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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 3


Levenwick—The Moull—Channerwick—Sandwick—Pictish Burgh or Castle of Mousa—Legend regarding Dame Margareta and Earl Erlend—Sand Lodge—Copper Mine—Coningsburgh—Its people — Scenery — Aith’s Voe — Helliness — Fladabiater— Quarff—Brendister—Gulberwick—Shipwreck of Earls Ronald and Harold, &c.—Bressay Lighthouse—The Knab—Paul Jones repulsed.

LEAVING Voe and proceeding northwards along a rocky and rather uninteresting coast for four miles, we pass the northern boundary of Dunrossness, and find ourselves approaching the shores of Sandwick. From this point of view they, are highly picturesque. The fine stretch of water lying between the extensive promontory of Noness and the less prominent head of Levenwick runs for about two miles into the land, and ^divides itself into four separate bays or creeks. All these have their ^own peculiar features of quiet beauty, both of landscape and seascape—to use a newly-coined word—and it is pleasant, on a fine summer day, to view the quaint Shetland hamlets, as they gleam out of the sunshine, and look down upon the placid haven, where the fishermen, in their six-oared boats, are bringing to land the products of the deep. The most southerly .is the pretty semicircular bay of Levenwick, with its sandy shore and amphitheatre of cultiyated fields in the rear. This is the safest roadstead south of Lerwick. In the good old times it was a favourite resort of the Dutch; and often a large fleet of their fishing-busses graced its sheltered waters, while their astute crews carried on a brisk barter trade with the natives. To this day, the few Hollanders who still visit the Shetland coast, true to the traditions of their fathers, occasionally cast anchor for a few hours in the bay of Levenwick. On a rock overhanging the sea, in the southern part of this district, are the ruins of two Pictish burghs.

Separating Levenwick from Channerwick, the next creek is the Moull, a lofty cape, precipitous from mountain top to waters edge. Near the summit of its giddy cliffs passes the county road, over which it certainly requires some nerve to travel in any other way than on foot. At Channerwick an extensive air of boulders and pebbles marks the division between the picturesque glen above, and the quiet inlet below. Along the sides of this pretty strath are evident marks of glacial action.

Along the western side of the great promontory of Noness, lies the bay of Sandwick, with the parish kirk at its head. In former times ships are said to have come to grief, through mistaking this inlet for the entrance to Bressay Sound.

Doubling the precipitous headland in which Noness abruptly terminates, and encountering the strong currents that generally sweep round it, we suddenly find ourselves in Mousa Sound. On the right is the low-lying and comparatively flat pastoral island of Mousa, upwards of a mile in length. Formerly inhabited, it is now used only as a grazing isle; but yet it lays claim to national importance, as being the site of the most perfect Pictish castle or burgh extant. The tower is circular in form, about fifty feet in diameter, and attains a height of forty-two feet. It is built of a sort of slatey stones, of considerable and pretty uniform size, well laid together without the aid of cement. No wood appears to have been used in the construction of this remarkable building. In elevation it resembles a dice-box, bulging out slightly for a little way above the base, then becoming narrow again, and finally expanding towards the top, which peculiarity of construction was evidently-intended to prevent an enemy scaling the walls. It consists of two concentric walls, each being about five feet in thickness, with an intervening space of the same width. This space contained all the barrack accommodation the hardy warriors of old allowed themselves. Through it a staircase winds, in a screw-like direction, from base to summit of the building, on its way up communicating with a series of small chambers, placed one above another, the roof of the lower serving as the floor of the higher. These are lighted and ventilated by small apertures, arranged in tiers, and looking into the open courtyard in the interior of the building, which appears never to have been roofed over. A low doorway, fifteen feet in length, which pierces the two walls of the building, conducts the visitors (who must walk on hands and knees), from the interior into the courtyard. In a time of siege this passage could be readily obstructed by stones. ,The courtyard is about twenty-one feet in diameter. The doorway leading to the staircase is a little above the floor of this area.

[About fifteen years ago this building, which was literally mouldering into dust, was somewhat restored at the expense of the Society of Scottish Antiquaries. Gifford Laurenson, the very intelligent Shetland mason, who had charge of the work, built a miniature of the Burgh in small slatey stones, which now graces the Society's Museum in Edinburgh]

Before quitting Mousa it may not be uninteresting to relate one of the legends which hang round its venerable Castle, and prove the great antiquity of that wonderful erection. The story is given by Tor-foeus, but it cannot be better told than in the eloquent words of Dr Hibbert, which I shall take the liberty of transcribing. “In the fourteenth century, when, by the rights of udal succession, there were joint Earls of Orkney, Dame Margareta, the widowed mother of one of them, listened to the lawless importunity of the gay Brunnius. Harold, her son, became impatient of the family disgrace, and banished from the islands his mother’s paramour, as well as the illegitimate offspring that were the fruits of the connection. But, in the course of a short time, Dame Margareta s beauties attracted the notice of a more honourable suitor, who was no other than Harold’s partner in the Earldom of Orkney and Shetland Erlend proffered love to the Dame, which she returned; but as her son, from some cause, was averse to the nuptials, the parties entered into a tender engagement without his consent, and afterwards fled from his fury with all speed into Mousa. Then must Harold needs follow them, his hostile barque sailing in pursuit as fast as if all the winds of heaven had driven them; and then, anon, fled the Dame Margareta and Erlend into the fort, within the dark recesses of which they nestled like two pigeons in a dove-cot. The Burgh was beset with troops, but so impregnable was its construction, that the assaulter found he had no chance of reducing it but by cutting off all supplies of food, and by this means waiting the result of a tedious siege. And now turn we to the gentle pair in the fortress, that we may speak of what pain they must there endure, what cold, what hunger, and what thirst. In such a dog-hole a conjuror’s circle gives content above it; a hawk’s mew is a princely palace to it.’ But Harold had powerful foes in other places wherewith to contend, and on this account, he gave heed to the advice of his friends, that Erlend should be retained as a friend and not as an enemy, and that he ought not to despise the new family alliance. A reconciliation took place, and then with great joy returned the parties to their several pursuits, well satisfied with each other. Such is the story chronicled by Torfceus concerning the siege of Moseyaburgum and the loves of Dame Margareta and Erlend, her last leman.” At Burrland, on that point of the mainland which is immediately opposite Mousa Castle, and separated from it by a sound half a mile wide, stand the foundations of a similar Burgh, long since demolished. Proceeding northwards about a mile along the coast, we come to the spacious manor of Sand Lodge, the residence of John Bruce, Esq., of Sumburgh. In its immediate vicinity two objects of interest present themselves.

They are a strongly built pier of considerable length, erected a few years ago by the British Fishery Society, at the very exposed beach of Sands Air, from which a white and herring fishery of some importance is carried on; and a mine of copper pyrites. This vein contains brown haematite as well, but, until very recently, has not been wrought since 1802. The mining was then conducted by an English Company, who ~ abandoned their shafts at Sand Lodge, not because they were unproductive, but because their affairs became embarrassed by losses elsewhere. Messrs John Walker and Co., the present enterprising lessees of the mine, have already spent upwards of £4000 on machinery and in pumping out the old shafts, and have the prospect of a good return for their outlay.

This eastern district of Sandwick contains many good cottages and crofts, and is probably better provided with roads than any other rural district in Shetland.

Pursuing the coast northwards, and marking the trunk road, as it passes over the picturesque undulations of 4‘the cliffs,’ we obtain from their elevated shoulders a bird’s-eye view of the flat and fertile plain of Conningsburgh, with the neat church and manse in the foreground/ A few hundred yards west of the highway, as it passes through this populous district, numerous heaps and mounds mark the site of an archaic village, hitherto unexplored by the antiquary.

Sandwick and Conningsburgh belong to the ministry of Dunrossness, but together form the quoad sacra parish of Sandwick, which contained in 1871 a population of 2325. The parish school provides for the educational wants of the former, and that of the Free Church for those of the latter district.

The Conningsburghers present both physical and mental peculiarities, which entitle them to be considered a distinct tribe from the rest of the Shetlanders. Having harsher features, larger muscles, and a broader build than, their countrymen, they are said more to resemble Saxons than Scandinavians. Tradition assigns to them a large proportion of Spanish blood. It may be difficult to recognise in him Iberian features, but there is no doubt the modern Conningsburgher has much of the excitable nature of the Spaniard.

Nor is this district a field for the ethnologist and the archaeologist alone. The sportsman, tired of sea-fowl, can here expend his skill on rabbits, and the angler has his choice of trout from the stream or the sea; while the lover of nature will find much variety of enjoyment whether he rambles among the picturesque slopes of “ the cliffs ’*—adoined in the proper season by a beautiful display of blue and yellow wild flowers—paces the fine white sands of Mail, or wanders along the shores of Aith’s Voe. This narrow inlet, which separates the plain of Conningsburgh from the promontory to the eastward, affords good anchorage in its lower reaches; but the middle of its entrance is obstructed by a reef, and the ebb tide leaves more than half of it dry land.

We now again betake ourselves to the sea, and steer towards the rising sun, until we reach the point of Helliness, opposite the north end of Mousa. In ancient times it must have been graced by some religious edifice, greatly in repute for its sanctity, for Helliness is equivalent to Holy Ness. Near the termination of this sacred promontory are the productive farm and snug residence of Francis Heddefi, Esq., of Uresland. At the root of this ness, and on the north, is Ocraquay, a well-sheltered little harbour. And beyond it Fladabister—still the seat of some of the good old udallers—with its rich vein of lime-stone, giving fertility to the soil, and employment to the people, who prepare and export it for building purposes. The smoke of the limekilns is visible far and near.

Advancing northwards from Helliness, we seem to be entering a bay of no small dimensions, terminated on the east by the "bold head of Noss, and ending on the west as the land stretches from Quarff southwards. At the head of this apparent bay the land is lowest, and at this point are to be descried some of the houses which crown the hill over the good town of Lerwick. As we progress in the same direction, the green valley of Quarff, cutting directly across a range of high hills, opens itself to view on the left, displaying some well-tilled fields, and no less than two churches. Along this smooth valley, two miles in length, boats (and sometinies pretty large ones) are frequently dragged from one side of Shetland to the other. Beyond Quarff we pass the somewhat high, but not prominent head of Brendister, topped by the ruins of a Pictish burgh, which still contain some curious chambers, and open upon the exposed bay of Gulberwick, with its sandy shore bordering a deep valley of basin-like shape, well covered by cottages and corn fields. Gulberwick, like its neighbouring village of Sound, boasts of considerable antiquity. It was here that Ronald and Harold, joint Earls of Orkney, after being shipwrecked, and losing much treasure with their gallant barques, were hospitably entertained by the substantial udallers. Despite this mish&p, their lordships made themselves very comfortable. These were days of poetry as well as romance. Konald beguiled the weary hours in composing stanzas, and soon foregathered with two native bards, Od^i Glumson the Little, and Armodr. Such favour did the poets find in the Earl’s eyes that he attached them to his court, and took them with him to the Holy Land. At a public feast he was so proud of Armodr s poems that he presented him with a gold-mounted spear.

Gulberwick is attached parochially to Lerwick. The chief proprietors are the Misses Greig of Gulberwick. The district is provided with a Society School.

Passing the low Ness of Tribister, which bounds Gulberwick Bay on the north, and the bolder Ness of Sound, beyond that again, we for a moment direct our attention to Kirkabister, on the opposite shore of Bressay, where a neat little lighthouse, erected in 1858, guards the entrance to Lerwick harbour. It has been of signal service to commerce; for, before it was built ships sometimes mistook the Sound of Noss for that of Bressay, to their almost certain destruction. We now find that we are getting into “ the narrows,” and that what appeared to be the head of a bay is the opening into a sound. Sailing through the “Haddock Sand”—the harvest field to the Lerwick fishermen—we pass, on the left, a prominent point called the Knab, that immediately succeeding to the Ness of Sound. This marks the entrance to Bressay Sound, which it could easily command, in the military sense of the term. A curious instance of the strategical importance of the Knab occurred in the career of the famous Paul Jones. In 1778, when the bold privateer kept all the British coast in terror, he sailed northwards and was about to pay Lerwick a visit. On reaching the “Haddock Sand,” he beheld the Knab, its summit crowned with people, many of whom were bedecked in scarlet. Taking this for the King’s livery, Jones (whose telescope was probably not very powerful), concluded the town was strongly garrisoned, and that discretion was the better part of valour. Therefore he “up helm and off,” as the sailors say. The soldiers, who thus repulsed the most daring of naval commanders, were the fair damsels of Sound clad in petticoats of red wadmal.

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