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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 24


Pirates’ Visit, &c.—North-west Coast of Northmavine—Uyea— Roeness Voe—Action fought there—Roeness Hill—view from its Summit.

BETWEEN Feideland and Uyea is formed a somewhat large, but very open and exposed, bay, opening into the head of which is an inlet termed Sand Voe. Except from its fishing-station, this remote arm of the sea is scarcely heard of. A century ago, however, it attracted some notice. Early in the winter of 177—, the natives were surprised one morning to observe a formidable looking vessel come to anchor in their unfrequented voe. Curiosity induced them to put off, in order to discover what she was; but the boats were ordered away, and no one allowed to come on board. The ship was moored to two anchors from both head and stern, yards and top-gallant masts struck, and everything made “snug,” evidently for the winter. Although forbidding the natives to visit their ship, the crew occasionally visited the shore in order to procure water or provisions; on which occasions the natives, having their curiosity stretched to the utmost, used every means to obtain information from the sailors, but for a long time without result. At length it “ leaked out ” that the mysterious ship was a pirate, carrying sixteen guns. The sailors were mixed as regards nationality, but all of that desperate character befitting their employment.. At length occurred an incident worthy of so lawless a crew. One of their number was so inveterate a thief that, while no locks in the ship were proof against his peculations, he was equally proof against the restraining influence of even the piratical form of bodily punishment. His comrades now fell upon the ready method of binding him hand and foot, bringing him on shore, and burying him alive. This barbarous murder filled the simple natives with horror; and, on intelligence reaching Lerwick, great indignation was aroused. But how were the desperadoes to be met % There was: no man-of-war on the Shetland coast, and no opportunity of communicating with the Admiralty. Native resources were opportunely called into use. A large smack was speedily equipped, mounted with two guns, and placed under charge of an experienced shipmaster, William Thomson, and was about to proceed to Sand Voe to give the pirate battle, when it was ascertained he had sought safety in flight.

The grave of Yacob Stays, the piratical thief, is still shown on the shores of Sand Voe; and, to this day, his ghost is said to haunt them after nightfall. The skipper who thus gallantly prepared to fight the battle of justice and humanity against such fearful odds, received no better reward than the title of admiral, conferred by his neighbours, amongst whom he was known, for the rest of his long lifetime, as “Admiral” Thomson.

Along the north-west coast of Northmavine, between Sand Voe and Roeness Voe, there is little worthy of special notice, save the evidence everywhere observable of the tremendous power of the great Atlantic, to whose full fury it is directly exposed. The monotony of the high and rugged cliffs, which form this long stretch of sea-board, is relieved by the magnificent stacks, which rear aloft their heads between them and the ocean, and the pretty isle of Uyea, which is said to yield the richest grass in Shetland. Uyea is said to be nearly as rich in copper ore as in grass. It is alternately an island and a peninsula, according as the tide elevates or depresses a “bar” of sand between it and the mainland. From the highest point of this pretty isle, a splendid view may be had of the neighbouring peculiarly wildland grand sea-coast, of which the few travellers who have explored it speak in almost rapturous terms. From the absence of roads on the land, and steam communication by sea, it is unfortunately, as yet, practically inaccessible. As we advance westwards, the coast increases in height; for the great mountain of Roeness Hill—the highest in Shetland—terminates towards the ocean in gigantic precipices of red granite, many of whose adamantine masses have given way before the yet stronger chemical power of the atmosphere and mechanical force of the sea. The large Voe of Roeness, opening directly from the ocean, sweeps round the base of that great hill, and, owing to this circuitous course, its upper reaches—much wider than the middle— become a safe land-locked harbour. This arm of the sea, seven miles long, goes far to meet that of Quayfirth on the opposite side of the land, and thus cuts North-mavine in two. Though near a battlefield, on which the elements wage perpetual warfare, this seeming mountain lake in the “Highlands of Shetland” looks like the abode of eternal peace. Yet even Roeness Yoe can speak of human strife and bloodshed. One of the very few successes the English gained in their unfortunate war with Holland, in the time of Charles II., was won here. A Dutch frigate of sixty guns, relying on the friendly spirit of the people, to whom their nation was such a benefactor, came to winter in Roeness Yoe. The British Government being informed, by the treacherous natives, of her situation, despatched two frigates to that voe, where they met the enemy’s ship. A hot contest ensued, in which the Dutchman, after a gallant resistance, was overpowered, and struck her colours. Many Hollanders were slain. Their bodies were interred in a knoll along the banks of the voe, still called the “Dutchman’s Knowe.” The ascent of Roeness Hill, from the voe, is very steep, and, for its speedy accomplishment, requires no small strength both of limb and lung. The view from its summit (1447 feet high), on a clear day amply repays the toil. All Shetland, from Unst to Sumburgh, and even Fair Isle, and from Foula to Fetlar, stretches out in bird’s-eye view before us. This chaotic-like display of hills, and isles, and rocks, interspersed with seas and lakes, seems to merit the poet’s sobriquet of “melancholy isles of farthest Thule.” The highest peak of the hill is crowned by a watch-tower, built of large stones, without the aid of cement. Five or six people can contrive to squeeze themselves into it at a time. The structure is evidently of ancient date, and, being useful as a landmark at sea, it is pretty carefully preserved. Several Alpine plants are found on the sides of Roeness Hill. Dwarf specimens of such native trees as the mountain ash, and various species of the willow, are also to be met with. When removed to gardens, in sheltered situations, they have thriven and attained no mean size. While nearly all the other hills of Northmavine are as wild, rugged, irregular, and savage-looking as can well be imagined, the hill of Roeness presents a rounded form, with a comparatively smooth surface—a singular circumstance, as they are all of the same granitic structure.

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