfavourable criticism in the Edinburgh Review, when it first appeared, the work has been a standard one on Shetland ever since. In 1806 Dr Edmondstone wrote an able monograph on Ophthalmia, based chiefly on his own experience when a surgeon in the army. It still holds a respectable place in surgical literature. His brother (Dr Lawrence Edmondstone, still alive, and resident at Haligarth, near Buness) has been a keen observer in natural history, to which science he has contributed much. His accomplished lady, recently deceased, possessed a felicitous literary style. Her chief writings are an interesting little work entitled, “Tales and Sketches of Shetland,” “A Visit to Shetland * (Chambers’s Papers for the People), and “Sunshine over Shadow,” being the life of her son (Mr Thomas Edmonstone, jun.). This gentleman was a naturalist of extraordinary promise. When eleven years old, he discovered, in his native island, the Arenaria Norvegica, a plant hitherto unknown in the British Flora; and at twenty he became Professor of Botany in the Andersonian University of Glasgow. A few months afterwards, his bright career was cut short by a violent accidental death, when engaged as naturalist in H.M.S. Herald in the Pacific. Mr Edmondstone wrote a Flora of Shetland, the result of his numerous botanical explorations. A daughter of Dr L. Edmondstone (Mrs Saxby, widow of the late Dr Saxby, who was distinguished for his knowledge of natural history), possesses great poetical talent, and lately delighted her countrymen by the publication of a volume entitled, “Lichens from the Old Rock.” The present worthy proprietor of Buness has recently, at the request of the Philological Society, published a “Glossary of Shetland Words,” a work likely to prove very useful in rescuing from oblivion the remains of a language fast becoming obsolete.

Somewhat to the north of Balta Sound are the chief chromate quarries. This mineral, as already mentioned, was discovered by Dr, Hibbert in 1817, but it was only in 1822 that the late Mr Edmondstone of Buness commenced to work the quarries. At first the chromate fetched as high as £10 per ton, but soon the prices fell, as mineral of a better quality can be procured from America and Russia. For a time no market could be found for Unst chromate, but now it sells pretty well, as manufacturers find it convenient to mix it with ore of a softer consistence. It is used chiefly for producing yellow paints, and also in the preparation of the new colours, magenta, solferino, &c. Three different qualities of chromate are obtained from the Unst mines, first, second, and third. For a long time the third-rate quality was unsaleable, and a great quantity of it accumulated, from year to year, as rubbish. Recently, however, the present energetic factor on the estates of Garth and Annsbrae has contrived an apparatus for washing away the debris from the third-rate chromate; so that the mineral remaining after this process now realises about £1, 7s. per ton. The mines at present employ about fifty men and boys. The ore is detached by means of blasting, and the fragments are brought to the surface, and the water pumped out of the holes by steam-power. These mines have been a source of great gain to the proprietors, and must also have done much good by employing many of the islanders.

At a little distance from the head of Balta Sound stands the Parish Church, a large and comfortable building, devoid of architectural attractions. A little higher up the valley is the large and handsome manse, beyond which again is situated Hillside, the pretty residence of the Rev. Dr Ingram. It is surrounded by well laid-out gardens, lawns, and fields; and within this private enclosure is a well-built Industrial School, and the neat Free Church, where the venerable Doctor, now ninety-eight years of age, still occasionally officiates.

Before quitting the subject of individuals of note connected with Unst, it would be wrong not to mention that this island has given a Principal to the University of Glasgow. The Very Rev. Thomas Barclay, D.D., the late Principal, was youngest son of the late Rev. James Barclay, Minister of Unst, who died in the end of last century. The charges Dr Barclay held, in succession, were, the parishes of Dunrossness and Lerwick, in Shetland; Peterculter, in Aberdeenshire; Currie, in Midlothian; and lastly, the Principal's Chair in Glasgow. The talents and learning which thus raised him are too well known to require mention here.

A few years ago, the remote island of Unst came very prominently before the British public. In the summer of 1866, some suspicious cruisers had been observed amongst the fishing vessels at Faroe. About the middle of August, a most alarming article appeared

in the Scotsman, giving an account of a serious Fenian raid on Unst. The island was described as having been invaded by two or three Fenian vessels, which bombarded and fired the church, levied heavy contributions, and carried off several of the leading inhabitants as hostages. An immense sensation was produced. The Government is said to have sent a man-of-war so far north as Peterhead, while the Lord Advocate made arrangements with the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces in Scotland for the protection of the country. In the course of the day in which the article appeared, it was found the paper had been hoaxed. Tins fact was telegraphed all over the kingdom, and every means was taken for the detection of the offender, but without success.

In 1861, Unst contained a population of 3060. The last Census shows a population of only 2780. The educational wants are supplied by the parochial and several other schools. The Established Church is represented by the Parish Church, and a mission chapel and school, lately erected in the south-west of the island; the Free Church, by commodious churches at Uyea Sound and Balta Sound, and a chapel in the north end of the island; while the Wesleyans have a small chapel and mission house in the north district. The Wesleyan minister at Unst must have very arduous duties, for he is the only clergyman of his denomination in the north isles; and therefore he has to itinerate through Unst, Yell, and Fetlar, supplying, in succession, the chapel in each district.

Good roads have lately been made in Unst, at the expense of the island itself. They extend from Uyea Sound to Haroldswick, and again, from Buness to the Loch of Cliff:

In order to visit the north end of the island, however, let us betake ourselves to the highway of the sea. If our bark be small, and propelled by oars or a fair wind, we leave Balta Sound through its northern entrance, navigation through which is rather intricate, as it contains some shallows. Passing in succession the open exposed bays of Haroldswick and Nor wick, with their rugged shores, we double the point and Holm of Ska, and direct our course towards the northern shores of the island. Ska was long regarded as the most northerly point in the British dominions, but Captain Thomas, who conducted a very elaborate survey of the Shetland coast, has determined that this distinction belongs to the Holms of Burra Firth, farther west. As we skirt the northern shores of Unst, under the brow of Saxaford, the scenery increases in grandeur, boldness, and variety. The lofty cliffs, pierced here by magnificent caves, and there rent by fearful gios, with silvery mountain streams pouring down their sides, defy description, as much as the great gaunt-looking stacks which rise out of the ocean, as if to guard them from its assaults; and the clouds of sea-fowl, which relieve theuf solitude by many screams, and variegate their iron sides by the constant movement of their phalanges. This precipitous coast is rent in twain by the long and deep indentation of Burra Firth, which runs into the land between two bold headlands, or rather two steep-sided hills. On the fine head of Hermaness, which guards the western side of Burra Firth, a few pairs of the bunxie, or Skua gull, still build. This large and beautiful bird is now found nowhere else in the British Isles, save in Foula. “The great Icelandic owl (Strix nyctea), the most beautiful and magnificent of all the European nocturnal birds of prey, is known to haunt the moorish wilds and craggy cliffs of Unst alone, of all the British Islands.”

About a mile to north of Hermaness, several high and naked rocks stand alone in the ocean. On one of these, called Muckle Flugga, the Unst Lighthouse, represented in the accompanying engraving, is built. For a description of this interesting structure, we cannot do better than quote an article by the distinguished engineer who erected it. “ This class of stations {i.e., those on outlying isolated rocks ”), writes Mr Stevenson, “may be fitly represented by the North Unst Lighthouse, off the north coast of Shetland, which we select as being the most northern point of Her Majesty’s British dominions, The north Unst tower is built on an outlying rock of a conical form, called a ‘stack' which rises to the height of nearly two hundred feet above the sea. Towards the north its face is nearly perpendicular, and exposed to the full fetch of the Northern Ocean. Its southern face is an abrupt rocky slope, which, previous to the cutting of steps on its surface, could only be scaled with great difficulty. The top of the rock affords little more area than is sufficient for the site of the lighthouse. The tower is fifty feet in height, and contains the light-room, sleeping*room, kitchen, and provision store. The base of the tower is surrounded by a semicircular building, containing the oil, coal, and water stores. There is only one part of the rock at which a landing can be effected, and that, of course, only in favourable weather. The dwelling-houses for the families of the four lightkeepers are built on the island of Unst, in a creek called Burra Fiord, about four miles from the lighthouse. The first light on this rock was shown from a temporary tower, erected in 1854, at the suggestion of the Admiralty, for the benefit of the North Sea Squadron, then engaged in prosecuting the Russian war. It was deemed advisable to provide certain lights before winter set in, and only a few months remained to make all the necessary preparations for indicating to our navy the rugged shores of northern Shetland. The Pharos steamer left Glasgow with the workmen and temporary lighthouse and dwellings, on the 31st July, and the light was exhibited on the 11th October; and when it is considered that the whole of the materials and stores—consisting of water, cement, lime, coal, ironwork, glass, provisions, &c., and weighing upwards of one hundred and twenty tons,— had to be landed on an exposed rock, and carried up to the top in small quantities on the backs of labourers, it will be seen that the exertions of Mr Brebner, who acted as resident engineer, and of Mr Watt, who took charge of the landing department, were in the highest degree praiseworthy. Even with the fine weather that prevailed, the landings were latterly very difficult, and could only be accomplished by lashing ropes to the various articles and lowering them out of the landing-boats, and thereafter hauling them to the edge of the rock. But notwithstanding all untoward circumstances, the whole process of transporting the materials to the top of the rock, and erecting the lighthouse, was accomplished in the wonderfully short space of twenty-six days. The temporary houses were of iron, surrounded by a casing of rubble masonry, set in cement. Seeing that these temporary buildings were elevated two hundred feet above the sea, it was hardly to be expected that they should have had anything but the wind and the rain to withstand ; but the succeeding winter months revealed a very different and unlooked-for state of matters. From the 1st to the 4th of December, the north of Shetland was visited by a severe gale from the north-west. The foreman of the quarriers, who had been left to complete the cutting of the steps on the face of the rock, reported that on the 3rd of December the sea began to break over the rock about nine a.m., and increased in weight until one o’clock : several seas thereafter broke heavily on the tower, and one of them burst open the door of the dwelling-house, deluging the whole with water, so that the view we have given in the woodcut does not exaggerate the fury of the waves. Similar storms occurred during the winter, and the seas fell with such violence upon the iron roof of the dwelling-house, r and on the lantern of the lighthouse, as to raise fears for the safety of the buildings. An elevation of nearly two hundred feet was not sufficient to place these temporary buildings beyond damage from the sea; and in erecting the permanent establishment, it was resolved to raise the lightroom fifty feet above the lofty rock on which it stands, so that the seas might pass over without obscuring or endangering the light. The permanent structure which we have already described, shows a fixed dioptric light of the first order, and was completed in 1858, at a cost—including the shore establishment —of about £32,000.” There is nothing worthy of remark on the bold and rocky west coast of Unst Towards the south, where it becomes low, is situated the pretty house, grounds, and farm of Lund, the property of Miss Cameron Mouat, of Garth. Unfortunately Lund, which in Norse signifies a grove, is only that in name.


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