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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 16


Its Extent—Character of the Soil—Harbours—Proposed Canal-Parochial Statistics—Manor Houses—Hascussey—Fishings, &c.—Peat-Moss.

TAKING our start again from Whalsey, we proceed to the North Isles. Advancing northwards, we skirt the ness and holm of Lunna, cross the entrance to Yell Sound, and soon reach the large island from which it derives its name. In point of size, Yell is next to the Mainland, being twenty miles in length, and six or eight in breadth. It is formed of gneiss, covered with deep beds of peat-moss, and hence its hills are particularly boggy and dreary. Along the east coast the land is comparatively low and green, and in many places very fairly cultivated. On the western side it is much higher, and after advancing some miles northwards, the shore becomes so bold and precipitous, that between West Sandwick and the point of Gloup, a distance of eleven miles, there are only two places where a landing can be effected—the Voe of Whalfirth and Dale of Symbister. The island is, on the whole, very well supplied with harbours. On the south we have Hamnavoe and Burravoe ; on the east, Mid Yell Voe and Cullivoe; on the north, the Voe of Gloup; and on the west, Whalfirth Voe and Lady Voe. Yell is divided into two nearly equal portions by the Voes of Mid Yell and Whalfirth, which almost meet each other. “As the intervening space,” says the Rev. James Robertson, a former minister of the parish, “consists entirely of peat-moss resting on a substratum of blue clay, a canal might be cut at a very trifling expense, which the influx and reflux of the sea would, in a short time, convert into a channel, through which boats could pass at any time of tide. Were a communication between the seas on the east and west side of Yell thus opened up, there can be little doubt that the value of a locality in the vicinity of either of the Yoes just mentioned would be considerably increased, from the additional quantity and variety of fish that would be introduced into them, and the facility afforded to all the inhabitants of that district of prosecuting the various kinds of fishing on whatever side of the island their endeavours were likely to be attended with the greatest success.” A very good highway traverses the island along the east coast—from Burravoe in the south to Cullivoe in the north; but the absence of transverse roads is very much felt. Parochially, it is divided into North, Mid, and South Yell. The latter two divisions of the island (with a population in 1871 of 1838) are united into one ministry; while North Yell (with a population of 894) is, parochially, united to Fetlar, despite the broad and often stormy strait that separates them.

The ruins of upwards of twenty chapels and eight burghs are still traceable. Each of the three divisions of the island is provided with a good Parish Church, and, also, with a small Wesleyan Chapel. There is a neat Free Church at the head of Busta Yoe, and another at West Yell. Both have been recently erected, and, being far from the other places of worship, have proved highly beneficial to their respective localities. The Episcopalians have a mission and school at Burravoe, but no church. North Yell has lately been erected into a quoad sacra parish. The present worthy minister of Mid Yell (the Rev. James Barclay), possesses considerable medical skill, and has thus been doubly useful in the parish. It is matter of deep regret that schools have hitherto been so few and far between in Yell. Adequately to supply the educational, wants of so scattered a population must prove a difficult task for the School Board. The principal proprietors are Major Cameron of Annsbrae, in the northern; Mrs Robertson of Gossaburgh, Mrs Budge of Seafield, and Mr Spence of Windhouse, in the middle; and Mr M‘Queen of Burravoe, and Mr Leask of Sand, in the southern division of the island. The finest manor-house in Yell is West Sandwick—(Mrs Robertson of Gossaburgh)— beautifully situated at the head of Lady Yoe, on: the west side of the island. Burravoe has been much improved lately. Windhouse occupies a romantic situation on the top of a height, overhanging the ravine between the Voes of Mid Yell and Whalfirth. The neat house of Seafield stands on the northern shore of Mid Yell Yoe. In the fertile district of Raefirth, on the shores of the same bay, there stood not long ago the large mansion of the Nevens of Windhouse, who held extensive lands in Yell and other parts of Shetland. The ruins of the house of Raefirth are still to be seen.

The fine harbour of Mid Yell is protected by the fertile island of Hascussey, once inhabited but now laid down to pasture. The principal fishing station is at Gloup. Busta Voe contains extensive scalps, which yield oysters of large size and superior quality. Here cockles also abound. Unfortunately arrangements have not yet been made for regularly dredging the shell-fish of this fine bay, and sending them to market Large sea-trout are caught in abundance in several of the bays— chiefly in those of Hamnavoe, Vatster, and Whalfirth Voe. The island affords extensive hill pasturage; and it is therefore not surprising that sheep-farming should now be prosecuted on a large scale, with apparently much profit to the tenant. Large sums must have been spent in surface-draining and wire-fencing these great tracts of moorland. Beyond supplying its small and sparse population with fuel, the vast quantities of peat-moss have not been utilised. It has been suggested it would become a valuable substitute for coal, by the aid of the compressing machines. Being rich in quality, there is no reason why it might not yield some of the valuable substances which have been extracted from Irish peat-moss.

If these remarks were apposite, when written in the beginning of 1871, surely they are much more so now, when the exorbitant price of coals is inducing ingenious men everywhere to seek cheaper substitutes. Nowhere could a Peat-Compressing Company find a better field than Yell.

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