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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 34


West Coast of Walls—Hivda-Grind Bocks—Five Hills of Foula— Lum of Liorafield—Skua Gull—Precipices—Myriads of Sea-fowl—Supposed Carbuncle.

THE coast from Sandness southwards is singularly wild and rugged, consisting, as it does, of a series of precipices, much tom up by the elements, and indented here and there by deep gios. Over-topping them all (for none of the cliffs is over 600 feet in height), the great hill of Sandness heaves its head aloft. The only landing-place along this inhospitable line of sea-board is at a small inlet, called Dale, from which a haaf-fishing is carried on. This indentation in the coast is prolonged for a great distance inland in the form of a deep glen, along whose steep sides several well-tilled crofts are arranged. This sequestered toun of Dale is the only place of human habitation on the great stretch of moorland which separates Sandness from Walls.

The point of Wattsness marks the termination of this line of coast, on the south. As it is the nearest point on the mainland to the island of Foula, it may be well to proceed thence to visit that romantic and solitary rock in the ocean. The distance is eighteen miles, and the course south-west. Unless it be the traveller’s good fortune to obtain a steamer—and they are by no means numerous in these latitudes—the best conveyance to Foula is a good six-oared fishing-boat. A sailing vessel is not so agreeable, for the passage is beset with tideways; and calms and fogs are by no means uncommon in the summer time—and no one who could help it would visit Foula at any other season. About three miles from this island, in an easterly direction, are the Hivda-grind rocks, a dangerous reef of considerable extent. With low tides, when they are about four feet under water, the tang which grows on them is distinctly visible above the surface. In one or two deep depressions on the surface of one of the largest rocks of Hivda-grind are several large loose boulders, which seem to have lain there for ages. Whenever the sea is much agitated—and it is never still—the boulders are set in motion, and by their friction wear away the substance of the rocks and deepen the pools in which they lie. These boulders suggest two curious questions, the one for the geologist, the other for the hydrographer—viz., How came they there 1 and, Why are they not washed out of these basins, over the reef, and allowed to sink in the deep water alongside?

As might be expected, the Hivda-grind rocks are very dangerous to commerce, and several vessels are known to have perished on them; how many others have shared the same fate will only be known when the sea gives up its dead. The lofty island of Foula, which may be seen, presenting the appearance of a dense blue cloud, from every bill-top of any height in Shetland, now displays itself more distinctly. It is about three miles long, and nearly two broad. Its hills, divided into five conical peaks, occupy the western portion of the island; while, along the eastern half, a plain, almost level, runs from end to end. Its geological structure is almost exclusively of sandstone. The best landing is at a little inlet, called Ham, exactly in the middle of the island. All the inhabitants are, of course, confined to the level plain.

The Foula hills are as steep as they are high; and from whatever point it is commenced, their ascent is a very arduous undertaking. Exactly opposite the


little harbour of Ham is the hill of Hamnafield, which terminates, on the west, in a sheer precipice 1200 feet high. It is on the top of this peak that tradition places the “Lum of Liorafield,” a narrow chimney leading to the subterranean regions. So great is its depth that several barrels of lines are said to have been let down through the “Lum,” without reaching the bottom. Recent explorers have, however, failed to discover this remarkable opening.

One of these hill-tops is the breeding-place of the bunxie or skua gull. This beautiful bird, the largest and fiercest of the gull tribe, builds no nest, but lays its eggs and brings forth its young amongst the grass or heather, so that a visitor can easily handle the young bunxies. If he does so, it will not be with impunity, f6r the parent birds hover round, and, whenever opportunity offers, pounce down upon the intruder with a sudden and violent swoop. So near do they come, that, if his head is bare, tjie skull of the visitor is in danger of being seriously injured by the strong bill of the skua. If he is armed with a good stick, and is able to use it adroitly, he can readily return the compliment by breaking the wing of his feathered assailant. The bunxie is brown in colour, and has a strong, sharp, well-hooked bill. Its body is two feet long, and the wings, when extended, measure about six feet from tip to tip. This bird is the terror of all the feathered race, and even the eagle has a salutary dread of it. Save in the north of Unst, the skua is found nowhere else in Great Britain. The proprietor of Foula very properly gives his tenants strict orders for the protection of this truly rara avis.

The whole west coast of the island is one great line of gigantic precipices, from 1100 to 1200 feet in height. All we have hitherto examined, even those of Noss, are as nothing compared with them. Everywhere along these giddy heights a magnificent view is obtained of the various projecting points, which diversify the cliffs; of the surging waters, which wash their feet; and of the dense clouds of sea-fowl which darken the air and spread themselves over the sea. One of these projecting points, used to be the breeding-place of the white-tailed eagle, and its eggs were distinctly visible through the great distance separating them from the spectator’s stand-point at the top of the cliff. From another point farther north than this, some rays of bright light can be seen at night, radiating from the dark surface of the precipices. These were long believed to proceed from a large and valuable carbuncle, but this supposition has never been confirmed.

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