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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 31


SHETLAND is a country of islands, but it is also one of peninsulas, and the isthmus between Aith and the Yoe of Bixter connects the great western peninsula with the rest of the Mainland. This large tract of country, with its tributary islands, forms the wide ministries of Sandsting and Aithsting, and Walls, Sand-ness, Papa, and Foula. A narrow strip, however, of Sandsting and Aithsting lies on the eastern side of the isthmus, and is separated from Weisdale by the ridge of a high hill.

Aithsting, like several other parishes in Shetland, evidently derived its name from its ting or open-air parliament. This court, as the name implies, was held at Aith, from which we shall endeavour to commence our examination of the district. The northern parts of Aithsting, although wild and rugged, display much romantic beauty. It is astonishing to observe the constant variety of scenes here produced, without the aid of trees or of the works of man. The hills gnarled, as it were, by the storms of many winters, assume an endless diversity of savage forms, while quaint-looking voes or lakes, winding round their bases, present a smooth, blue surface, which strangely contrasts with the sombre hues of the rugged country all round.

In the island of Vemintry, not more than three miles long, as Dr Hibbert justly remarks, "all the varieties of a Shetland landscape are exhibited—the fissured cliff, the barren crag or knoll, on which few tufts of vegetation hang, the low fertile grassy patch, or the still and dark mountain lake, the rocky go deeply indenting the coast, the bold promontory jutting far out into the sea, or the long winding voe.” Being much intersected by arms of the sea, the island is as irregular in outline as in surface. On the summit of its highest hill are the ruins of an ancient watch-tower. Every prominent hill-top appears to have been provided with such an erection, on which the Norsemen lighted signal fires on the approach of invaders. Vemintry affords excellent pasturage, to which purpose it is now entirely devoted, the farmer who rents it having, a few years ago, removed his residence to the point of the mainland opposite. Uyea Sound separates the island from the Mainland It is a beautiful stretch of water, two miles long, expanding, here and there, into wide pools, and, in other places, almost obstructed by projecting points of land. All Aithsting is a good pastoral country. Save the main line from Lerwick to Walls, which passes along its southern border, it is unprovided with roads, a disadvantage partially compensated for by the long winding voes, which penetrate it in so many directions. A sail through the Voe of Unifirth, or that of Clousta, is most interesting. The Bay of West Burrafirth is unsafe for vessels, being open, exposed, and rocky. It again derives its name from a burgh, whose ruins stand on a holm in its midst.

Aithsting is sparsely inhabited by a hardy race, of handsome form and primitive habits. No district in the country is probably worse supplied with religious ordinances and education, than that extensive portion of Aithsting extending from the public road near the head of Bixter Yoe, northwards and westwards. A Parish Church at Twatt, in the extreme south of the district, six or seven miles from some of its outlying touns, where a service is held every three weeks, and the Parish School, at the same place, are the only regular places of worship and instruction in Aithsting. The Wesleyan minister from Walls, however, holds an occasional service at Aith, and one or two other places.

By far the greater portion of Aithsting is the property of Mr Grierson, of Quendale. It was purchased by an ancestor, in the end of last century, for little more than twice the present rental.

In one of the most remote fastnesses of Aithsting is a toun bearing the odd name of Fogrigarth. As very few strangers have visited this curious place, let us hear the account of one who has. “My boatman,” says Dr Hibbert, “led me to a small creek at the head of Burrafiord, where the setting sun brightened into a fine purple, a wild intermixture of crag and lake. The smoke arose from a low house, built of unhewn stones, after the most ancient fashion of the country; it was the head buil or manor-house of a small landed possessor of Aithsting, named the Laird of Fogrigarth. On opening the door, I passed through a double range of servants of both sexes, who occupied forms disposed along each side of the room, and made suitable obeisance to the hoy saedet or high seat of the house, filled by the laird himself, with all the patriarchal dignity worthy that primitive state of manners described in an ancient poem of the eighth century.” The landed dignitary, to whom the learned geologist was thus introduced, was Robert Doull, a well-known character in Shetland in his day, which was a very long one, and ended about 1855. Many a strange story is told of him. On the passing of the Reform Act of 1832, Mr Doull, like every other proprietor in Shetland, with a rental above XI0, suddenly found himself, for the first time, entrusted with the franchise. A contested election took place, and an agent for thd Whig candidate, in the heat of his political zeal, made his way to the mountain retreat of the laird of Fogrigarth. Saluting his host with all due respect, the gentleman of the law politely intimated he had come to solicit his vote. “But what am I to get for my vote?” replied the shrewd elector. “Am surprised/’ rejoined the agent, “I’m surprised a gentleman of your intelligence should put such a question: we don’t pay for rotes, I merely ask you to support the liberal candidate, for the good of your country.” “And can ye tell me what they are liberal o’, is it dir nain money or da parliament money? And, besides, Mr , ir ye travelling about like dis for de good o' yer kountry—get ye naethin’ for it?” replied the laird* The lawyer’s answer is not recorded, but it is well known that Robbie Doull—for the neighbours addressed him with such familiarity—of Fogrigarth, played a distinguished part at every subsequent contested election that occurred during his lifetime in Zetland. At his death, having no family, he left the property to a young man he had adopted.

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