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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 18


Hills — Lochs—Geological Formation—Harbours—History and Antiquities.

THE most northerly spot in Her Majesty's home dominions is one of the most interesting islands of Shetland. Of oblong shape, it is about twelve miles long, and four or five broad. The rapid tideway of Blue Mull Sound, about a mile wide, separates it from Yell. Although more level than other islands of the archipelago, the surface of Unst is diversified by several hills of considerable prominence. “Vallafield, rising within a mile and a-half of its southern extremity, runs in a direction parallel to the west coast, and, under different names, to^the very northern point.” The bold peak of Saxaforth, the highest in the island, rises somewhat abruptly towards its north end. It is nine hundred and thirty-six feet high, and is visible fourteen leagues off the coast. “Crossfield stands nearly in the middle, and at right angles to Vallafield.” “Vordhill stretches out parallel to the east coast.” A chain of lochs runs through the longitudinal diameter of the island—from Burrafirth in the north to Belmont in the south. The most important lake in this chain is that of Cliff, which is more than two miles long. On the west it is overhung by the comparatively high hill of Vallafield; and, altogether, the scenery along its shore is very pleasant. Interspersed between these hills and lakes are considerable tracts of level ground, which afford good pasturage where cultivation does not exist. As to geological structure, Unst is chiefly formed of gneiss, and mica, and talc schists, with considerable quantities of serpentine. Through the serpentine run several rich veins of chromate of iron, discovered by. Dr Hibbert, in 1817. Other minerals of less importance have also been found in the serpentine, as hydrate of magnesia.

The coast is generally rugged and craggy, unless along the harbours. It is not very high, except on the west and north. There are three or four very good harbours, particularly Balta Sound and Uyea Sound, both of which have the great advantage of shelter from the isles, from which they derive their names.

History and Antiquities.—Unst appears to have been one of the first districts of Shetland settled by the Scandinavians. Its greater contiguity to their own country than any other island in the group, together with the protection afforded to the vikings by its insulated position and good harbours, probably commended it to the Norsemen as a desirable site for a colony. It was at Haroldswick, in this island, that Harold Harfagre, King of Norway, first landed when on his famous expedition, which resulted in the conquest of all the Scandinavian colonies of Shetland, Orkney, &c., and their' annexation to the mother country.

Unst appears to have been a place of some importance in the old Pictish times, long before the arrival of the Norsemen. In the neighbourhood of Balta Sound, in the middle of the island, the remains of three Druidical-like circles are to be found. The largest of these is near the now ruinous kirk of Baliasta. “ It is formed by three concentric circles, cut into the stratum of soil that covers the serpentine, into which boulder stones or earth were thrown, until they rose above the level of the ground. The diameter of the outermost circle is 67 feet, of the middle one 54f feet, and of the innermost 40 feet. There is a small central tumulus of stones in the middle of the enclosure, 12 feet in diameter, the presence of which is no unfrequent indication of a Scandinavian temple.” Traces of a similar set of concentric circles, of less circumference, however, than those just mentioned, are to be found a mile to the^ eastward, along the hill of Courcifield; and about eighty feet from this second temple, as Dr Hibbert terms it, is a third enclosure, consisting of only two concentric circles, the outer being twenty-two, and the inner seventeen feet in diameter. One of the neighbouring hill-peaks called the Muckle Heog is said to have been a place of execution, winch tradition was confirmed by the late Dr James Hunt, President of the Anthropological Society of London, who in 1865 overturned a tumulus on its summit, and found a considerable quantity of human bones.

The great Ting, or general Parliament of Shetland, is said to have met in Unst before it was removed to Tingwall. Its place of meeting is supposed to have been one of the circular enclosures just mentioned. The foude, or judge, sat on the central tumulus, while the udallers took their places within the concentric enclosures, according to their rank in the community. “If any accused person, after hearing the sentence of the lagman, was desirous to appeal to the voice of the people, he tried to effect his escape in a direction that led to the more westerly circle of stones situated on an adjoining hill; and if he reached in safety that sacred site of ground, his lif$ was preserved, but if the popular indignation was against him he was pursued on his way to the sanctuary, and any one before he reached it might put him to death.” The ruins of numerous chapels have been already referred to. They present no architectural features worthy of note, and are merely interesting as showing that, in their younger days, the island contained a large population, much attached tc the Roman Catholic faith.

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