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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 17


Its Name—Fertility of the Soil—Geological Formation—Parochial Statistics—Antiquities—Brough Lodge—Fetlar Ponies— Shipwrecks—Supposed Submarine Volcano.

DIRECTLY east from Yell, and separated from it by Colgrave Sound, is Fetlar. Mr Edmond-stone of Buness, in his valuable “ Glossary of Shetland Words/’ maintains that while Yell means the barren, Fetlar signifies the fertile island; if so, names were never applied more appropriately. While Yell is a wilderness of peat-moss and coarse heather, the rich loam of Fetlar yields most luxuriant crops of grass, A squatter from Australia is said to have remarked that there was no pasture in Britain that could compare with the verdant plains of his adopted country, save that of Fetlar. Besides its backbone of gneiss, Fetlar contains serpentine and the more valuable chromate of iron. In strange contrast to the rich valleys immediately adjoining, the soil on certain parts of the Vord Hill is utterly barren. This is due to the presence of iron, which exists in various forms in the island. The sands of the loch at the head of Tresta Bay contain particles of magnetic iron ore; and chalybeate springs, of high repute amongst the natives for their medicinal virtues, exist in various parts of the island.

Fetlar, which is about seven miles long and five broad, contained in 1871 only 517 inhabitants. They were formerly much more numerous, but the late Sir Arthur Nicolson cleared the greater part of his estate of men, in order to make room for sheep. In several places the island terminates in bold and lofty precipices. The best anchorage is obtained in the large Voe of Tresta, at the south of the island. This splendid bay is guarded on either side by cliffs of no mean height, while its head is lined by a pretty sandy beach, which separates it from a fine fresh-water lake. Grating Voe, on the north of the island, also affords good anchorage, but only with certain winds. There are no properly made roads in Fetlar, but, owing to the comparative hardness of the ground, travelling is not very difficult, The spiritual parts of its small population are provided for by the Parish Church, which, together with the manse, is beautifully situated at the head of Tresta Bay; and the Free Church, erected near its pretty manse at Fiel. The district can boast of only one school, supported by that great benefactor of Shetland, the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge, which stands at Gruting. The ruins of several large broughs are to be seen. In the immediate neighbourhood of one of them, at Houbie, are traces of small dwellings, which were evidently built there in order to secure protection from the stronghold, in the event of a hostile invasion.

In the north-west of the island are the foundations of what Dr Hibbert believes to have been a Roman camp. Unfortunately, a considerable portion of them have been carried away by the inroads of the sea. The principal proprietor is Lady Nicolson, whose villa-like residence, Brough Lodge, stands at the extreme east of the island. In its immediate neighbourhood, and on the ruins of an ancient brough, from which the mound derives its name, is an observatory, erected by the late Sir Arthur Nicolson, who had a taste for astronomy. The western, but now most populous, portion of Fetlar belongs to the Earl of Zetland ; and Dr Smith holds the small estate of Smith-field. The chief fishing-station is at Funzie, a situation well adapted for that purpose. Besides sheep, a great many ponies are reared in the island. What is now well known as the “Fetlar breed,” is a cross between the horse and the Shetland pony. It possesses a good many of the best qualities of both, but is now degenerating from breeding in. These creatures are swift and graceful, but wild and difficult to train. The colour is generally grey, presenting great varieties in shade. The progenitor of the Fetlar breed was a fine Mustang, which was ridden by the famous Bolivar at his last great battle. Bolivar presented him to Captain (afterwards Sir) Arthur Farquhar, R.N., who brought him to England, and ultimately sold him to the late Sir Arthur Nicolson. The lofty headland of Lamhoga is frequented by the Peregrine Falcon.

In the olden times, wrecks were not uncommon on this island. “About the middle of the last century, the Vandela, a Swedish vessel trading to the East Indies, perished within a short distance of the booth of Funzie; she had on board a sum to the amount of £22,000 sterling, in various coins and pieces of silver. About £18,000 of this money was fished up by means of diving apparatus.” In December 1870, the fine iron-built barque, Jahn Gcesar (410 tons), of Hamburgh, having, strangely enough, mistaken the light of Whalsey Skerries for that of North Ronaldshay, in Orkney, went on shore during a snow-storm at Aith, Fetlar, and became a total wreck. All the crew and much of the valuable cargo were saved.

Pieces of pumice-stone have frequently been driven ashore on this coast. They are generally supposed to have been carried by oceanic currents from Iceland. There are, however, “reasons for supposing that the vicinity of this country itself has been the seat of a submarine volcano.” “In the year 1768,” said the late Andrew Bruce, Esq. of Urie (Fetlar), in a communication to Mr Low,  we had the visible signs of a submarine shock, which threw ashore vast quantities of shell-fish, of different kinds, and of all sizes, with conger-eels and other sorts of fish, but all dead; at the same time, the sea, for several miles round, was of a dark muddy colour for several days after.

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