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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 41


From Whiteness Southwards—Isles in Bay of Scalloway—Trondra —Burra Isles—Disaster to Dutch Fleet—House—Parochial Statistics—Havera—Ancient Affray between Meu of Burra and Coningsburgh—Bigton—St Ninian’s Isle—Spiggie— Parochial Statistics of Dunrossness, &c.—Conclusion.

THE coast between Whiteness and Scalloway Harbour is singularly bleak and uninteresting. The eye of the traveller is, therefore, attracted by the pretty group of little islands in the bay, a good view of which he obtains in passing. Of these, Papa, Oxna, and Linga, are tenanted, each by about two families of crofter fishermen; while Hildesay, Langa, and the Chenies are devoted to grazing. Further south than these, is a cluster of much larger and more interesting islands. Trondra, which lies opposite Scalloway, and contributes to the formation of its land-locked harbour, is flat and comparatively fertile. It is the property of the Earl of Zetland.

Southwards from Trondra are the Burra Isles. Of these West Burra is the largest, being upwards of four miles long, but very narrow in proportion. East Burra, or House, is shorter, but of greater breadth in proportion to its length. A long stretch of water separates West Burra, on the one hand, from Trondra and House, on the other. This narrow strait more resembles a river than a portion of the sea. It takes a meandering course, sometimes becoming narrow and constricted, and again expanding into wider pools, so that, as his graceful skiff swiftly bears the traveller down through the Sound of Burra, some fresh object of interest meets his eye, on passing each projecting point. In one place, the two islands of Burra approach so near to each other, that they are connected by a wooden bridge, beneath whose arch six-oared boats can pass. Owing to the presence of limestone, the soil of Burra is very fertile. It is a singular fact—be the cause what it may—that the crops ripen here, and in some of the other islands of less magnitude, somewhat sooner than in the Mainland. The population of Burra is much larger, in proportion to its extent, than almost any other district in Shetland. This is evidently owing to its convenience as a fishing-station. As the fisheries on the west coast of Shetland are by no means so productive as formerly, the great majority of the men of Burra have abandoned them, and entered on other branches of trade. Many of them are engaged in the Faroe fishing, in which they are highly prized for their skill and perseverance.

It was on the west coast of Burra that the Dutch navy met with a serious disaster in 1652. “The vessels were driven by a gale on the west side of the island; a fire ship was wrecked, and a man-of-war sank to the bottom. The rest of the fleet ventured among the small islands, and rode in safety.”

Burra is evidently the Burgh Westra of the “ Pirate,” where the hospitable Magnus Troil is represented as holding high revelry. The Burra Isles were long the property of the Sinclairs of House, whose old mansion still stands at the south end of the island. Towards the end of last century, however, the estate passed by marriage to the Scotts of Scalloway, to whom it still belongs. The Sinclairs of House, who held these lands for many generations, were an ancient family, said to be descended from the old Earls of Orkney. The old church of Burra was adorned by a spire, but it has long since been removed. The islands of Burra, together with those of Havera and Papa, belong to the ministry of Bressay, Burra, and Quarff. Burra and Quarff however, form a quoad sacra parish, the minister residing at Quarff. Besides the parish church of Burra, the United Presbyterians have a good church and manse. Their minister is the only clergyman resident in the island. Both the Wesleyans and Baptists have also small chapels. There is a good Society school and school-house, romantically situated on a small holm, between the two islands, but connected with one of them by a causeway of stones. The population of Burra and Quarff in 1871 was 900.

South from the isles of Burra are those of Havera. Regarding Great Havera, which is inhabited by two or three families, there is nothing special to remark, further than that it can boast of the only windmill in Shetland, and that several magnificent caves diversify its rocky coast. Little Havera is devoted exclusively to grazing. Ail along its eastern or mainland side, Cliff Sound is overhung by a high and steep ridge called the Cliff Hills. The right of pasturage on this extensive range of country long formed a subject of dispute between the people of Burra and those of Coningsburgh. Writing in 1822, Dr Hibbert tells us,—“Several pitched battles are said to have been fought about two centuries and a half ago between the parties, in one of which the men of Burra and House crossed the Sound of Cliff during the night, and occupied a station among the hills in ambush. In the morning, their wives and daughters, who were instrumental in the plot, dressed themselves in male attire, and launching several yawls made their appearance in the Sound as in hostile array. The Coningsburghers, easily deceived by the formidable appearance of this mock armament, came down the hills to attack the boats, when they fell into the snare that had been laid for them, and being fiercely attacked in the rear by the male inhabitants of Burra and House, were for the most part killed and routed.”

Disputes regarding these scatholds appear to have continued until about 1786, when an arrangement was come to between the proprietors of Burra and Connings-burgh.

Passing the little sandy inlet of Maywick, the only landing-place on that rocky coast, we double the head of Ireland, and soon reach Bigton, with its elegant manor house, large, well-cultivated fields, and luxuriant grassparks. Bigton, which is one of the most favourably situated residences in Shetland, is the property of William A. Bruce, Esq. of Symbister and Bigton, who owns an extensive estate in the ministry of Dunrossness. The Bigton estate for a long period belonged to the Stewarts, but towards the end of last century it passed by marriage to the Bruces of Symbister, who have held it ever since. Immediately opposite Bigton, and connected with the great lawn in front of the manor by means of a sea-beach, is St Ninian’s (or, as it is popularly termed, St Ringan’s) Isle, now entirely devoted to pasturage. On the west side, which faces the ocean, it is precipitous. In ancient times this island must have been of some importance, for it contains the ruins of a once famous chapel, dedicated to St Ninian. The coast from Bigton southwards to Spiggie is singularly beautiful in summer, the high and undulating banks that form it being, in most places, clothed with luxuriant grass of a peculiarly light green. The large loch of Spiggie is separated from the sea merely by a beach of sand. At Sco^sburgh, near the eastern shore of this lake, a thriving mercantile business is carried on by Mr Henderson, the proprietor.

Dunrossness proper contained, in 1861, a population of 2ll3; and, in 1871, 1945,—the decrease being accounted for by emigration. This district has four churches—Established, Free, Wesleyan, and Baptist, all within a short distance of each other. Schools are, however, much more few and far between.

Colsay, a grazing island, lies a short distance off the inlet of Spiggie; and, two or three miles south-west from it, Fitful Head.

“Like some tall cliff that rears its awful form,
Swells from the vale and midway meets the storm;
Though round its breast the gathering clouds are spread,
A fitful sunshine settles on its head.”

The mention of this abode of Noma must remind the reader that it was with this district I attempted to commence my description of Shetland. If he has followed it, his patience must be well exhausted, and he will now be ready to leave the “melancholy isles of farthest Thule,” and seek new fields and fresh pastures, in fairer climes, and under more southern skies.

“Land of Isles in a Northern sea:—
Land of mist, and storms’ revelry:—
Land of the raven, and sea-mew,
Of eagle bold, and wild curlew
Land of brown heath, and treeless plain,
Of winding voe, and surging main.
Of bare gray skerry, and green holm,
Of ocean’s deep caves, lash’d with foam,
Of whirling gurge, and racing tide
Of crag, and scar, and precipice:—
Land of Thule! The Roman came;
From far he view’d thee o’er the main;
His power thou felt not, nor his chain,
Thule the Free, was still thy name :—
Land! Thy sons were the sea-kings brave,
In galley strong ploughing the wave;
Their sword was bright, their word was true,
Fam’d in the World, both Old and New
Land, where sea-kings of old did dwell
Where their sons now dwell—
Fare-Thee-Well!

Rev. D. Landsbourgh.


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