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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part I: Chapter 1


Situation—Natural History—Scenery—List of Parishes and Islands.

THE group of islands constituting the county of Shetland or Zetland extends from lat. 59° 51' to 60° 50' north, and between long. 0° 40' and 1° 50' west. On their western coast they are washed by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the eastern by the North Sea ; and they may thus be said to form, in their own latitude, a boundary line between these two seas. Shetland lies north-east from the extreme north of the mainland of Scotland, north-east from Orkney, southeast from Faroe, and west from Bergen, in Norway. The islands which constitute this, the most northerly county in Scotland, are upwards of a hundred in number, and vary by numerous and irregular gradations in size, from the mainland, seventy-two miles in length and thirty at its greatest breadth, to various detached rocks, scarcely large enough to afford a temporary resting-place for a few sea-fowl. In shape they are very irregular; and being much intersected by voes, or arms of the sea, as well as separated from each other by different distances, appear to form the skeleton of a former country or continent. The extent of sea-coast is thus immense, in proportion to the superficial area of the country, which is estimated by Captain Thomas at 356,000 acres. So much is the land indented by these arms of the sea, that at no point is it possible to be farther from the sea than three miles. -The general appearance of the country is hilly, but none of the hills rise to a great height. The coast-line facing the ocean may be said to consist of a series of bold headlands and cliffs, the shores more gradually sloping towards the sea only where the placid water of voes and sounds renders them useful to man. The geological formation of the islands is primary, overlaid in many places along the east side by rocks of the transition period, which in their turn, in a few instances, are covered by, or give place to, some* of the lower divisions of the secondary. The soil of the interior of most of the larger islands is made up almost entirely of deep beds of peat-moss. Owing to the irregularity of the ground and the moist nature of the climate, the inland parts of the surface are studded with numerous fresh-water lakes of all sizes, which send burns or small streams down through the ravines, by courses more or less circuitous, to the sea. By the action of small water-courses these large tracts of peat-moss are frequently marked by deep clefts, which give the heath-clad interior a sombre and bleak aspect. As might be expected from its situation and geological formation, the flora of Shetland is of what may be termed the Scandinavian type. The climate also gives the flora a western character, allying it with that of the Hebrides and the west of Scotland. The shores of these islands abound with algae and marine fauna; and sea-fowl of every wing nestle in their cliffs and feed in their waters. Their seas teem with fish of every kind, which constitutes the great staple of the inhabitants. The land-birds and quadrupeds are much the same as those of the north of Scotland.

The climate, although rainy, is mild, equable, and very healthy, as I hope to be able to show.

If the inland landscapes are comparatively tame and monotonous, the rock scenery of the coast is always interesting, and often truly grand and magnificent. Here you have the lofty mural precipice rearing its mighty head a thousand feet above the angry waves, till it is capped with clouds; there the solitary islet rising precipitately out of the troubled waters, and pointing with sharp-peaked columns to the skies: now you behold a huge rock pierced by a triumphal arch, through which any Roman conqueror’s galley could have passed; and anon the flat green isle, feeding on its fertile breast flocks of timid lambs: here, as far as the eye can reach, is to be seen the mighty iron-bound cliffs, whose stout buttresses bid defiance to the fiercest waves of the stormy Atlantic; and there, like a blue cloud on the verge of the horizon, is the lonely and lofty isle, which Agricola saw from the Arcadian shore when he exclaimed, “Despecta est et Thule.” Here the rocky coast sends out a long arm to do battle with ocean on the day of his fiercest wrath; and there it is pierced by the cavern, through which you can penetrate into the very bowels of mother Earth. Ascend one of our everlasting hills, and you behold Oceanus again invading Terra with his long sea-arm, which meanders far into the land, between yon two ridges of hills. On the peaceful shore of this inland sea stand the humble cottages of the hardy fishermen, surrounded by fields of waving com, flourishing even beneath this hyperborean sky. Perhaps you stand on the ruins of a watch-tower, whence the ancient Picts or Norsemen gave warning of the approach of their enemies. Look to the land, and you behold hills beyond hills, the brown sward of each dappled over with the small species of sheep peculiar to the country, or the better blown Shetland pony, browsing on the coarse grass, or the more tender shoots of the young heather. Yonder runs the rippling rill, where the young child loves to play. Look from the land, and there are the green isles or dark rocks, gently sleeping on the bosom of the deep blue sea. Its gentle waves are here and there speckled by the white sail of the fishermen, as they go to and from the scene of their labours and trials. Overhead is the summer’s sun, pouring down his bright and cheering, but not scorching and enervating rays, to gladden all nature around. Sounds there are none, save the distant bleating of the sheep, the lowing of the cattle, the neighing of the ponies as they career through their native hills, or the cackling of the seagull; or if, perchance, you walk along the strand after the breeze has given place to the calm, your ears aid you in fully appreciating the notable line of Homer. Stand on the same hill on a stormy December day, and the scene is greatly changed There are the wild waves tossing their white-crested heads mountains high, and rushing on with the speed of a racehorse, till, dashing with the force of their mighty artillery against the lofty cliffs, they heave their white foam high into the air and far over the hills. Such a scene is conceived by the poet when he says, “And Thule bellows to her utmost isles/ Woe to the hapless mariner who has such a coast for his lee-shore! Many an unfortunate bark has perished on these shores; and even the lighthouses now established have not put an end to wrecks.

The population of Shetland, according to the census of 1871, was 31,605—18,525 females, and 13,080 males. This population occupies twenty-eight islands, several of the smaller islands containing only two, and one or two only one family. Several of these isles, the most of which are very fertile, were formerly inhabited, but have within the last few years been laid down to grazing farms, such as Mousa, Balta, Samphray, Bigga, Vemintry, Papa Little.

The islands are divided into thirty parishes, which constitute twelve unions of parishes or ministries. They are as follow:—

The following is a list of the islands. Those in the first column are by far the most important, and are arranged as nearly as possible according to size. The rest are arranged according to situation, beginning at the north on each side of the country. Those marked (b) are about the same size, and may be classed next to those last mentioned in the first column. Those uninhabited are enclosed within brackets thus ( ) ; and those forming groups are classed together thus {.

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