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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part I: Chapter 14


The Shetlander’s House and Croft—Fishing at the Haaf— at Greenland—at Faroe—Sailors in Southern Trade—Employments of the Women—Social Condition of People—Imaginary Family Group on a Winter Evening—Schools—Disparity in Age of Sexes at Marriage—Registrar-General’s Return as to Morality —Country Weddings—Conclusion of Thesis.

AS is almost indicated by the very nature and position of his country, the natural occupation of the Shetlander is that of a fisherman. If his northern clime forbids the earth to yield her fruits in rich abundance, as in more favoured regions, an All-wise Providence has provided for the inhabitant of Thule an abundant harvest of the sea, ever ready to call forth his energy and repay his daring. The peasants of Shetland, thus engaged in the fishing, dwell in cottages of a very humble kind, surrounded by crofts of imperfectly cultivated land, varying in extent generally from two to four acres. These little holdings are generally situated along the edges of voes, or inland bays, with which the country is so much intersected; but in the more fertile districts they extend into the valleys, running up from the inland terminations of these voes into the interior. Occupying a croft, and not a mere cottage like the denizens of our Scottish fishing villages, the Shetland peasant becomes a pluralist, a farmer as well as a fisherman. Having reached his homestead, let us explore it before following him to the nautical part of his labours. He lives in a “toon” (town), consisting of perhaps twelve small farms, situated on comparatively level ground, by the side of a voe, and enclosed by a hill-dyke of turf, separating it from the common. With the exception of a belt of coarse pasturage within the dyke, this space is cultivated according to the primitive agriculture of these farmer-fishermen; and scattered over it, at irregular intervals, are the cottages, flanked by steadings of a very humble description. The cottage is a very lowly building, twenty-eight or thirty feet in length, and from eight to ten in breadth. It is built of rough, unhewn stones, cemented, or rather separated by clay, and pointed always inside, and often outside, with the ordinary mortar of lime and sand. The side walls are only from four to six feet in height, and the gables slope upwards rather abruptly. The roof consists of flaas, pones, or thin divots of dried turf, spread on wood, and covered with straw placed in a vertical direction, and held in its place by simmins, or straw ropes, which are kept constantly tense by stones suspended from their lower ends. This thatch is found to resist all the rains of winter, but, as the couples are supported in the middle of the side wall and not made to project over it, a good deal of water percolates downwards amongst the stones, and thus the house is rendered damp. But the most defective sanitary arrangement, in relation to the building, is the dose proximity of the dunghill, which is placed immediately in front of, and only separated from the house by a narrow path, covered with rough stones, and barely wide enough to admit of access. Internally the cottage is divided by a wooden partition into two apartments, the one occupying rather more than two-thirds, and the other rather less than one-third of its length. The former division is called the butendy and constitutes the kitchen, mess-room, and general dormitory of the family, and. servants, if any are kept. It is lighted partly by a window from eighteen inches to two feet square, and partly by two or three large lums, which perforate the upper portion of the roof, and serve the double purpose of letting out smoke and letting in light. The apartment is floored with hard clay or earth, the surface of which presents considerable diversity of hill and dale. Unless the house be of very modem construction, there is no proper chimney, and the happy family is thus enabled, on the dreary winter evenings, to form an exact circle round the fire, as it glows brightly on their cheerful hearth. The bare stone walls are almost concealed by numerous chests, supported by beams of wood, and ranged round the room, and by box-beds (which are appropriately named), constructed similarly to those used on board ship. A resting-chair, or rough uncushioned wooden sofa, on each side of the fire, a small table, probably a spinning-wheel, and a few kitchen chairs, complete the furniture of the but-end; but it is further lumbered with pails of water, kegs or jars of blaand and a churn. A young pig, one or two young calves, several fowls, and perhaps a lamb, if not inmates of, are constant visitors to, this outer chamber. On entering the ben-end we find an air of greater comfort and respectability. It forms the bed-room of the good couple, and the drawing-room to which favoured visitors are admitted. A ceiling of lath and plaster or wood conceals the bare rafters, the room is floored with wood, and the smoke is conveyed upwards by a properly-built chimney. Light is introduced by a window pretty well suited to the size 6f the apartment, and the effect is intensified by the walls being well plastered and whitewashed. A few neat but plain articles of furniture, together with two or three photographs, or foreign curiosities, sent home by a relative abroad, and displayed to the best advantage, tend to remove the impression of wretchedness the appearance of the but-end has produced on the stranger. Miserable as these dwellings may seem to one accustomed to more southern regions, there is probably no peasantry in the world in more comfortable and easy circumstances than that of Shetland. At the haaf or deep-sea fishing, from May to August, the father and grown-up sons can earn more than sufficient money to pay the rent’ of the farm, and supply the family with meal. If they go to the herring fishing from the middle of August till the end of September, their means are still further increased. A constant supply of haddocks, small cod, and, in great abundance, sillocks, and piltocks, is to be had, and these form the staple diet of the family. Potatoes of good quality, and abundant in quantity, are grown' on his farm, which also supplies meal for from four to eight months of the year, according to the size of the family, the fertility of the soil, and the favourableness of the season. The men clothe themselves with the proceeds of the fishing, and the women barter their knitted goods for their two favourite articles—dress and tea. These, together with hens’ eggs, which their farms produce in abundance, are generally sufficient to procure all groceries required, except meal.

But the Shetlander’s farm and his fishing-boat are not his only sources of incoma Outside his hill-dyke is a range of common, miles in extent, where the tenants have the privilege of grazing their milk cows, and keeping generally as many sheep, ponies, and young cattle, as they please. The cows have, of course, to be brought home regularly, to be milked in summer, and, in winter, they and the young cattle must be housed and fed within the dykes, but the other hardy animals find both food and shelter for themselves as best they can all the year round. The sale of some of his live stock, from time to time, is a great source of profit to the cottar, as the prices have been high ever since the opening of steam communication with the south; and if ever there is’ an unwonted drain upon his resources, he can generally meet it by disposing of a cow or a pony. The sheep are most valuable, not only as food and articles of sale, but also as affording the females the raw material out of which to produce their far-famed hosiery.

But there are other occasional sources of considerable profit. Sillocks, or the young of the Gadus Carbonarius as already mentioned, are generally caught during the winter in quantities sufficient to constitute them the most important article of diet, and their livers supply the captors with the finest of oil, to light up their cottages during the winter nights. In the winter of 1865—66 the take of these fishes was enormous. I have heard of men who, for a fortnight or more, could make from 30s. to £2 a-day, by selling the livers of the sillocks they caught, to the nearest merchant, for the manufacture of oil. By these livers alone many men made from £30 to £40 in a few weeks, and at a time of the year when they would have been doing nothing else. In the autumn, large shoals of bottle-nosed whales (the Delphinus Melas) are often stranded, and are more or less profitable to the captors, according to their own number, the number of the pack, and the price of oil. A whale chase of a few hours will often yield the pursuers from £2 to £5 each.

From what has been said it might almost be gathered that the food of the Shetlanders consists of fish and potatoes, cakes of barley and oatmeal, with butter and milk, considerable quantities of tea being drunk, especially by the females. Fowls and their eggs are considered too profitable articles of commerce to be consumed at home. A little pork or mutton, smoked or salted, may be used in winter; but beef is only partaken of on festive occasions. When more sillocks, or other small fishes, are caught than can be eaten at the time, they are hung up unsalted, and being partially dried, are eaten in a semi-putrid state, when they are said to be blawn. Fish in this state is much relished by all classes of the community.

Fuel, the next great essential to human life, is both abundant and easily procured. Peats are cut in the nearest hill in the month of May, dried during the summer, and conveyed home as occasion requires, either in Jeishies on the women’s backs, or by means of' similar contrivances fixed on the backs of the ponies. The application of turf to the purpose of affording fuel is said to have been first suggested by Einar, the fourth Scandinavian Earl of Orkney and Zetland, who for his valuable discovery had the word torf prefixed to his name, and became Torf-Einar.

The haaf, or deep-sea fishing, the prosecution of which constitutes the chief employment of the Shetland men, is carried on at the fishing stations, favourably situated, and at these the fishers collect, often from considerable distances. The boat used is an undecked Norway yawl, 19£ feet of keel, propelled by a single large square log sail, or, when that is not available, by six oars. This craft is manned by either six or seven men, who set out for the fishing ground, 40 or 50 miles from land, generally at sunrise the one morning, returning in the evening of the following day; or, if the weather be propitious, and fish abundant, they may remain over another night. The fish are caught by means of long-lines} which the boats bring with them ready baited. When the boat reaches the fishing ground these are at once set, and again hailed, after an interval of a few hours. During the short periods they are ashore, at the fishing stations, the men are accommodated in little huts called lodges, each boat’s crew occupying a separate lodge. On being landed at the station the fish is sold to the factor, for the laird or merchant, who superintends the coring of it. This deep-sea fishing season, as already stated, extends only from about the 12th of May to the 12th of August. The fish thus taken are chiefly tusk and ling, with a few cod. During the season the men invariably return to their homes on Saturday night, going back to the stations on Monday morning.

But all the men are not engaged in the haaf fishing. Six or seven hundred go on voyages to the whale and seal-fishing every year, joining the whalers from Peterhead, Dundee, Hull, (fee., in the months of February and March, and returning during summer or autumn. The Faroe cod-fishery affords profitable employment, during the spring and summer months, to between seven and eight hundred 'Shetlandmen.

Nor are all her nautical men employed in catching fish in the north seas. Dr Edmondston tells us that, in 1809, when the country only contained two-thirds of its present population, there were three thousand of its sons fighting our battles in the navy. Although at the present day very few enter the royal navy, a still larger number are engaged in carrying on our maritime commerce all over the world; and a good many have become settlers in our younger colonies, especially Australia and New Zealand. This explains why the population of Shetland, in 1871, consisted of 12,847 males and 18,524 females, shewing the proportion of males to females to be exactly 2 to 3. While the men are engaged at the fishing, which they are nearly all summer, the work of the farm devolves upon the women, and this, with domestic duties and knitting, occupies the most of their time. At the latter occupation the females are most industrious, and they may be seen deftly plying their wires, even when carrying heavy burdens on their backs. A curious memorial of a great national event is to be found in the pattern of knitted goods peculiar to one of the isles. As already mentioned a flag-ship of the Spanish Armada, with one of the Admirals on board, was wrecked on the Fair Isle in 1588. During their stay on the island the Spaniards taught the natives to knit according to a Spanish pattern, in which various gaudy colours were very conspicuous. Goods of this pattern, still manufactured by the fair Fair islanders, find their chief purchasers among the Spaniards in London.

In order the better to enter into the social condition of these people, let us observe a family group on a winter evening. The fire glows cheerfully, and the peats, being well burnt down, yield no smoke. The light it emits is intensified by that of the collie (or iron lamp) which is hung on the gable wall. The presiding genius is evidently the master of the house, a strong, robust-looking man of fifty, but whose youthful appearance could easily enable him to pass for thirty. He is industriously engaged in manufacturing a pair of boots for himself, but, being by no means of a taciturn disposition, he is able to entertain his companions by narrating some of his experiences at the haaf during the previous summer, or by describing his intricate pecuniary relations with the laird or the merchant On the right the gudeman is supported by his nephew, a smart young fellow, who, although he has only completed the third decade of his life a year or two ago, has already obtained the much-envied title of “ Captain,” being in command of a ship of a thousand tons sailing from Liverpool. While his ship is being refitted, he has come down to see the “old rock” which he left, when a poor uneducated boy, sixteen years ago. The gallant Captain contributes to the intellectual feast by recounting some of his adventures in the China Seas, especially among the pirates with 'whom they are infested. The gudeman18 father, a venerable sire upwards of eighty, while busily winding simmins (spinning straw ropes), speaks of the days of his youth, when he “ with Nelson ploughed the main,” and tells how four Shetland boys, who were pressed along with him, rose to be admirals. Minnie, the gudewife's mother, as she assiduously plies her spinning wheel, relates stories told by her female ancestors fifty years ago, of the fine things their stockings used to procure from the u Hollanders,n in the good old days of yore, before dis vile Scotsmen began to come ta da koiintry. The gudewife herself is a silent listener, but her fingers are with all activity employed in knitting a “pair o’ da very best tree-ply stockins,” for presentation to the young laird (which is thought will be no unprofitable investment). With true motherly solicitude, she frequently withdraws her thoughts from the important subjects of the conversation, to speculate on the prospect of da lasses returning frae da meetin in safety. The younger members of the family enjoy the conversation, and little Magnie hopes some day to be a second Nelson, or, at all events, a grand captain, like cousin Lowrie. At length the lasses appear, all safe and sound, and, with great volubility, expatiate on the eloquence of da dear cratur, the minister they have just been hearing. Their venerable grandmamma expresses surprise at their audacity in venturing through the hills at such an hour, when bohies, trows, and all kinds of unearthly beings, are sure to be abroad.8 Her granddaughters laugh at her credulity, and soon dissipate even the old woman’s gloom, by rehearsing, most melodiously, one of the beautiful hymns sung at the said meeting.

In such a scene as the above we have a key to the Shetlander’s character. His mind is expanded by being obliged, like his able countryman “Johnny Notions,” to be a “jack-of-all-trades.” Some arithmetical skill is required to add together all the quantities of fish taken, from time to time, to divide that by six or seven, to find the pecuniary value of this dividend and certain personal services, and to balance the sum against the account at the merchant’s, for various advances during the year. His transactions with the proprietor call the same powers into action, and no small sharpness is required for buying and selling cattle to advantage. A problem in the calculation of probabilities has constantly to be wrought to determine whether he ought to remain at his present employment, or try his fortune at Faroe, Greenland, or Liverpool. Intercourse with men from other districts, at the fishing station, and with those who have returned from abroad, at his own house, also tends to expand his ideas. Thus the Shetlander becomes a shrewd, observing fellow, with a versatility of attainments, which enables him to do almost anything. He is also endowed with a great deal of the maviter in modo, probably produced by centuries of intercourse with foreigners, and the servile condition in which the proprietors long kept their tenants. The females, for their rank in life, are also wonderfully polite and graceful in their deportment. They are much more isolated than the men, seldom meeting with any one not a member of their little community, unless when 9>n absent member of that community happens to return home. Need we wonder, then, that their affections become very much developed, and, acting on the nervous system, render it more than ordinarily sensitive? Perhaps this, together with a pensive disposition, induced by the nature of their employments and the scenery which surrounds them, may account for the preternatural sensibility to impressions for which they are remarkable.

It is manifestly a difficult matter to supply Shetland with schools, owing to the sparse manner in which the dwellings are scattered over the country. In the last edition of the “Zetland Directory,” published in 1861, there is a list of forty-two schools, said to constitute the educational machinery of the country. As I can detect several omissions, we may add eight to the list, and estimate the number of schools at fifty, which is by no means sufficient to supply the wants of the country, as many children live five or six miles from t}ie nearest establishment of the kind. No schools have yet been erected under the new Education Act. Despite these disadvantages, all the people can read, and the great majority of the men can write. Writing is not so generally acquired by the females, as is shown by the Registrar-General’s returns for 1862, which give the proportion of women married that year, who signed their names, as 63’08 per cent., and of men 87*69 per cent. The education acquired at the existing country schools is of the most elementary character; and until lately, almost no Shetland youth was able to fit himself for entering a university, unless his parents were able to send him, for some time, to a good school in the south. Many of the country schoolmasters, however, teach navigation well. The educational capacities of the Shetlanders are shown by the rapidity with which many of them, in adult life, acquire the attainment requisite to qualify them for shipmasters.

One of the most remarkable phenomena in the social system of this people is the disparity in the age of the two sexes at marriage. The great majority of the fishermen marry at the age of from twenty to twenty-two, women of from twenty-eight to thirty, and yet sterility is very seldom the result, as Dr Matthews Duncan tells/* us it should be in women marrying after twenty-five.1 Perhaps this may be accounted for on the supposition of the period of greatest fecundity being later in Scandinavian countries than throughout the rest of Europe. In view of the wives being older than the husbands, it is also interesting to note that, in Shetland, the preponderance of male over female births is considerably greater than in Scotland as a whole, the numbers for 1862 being—Proportion of males to 100 females born in Shetland, 114*8; Scotland, 106*6. These results run directly counter to the doctrine that the sex of the child is, in the greatest number of instances, the same as that of the parent who is oldest.

The Registrar-General's returns indicate a high rate of morality in Shetland. The per centage of the illegitimate births to the total births, in 1862, was 3*6, which is lower than any county in Scotland, save Orkney, and Ross and Cromarty, the numbers for which were 3*5 and 3*5 respectively. The percentage for Scotland was 9*7, nearly three times as great as that for Shetland. This high rate of morality is surprising, when we remember there are fully twice as many women as men in, the country, and even more so in view of certain strange customs which those who lead a seafaring life abroad marry later in life, and therefore take wives younger than themselves.

I say “twice as many women as men;” because, although the census returns show the proportion of females to males to be 3 to 2, we must remember the sexes are about equal as to numbers till the age of eighteen. Supposing then a third of the population, equally divided as to sex, under that age, we have twice as many women as men who are beyond eighteen. The sexes are supposed to be equal in numbers under the age of eighteen, to make allowance for the greater mortality universally observed amongst boys, counterbalancing their numerical preponderance at birth prevail. The country weddings take place in the winter time, and are attended by a large number of persons .from all parts of the neighbouring districts. Dancing begins in the evening, and is continued till the small hours of the morning are “getting large again,” interrupted by brief but frequent intervals for drinking. The festivities over for the night, the dancers, instead of returning to their homes, adjourn to the barn of their host’s cottage, which serves as a dormitory, the members of each sex being alternately ranged along the floor, on a huge couch of straw. Until very recently these festivities were continued over three days, but now they are confined to one. The people enter quite innocently into these “barn buifdlings,” as they are termed, and both statistics and the testimony of respectable persons who have taken part in them, prove that nothing immoral occurs. But “barn bundlings,” and all other relics of a barbarous age, are fast disappearing before the advance of truth.

In concluding this paper I think we may safely aver that the Shetlanders are a strong, healthy, long-lived people, inferior neither physically, morally, nor intellectually to any race on the face of the globe. Paltry and unimportant as these *few rocks in the North Atlantic may appear, they have not been created in vain by the All-wise Maker and Governor of the Universe. Not to speak of their fish, their hosiery, and their ponies, which are such important articles of political economy, they have produced thousands and tens of thousands of our ablest and bravest sailors, on whom so much of the honour and glory of this great nation depends. Scandinavia was of old the nursery of great nations. A son of the Earl of Orkney and Zetland left his island home a thousand years ago, and founded the illustrious Anglo-Norman dynasty; and the people of these isles at the present day are materially contributing to the spread of the Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon races over the whole world, the accomplishment of which seems destined immediately to precede the time when the knowledge of God shall “cover the earth as the waters cover the channels of the sea.”

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