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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part I: Chapter 2


Is it the Ultima.Thule of the Ancients—Picts—Norsemen— Harold Harfager—Scandinavian Earls—Ronald I.—Sigurd I. —Sigurd II.—St Magnus—Ronald II.—Kirkwall Cathedral —Visits of Earls to Shetland—Swein of Gairsey—Shetland annexed to Crown of Norway—The St Clairs—Impignoration -of Orkney and Shetland to Scotland—Lord Robert Stewart— Bothwell—Earl Patrick Stewart—His Character—His Castles —Misrule, &c.—Complaints—Imprisonment—Execution, &c. —Earl of Morton—Sir Lawrence Dundas, and Earls of Zetland—County deprived of Franchise till 1832.

TOURING the early and middle period of the Roman Empire, the term Ultima Thule appears to have been applied to some very distant land, situated far to the north of Gaul, and which they conceived to be the end of the earth. As geographical knowledge and the Roman eagles together advanced northwards, the term seems to have been restricted to the most northerly land or island the Italian conquerors ever visited.

The Emperor Claudius, who invaded Britain about the year of our Lord 43, if we are to believe Eutropius, penetrated as far as Orkney. “Quasdam insulas etiam ultra Britanniam, in oceano positas Romano imperio addidit, quae appellantur Orcades.” The elder Pliny, in his “ Natural History,” which was written about the year 75 a.d., mentions the Orkneys and Hebrides, on the authority of Pytheas, a Greek navigator, who appears, from his correct knowledge of these islands, to have visited them. He refers more definitely to Thule, and even takes notice of the length of its day in summer, and its shortness in winter. “Ultima omnium quae memorantur Thule, in qua solstitio nullas esse noctes indicavimus, cancri* signum sole transeunte, nullosque contra per brumam dies.”1 Pliny also mentions, on the same authority, the situation of the islands of Thule, which he says is north from Britain six days’ sail. “Quod fieri in insula Thule, Pytheas Massiliensis scripsit, sex dierum navi-gatione in Septemtrionem a Britannia, distante.” Tacitus, the biographer of Agricola, claims for him the discovery of Orkney, and says he also saw Thule.

“Hanc oram novissimi maris tunc primum Romana classis circumvecta, insulam esse Britanniam a&fir-mavit, ac simul incognitas ad id tempus insulas quas Orcadas vocant, invenit, domuitque : (Jespecta est et Thule, quam hactenus nix et hiems abdebat.” 8 From this passage it is evident that the Romans were acquainted with and had visited the Orkneys, and that the land to which they applied the name of Thule was beyond them. What land, then, can be the Thule of the ancients? Not the Hebrides, because they were mentioned by Pliny by their proper names, along with the Orkneys; and, besides, they are situated to the west of the mainland of Scotland, and their most northerly point is not so far north as Cape Wrath, and therefore they could not be said to be “ultra Britanniam.” Certainly not Caithness, or any district in the extreme north of Scotland, since they are all to the south of Orkney and parts of Britain, and therefore not “ beyond” it. We must exclude Faroe and Iceland from amongst the claimants of this honour, because they were both too distant to be visited by the frail galleys of the Romans, unaided as they were either by the compass or the navigation; and, besides, they by no possibility could have been seen from Orkney. We must dismiss any part of the Norwegian coast for the same reasons, and because it is not an island and is not situated north from Britain, both of which facts Pytheas affirms regarding Thule. By this process of elimination, therefore, we are shut up to the conclusion that Shetland alone answers to the descriptions and allusions to the Ultima Thule contained in the Latin classics. It consists of islands, which might easily be mistaken when viewed from a great distance for a single island; it lies in a northerly direction from Orkney, from some parts of which Foula, the Fair Isle, or the high land of Fitfulhead, at the south-western extremity of the mainland, can be seen on a clear day; and a passage of six days would not be a very lengthened one in the primitive barks of the Romans, who were never much. distinguished for seamanship. But we have more positive proofs of Shetland being the Ultima Thule. Several Roman coins have been found in the country, and in the island of Fetlar the ruins of a fortification have been found, which Dr Hibbert, a very competent judge, declares to be those of a Roman camp. It is by no means probable that either the Piets or the Scandinavians carried their coins thither, and in no part of the world, as far as we are aware, is there evidence of either of these races imitating these fortifications, which were of a kind peculiar to the Romans.

The early inhabitants of these islands were evidently the Picts, who are now admitted by the most accomplished archaeologists and ethnologists to have been a Celtic race. This people spread over Scotland and the Hebrides before the birth of Christ, and thence must have migrated to Orkney and Shetland. We have no means of knowing even approximately when the Picts entered Shetland, but they appear to have remained in undisputed possession until the beginning of the ninth, century, when the nautical daring, boundless energy, and desire for foreign enterprise, not to speak of plunder, had become so much developed in the Norsemen, that the barren shores of their native Scandinavia could no longer afford scope for their exploits. At first they appear to have visited Shetland in comparatively small numbers; and they probably first became acquainted with the islands by some unfortunate fishing-yawl being driven op. their shores by a long-continued easterly gale. In A.D. 876, Harold Harfager having usurped kingly authority over all the other princes of Norway, a large number of malcontents took refuge in the Terrae Incognitse of Iceland, Faroe, Shetland, Orkney, and .several districts on the Scotch coasts. Enraged at this revolt, Harold speedily equipped a fleet to subdue the rebels, and landing at Haroldswick in Unst, which bears his name to this day, quickly subdued the Shetland and Orkney Islands, which, along with the Hebrides, he added to his domains. The two first-mentioned groups of islands he formed into one earldom, and invested one of the most powerful of his nobles, Ronald, Count of Merca, with the government. Ronald made over the earldom to his brother Sigurd, who became the first of the famous Norse jarls of Orkney and Zetland. Immediately after his accession to this dignity, Sigurd formed an alliance with Thorstein, King of Dublin; and, invading the northern provinces of Scotland, subdued them as far as Morayshire. In his case death speedily followed victory, but in a very unusual way. Having slain Maelbrigd, a Scottish chief, Sigurd tied his head to his saddle-bow. The tooth, says the Saga, which was very prominent, inflicted a wound on his leg, and the wound inflaming, caused the death of the earl.

In course of time arose another Sigurd, sumamed the Stout. He, too, was a mighty warrior. His Caithness dominions having been invaded by Finla, a Scottish maormor, he gallantly advanced to repel the aggressor with a force one-seventh the number Of his. Seeing the number opposed to them, the Norsemen hesitated to face such odds. At length Sigurd overcame their misgivings by offering to restore to the Boendr (udallers) the allodial lands they had resigned to Earl Einar, his great-grandfather: the Norsemen charged and completely routed the sevenfold more numerous Highland host. Following up this decisive victory, Sigurd extended his sway over the north of Scotland as far as Morayshire; and afterwards making peace with Malcolm, King of Scots, received the daughter of that monarch in marriage. It was through this same Sigurd that Christianity was introduced amongst the Scandinavian denizens of Orkney and Zetland. Olaf-Trigvisson, King of Norway, happening to run his long ship into the harbour of OsmondwaU, in the south of Orkney, while Sigurd lay there, summoned the earl to attend him on board. In course of this interview, the sovereign laid hold of the vassal’s little son, and drawing his sword, threatened instantly to put him to death unless Sigurd would consent to be baptized himself and to force that rite on all his subjects. The earl yielded. The sincerity with which he embraced Christianity may be inferred from the circumstance that Sigurd fell desperately fighting in the pagan ranks, at the great battle of Clontarf, near Dublin, in 1014.

Partly through his own military prowess, and partly through the influence of his grandfather the King of Scotland, Torfin, son of Sigurd, was able to defeat all rivals and ultimately succeed his father. After a long career of bloodshed and conquest, in course of which he subdued Scotland to the shores of the Forth, and became the most powerful of all the earls, he made a pilgrimage to Rome, and having there obtained absolution, returned to the far north, where he devoted his energies to furthering the welfare of his people. He founded the bishopric of Orkney, and died in 1064, after having held, according to the Saga, the earldom for seventy winters, and is widow afterwards became the wife of King Malcolm Canmore.

To dwell more minutely on the extremely complicated history of the grand old Norse earls would not be consistent with the object of these pages. In 1115, Earl Magnus was murdered in Egilshay, Orkney, by Hakon, his kinsman and colleague in the earldom. After death his many virtues obtained for him a place in the calendar of saints. His nephew Kali, the son of Kol, •having become a claimant to his uncle’s share of the earldom, vowed that should he succeed he would erect and endow a magnificent “ stone minster,” at Kirkwall, in honour of St Magnus. Having at length succeeded, Kali Kolson, now Earl Ronald the Second, commenced building the famous Cathedral of St Magnus, Kirkwall, in 1137. In reward of this pious undertaking, Ronald, in his turn, after his death, received the honour of canonisation.

It is interesting to note that about this period the earls appear to have pretty frequently visited Shetland. Thus Earls Magnus and Hakon are mentioned in the Saga as having “slain a famous man Thorbiorn, in Burgarfiord (Burrafirth), in Hjaltland.” St Magnus, while blameless in life, wise in counsel, eloquent in debate, and liberal to the poor, was also “victorious in battle.”

Three lengthened visits of Earl Ronald to Shetland are recorded—viz., during his first unsuccessful attempt to take possession of the earldom, when he anchored Ins ships in Tell Sound; then immediately before *his victorious descent on the Orkneys, when the treacherous beacon-keeper of Fair Isle stood him in good stead; and lastly, when he underwent shipwreck at Gulberwick, en his way to Palestine. On each occasion the noble and accomplished earl was entertained with much hospitality by the udallers.

Of private vikings the most daring and powerful was Swein, owner of the little isle of Gairsey, in Orkney. Having dissipated, with high revelry, the gloom of an Orcadian winter, in his spacious drinking-hall at Gairsey, he sowed his fields in spring chiefly with his own hands; and then set out, with eighty retainers, on a marauding expedition to the Irish Sea. Returning in time for harvest, he reaped his com; and then sailed southwards with his long ships, on the “autumn viking,” from which he came not back until the first month of winter was over. His exploits fill many pages of the Saga. On one occasion he seized Earl Paul and carried him off to Athole, never to see Orkney again, and on another captured the city of Dublin.

Five years before the close of the eventful twelfth century, Earl Harald Maddadson, having lent his countenance to an unsuccessful revolt against the Norwegian king, was punished by having Shetland taken from him and annexed to the crown of Norway. “It never again,” the Saga says, “formed part of the domains of the Scandinavian earls.”

Earl John, son of Harald Maddadson, was slain at Thurso in 1231, leaving no male heir, and thus the direct line of the Norse earls failed. Their title and estates now passed through a female line to the noble Scottish family of Angus. About the year 1330, the Angus line of earls became extinct, in the male line, in the person of Magnus the Fifth, and another dynasty succeeded. Malis, Earl of Strathearn, had married the daughter of Magnus; and, in right of his wife, he became Earl of Orkney and Zetland. From Malis it again passed through the female line to his grandson, Henry St Clair, son of William St Clair, Baron of Roslin, on whom it was conferred by Hacon the Fourth, King of Norway. These Scandinavian earls, jarls, or sea-kings, who held the earldom of Orkney and Zetland for four centuries and a half, occupied a high place among the potentates of Northern Europe. Wise in peace and formidable in war,* they were known and feared through the wide-extending lands whose coasts were so frequently swept by their victorious fleets. The position they occupied is not rightly expressed by the title of “Earl,” for they were sovereigns of the “countries of Orkney and Zetland” (as the islands were termed before they were formed into a Scotch county), under the protection of the kings of Norway. In virtue of their high position they intermarried not only with the noble families of the neighbouring countries, but also with the royal families of Scotland and Norway. Of course their warlike exploits and viking expeditions are not to be viewed in the light of modem civilisation and Christian enlightenment, but in that of the dark and barbarous age in which they lived.

As already mentioned, the earldom in 1379 passed from the Scandinavian dynasty to

“The lofty line of high St Clair.'

For a century after that period the

“St Clairs held princely sway
O’er isle and islet, strait and bay.”

Their sway extended to Shetland, which is specially mentioned as part of the earldom conferred on Henry St Clair. The Scandinavian rule terminated in 1468, when Orkney and Zetland were handed over to Scotland, in pledge for the dowry of Margaret, Princess of Denmark, on her marriage with King James ILL They were, and probably are still, redeemable to Denmark on payment of 58,000 florins (50,000 for Orkney and 8000 for Zetland), but have ever since this impignoration remained politically united to Scotland. Two years after this important event, Earl William St Clair was induced by his sovereign to surrender his honourable but onerous position, and sold his “haill richt”

to the “countries” of Orkney and Zetland for more manageable domains in the “Kingdom of Fife,” together with a handsome sum from the royal treasury. The islands were now annexed to the Crown by Acts of Parliament, never again to be alienated unless in favour of a lawful son of the king. By a strange contravention of this wise measure, which was often broken, though as often re-enacted, these islands appear in the next century to have been considered the “patrimony” of the unlawful sons of the king; for, in 1530, they were granted to James, Earl of Moray, and afterwards to Lord Robert Stewart, both natural sons of James Y. The reign of the latter donatory, whose name is still notorious as an infamous oppressor, was for a short time interrupted by that of the still more infamous Bothwell, on whom his unfortunate spouse, Mary Queen of Scots, conferred the rights of earldom with the title of Duke of Orkney. A memorial of his short and troubled reign still exists in the form of a tax called “ ox and sheep money/* originally exacted by him, and which is perpetuated as one of the numerous taxes with which those islands are burdened. After a short interval Lord Robert Stewart returned to the scene of his tyranny, but his misrule Was in two or three years brought to a close by his death. He was succeeded by his son Patrick Stewart, who obtained the title of Earl of Orkney and Lord of Zetland (1595), and served himself heir to all his father’s vices, in a very aggravated form, as well as to his honours. In Earl Patrick Stewart were united an unusual combination of evil qualities. He was proud, luxurious, dissipated, and much given to pompous display; but in him the amiable and easy qualities which generally characterise the voluptuary were totally awanting, their place being supplied by implacable cruelty, insatiable avarice, and almost boundless energy. His father’s palace at Birsay and mansion at Sumburgh could not satisfy Earl Patrick, but he must needs erect the magnificent “Earl’s Palace” at Kirkwall, and afterwards the scarcely less stately Castle of Scalloway. He is described by contemporary writers as living in princely state, as giving sumptuous feasts, and as never leaving his palace or castle without a numerous retinue. But how was such extravagant display to be supported? His lawful revenues were altogether insufficient for that purpose; therefore taking full advantage of his power over all the law courts of the islands, he set himself with iron energy to aggrandise his resources at the expense of the liberty, the property, and often the very life of his hapless subjects. To describe the oppressions by Patrick Stewart would fill a large volume. Justice was perverted, exorbitant fines imposed, large amounts of property seized from the peasant proprietors, new taxes levied, and old ones increased, weights and measures altered for his benefit, and the country overawed by dissolute soldiery, who also guarded the ferries, lest the complaints of the oppressed should find their way to the royal ear. Suicide—chiefly by drowning —was very common amongst the small proprietors of Zetland at this period; and its frequency became all the more suspicious when we observe that the lands and gear of the deceased were invariably “escheit” by the rapacious earl. By sea as well as land was his tyrannical power felt; for ships, of whatever nation, approaching the shores of Orkney and Zetland, were boarded by his lordship’s armed vassals, and laid under heavy contributions; and the people were prohibited, under the most severe penalties, from helping ships in distress, or rescuing drowning mariners.

Despite the vigilance of his sentries, and the awe inspired by his widespread power and tyranny, several complaints against Stewart were presented to Government ; but to these the earl’s kinsman, King James VI., paid little attention. At length, in November 1608, the good Bishop Law, with whose rights he had also tampened, addressed a letter direct to his Majesty on the subject; and such an appeal could not well be overlooked. Accordingly the very next month (December 1608), Sterfart was summoned to Edinburgh, and sent as prisoner to the Castle. In that city he remained till 1612, when he was removed to Dumbarton Castle, where he could communicate less readily with Orkney and Zetland. All this time he appears to have been treated with the utmost leniency that could be extended to a state prisoner; and the king was believed to be desirous of acquitting him of all charges, and appointing him keeper of one of the royal palaces, on condition that Patrick Stewart would renounce all claims to the northern earldom. Even to such favourable terms no power on earth could induce him to accede; and early in 1614, in his place of confinement at Dumbarton, was hatched a bold scheme for reinstating the arch-tyrant in his much-loved possessions of Orkney and Zetland. Accordingly, in June the same year, Robert Stewart, natural son of the earl, acting under his father’s instructions, raised a rebellion in Orkney, which, from a combination of boldness, tyranny, and effective military tactics, was attended with surprising success. He took possession of the earl’s palaces of Birsay and Kirkwall, as well as the castle and cathedral of that town. To quell this rebellion the Privy Council sent the Earl of Caithness, who ultimately effected that object more through the treachery of Patrick Halcro, Robert Stewart’s second in command, than by the force of his own arms. Young Stewart, who appears to have been worthy of a better father and a better fate, was taken prisoner, carried to Edinburgh, tried for high treason, condemned and executed on 1st January 1615. Before death he expressed penitency and emitted a confession, which clearly implicated his father. It was this act of treason, and not his many former crimes and acts of oppression, which brought Earl Patrick Stewart to the scaffold. After his condemnation it is recorded that “the ministers finding him so ignorant that he could scarce rehearse the Lord’s Prayer, entreated the Council to delay his execution some few days, till he were better informed and received the Lord’s Supper.” This delay was granted. On Monday, 5th February 1615, at the market-cross of Edinburgh, the axe of the executioner put an end to the long and dark career of Patrick Stewart, in presence of a great concourse of the Scottish people.

The roofless walls of the Castle of Scalloway still stand as a monument of their execrable builder, the inscription he placed on them being so remarkably verified by the fate his vices so well merited. The inscription ran as follows:—

“Patricus Steuardus, Orcadise et Zetlandi® Comes, I.V.R.S., Cujus fundamen saxum est, Dom. ilia manebit, labilis e contra, si sit arena perit, a.d. 1600.”

Over the principal entrance of the Castle of Birsay in Orkney, Lord Robert Stewart’s vanity caused him to place the following inscription:—

“Dominus Robertas Steuartus, filius Jacobi Quinti, Rex Scotomm hoc opus instruxit.”

Whether put there as a mere grammatical blunder, or as a claim to the sovereignty of the realm, the word “Rex” in the above inscription nearly obtained for him a trial for high treason, having been heard of by James VI. In no case do we find a more remarkable example of the hereditary transmission of the natural as well as the acquired qualities of mind from father to son, than in the history of the unfortunate family of Stewart. The very same vices, mistaken opinions, and inability to profit by the fate of their predecessors, which drove that royal family from the throne, and ultimately led to its extinction, when carried out by more than one spurious scion of the same devoted house—perhaps under more favourable circumstances for their development—in these northern islands, produced a like result. Both bastard earl and free-born king appeared to think his “divine right” conferred on him the privilege of governing his subjects, not for their benefit, but for the gratification of his inhuman passions and perverted will.

After the death of Earl Patrick, the earldom was annexed to the Grown to save the inhabitants from their “former condition of misrule, trouble, and oppression,” and its rents were farmed by different Scottish gentlemen till 1643, when it was given to the Earl of Morton by a redeemable mortgage. The exorbitant and unjust rental extorted by Earl Patrick was admitted into the King’s Exchequer; no compensation was ever given to the poor udallers for the manner in which they had been despoiled by the Stewarts; but, on the contrary, the farmers of the crown lands who came after them carried out, although in a modified degree, their system of oppression. The lands of Shetland still pay the old Norse taxes—scatt and wattle; those imposed by the donatories of the crown lands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—ox-penny, grassums, hawk-hens, land-mails; and, in addition to them all, the Scottish land tax of cess.

Their possessions in Orkney and Zetland involved the Morton family in frequent lawsuits. The earl of that day succeeded in getting his grant declared irredeemable in 1742. After the abolition of hereditary jurisdictions, Lord Morton sold his estate, in 1766, for £60,000, to Sir Lawrence Dundas, great-great-grand-father of the present Earl of Zetland, and in that noble and excellent family it remains to this day.

The county of Orkney, ever since it became a county, has enjoyed representation in the Scottish Parliament, and, since the Union, in that of Great Britain. To Shetland, however, this privilege was very long denied, on the ground that it had no valued rent. This grievance was much felt, and many a petition and remonstrance from the Commissioners of Supply, and other leading gentlemen of that county, was in vain sent up to the Legislature. Even in connection with the great Reform measure of 1832, it was for some time doubtful whether Shetland would obtain the franchise. The Government of Earl Grey was not favourable, and, strange to say, his eminent Lord Advocate, Francis Jeffrey, somewhat opposed such an act of justice. At this crisis the claims of Shetland were ably supported in the House of Commons by the Hon. Thomas Dundas, M.P. for Richmond (for long afterwards Earl of Zetland), who succeeded in carrying a clause which gave Shetland the right of returning a member along with Orkney.

To judge from the keen election contests which have several times taken place since, this privilege has been duly appreciated.

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