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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 9


Its Primitive Character— Grain derived at one time from Orkney— An Orkney Fanner’s Voyage to Shetland—Oats and Bere— Cabbage—Potatoes—Turnips—Kye-Grass—White Oats—Products of the Garden—Soil—The Shetlander's Croft—Manure— Farm Implements—The Shetland Mill—Seedtime—Causes of Destitution—Cattle—Poultry—Pigs—Dogs.

AS already stated, the ancient Norse inhabitants of these islands, at first pirates, in course of time became shepherds, but they never appear to have excelled in agriculture. Their mode of husbandry was of the most primitive description; but rude as it was, their descendants continued to pursue it for many generations without any attempt at improvement. Many causes conspired in the different ages to retard progress, such as the piratical character of the early inhabitants, the oppression to which their successors were subjected by the donatories and farmers of the crown lands during their long reign, and then, in later times, the smuggling trade; while at all times the remote position of the islands, their distance from markets, the ignorance of the people, the uncertain tenure by which they held their farms, and the absence of agricultural models from which they might learn, have contributed to the same result.

Mr Mackaile, who visited Orkney in'1614, informs us that country sent annually large supplies of grain to Shetland, “ in which islands there groweth not so much every year as would maintain the inhabitants three months.” A very small area of land must have been under cultivation, for the population at that time was probably about half its present number. A trade of some extent appears to have existed at this period between the sister groups of islands. While Orkney sent meal to Shetland, it got wool in return. This commerce was carried on by open boats, and the “folk lore” of Shetland, whose people have always been rather jealous of their next-door neighbours, has preserved the story of a timid Orkney farmer, of no great nautical knowledge, who, on setting out on his northern voyage, felt solicitous as to how he would find his way back again, when he ingeniously fell upon the expedient of strewing sids as he went, thus to form a path across the trackless sea, and guide his return. Having safely landed his cargo, and shipped his wool, and turned his prow towards his native land, the worthy Orcadian was astonished to find his pathway across the dark waters vanished and gone; and we have not since heard of a renewed attempt at oceanic road-making.

Writing of agriculture in Shetland in 1806,. Sir Alexander Seton (no mean authority on such matters) says—“It seems to be evident that no attempt at improvement has been made since the departure of the Norwegians. On the contrary, it is probable, from the ingenious and industrious character possessed by the present inhabitants of Norway, that things have been rather retrograde in Shetland.” In early times, Shetland husbandry seems to have been restricted to the production of grey and black oats, and bere or bigg. The straw of these cereals, and hay, prepared from the wild grasses of the meadows, formed the only winter fodder. The culture of cabbage was introduced, in the time of the commonwealth, by a detachment of Cromwell's soldiers, one portion of which was stationed at the citadel of Lerwick, and another at Scalloway Castle. This plant was soon largely cultivated, and became an important article of food for man, and sometimes for beast Potatoes were introduced into the islands about 1730, but their cultivation only became general after the middle of that century. They have shewn themselves admirably adapted to the soil and climate, and have long been the staple article of diet, so that it is difficult to imagine how the natives contrived to subsist without them. Probably, cabbage supplied their place. But a deficiency of winter fodder continued to be felt.

Hay and straw were insufficient to support the cattle, many of which died. The great agricultural desideratum was supplied chiefly by the late worthy minister of Tingwall, the Bev. John Turnbull, who, about 1807, shewed that field turnips could be successfully reared in Shetland. The cultivation of this valuable root has gradually become general in farms of every class, and it has been abundantly proved that Shetland produces as good turnips as any county in Scotland.

The raising of artificial rye-grass and clover, formerly unknown, has also, within the present century, gradually become general, and their cultivation has always been attended with marked success. White oats may also be included in the list of plants which have been naturalised in Shetland, comparatively recently. It has the advantage of yielding more grain than the black and grey varieties, while its straw, although harder and coarser, is at least as good for feeding purposes. Wheat has been sown, by way of experiment, but the summer is both too short and too cold to admit of its ripening. All culinary vegetables—carrots, onions, parsnips, &c.— grow well. Black, red, and white currants also thrive, while the culture of strawberries, gooseberries, and raspberries, has been attended with moderate success, but, unfortunately, they ripen late in the season. The apple can be cultivated when great care is exercised, but the fruit seldom ripens. The gardens of Shetland often present a very fair display of flowers of the more hardy kinds. There, annuals are in perfection in the end of August or beginning of September.

The soil presents considerable variety. The general nature is peaty, with a subsoil presenting every variety of clay, sand, and gravel. Often the subsoil may be said to consist of splintered rock, generally of the oldest formations, as granite, gneiss, mica schists, &c., which are most inimical to vegetation. For other instances, we have limestone fertilising the country through which it runs. Frequently, peat-moss extends to great depths—say ten to twenty feet—and no cultivation can go on till the most of it is removed. Again, by the ruinous process of “scalping,” or removing the turf of the commons for manuring the farms, great tracts of country have been laid bare, and the subsoil, or even the bare rock, exposed. Much moisture prevails, and, consequently, draining is the initiatory step to all improvement.

The Shetlander's croft, already referred to, is generally situated along a voe or arm of the sea, and is separated from the common by the hill dyke, a rough enclosure of turf or stone. The arable land amounts to about three acres; between the cultivated ground and the hill dyke, a portion of about two acres is usually devoted to grass. Formerly, the system of run-rig—i.e., alternate ridges or patches of ground within the same enclosure, being held by different tenants, or perhaps belonging to different proprietors —was universal, but has now been generally abolished, and the land planked or allocated in due proportion to each person. No regular rotation of crops exists, as a rule. That most commonly pursued in the country may be said to be—first year, potatoes (manured); second, oats or bere (manured); third, oats, with grass seeds; fourth, rye-grass; fifth, fallow. During the last three seasons the ground is not manured.

The manure employed is a compost, formed of alternate layers of turf and earth, from the hills, which has already done duty as bedding for the cattle, seaweed, and the common products of the barn-door and dunghill, placed one above another. These are collected towards the end of winter, and the compost is laid on the ground immediately before it is turned over. This operation begins about the end of March, and is performed by means of a small sharp spade, with a wooden foot-piece. The diggers generally work two or three alongside each other, and thus a very large “ clod ” is turned over at once. Before the proprietors, on taking the fishings into their own hands, thought it necessary to partition the farms into smaller portions, a curious old-fashioned Norwegian plough was in common use; but it has long since been superseded by the spade, and is more likely to be met with in an antiquarian museum than a Shetland farm. Most of the carrying of manure is done by means of cassies or straw-baskets, borne on the backs, generally of the poor women. Small carts, drawn by ponies, and, more rarely by oxen, are, however, now becoming common. The harrow of this country differs only from that employed in Scotland by being of a smaller size, and having in most cases wooden teeth. In its locomotion— to the shame of the other sex be it said—the women are generally made beasts of burden. Sometimes, however, the pony does the work. The same hoe is used here as elsewhere. Reaping is performed by a sickle, and the scythe is seldom employed, unless for mowing the meadows. The old-fashioned flail does all the thrashing, and the wind the winnowing. After being dried in a kiln, the com is ground by a handmill fixed in the barn, or by one of the water-mills peculiar to the country. The mill is a straw-thatched hut of the most primitive construction, and the smallest size calculated to admit human beings. The wheel is arranged so that the water is projected against it horizontally, and not perpendicularly, as in mills whose architects have rightly estimated the force of gravity.

The operations of “Yore” (as the seed-time is called in Shetland) do not commence until the end of March. Oats are generally sown about the middle of April, and bere and potatoes in the beginning of May. In favourable seasons the bere is ready for cutting in the first, and the oats in the third week of September.

Most of the destitution which, in so many seasons, has brought so much misery to the poor Shetlanders, has been due to the destruction of the crops by bad weather, just before they were ripe. Even in the worst seasons, those who had sown early were able to reap early, t and thug saved their crops. Therefore, early sowing presents itself as an important remedy against bad harvests. Its chief difficulty is moisture, which could be obviated by drainage.

There is at present no means of determining, with any degree of accuracy, the extent of land under cultivation. It is estimated, in a recent return of the Board of Trade, at 50,720 acres, of which 11,626 are under corn crops. According to the same return, the number of live stock in the county was as follows:— Cattle, 22,269; sheep, 91,620; horses, 5,672; and pigs, 4,850.

The Shetland cow is of a diminutive breed, with long small horns and short legs; but it is said by authorities to have many of the best points of the most choice cattle. In colour she is white, black, brown, or red, rarely displaying a uniform hue. The beef is exceedingly sweet' and tender. The cattle are housed every night, and either tethered on the pasture within the enclosure, or sent to the hills during the day. The byres are low stone buildings, with a thatch-roof. The bed of the cattle is formed by dry earth and turf from the scat-holds. Whenever the floor becomes wet, a fresh layer of this material is laid over it without the previous one being removed. In this way the floor becomes more and more elevated, until the compost is obliged to be cleared away, in order to give the cattle head-room beneath the roof of the byre. A large number of hens is kept on each of these crofts. The hens are small in size, but lay a wonderfully large number of eggs in proportion to the food they receive. Ducks are not so numerous. Geese are kept on the hills, there to forage for themselves, unless at the breeding season, and in the depth of winter. The native swine are not good specimens of the race. They are often fed on fish, which gives the pork a disagreeable flavour. The native dog is a mongrel collie, with few virtues to recommend him. These brutes were formerly by far too numerous, either for their own welfare, or the safety of the flocks; but the dog tax, so much resisted, has had the good effect of thinning their ranks, greatly to the comfort of travellers.

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