In the early 1700’s there
lived a young lad named Robert Nicolson. He lived on the island of Fetlar
with his parents. Fetlar is one of 100 islands that make up the Shetland
Islands, which belong to Scotland. They are actually closer to Norway than
Scotland. They lie in the North Atlantic and were once used as a stop over
for Vikings, on their way to or home from pillaging the people of Great
Shetland is a cold,
windswept group of island. There is hardly a tree growing there; mostly
just low growing shrubs and wildflowers. Birdlife is abundant though and
many birds, such as puffins, make the island their permanent home.
One sunny day, which is a
rare thing in Shetland, as it always seems to rain, Robert and his father
climbed into their sixern, a small wooden fishing boat. They began the
difficult task of rowing in the mostly-choppy sea, out to where they would
find their daily catch of cod, ling or haddock. The men were the fishermen
and the women stayed home, tending to the garden and the animals.
Mrs. Anderson was outside
in her vegetable garden. She had rows of huge cabbages growing, potatoes
and turnips too. Not much else grew in Shetland’s rocky soil. Not much
else can withstand the harsh weather. She had her little baby, Mary,
wrapped up tightly in a blanket, lying in her wooden cradle, not far from
where her mother worked. Mrs. Anderson took her shovel and turned the
ground over, taking the weeds away from the cabbages. As she bent over to
dig, she saw a huge shadow coming from above her.
To her horror, the huge
eagle swooped down and stuck its talons out in front. As Mrs. Anderson
screamed and began to run towards her baby, the eagle picked up the
tightly-wrapped, sleeping infant, and carried it off towards the nest. It
held the baby carefully and flapped its wings until it was out of sight.
Mrs. Anderson, in
hysterics, ran down to the beach. She happened to see Robert and his
father in the sea fishing. She waved at them, trying to get their
attention. The waves pounded in around her, carrying in pieces of flotsam
from passing ships, or things that had been carried in the current of the
ocean from as far away as the Caribbean.
Robert saw Mrs. Anderson
waving and pointed her out to his father. They rowed towards her. They
pulled the sixern up onto the beach. Mrs. Anderson was soaking wet.
Robert’s father, Nicol, put his arms around her and they walked up towards
the small croft. Inside he stirred the fire and sat her down in a chair,
wrapped a woolen blanket around her and asked what had happened.
Mrs. Anderson, now somewhat
composed, told the two men of the eagle. She was very upset; terrified
that Mary would become dinner for the eaglets that were surely in the
nest, since it was late spring.
Nicol asked Mrs. Anderson
to go and get some help from some of her neighbors. He and Roberts
searched for some rope, found a coil, and ran off towards the cliffs,
hoping to find the eagle and little Mary.
They climbed to the top,
following a steep path cut into the cliff’s face. The waves pounded
against the bottom of the cliff, sending spray up over them. The noise was
almost deafening. At last they made it to the top. They walked along,
looking down. At last they came to the nest. It was about fifteen feet
down, lying on a ledge that jutted out from the cliff. There were 3
eaglets in the nest and the baby, who seemed to be unharmed. The little
eagles weren’t bothering her. The adult eagles were nowhere to be seen.
Nicol and Robert were soon
joined by some of the neighboring men and their wives, and Mrs. Anderson.
She ran over to the edge and gazed over at her baby. Mrs. Spence came and
pulled her away, taking her back a few feet.
The men came up with a
plan. They would tie a rope around one of them and lower him over the
edge, where he would grab the baby and bring her up to safety. They knew
they had to hurry before the eagles came back. Robert volunteered. He was
the lightest of them all. Nicol, being proud of his son, saw no other
choice. A rope was tied securely around his waits and shoulders and he was
lowered down, slowly.
The wind hurled around him,
biting at him with its cold ferociousness. The eaglets began to chirp
wildly, calling for their parents. Nicol looked up and saw, off in the
distance, one of the huge eagles headed towards them. He called to his son
to hurry. They lowered him a little quicker. He reached the nest. It was
made of bits of hedge and scrub. Little Mary was sound asleep, still
wrapped in her blanket, like a cocoon. She seemed alive to Robert.
He reached down and grabbed
her, holding her tightly. She opened her eyes as soon as he held her
safely. She looked up at him and smiled. The men pulled the rope and
raised the boy and the baby up to the edge. Mrs. Anderson ran over and
took Mary from Robert’s arms. She hugged her so tightly, glad her baby was
safe. She then hugged Robert and thanked him for being a hero. He’d saved
her baby’s life. Just then the two eagles came back. The group watched as
they soared in the updraft of the cliff, then landed in the nest.
His father walked over and
patted him on the back, as did the other men, then all went back to Mrs.
Anderson’s croft. The others soon left. Robert took Mary from her cradle
and held her. He gazed into her eyes, then reached down and kissed her
The two of them, seeing all
was well, left mother and daughter in the croft and went back to the
beach. They pushed the boat into the waves and climbed in. They rowed back
out to see and caught what they needed.
The years passed by. Robert
spent a lot of time at Mrs. Anderson’s croft. Though he was ten years
older, he loved Mary. Her mother made sure she knew the story of her hero,
Robert, and how he’d saved her life.
When they grew into
adulthood, Robert Nicolson married Mary Anderson, who was known as ‘The
Eagle Bairn’. All descendants of this loving marriage are also known as
‘Eagle Bairns’. We should be proud of our Shetland heritage and the brave
men who worked hard fishing and built homes for their families. We should
be grateful for the women who toiled in their gardens, tended to the
sheep, spun wool, then knitted the wool into sweaters, socks, gloves,
scarves and hats. They cut peat from the ground, using it for fuel. They
had no modern conveniences, forced to cook over a fire in a big black
kettle. Life was not easy for them. The weather was unmerciful and by the
sweat of their brow they worked all their days. Be proud to be an ‘Eagle