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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 10


Products of the Commons—Game, &c.—The Shetland Pony— The Shetland Sheep — Their Wool—Native Dyes—Skins— Mutton—Method of Removing Wool—Their Food in Seasons of Scarcity—Diseases—Birds of Prey—Attention paid to the Rearing of Sheep in Ancient Times—Wadmel—Shetland “Tweeds”—Proposed Introduction of Grouse—Peat-Moss— Great Depth in many places—Its Formation—The Cutting, Curing, and Transport of Peats—Might not Peat-Moss he further utilised?—Improvements in Shetland Farming, and its Assimilation to that of the Mainland of Scotland—Fishing of greater importance there than- Farming—Division of Commons — Shetland rather a Grazing than an Agricultural Country—Years of Destitution by Destruction of Crops— Trees.

AS I have had frequent occasion to mention, the whole interior of the country consists of the unimproved and generally undivided common or scathold. These large tracts of country are made' up of peat-moss, bogs, lochs, or bare ground, which has been robbed of its soil by “scalping.” They are clothed, where vegetation can exist, with heaths and coarse grasses, interspersed with carices and rushes. In the damper and poorer spots moss is the only plant to be found.

The domesticated inhabitants of these dreary regions are pomes, sheep, and geese. Neither partridges nor moor-fowl are to be found, but the practised eye and ear of the sportsman will soon detect the presence of the snipe, the plover, and the curlew. Rabbits abound in many places. Hares were introduced about forty years ago by the late Mr Andrew Duncan, Sheriff-Substitute, but have never become numerous.

The Shetland pony is too well known to require description here. Tradition says his ancestors came, with the oldest Norsemen, from the regions round Mount Caucasus to Scandinavia, and thence to Shetland. Be this as it may, there is no doubt his small size is the result of exposure, with coarse and often scanty fare, continued from sire to son over many generations. When these interesting little animals, after leaving their native hills, have been bred in the rich valleys of England for two or three generations, they gradually become larger, and so much improve in every way that their “country cousins” in the far north could scarcely recognise them. In his native hills the Shetland pony runs wild, but not ownerless. I think it right to record this fact, for it is amongst the “things not generally known.” On more than one occasion, parties of adventurous youths from “the sunny south” have come over to the Ultima Thule to make a name and a fortune for themselves by hunting the “shelties.” These little animals are easily tamed, wonderfully hardy, sagacious, and sure-footed. The rider whose course lies over trackless moors and quaking bogs, and along yawning precipices, even in a pitch dark night, need not fear if his Shetland steed only knows the country. He has merely to give the animal “ his head ” and he is carried safely through. Since the labour of women and children was prohibited in the coal pits, these ponies have come greatly into demand, and the price has risen immensely. A quarter of a century since, a horse might be bought for £2 and a mare for less. Now, the male animal realises from £8 to £10, and the female from £3 to £5. Animals of the one sex are so much higher than those of the other, because males alone are used in the pits. It is to be feared the breed is deteriorating, in consequence of the best stallions being sold, and those of inferior quality kept for breeding; and this is probably the reason why a particularly fine one lately fetched the high price of £30.

The native Shetland sheep is of the same species as those which run wild in Northern Russia and Scandinavia. Besides the short tail, they are characterised by small size, fine wool, and short horns. They run wild in the scatholds, are never housed, herded, or fed by the hand, and those of different owners are distinguished by characteristic slits or holes in the ears. When any individual sheep in the flock is wanted by its owner, it is hunted down by a dog. In colour these sheep are white, black, spotted black and white, grey, or of a peculiar brownish shade, termed by the natives murid. The great merit of the Shetland wool is its fineness, for it is too soft to be very durable. It is capable of being spun into threads more delicate than those which form the finest of lace, and with such worsted, stockings have been made which could be drawn through a lady's finger-ring. The worsted is generally preserved in its natural colour, but it is sometimes dyed. In former times various native dyes were used for this purpose. They are still employed especially in the more remote districts, but they have, to a great extent, been superseded by indigo and cochineal, imported from the south. The variegated and fantastic hues which characterise such articles as the Fair Isle hosieiy, and the more commonplace hearthrugs, are obtained by means of these native dyes, most of which are lichens. The Lichen tartareus yields a reddish purple, the L. omphaloides a blackish purple, the L» saxatilis (called old man) a yellowish or reddish brown, and the L. parietinus (termed by the Shetlanders scriota) an orange dye. Yellow is obtained from a collection of plants of that colour, and black from peat moss impregnated with bog iron ore.

The skins of these sheep are either dried with the wool adhering, and used as mats, or tanned with a native plant, the Tormentlla Officinalis, and made into waterproof clothes, for the men at the fishing, and the women when engaged in their more severe labours in the hills and fields. The carcase is small, but the meat is sweet and delicate, with a flavour very much resembling the much-prized Welsh mutton.

The wool is removed from the Shetland sheep, not by clipping, but by the more primitive method of rueing, or tearing it out by the roots with the hand. The alleged reason for this barbarous process, which gives much pain to the poor animals, is that it ensures the fineness of the next crop of wooL In the winter, particularly when grass is more than usually scanty, both sheep and ponies frequently feed on sea-weed. They may be observed with wonderful sagacity approaching the most accessible shore when the tide begins to fall, and leaving it as high water sets in. In seasons of scarcity, cattle will also assuage their hunger with sea-weed, and they have frequently been known—laying aside for the time their herbivorous nature—gladly to partake of a mess of boiled sillocks and water. Those sheep are subject to the same diseases as other flocks. Braxy, sturdy, rot, and scab, have all appeared. About 1770, the scab wrought awful havoc, in some districts carrying off two-thirds of the stock. Birds of prey often prove destructive to the young lambs. Their most formidable enemies are ravens and hooded crows. Even the black-backed gull sometimes attacks them. But the most bloodthirsty of all are eagles, the extent of whose ravages is only limited by their numbers, which fortunately are small

Before the fishing became an object of so much regard, much greater attention was paid to the raising of sheep than has ever been since. This is shown by the large proportion of the old county acts which are devoted to the regulation of the pastures. Judging also from the large amount of tithes paid in wool to the Pope in the fourteenth century, when the couch of his Holiness was more downy than it is now in the days of Bismarck and Victor Emmanuel, it would appear the rearing of sheep was attended with far greater success in ancient times than within the last two or three generations. Larger quantities of wool were devoted to the preparation of a kind of coarse cloth termed wadmel, the manufacture of which was for ages one of the chief industries of the country. It was in this fabric that the Shetland udallers were in the habit of paying their scat or land tax to the ancient kings of Denmark. The native dyes, above mentioned, are said to have been extensively used in colouring wadmel. Its manufacture still existed in the beginning of last century, but was rapidly on the decline. At the present day a considerable quantity of claith, or flannel cloth, is made on handlooms. The “ Shetland tweeds ” of the southern markets are very soft and elastic, and much prized by sportsmen for shooting suits. Since the islands came into such close commercial intercourse with the Scotch ports, cotton underclothing has to a great extent superseded the old woollen home-spun garments, and the health of the Shetlanders, particularly the females, is said to have declined accordingly.

The introduction of grouse has frequently been talked of. When they thrive so well in the sister group of islands, there seems to be no good reason why they should not also exist in Shetland. The heather is no doubt longer in Orkney than in Shetland, but in many places in the latter country there appears to be enough of it to afford shelter to the young birds.

The peat-moss of this country, which, as already mentioned, prevails to a depth of from ten to twenty feet in many places, has apparently been formed by the accumulation, during many ages, of plants similar to those which now clothe its surface. I use the expression “many ages advisedly, because a considerable depth of moss is commonly to be met with on declivities, or even near the top of hills; and in such localities, so far as our knowledge goes, its formation is a very slow process indeed. In low-lying plains, on the other hand, where there is plenty of stagnant water, moss is formed very rapidly by the alternate growth and inhumation of aquatic plants, and the alluvion of vegetable matter from the higher beds. Here, as elsewhere, it is at the bottom of the valleys the bog attains its greatest depth. The roots of trees, however, are frequently found imbedded in it, and this circumstance leads us to the double inference that the moss is, to some extent, the product of decayed wood, and that trees once grew wild in this country. At all events, we know that the most flourishing wood, when once the vitality of its trees is destroyed, is very speedily converted into peat. The vast peat-mosses in Shetland are marked, in many places, by clefts of greater or less width and depth. These have evidently been formed by the moss, which has been, all over, swollen by the rains of winter, suddenly becoming contracted by the drought of summer. These clefts generally continue of a jet black colour, the action of rain and frost preventing their being covered with vegetation. The only use to which these vast accumulations of moss have been hitherto applied has been for fuel for the inhabitants. The art of thus applying turf is said to have been invented by Einar, one of the earliest Scandinavian earls of Orkney and Zetland, who, in consequence, obtained the name of Torf Einar.

The important operation of cutting or casting the peats takes place towards the end of May. The first step in the process is to flay the muir, or remove the feal or growing turf. This having been done, the peats are cut by an instrument peculiar to the country, termed a toysker, which is a long narrow spade, with a sharp iron plate about seven inches long, placed at right angles to the blade, on its left side. This plate or feather, as it is called, determines the form and size of the peat One peat after another is shaved off with great neatness from the face of the bog, and with the same operation the cutter dexterously turns it out of his instrument, and lays it in its position on the bank. With such celerity is this work performed, that a good workman, in three days, will often cut sufficient fuel to serve one fire a whole year ; and the fires of the Shetland cottagers burn almost constantly. Each peat is about fourteen inches long, seven broad, and two and a half thick. Frequently three perpendicular layers are cut in one bank, those from the greatest depths being the firmest and best One row having been neatly arranged along the bank, another is placed above it, at a slightly oblique angle to the first, in such a manner as to leave interstices to admit air, and thus favour drying. Thus surmounted, a peat bank, shortly after the cutting time; presents a very regular and rather formidable appearance, suggesting the idea of a fortress, with so many tiers of cannons bristling from its walls. After remaining in this position for two or three weeks, the peats are taken down, and being set on their ends, are arranged in small heaps. This operation, termed raising, is sometimes repeated. The peats are now dry, and are either built into a stack on the hill, thence to be gradually removed in cassies during the year, or are immediately conveyed home on the backs of ponies, or in carts. The apparatus by which the pony is thus literally turned into a beast of burden consists of a pair of straw panniers or rmysies, attached to a wooden saddle or dibber. This process of transport is termed leading the peats. Long strings of ponies engaged in this way may be seen, in the month of July, under the command of peat boys. Peats form excellent fuel, giving out much heat, and often as much light By the aid of the compressing machine might they not become a substitute for coal? This would render the vast bogs, of Yell for instance, of some commercial value.

We have hitherto been treating of the rude and unsatisfactory mode of husbandry prevailing amongst the cottar-fishermen of Shetland. Within the last thirty or forty years, many attempts have been made to assimilate agriculture in these islands to that of the mainland of Scotland, where it has attained such perfection. “Run-rig” has been abolished; draining, trenching, artificial manuring, and fencing have been carried out in many places by thoroughly competent hands. Steadings have been built, and carts, ploughs, harrows, scythes, thrashing mills, and even reaping machines on the most approved principle, have been introduced. The small native herds have been supplanted by shorthorns, the flocks by Cheviots, Leicesters, and ‘ blackfaces. By this means, in several districts, farms have been formed of which the Lothians would not be ashamed, and of which we in Shetland would be more proud than we are, were it not for the painful reflection that eviction was generally the first 6tep in this progressive movement. But it has been my purpose to give a sketch of the native Shetland agriculture, and not of Scotch farming imported into that country. Shetland would, no doubt, make an excellent sheep-walk. Divide its scatholds, drain its hills, and they would graze immense flocks of Cheviots in summer, while the valleys would provide plenty of turnips for their winter keep. All this is right and proper, but the country has greater riches than its moors will ever produce. Its chief treasures swim in the ocean around, and we require men and not sheep to gather them in. Therefore, if we want wealth to accumulate, do not let men decay. Preserve the peasantry. The fishing cannot keep them all the year round; they must have some land. Give the hills to the sheep-farmers, if you will, but give the fishermen decent houses and good crofts, taking care that they farm them properly. Great attention has of late years been devoted to the important subject of dividing the scatholds or commons. It is a very expensive process, necessitating actions in the Court of Session, the appointment of commissions to fix boundaries, and the services of skilful and well-paid surveyors. Were the trigonometrical survey of the kingdom extended to Shetland, these very heavy expenses would be saved to that poor country.

The experience of late harvests and blighted cereals, but a moist climate, with good grass and better green crops, seems to indicate pretty plainly that Shetland is a grazing rather than an agricultural country. Leaving out of view, for the meantime, the bright prospect of fatted herds and luxuriant green crops, the too frequent destruction of the cereals by the onset of tempests before they are ripe, with the destitution and misery thereby occasioned, is a matter of the most serious moment. Many are the black years of famine and destitution in the annals of Shetland. Amongst these may be mentioned 1740, 1766, 1783, 1784, 1802, 1803, 1804, 1835-37, 1846-49, and even 1869. All these seasons of greater or less scarcity were produced by the destruction of the corn, save that of 1846-49, which was due to the failure of the potato crop.

Trees, as is well known, cannot be reared in Shetland unless with great care, and in very sheltered spots. Seeing that they once flourished, much speculation has taken place as to the causes why matters are so far otherwise now. The best explanation I have heard is one imported from Orkney (where a similar state of matters exist), and it is that the mildness of the climate does not check vegetation when autumn is over, but allows the top bud of the young trees to sprout all winter, until die frost of spring kills it.

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