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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 7


Little Intercourse with Mainland of Scotland for a long period— Illustrations of this—Sloops running to Leith—Wreck of the Doris — Smuggling Trade with Holland — Schooners to Leith—Steamers — Introduction of Penny Postage—Great Increase of Letters, &c., since—Trade between West Side of Shetland and Leith—Between North Isles and Lerwick— Steamer—Story — Iceland Mail Steamer — Shetland Telegraph.

BEFORE proceeding further with a topographical U account of parishes or districts, let us consider some matters affecting the whole county. Writing, as I now attempt to do, a few days after what every enlightened man must regard as the most important event which has occurred in the history of Shetland for many years, viz., the opening of telegraphic communication with the mainland of Scotland, it is difficult to believe that the Ultima Thule was as much out of the world, and as difficult of access, within the memory of many still living, as it was in the days of the ancient Romans. For many centuries after the Islands were annexed to Scotland, in 1468, Shetland enjoyed little intercourse with that country, the most of its trade being carried on with Hamburg, Bremen, and other continental ports. No doubt the annual resort of numerous vessels from these parts to the Shetland coast, for the purpose of prosecuting the fishing, was the cause of this commercial intercourse. Communication with the rest of the world, seems, in these olden times, to have been very irregular; and many months must frequently have passed, particularly in the winter time, without the arrival of a vessel. For instance, tradition tells us that the Revolution of 1688, which occurred in November, was not known of in Shetland till the month of May following, when a Scotch skipper, happening to be at Lerwick over the Sunday, went to the kirk, where he was surprised to hear the worthy parson praying for “guid King Jamie.” After the conclusion of the service, the captain remarked to some of his fellow-worshippers that, surely the minister must be a very ignorant man, when he was praying for a king who had been deposed six months ago. This remark was newsed abroad; whereupon the loyal authorities of Lerwick immediately had the revolutionary skipper arrested, on a charge of high treason. Fortunately for him, however, official intelligence of the Revolution soon reached the island. Again, tradition furnishes us with an apt illustration of the extremely indirect communication that existed between Shetland and the mother country in the good days of yore. The Rev. Mr Gray of Nesting, a man evidently of some mark in his day, which was in the beginning of last century, is said to have held the high office of Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. This must be a mistake, for we do not find his name in the list of Moderators. However, he was a member of that venerable house, and his mode of travelling to Edinburgh to attend its meetings is described. The rev. gentleman came from Nesting to Lerwick in a boat, whence he went to Hamburg in a smack, and from there to London by another smack. From London he accomplished his journey to Edinburgh by coaclu During last century, the Shetland clergy, who attended the meetings of the General Assembly, which they surely did not do very often, were in the habit of leaving their parishes in August or September, residing all winter somewhere on the mainland of Scotland, and only returning to their northern homes in June following, after the Assembly had been dissolved. Some of the old Session records contain notices* of these rev. gentlemen, intimating their intended departure, and commending the care of the flock to the elders until their return.

After the Dutch and Flemings withdrew their booths from Shetland, and ceased to employ the natives to fish for them, in the beginning of last century, intercourse between the Islands and the mainland of Scotland became more frequent, although it still continued very irregular. Much of this irregularity was due to the antiquated build of the vessels, which could scarcely make a voyage, unless with a favourable wind. Hence the old records afford numerous instances of craft bound from Scotch ports to Shetland being-driven to Norway; a fate, it is almost unnecessary to add, never shared by the clippers of the present day. Trade between Lerwick and Leith was carried on by means of sloops, which made not more than seven voyages in the year. After discharging the chief portion of their cargoes at Lerwick, those smacks generally called kt the principal ports in the North Isles, returning to Lerwick on their way south. They generally carried “ship letter mails,” and their periods of arrival were most irregular. Thus Mr Neill, writing in 1804, tells us that “sometimes the letters for two or three months arrive at one and the same moment.”1 Despite the miserable character of their accommodation, they were frequently crowded by passengers of all classes. In February 1813, the sloop Doris, while on her voyage from Leith to Lerwick, with a heavy cargo, and many passengers, was overtaken by a severe gale off the Aberdeenshire coast, when all on board perished. The passengers included a representative of nearly every leading family in the Islands, so that the wreck of the Doris is still remembered as one of the most melancholy events in the annals of Shetland. But although the foreigners had withdrawn their booths from Shetland, the natives still cherished a warm affection for their continental friends, and continued to return the many visits the Dutch had paid them in bygone ages. The trade was contraband, and therefore the voyages were made with all possible secrecy. The ordinary practice was for a vessel (probably not larger than a sloop), after clearing at the Custom-house at Lerwick, for Norway, to proceed direct to Holland, where she loaded gin and tobacco, which were quietly landed at Unst, Foula, or some remote part of Shetland. The smuggler then made all haste for his acknowledged destination, loaded, timber, and, returning to Lerwick, reported himself as having been at Norway all the time. The disaster of the Doris was ascribed as much to the narrow build and over-laden condition of the smack, as to the violence of the storm; and it had the good effect of bringing a larger and better class of vessels into the trade; for we find the old-fashioned sloops were soon superseded by more modern schooners. One schooner succeeded another in the Lerwick and Leith trade, each generation of craft being an improvement on that which went before it, until the Magnus Troil, built in 1830, expressly for the trade, and named after the hero of the “Pirate" was considered the climax of all schooner-like perfection. However, she was in turn superseded by the Matchless, built in 1847, and so named from having attained to a perfection which could not be surpassed. This gallant clipper still plies between Lerwick and Leith, bringing good cargoes to the merchants, and as good dividends to the owners, but she seems destined to be the last sailing passenger ship in the trade. In 1832, the first steamer appeared on the Shetland coast, and occasioned some alarm amongst the unsophisticated peasantry, who supposed it to be a ship on fire. In 1836, the paddle

steamer Sovereign, belonging to the Aberdeen, Leith, and Clyde Shipping Company, commenced to ply between Granton and Lerwick, calling at the intermediate ports of Aberdeen, Wick, and Kirkwall. She arrived at Lerwick every alternate Wednesday morning, carrying merely passengers, ship letter mails, and light goods; and, after lying about three hours, returned the same forenoon. In 1838, the Government, at the suggestion of Mr Dundas, M.P. for the county, entered into a contract with this company, who undertook to carry a mail, per steamer, to Shetland every week, from April to October, and, during winter, by means of a sailing vessel, from Aberdeen, as often as weather would permit. Since then, regular steam communication has continued, and the vessels have * gradually improved with the advance of the age. An immense impetus was given to postal communication by the introduction, in 1840, of the penny post. Since then, the number of letters passing to and from Shetland has enormously increased; as the following valuable statistics kindly furnished me by the Surveyor of the General Post Office, Edinburgh, and the Postmaster, Lerwick, abundantly prove: —

The increase of epistolary correspondence between 1841 and 1874—little more than a generation—has thus been upwards of sevenfold. During ten years, from 1864 to 1874, it has been considerably more than doubled; and it is evidently advancing with increasing ratio every year. In considering these statistics, it must be remembered that a newspaper agency was only established at Lerwick in 1864, previous to which year all newspapers received in Shetland came by post. Since then most of them have come by other means, Their number being much increased. Money-orders also show a great increase, but not so striking as letters.

In 1858, the steamer (a screw) commenced to run all winter, as well as summer; and in 1866, a bi-weekly boat was added for the summer months. With these facilities for travelling, the number of tourists and business men visiting Shetland has greatly increased. For the last twenty years or more, a smart schooner has plied between Leith and the various small ports on the west side of Shetland. The pretty little clipper, Queen of the Isles, at present in that trade, makes a voyage once a month—this great amount of time being consumed by calling at so many different creeks.

Until 1839, there was no regular communication between Lerwick and the North Isles of Shetland. A traveller bound for that quarter had either to hire a six-oared boat, at great expense; go overland, crossing the ferries, a most arduous mode of travelling in the absence of roads; or, if he was gifted with great patience, wait until one of the Leith traders happened to be going north—no very frequent event. In that year the Janet, a small sloop of about thirty tons, commenced to ply between Lerwick and. Unst. She was soon followed by better vessels of the same class, which went on improving, every decade, until 1868, when the screw-steamer Chieftain's Bride, of sixty-four tons, was purchased by a local company, and put on the North Isles and Yell Sound passage. The peerie steamer—as the natives call her, in contradistinction to the larger one trading to the south—makes two, and at certain seasons, three voyages to the north each week, landing and taking on board passengers and goods at numerous ports of call It is only those who have experienced the discomforts, uncertainty, overcrowding, and detention—often extending over nights and days— to which voyagers in the old packets were subjected, who can fully appreciate the advantages of this little steamer. She is rapidly developing the resources of the country, and will, it is to be hoped, in due time yield a fair return to the owners.

It will appear almost incredible that, so recently as 1847, no steam-vessel had been seen in the north isles of Shetland. In the summer of that gear, the late Mr Arthur Anderson, then a candidate for the representation of the county, entered a certain voe in Yell in his steam-yacht. Some noise was occasioned by blowing off steam. Two unsophisticated islanders, who were engaged picking limpets on the seashorse, surveyed the fire-ship in blank astonishment. At length, the more strong-minded of the two handed his snuff-horn to his terrified companion, with the exhortation, “O Jamie, Jamie, tak doo a snuff, for doo ’snuff nae mair wi’ me till we snuff together in glory.’ He had concluded the great day of wrath had come, and that on board the steamer was the angel blowing the last trumpet!

In the spring of 1870 the Iceland and Faroe Mail Steamer, plying between Copenhagen and those islands, commenced to call at Lerwick. This vessel calls three times a year, both on her way to and from Iceland, viz., in April, May, June, and again in September. This may in time develop a trade with these countries.

But of means of communication with other places, the greatest of all is that most recently introduced, viz., the telegraph. For this great boon we are undoubtedly indebted to Mr George H. B. Hay, the senior resident representative of a family which has for generations been honourably associated with the commercial and landed interests of Shetland. At the suggestion of Mr Hay, Mr Holmes of London, in 1869, started the Orkney and Shetland Telegraph Company with a capital of £20,000. Before commencing operations the company required a guarantee of £1000 a-year for three years. To meet this a subscription was opened, and headed by the Earl of Zetland with £150 per annum, and, on his return from London, Mr Hay held meetings of the principal inhabitants of Kirkwall and Lerwick, in both of which towns, particularly the latter, the Earl’s noble example was so readily followed that, in a very short time, twice the amount of guarantee required was subscribed. The cable was laid from Wick to Dunrossness, Shetland, through Orkney, in the autumn of 1869; but unfortunately that portion crossing the Pentland Firth was injured, and the shore end at San-day sunk, so that attempts to complete the line could not again be made until the following summer. The good ship Hayle of Aberdeen successfully accomplished the work, and, on the 8th September 1870, telegraphic communication was opened between the benighted isles of Ultima Thule and the rest of the world. Its results in promoting the peace and prosperity of the future no one can calculate, but it is matter of regret that the first messages it flashed along the depths of ocean told the horrors of the great Franco-Prussian War. From Dunrossness the wires are carried on poles to Lerwick, whence there is a branch across to Scalloway. In the autumn of 1871, the line was extended, through the mainland and Yell, to Unst, the most northerly of the group.

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