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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 33


Superstitions regarding Seals, &c.

SEPARATED from Sandness by Papa Sound, upwards of a mile in breadth, is the island of Papa Stour. The passage of this strait, always difficult, is sometimes dangerous, owing to the fiercely conflicting tides by which it is agitated. The island derives its name from stour, a Norse word signifying great, and the Latin papa, a priest. It thus signifies the great island of the priests, in contradistinction to Papa Little, and the still smaller island of Papa, in the Bay of Scalloway. There is every reason to believe that the papae who gave their names to these three islands were the ancient Culdee missionaries, who probably dwelt there.

Papa Stour is upwards of two miles in length, and nearly of the same breadth. The coast is much indented by voes, which form very good harbours. This island is one of the most fertile in the Shetland group. Its inhabitants (amounting in 1871 to 351), are almost entirely confined to the rich belt of cultivated land, which runs along the east side. Unfortunately, the island is almost totally unprovided with peat-moss. As a substitute, turf from the interior of the island has been dug to such an extent, and for such a long period, that now the soil is almost entirely removed, and, what was at one time beautiful green pasture, is now a barren desert of sand and gravel Such peats as the people do enjoy are brought from the somewhat distant islands of Muckle Roe and Papa Little.

As already mentioned, lepers from the western parts of the Mainland were sent to Papa, where they were accommodated in huts, at a distance from the houses of the natives.

Papa forms an excellent fishing-station. In addition to its own natives, several boat-crews resort thither in summer, to prosecute this important industry. The people of this island are primitive in their habits and very superstitious, many of them still believing in dreadful supernatural beings, who infest the commons in large numbers after . nightfall. Many Norse customs and pastimes lingered here after they had been forgotten in all other parts of Shetland, save Foula. Until within the last twenty years the “Sword Dance” continued to be performed during the winter evenings.

The precipitous west coast of Papa affords highly interesting rock scenery. Fearful gios, towering stacks, and magnificent caves—differing in many respects from all we have hitherto noticed—present themselves in great variety.

When seals were more abundant than they now are, they frequently took refuge in the caves of Papa. Some are, however, still to be found, particularly in “Christie's Hole,” a long, tunnel-like cavern, whose roof is pierced by an aperture, which, opening into the greensward far above, admits light into its deep recesses. At the inner end of this remarkable cavern is a sea-beach. It is to this subterranean retreat that the seals resort for safety, and the sportsmen for their destruction. Having obstructed the cave’s mouth by a strong net with wide meshes, the boat’s crew make a loud noise; whereupon the creatures, leaving the dark recesses' around the beach, and making for the open sea, are hopelessly entangled on their way, and then readily secured by the jubilant boatmen.

Looking westwards from one of the fine headlands of Papa, we behold a vast expanse of ocean. Save the solitary Ve Skerries, nothing intervenes betweeh our standpoint and the great western continent With such a scene before us, we readily fall into the mood of the Teutonic poet who sings—

“Thou boundless, shining, glorious sea!
With ecstasy I gaze on thee,
And as I gaze, thy billowy roll
Wakes the deep feelings of the soul.”

Papa Stour is divided between two proprietors—Lady Nicolson, and the trustees of the late Arthur Gifford, Esq., of Busta. A nice little Parish Church—lately put in good repair—stands near the chief centre of the population, on the east side of the island. The churchyard surrounding it is enclosed by a good wall (unlike some of the country burying-grounds), and contains one or two interesting old monuments. The Wesleyans also have a small chapel in Papa. The island is regularly visited by the Free Church and Wesleyan minister at Walls, and by the unordained missionary of the Established Church, whose sphere of labour is Sandness and Papa, but who also resides at Walls. It has now a regular school, the salary being granted by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge.

The Ve Skerries are a detached group of naked rocks, very little above the level of the sea, situated in the ocean, seven miles north-west from Papa. Their name signifies danger, and like all those derived from the Norse, is most appropriate. They are still the resort of seals. Various superstitions hang round these rocks and their amphibious denizens. The seals were believed by the fishermen to be mermen and merwomen. The belief was that lofty mansions of coral and pearl, filled with a pure and serene atmosphere, existed beneath the sea. Their inhabitants, who were creatures of the most singular beauty, had a penchant for occasionally visiting the supra-marine world. In order, therefore, to accomplish the upward voyage, the mermaids assumed the covering of the seal. Was it their example which induced the supra-marine ladies of the present day to assume these beautiful but expensive jackets of sealskin?

The Ve Skerries have frequently been Spoken of as a site for a lighthouse. The situation of the keepers would certainly not be enviable; but there is no doubt a lighthouse is very much required on the west side of Shetland.

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