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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 28


Swarback’s Mine—Muckle Roe—Busta—The Giffords of Busta.

PASSING the northern mouth of Roe Sound, and sailing under the towering granite cliffs of Muckle Roe—scooped out here and there into magnificent caves, once the haunts of robbers and smugglers—we reach a strait, which rejoices in the curious name of Swarback’s Mine. Lying between the islands of Roe and Vemintry, it forms the common entrance to an important congeries of voes, opening up a great extent of country. The Voe of Busta runs north, that of Aith south; while Gonfirth takes a south-easterly course, and Olnafirth stretches circuitously in the same direction, several miles into the heart of the Mainland. The eastern shores of Mnckle Roe are low, fairly cultivated, and well sheltered by the land-locked bay. The Sound between that island and the Mainland is navigable only by boats; and so narrow and shallow is it, that, at low tides, the people can wade across. Small as it may appear, Muckle Roe is twenty-four miles in circumference.

Having passed the opening, we skirt along a fine green ness, and soon reach Busta—a place which has for generations figured largely in Shetland history. Than its situation, none more favourable could have been selected. Nature has scooped out an amphitheatre in the hill-side, with a small circular branch of the Voe at its base. Not many feet above the water’s edge, rises the good old mansion of Busta, embowered in trees. The productiveness of the gardens, once so fertile, has been seriously impaired by their overshadowing influence. Many of these trees are native, and the*perfection they have here attained is evidently due to the rich soil, sheltered situation, and the protection of high walls. The grounds of Busta are laid out in the straight Dutch style of last century. This arrangement is particularly observable in the Willow Walk, the principal avenue leading to the house from the county road. It runs straight as an arrow, for several hundred yards, through a ravine. The trees have grown so much over the road that the stranger must take care to avoid the fate of a learned divine—now no more—who, on riding through the avenue, encountered one of John Gilpin’s mishaps, and involuntarily hung, not his harp, but his hat and wig, on the willow tree.

The principal entrance to the house of Busta is through a baronial-looking hall, with a massive stone staircase. Over the doorway, which looks towards the gardens, is the coat of arms of the Giffords. Beyond the entrance the house has no pretensions to architectural embellishments. It consists of three distinct portions, each erected at different periods since the beginning of last century. The drawing-room and dining-room are adorned by many fine family portraits, the most of which were executed by a native artist, Mr John Irvine.

The Giffords of Busta have rather a romantic history. Like several other families of Shetland lairds, they spring from a clergyman. This gentleman was minister of Northmavine at the Reformation. His descendants prospered, and acquired a considerable estate, which, however, being divided amongst the different members of a large family, became so atomised as to be of little use to any one. In the beginning of last century arose Thomas Gifford, a man of great sagacity, energy, and business talent. He was a Whig and a Hanoverian, while all the other Shetland lairds were Tories and Jacobites. This circumstance gave him great political influence in the troublous times of the two rebellions. The Earl of Morton appointed him Steward-Depute of the county. To the occupation of proprietor and chief-magistrate he added that of a merchant, and appears to have got most of the trade of the islands into his own hands. With these advantages he soon consolidated the family property, absorbed many neighbouring lands in it, and, in course of time, accumulated the largest estate in Shetland. Everything seemed to prosper with Mr Gifford. Not only was he rich and powerful, but the sun of domestic happiness shone on him. He was the husband of an accomplished spouse, a daughter of Sir John Mitchell, of Westshore, Baronet, and the father of four promising sons. But human happiness, ever evanescent, proved particularly so in his case. One dire day in 1748, Busta’s four sons, accompanied by their tutor, went to visit their uncle, who was chamberlain to the Earl of Morton, and lived at Wethersta, on the’ opposite side of the voe. The young men spent a pleasant evening, and were returning as they came, when, horrible to relate, the boat was upset, and they all found a watery grave. Wonderfully did the good laird bear up against this fell blow, which left him childless, and without an heir in his old age. He found his consolation in the words, “The Lord gave, and the Lord taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord."

When the first outburst of sorrow was over, some rays of hope began to dawn on the bereaved family. Mrs Barbara Pitcairn, a humble relative, who lived in the household, began to give promise of a coming child, and declared she had been privately married to John Gifford, the eldest of those who were drowned. In due time she gave birth to a son. The good old laird was soon afterwards gathered to his fathers, and left the estate to the able management of his widow, Lady Busta. Her young grandchild, Gideon Gifford, was brought up as heir, and, eventually entered on possession of his wide domain, which he enjoyed all his lifetime, no one questioning his right. Mr Gideon Gifford appears to have lived in great style, assuming all the pomp and display of a great Highland chief, and certainly not adding to the value of his estate. He died in 1812, and was succeeded by his eldest son.

Arthur Gifford, Esq. of Busta, was no ordinary country squire. To great natural abilities, and no mean scholarship, he added a very handsome face and form, a- commanding presence, and most pleasing and highly cultivated manners. Although by no means bound with them, his estate being entailed, he very chivalrously became responsible for his father’s debts. He held his extensive patrimony undisturbed for twenty long years. In 1832, the representative of a remote branch of the family, settled in America, raised an action in the Court of Session, with the object of having himself served heir to Busta, on the ground of Gideon Gifford’s alleged illegitimacy. A long and tedious proof was led, eminent counsel retained, large numbers of elderly men and women, cognisant of the circumstances, had their old age enlivened by a trip to Edinburgh, there to give evidence in the Parliament House, and, as a necessary sequence, great expense was incurred. The laird’s chief defence consisted in the production of marriage lines, said to have been found in John Gifford’s pocket after his dead body had been brought on shore in 1748. The circumstance that the property had been in the undisputed possession of the defender and his father, for eighty years, weighed greatly in his favour. Still the evidence on the opposite side was strong, and the jury wavered. At length they came to a decision in favour of Mr Gifford.

Amid the congratulations of his friends and tenantry, the good laird once more took possession of his patrimonial mansion, but the estate was fearfully burdened with debt. Most' nobly did he bear up against such difficulties. He lived amongst his people, kept up his dignity, was lavish in his hospitality, enjoyed the. respect and good-will of every one, all the while managing his property so well as to pay off a portion of the debt each year. But a stroke of apoplexy came in the spring of 1856, and took the good old man to his long home. The present representative of the family is his niece, Miss Gifford of Busta, who resides at the manor house of that name.

The estate of Busta includes three-fourths of Northmavine, the half of Delting, besides smaller portions of land in Walls, Aithsting, and Yell. The rental for the year 1872-73 is stated in the Parliamentary returns of 1874 to be £2707. The sum may not seem large, but it takes an immense extent of poor Shetland soil to bring in such a revenue.


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