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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 5


Some of its Industries and Social Customs — Trade—Faroe Fishing—Markets for Fish, &c.—Fish Tithes to Minister of North Leith—Absence of Manufactures, and Scarcity of Employment — Society — Means of Communication with _ other places — Lerwick at different seasons — Winter— Royal Naval Reserve—Christmas Morning Amusements— Spring—Greenland Ships—Whale and Seal Fishery—Whalers “ frozen up ” in Arctic Regions all Winter, &c.

THE trade of this port is very considerable, a large pro-portion of the produce of the islands passing through it on its way to market. In like manner, the most of supplies from the southern markets arrive at Lerwick, thence to be distributed over the country. By far the most important export is salt fish. In addition to this, the principal articles exported are fish oils, cattle, ponies, sheep, poultry, eggs, butter, cured beef, hosiery goods, wool, kelp, and chromate of iron. To these have been recently added, since the re-opening of the Sand Lodge mines, copper and iron ore; and, since the great rise in price of coals, cargoes of peats, from the moors of Yell and Nesting. The imports, as can easily be imagined, consist chiefly of groceries, articles of clothing, fishing materials, and agricultural implements. Lerwick registers ninety vessels, whose aggregate tonnage amounts to four thousand and seventy-nine tons. All these vessels, with one exception, are below one hundred tons. The great majority of them are employed in fishing. The cod fishery on the coast of Faroe, alone, occupies a fleet of upwards of sixty smacks and schooners, nearly all of which are constructed on the most improved principles, both as regards sea-going and sailing qualities. This fishing has of late years become a most important branch of trade, and appears still to be on the increase. Each smack has a crew of about fourteen men: thus the Faroe fishing gives employment to about nine hundred Shetland seamen, besides a large number of men, boys, and women, who find a profitable occupation in curing the fish at home. The fishing commences about the beginning of April, and continues until the middle of August, during which time the vessels generally make three voyages to Faroe. The fishing ground is either “on the coast,* i.e., in the bays, and the sounds separating the islands, or “on the bank,” a resort for cod, about sixty miles west from the south of Faroe. This bank is about forty-five miles long, by thirty broad. The fish are caught on “ hand-lines,” of two hooks each, baited with shell-fish of different kinds. The buckies, as the sort of shell-fish used are generally termed, are dredged before the smacks leave Shetland, and preserved alive in small perforated boxes, hung alongside, or otherwise exposed to sea-water. Mussels and yeogs—shelled, salted, and packed in casks—are also used as bait. Some of the smacks are provided with wells, which is found to be an excellent arrangement for keeping the buckies alive and healthy, as well as for occasionally taking live cod to market. However, hitherto it has generally been only on rare occasions, as at the end of a season, when there are other reasons for /sending a welled* smack to a southern port, that live cod are sold. Therefore the ordinary practice is to gut, split, and wash the cod, as they are caught, and place them in the hold, amongst salt. They are farther cleaned, Scrubbed, pressed, and ultimately dried on the beaches, after the smacks return home. The fishing is said by the men themselves to be very wet, cold, and dirty work. When the fish are abundant, all hands are called and set to the lines, when a very exciting scene ensues.

On the termination of the Faroe fishing, in August, some of the larger smacks generally proceed to Iceland, and prosecute the cod fishing on that coast, returning in the end of September or beginning of October. When the Faroe fishing proves a failure, as in the summer of 1871, the shallows around Rockall sometimes yield a good harvest to those who are bold enough to venture there. Like everything else, the Faroe fishing is evidently destined to undergo great changes. The advantages of welled over dry-bottomed smacks, both for the purpose of preserving bait and carrying live fish to market, are so obvious that the one must speedily supersede the other. Live Faroe cod have frequently fetched a guinea each in the London market, and three shillings may be reckoned a fair average. The Danish Government have recently seen fit to prohibit foreign vessels either from fishing or purchasing bait at Faroe, and hence the importance of Shetland smacks being able to carry it alive from home. This enterprise has suffered a heavy loss by the recent removal of the leading skipper, Mr William Duncan, of Burra Isle, to whose remarkable courage, energy, and perseverance, it owes so much. Mr Duncan died m January 1872, of smallpox, at the early age ot thirty-two, deeply regretted by all his countrymen.

The best market is that of Spain, to which Shetland annually sends great quantities of salt cod, to be consumed during Lent. Thus Popery, whatever mischief it may have wrought spiritually in ancient times, confers, at the present day, no small temporal benefits on the Shetlanders.' But, while the Church of Rome (indirectly, no doubt) encourages Shetland industry, the Church of Scotland, very directly, discourages it, for, by a strange anomaly, every ton of salt fish landed at that port has to pay a tithe, which goes to make up the handsome stipend of the richly beneficed minister of North Leith. A considerable revenue must be derived from this source, for large quantities of fish are sent to Leith every year. This circumstance is surely worth the cognizance of the hon. gentleman who at present so ably represents Edinburgh in Parliament.

Except the knitting of hosiery by the hand, there is no kind of manufacture in Lerwick. Consequently the female population is inadequately supplied with work, but more so the male. The unskilled working men, continuously resident in Lerwick, are employed as boatmen and porters in attendance on vessels visiting the harbour, as fishermen, or day-labourers. None of these sources of employment is constant, and therefore much idleness, and consequent poverty and misery, exist, particularly amongst those families who have come fresh from the country. It has long appeared to me that a factory of some kind, such as a flax-spinning establishment, or rope-work, or a wool-mill, besides relieving much misery, by affording work for the idle, would prove very lucrative to any capitalist of enterprise enough to start it.

Society in Lerwick is at least as good as may be found in any country town of the same size in Scotland. It has been very much improved during the last few years by several of the chief proprietors, who were formerly either absentees or resident in the country, taking up their abode there.

Lerwick is distant two hundred and eighty miles from Leith, and one hundred and eighty miles from Aberdeen. Communication is carried on with Granton (near Edinburgh), Aberdeen, Wick, and Kirkwall, bi-weekly in summer, and weekly during winter and spring, by means of smart and commodious steam-ships belonging to the Aberdeen, Leith, and Clyde Shipping Company, which also carry H.M.'s mails. A smart clipper schooner also plies between Lerwick and Leith. Communication with the North Isles, and the northern portions of the mainland, is also carried on by means of a small screw steamer and several sailing smacks.

From a social point of view Lerwick presents very different aspects at different seasons. Here, as everywhere else, winter is the most social season of the year. After braving the “dangers of the deep," the Shetland sailors, like their Scandinavian ancestors, always endeavour to spend the winter at home. This propensity has of late years been greatly favoured by the establishment of the Royal Naval Reserve. This force has been singularly successful at Lerwick. It was commenced there in 1860, and has grown by rapid strides until, in the beginning of 1870, it mustered upwards of four hundred men. Each Royal Naval Reserve man is bound, by the regulations, to undergo a month’s drill in the year. The drill is carried on by naval instructors, under the direction of the chief officer of the Coast Guard; each season, from the beginning of October until the end of March. Throughout the months of November, December, and January, there are generally about a hundred naval volunteers on drill at a time, most of them belonging to the out-lying islands and country districts. The Shetland Naval Reserve is a body of men of which any country might be proud. Universal testimony has been borne, by those competent to judge, as to their efficiency as sailors, smartness at drill, general intelligence, and good conduct. These gallant fellows are attired in a simple but neat uniform of service cap and guernsey shirt. By their commanding presence they lend a pleasant variety, and by their sailor gambols an air of warmth and cheerfulness, to the groups of sailors and fishermen, with their female friends in every variety of attire, who frequently throng the streets of “Zetland’s capital” in the gloomy season of winter. Each reserve man receives £10 a, year. Thus the force brings at present about £4000 per annum into Shetland.

These remarks, written in the end of 1870, are still exactly applicable to the First Class Naval Reserve, with the exception that certain severe regulations, introduced in the beginning of that year, and which checked its progress, have been recently repealed, with the best results. By an Admiralty order of April 1873, the benefits of the Naval Reserve, hitherto restricted to able seamen, have now been extended to ordinary seamen, from whose ranks a large Second Class Reserve Force is being rapidly formed at Lerwick. Each Second Class R.N.R. man undergoes the same amount of drill as his senior of the first class; his pay is £6, 10s., and a suit of uniform annually; and after serving two years he becomes qualified for promotiori into the first class. His uniform is the same as that of a seaman of the Royal Navy.

The Christmas season, which has always been held with more than ordinary merriment in Scandinavia, is still kept in the good old Norse fashion by the Lerwegians. With the outset of winter, the ingenuous youths of Lerwick commence preparations for Yule, taking care to observe the strictest secrecy. On Christmas Eve, the 4th January—for the old style is still observed—the children go a guizing, that is-to say, disguising themselves in the most fantastic and gaudy costumes, they parade the streets, and infest the houses and shops, begging for the wherewithal to carry on their Christmas amusements. One o’clock on Yule morning having struck, the young men turn out in large numbers, dressed in the coarsest of garments, and, at the double quick march, drag huge tar barrels through the town, shouting and cheering as they go, or blowing loud blasts with their “louder horns.”

The tar barrel simply consists of several—say from four to eight—tubs filled with tar and chips, placed on a platform of wood. It is dragged by means of a chain, to which scores of jubilant youths readily yoke themselves. They have recently been described by the burgh officer of Lerwick as “fiery chariots, the effect of which is truly grand and terrific.” In a Christmas morning the dark streets of Lerwick are generally lighted up by the bright glare, and its atmosphere blackened by the dense smoke, of six or eight tar barrels in succession. On the appearance of daybreak, at six A.M., the morning revellers put off their coarse garments—well begrimed by this time—and in their turn become guizards. They assume every imaginable form of costume—those of soldiers, sailors, Highlanders, Spanish Chevaliers, &c. Thus disguised, they either go in pairs, as man and wife, or in larger groups, and proceed to call on their friends, to wish them the compliments of the season. Formerly, these adolescent guizards used to seat themselves in crates, and accompanied by fiddlers, were dragged through the town. The crate, however, has for some years fallen into disuse.* After the revels of the morning, they generally grow pretty languid ere evening arrives. Old New-Year's Day (12th January), is kept similarly to Christmas, but the rejoicings it calls forth are usually on a smaller scale.

In spring, the most noticeable event to the Lerwegians is the arrival of the Greenland ships. These vessels rendezvous in the harbour for ten or twelve days, from the end of February or beginning of March, for the purpose of completing their crews with Shetlanders who are generally reckoned more skilful at sealing than Scotch or English men.

The “Greenland time” has always been marked by an increase both of business and hilarity. Thus writing from Lerwick in 1814, Sir Walter Scott says—

“Here too the Greenland tar, a fiercer guest,
Claims a brief hour of riot, not of rest;
Proves each wild frolic that in wine has birth,
And wakes the land with brawls and boisterous mirth."

This fleet consists of ships or barques of from two hundred and fifty to four hundred tons, most of them being fitted with a powerful auxiliary screw. They belong to various ports, chiefly Dundee and Peterhead. Their number is now from fifteen to twenty, but for-merly it was much larger. Each ship employs from twenty to thirty Shetlandmen. During their stay in Bressay Sound, large numbers of men and lads flock to the town from all parts of Shetland, each eager 16 obtain a berth. Since the number of ships prosecuting the trade was reduced, berths have become more difficult to be obtained, and, consequently, the masters have been able to “'pick” their crews. It is no uncommon sight to see young men walking over the shoulders of the less favoured components of a crowd, in order to make their way to the office where a Greenland skipper is “ feeing ” his crew. The fleet leaves Lerwick about the 10th of March, for the sealing ground around Jan Mayen, which it reaches in a week or ten days. The destruction of the young seals commences in the first, and terminates in the third week of April, when the young animals take the water, and cannot be safely pursued. After this a few old seals may be shot, but the fishing may be held as finished. The capture of the young seals, which is the main object of this trade, is easily effected. Having descried a pack of them, the captain directs his ship to it with all possible speed Men are landed on the ice in different directions, and then commences the butcher-like work of clubbing down the innocent creatures, who all the while lie still, looking at their destroyers. The seal fishing being finished, the vessels, if successful, return home to discharge their cargoes of blubber and skins; if unsuccessful, they proceed to the whale fishing at North Greenland or Davis Straits.

A sealing voyage generally occupies about six weeks. Each man employed receives about £2, 10s. a month, and 2s. 6d. for each ton of blubber brought home. Thus, should the vessel obtain, say one hundred tons, a very common occurrence, he will make £16 by his six weeks* work. The value to the owners of one hundred tons will be about £4500, less, say £1500 of expenses, leaving a clear profit of £3000. The trade, however, is carried on at a great outlay; therefore in the event of a bad fishing, the losses are heavy.

Having been successful at the seal fishing, and safely landed their precious cargoes at Dundee, or Peterhead, these ships commonly proceed to the whaling at Davis Straits, generally calling at Shetland for a portion of their crews. However, they require a much less number of men for the whale than for the seal fishing. From such a voyage the vessels generally return in the month of October. A whaling voyage is greatly preferred by the sailors to a sealing, for they enjoy better weather in the summer than in the spring, and the destruction of their prey is conducted by means of harpoons thrown from boats, which involves much less exposure than killing peals on the pack of ice.

It not unfrequently happens that a whaler is frozen up at Davis Straits all winter, when the utmost privations are endured. Thus, the s. s. Diana, of Hull, arrived at Lerwick in the beginning of April 1867, after being ice-bound since the previous November with fourteen of the crew dead, and all the survivors suffering severely from scurvy, starvation, and the severities of an Arctic winter, for which they were unprepared. In some rare instances whalers have been frozen up, and never again heard of. A famous whaler in her day, called the William Torr, with all hands, was thus detained in 1838, and no trace of their fate ever came to light, until a cask of blubber was drifted into Whalfirth Voe, Shetland, in 1848, after occupying ten years in its voyage across the North Atlantic. Of late years, some ships have intentionally wintered in the Arctic regions, chiefly in Cumberland Gulf, for the purpose of pursuing the whale fishing. During the great French wars, when our country, in order to maintain her prestige on the seas, and keep Napoleon from our shores, required more seamen than she could get by fair means, the return of the Greenland ships was a harvest time for the press-gang. This iniquitous institution had, in its day, the effect of deterring many Shetlanders from going to Greenland.

The fitting out of the Faroe fishing-smacks in the end of March or beginning of April, beyond occupying the attention of owners and crews, excites little public interest.

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