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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 14


Remarks on Shetland Scenery in Autamn—North Entrance to Lerwick Harbour—Rova Head—“ Luggie’s Knowe ”—Baa Green—Unicom Rock — Bothwell’s Shipwreck — Girlsta— Catfirth—Vassa—Isles of Gletness—Mull of Eswick—Maiden Stack—Hou Stack—Bay of Nesting—Brough, &c.—Dangerous Reefs—Neap—Hog Sound— Tragedy at Neap—Nesting Statistics—Whalsey — Symbister — Manor House — Whalsey Sound — Its Islands — Manufacture of Kelp — Parochial Statistics, &c.

BEFORE proceeding on onr itinerary through the more distant parts of the archipelago, it may be not inappropriate to offer another remark on the scenery. Nothing contributes more to the unique character of the Shetland landscape than the remarkable display of colours. These, of course, vary with the season, but at no time are they more observable than in the early autumn. It would require a well-skilled artist to describe the green and yellow fields, the dark purple hills, the rocks tinted with every variety of sombre hue, the curious alternations of bright light and deep shade that diversify the undulating coast, and the azure sky with its golden sunsets and rosy twilights. The sea is deep blue, as before; but traverse it by night, and every stroke of your oar emits a bright gleam as from liquid silver. Look over your boat's side into a shallow bay^ and see its finny denizens (probably small coal-fish) as they dash through their native element impregnated with phosphorescent animalculse, emit spark after spark, as from a galvanic battery.

On leaving Lerwick for the farther north, we quit the harbonr through its “north mouth" passing, on the right, Hogan, the busy fish-curing station of Messrs G. Harrison <fe Son, a firm which has done much to develop the great Faroe fishing trade. The north mouth of Bressay Sound, very unlike its “fellow of the opposite side,” is rather narrow and shallow, in some parts rocky, and has such a strong tideway passing through it, that, unless with a very favourable wind, a sailing vessel cannot stem the current The termination, on the north, of this long and winding passage is marked by a low rounded point of conglomerate rock, termed Rova Head. Bearing immediately over it, and about a mile to the westward, the hill rises into an abrupt peak, called from a wizard who dwelt there in days long gone by, “Luggie’s Knowe.” Like his pountrymen in modem days, “ Luggie ” drew his harvest from the sea; but unlike them, his calling exposed him to none of the “dangers of the deep;” for tradition tells us he dropped his line down through a hole in the knowe, and brought up his fish ready cooked at some subterranean fire. Brand, the worthy missionary of 1700, writes of this unusual mode of fishing in the following characteristic terms:—“This was certainly done by the agency of evil spirits, with whom he was in contact and covenant; but the economy of the kingdom of darkness is very wonderful, and little known to us.” So thought his contemporaries, for poor Luggie was ultimately condemned for sorcery, and burnt on the Gallow Hill of Scalloway.

Looking northwards from Rova Head towards Whalsey, which from this point bounds our view, we have, on the left, a comparatively low coast, its hills and promontories well clad with verdure; and in front the Baa Green, as the first portion of the intervening stretch of sea is termed, interspersed with rocks.


Navigation in this quarter should never be undertaken without the services of a well-skilled pilot. On one notable occasion that functionary was awanting; and let us see the result. After the battle of Langside, while Mary Queen of Scots took refuge in England, her infamous consort, Bothwell, sought shelter in his newly acquired dukedom of Orkney. Closely pursued by Kirkcaldy of Grange, with a squadron of two ships, he procured a pilot in Bressay Sound, and sailed northwards, directing his steersman to keep as near as possible to a sunken rock, south of Nesting. Kirkcaldy, ignorant of the coast, followed close in the enemy’s wake, when lo and behold ! he fell into Both-well’s trap, and . had one of his ships wrecked on the rock, which, after the unfortunate bark, bears the name of “Unicorn” to this day.

Westward from the Unicorn is the common entrance to three fine voes, which radiate, as it were, from this point, and open up a considerable extent of country. The Voe of Laxfirth, running north-westwards, has been already mentioned as bounding, on the north, the valley of Tingwall. Girlsta, on the Voe of Wad-bister, boasts of a large com mill (the second of the kind erected in Shetland). It commands an inexhaustible supply of water, brought, through a rapid descent, from an extensive loch close by. The antique looking house of Catfirth, at the head of the Voe of that name, was about seventy years ago used as a linen factory, the machinery being driven by water brought by a canal from the Loch of Sandwater, some distance off The canal burst its banks ; and whether from this cause or not, the enterprise was abandoned. Another branch of Catfirth Voe, running more to the east, leads to Vassa, a bonny green spot, formerly of some importance as the residence of the bailie of the parish. All the bays just mentioned afford a good anchorage, particularly that of Catfirth. The county road passes near the head of each of them.

Emerging from Catfirth Voe, and passing the pretty Isles of Gletness, we follow the bold and extensive promontory of Eswick, trending away seawards; coming suddenly upon a curious indentation in its iron-bound sides, where, overhanging the fine sea-beach, stands the town of the same name. Facing the bluff point of the Mull of Eswick, and immediately under it, the Maiden Stack rises precipitately out of the sea. Some ruins crown its narrow but lofty top. These are said at one time to have formed the abode of a fair damsel, who was banished to this aerial prison in order to ensure separation from some lover who was obnoxious to her relentless father. The gallant Norseman, nothing daunted, scaled the cliffs, carried off his fair prize, and left to posterity the name Maiden Stack. Opposite it, and about a mile to seaward, is the huge Houstack, a very prominent object all along this part of the [coast. Between the Mull of Eswick and the Hog of Neap, three miles distant, stretches the open and exposed Bay of Nesting. In a pretty nook on its southern shore, is the fertile and picturesque town of Brough, a stronghold in very ancient times, as its name indicates; but, two or three centuries ago, the seat of a powerful and wealthy branch of the Sinclairs, called the Barons of Brough. Their mansion has long since gone to ruins, and the foundations of their handsome chapel can scarcely be traced in the kirkyard of Garth, in the immediate neighbourhood. This edifice was embellished with the family coat of arms and several devout inscriptions, one of which ran thus:— “In earth nothing continueth, and man is but a shadow.” The history of the Sinclairs has strikingly verified this motto. The Barons of Brough, like their hearth and their altar, have long since vanished and gone; while their broad lands have passed into other hands. The only existing institution taking a title from that place is the Garths of Brough, a very dangerous reef of rocks, lying about a mile north from the Moull and directly in the way of coasters, who must shape their course so as to shun the Garths on the one hand, and the Voders on the other. This reef, situated more easterly, is generally covered by the sea, and is therefore even more treacherous than the Garths. Between this Scylla and Charybdis navigation is safe.

Marking the termination of Nesting Bay, on the north, is the lofty headland of Neap, with the minister’s residence on its summit—a more suitable site for a lighthouse than a manse. A high and rocky islet, called the Hog, lies so near this cape, that contiguity is readily mistaken for continuity. Nevertheless, a six-oared boat—using the oars as poles—may push its way through the deep chasm termed Hog Sound ; and probably by so doing cheat the strong tide running outside the islet.

Neap was the scene of a bloody tragedy which carries us back to the dark days of the Stewarts. In the minister of Orphir in Orkney, Earl Patrick found a ready coadjutor in his designs upon the udal lands. After the Earl was arrested and sent to Dumbarton Castle, there to prepare for the scaffold, popular fury of the hottest kind was kindled against every instrument of his oppression. “ It was then that the parson of Orphir took flight, pursued by the four Sinclairs of Orkney, who toiled after him like blood-hounds for their prey. The wretched man fled to Shetland; the avengers hunted him out—met him on the Noup of Nesting, and slew him on the spot. One of the brothers imitated the tiger in his rage—he laid open the breast of the slaughtered victim, tore out his heart, and with a ferocity, from the bare mention of which the mind shudders, drank of his heart’s blood. May the causes which gave rise to such scenes be "on the face of the earth.”

The ancient “parochine” of Nesting is by no means rich in modern statistics. In 1871 it contained 868 inhabitants. No special branch of industry can it boast of, and no important fishery is carried on from its shores. The parish kirk is situated towards the north end of the district, while the spiritual wants of its southern portions are to some extent supplied by a Wesleyan and a Congregational chapel, to the latter of which only a resident pastor is attached. An assembly school standing close to the church supplies the educational wants of the northern portion, leaving the southern comparatively neglected. Nearly the whole parish of Nesting is the property of Mr Bruce of Symbister.

From Neap we advance northwards and somewhat to the east, and soon reach the “Bonny Isle” of Whalsey, as a popular native air terms it. Sandwick, well named from its beautiful beach of white sand, first attracts our attention; and then Symbister, with its fine bay, good harbour and landing-places, advanced agriculture, and, to crown all, its splendid mansion adorning the top of the hill. This building was erected between thirty and forty years ago by the late Robert Bruce, Esq., of Symbister, the great-grandfather of the present proprietor, at a cost of upwards of £30,000. The stone is a pretty granite brought from Stavaness, a point on the Mainland nearly opposite. Containing much mica and talc, it sparkles brilliantly when exposed to sunshine. All the apartments, halls, lobbies, galleries, staircases, courts, and offices of Symbister House are arranged in the most palatial manner. It commands a magnificent view of the whole coast from Lerwick to Unst. Near the shore are situated the business premises of Messrs Hay & Co., Lerwick, who conduct the fishings in the island; and the old manor house, now occupied by a gentleman who farms Symbister and several adjacent isles, Opposite Whalsey, and between it and the Mainland, is Linga, of considerable ' extent, and behind that three smaller islands, all of which are used for grazing. Linga was formerly peopled; and one of its last inhabitants was Mr Jamieson, afterwards of Leith, father of Professor Jamieson, who so ably filled the chair of Natural History in the University of Edinburgh for half a century.

Proceeding up Whalsey Sound, and taking care that the strong tide which agitates its waters does not carry us on the Skate, a large flat rock off Marrister, we pass the neat manse and still neater church. This edifice, recently rebuilt, stands on a point at Brough, a fertile and well-cultivated district in the north-west of the island. The north and east of Whalsey display hills and cliffs of gneiss, which present no features of interest.

If our journey is made by night, particularly in the early autumn, our attention is arrested by fires all along the coast. These proceed from the burning of sea-weed for kelp, an important branch of industry, employing many females. Kelp, so valuable during the great French wars, from the soda it contains, is now important to the manufacturing chemist as yielding iodine and bromine, so useful "both in medicine and the arts. During the spring and summer of 1870, two women and three children in Whalsey together realised about .£25 by the manufacture of kelp—the good women at the same time attending to all their domestic and agricultural duties. Almost the entire male population of the island is employed in the haaf fishing— and very expert fishers the stalwart men of Whalsey are. The island contains a population of nearly nine hundred souls. Until very recently there was no school in this large district, and the only stated supply of ordinances was a sermon from the minister of Nesting once a month. Thanks to the praiseworthy efforts of the Established Church, seconded by the generosity of the proprietor, matters have lately undergone a great change for the better. A good school has been provided; and the clergyman now sits as minister of the quoad sacra Parish of Whalsey and Skerries, in the Presbytery, of Olnafirth. Than the Established no other Church exists in Whalsey. The Wesleyans for several years had a mission station on the island, but it was withdrawn recently.

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