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A Description of Shetland

Shetland lies north-east from Orkney, between the 60th and 61st degree of latitude.

The distance between the head of Sanda, which is the most northerly part of Orkney, and Swinburghead, the most southerly point of Shetland, is commonly reckoned to be twenty or twenty-one leagues; the tides running betwixt are always impetuous and swelling, as well in a calm as when a fresh gale blows; and the greatest danger is near the Fair Isle, which lies nearer to Shetland than Orkney by four leagues.

The largest isle of Shetland, by the natives called the Mainland, is sixty miles in length from south-west to north-east, and from sixteen to one mile in breadth. Some call these isles Hethland, others Hoghland, which in the Norse tongue signifies highland; Shetland in the same language signifies sealand.

This isle is for the most part mossy, and more cultivated on the shore than in any other part; it is mountainous, and covered with heath, which renders it fitter for pasturage than village. The inhabitants depend upon the Orkney isles for their corn. The ground is generally so boggy that it makes riding impracticable, and travelling on foot not very pleasant, there being several parts into which people sink, to the endangering the lives, of which there have been several late instances. About the summer solstice, they have so much light all night that they can see to read by it. The sun sets between ten and eleven, and rises between one and two in the morning, but then the day is so much the shorter, and the night longer in the winter. This, together with the violence of the tides and tempestuous seas, deprives the inhabitants of all foreign correspondence from October till April, and often till May, during which space they are altogether strangers to the rest of mankind, of whom they hear not the least news. A remarkable instance of this happened after the late revolution: they had no account of the Prince of Orange's late landing in England, coronation, &c., until a fisherman happened to land in these isles in May following, and he was not believed, but indicted for high treason for spreading such news.

The air of this isle is cold and piercing, notwithstanding which many of the inhabitants arrive at a great age, of which there are several remarkable instances. Buchanan, in his history, lib. I, gives an account of one Laurence, who lived in his time, some of whose offspring do still live in the parish of Waes; this man, after he arrived at one hundred years of age, married a wife, went out a-fishing when he was one hundred and forty years old, and upon his return, died rather of old age than of any distemper.

The inhabitants give an account of one Tairville, who arrived at the age of one hundred and eighty, and never drank any malt drink, distilled waters, nor wine. They say that his son lived longer than him, and that his grandchildren lived to a good age, and seldom or never drank any stronger liquors than milk, water, or bland.

The disease that afflicts the inhabitants here most is the scurvy, which they suppose is occasioned by their eating too much salt fish. There is a distemper here called bastard scurvy, which discovers itself by the falling of the hair from the people's eyebrows, and the falling of their noses, &c., and as soon as the symptoms appear the persons are removed to the fields, where little houses are built for them on purpose, to prevent infection. The principal cause of this distemper is believed to be want of bread, and feeding on fish alone, particularly the liver. Many poor families are sometimes without bread for three, four, or five months together. They say likewise that their drinking of bland, which is their universal liquor, and preserved for the winter as part of their provisions, is another cause of this distemper. This drink is made of buttermilk mixed with water. There be many of them who never taste ale or beer, for their scarcity of bread is such that they can spare no corn for drink, so that they have no other than bland, but what they get from foreign vessels that resort thither every summer to fish.

The isles in general afford a great quantity of scurvy grass, which, used discreetly, is found to be a good remedy against this disease. The jaundice is commonly cured by drinking the powder of shell-snails among their drink, in the space of three or four days. They first dry then pulverize the snails; and it is observable that though this dust should be kept all the year round, and grow into vermin, it may be dried again, and pulverised for that use.

The isles afford abundance of sea-fowl, which serve the inhabitants for part of their food during summer and harvest, and the down and feathers bring them great gain.

The several tribes of fowl here build and hatch apart, and every tribe keeps close together, as if it were by consent. Some of the lesser isles are so crowded with variety of sea-fowl that they darken the air when they fly in great numbers. After their coming, which is commonly in February, they sit very close together for some time, till they recover the fatigue of their long flight from their remote quarters; and after they have hatched their young, and find they are able to fly, they go away together to some other unknown place.

The people inhabiting the lesser isles have abundance of eggs and fowl, which contribute to maintain their families during the summer.

The common people are generally very dexterous in climbing the rocks in quest of those eggs and fowl; but this exercise is attended with very great danger, and sometimes proves fatal to those that venture too far.

The most remarkable experiment of this sort is at the isle called the Noss of Brassa, and is as follows: ----- The Noss being about sixteen fathoms distant from the side of the opposite main; the higher and lower rocks have two stakes fastened in each of them, and to these there are ropes tied: upon the ropes there is an engine hung, which they call a cradle; and in this a man makes his way over from the greater to the lesser rocks, where he makes a considerable purchase of eggs and fowl; but his return being by an ascent makes it the more dangerous, though those on the great rock have a rope tied to the cradle, by which they draw it and the man safe over for the most part.

There are some rocks here computed to be about three hundred fathoms high, and the way of climbing them is to tie a rope about a man's middle, and let him down with a basket, in which he brings up his eggs and fowl. The Isle of Foula is the most dangerous and fatal to the climbers, for many of them perish in the attempt.

The crows are very numerous in Shetland, and differ in their colour from those on the mainland; for the head, wings, and tail of those in Shetland are only black, and their back, breast, and tail of a grey colour. When black crows are seen there at any time the inhabitants say it is a presage of approaching famine.

There are fine hawks in these isles, and particularly those of Fair Isle are reputed among the best that are to be had anywhere; they are observed to go far for their prey, and particularly for moor-fowl as far as the isles of Orkney, which are about sixteen leagues from them.

There are likewise many eagles in and about these isles, which are very destructive to the sheep and lambs.

This country produces little horse, commonly called shelties, and they are very sprightly, though the least of their kind to be seen anywhere; they are lower in stature than those of Orkney, and it is common for a man of ordinary strength to lift a sheltie from the ground: yet this little creature is able to carry double. The black are esteemed to be the most hardy, but the pied ones seldom prove so good: they live many times till thirty years of age, and are fit for service all the while. These horses are never brought into a house, but exposed to the rigour of the season all the year round; and when they have no grass feed upon sea-ware, which is only to be had at the tide of ebb.

The isles of Shetland produce many sheep, which have two and three lambs at a time; they would be much more numerous did not the eagles destroy them: they are likewise reduced to feed on sea-ware during the frost and snow.

The Lesser Isles of Shetland

The isle Trondra, which lies opposite to Scalloway town, on the west; three miles long and two broad.

Further to the north-east lies the isle of Whalsey, about three miles in length, and as many in breadth; the rase are very numerous here, and do abundance of mischief by destroying the corn.

At some further distance lie the small isles called Skerries; there is a church in one of them. Those isles and rocks prove often fatal to seamen, but advantageous to the inhabitants, by the wrecks and goods that the wind and tides drive ashore; which often supplies them with fuel, of which they are altogether destitute. It was here that the "Carmelan," of Amsterdam, was cast away, as bound for the East Indies anno 1664. Among the rich cargo she had several chests of coined gold; the whole was valued at 3,000,000 guilders; of all the crew four only were saved. The inhabitants of the small isles, among other advantages they had by this wreck, had the pleasure of drinking liberally of the strong drink, which was driven ashore in large casks for the space of three weeks.

Between the Brassa Sound and the opposite main, lies the Unicorn, a dangerous rock, visible only at low water; it is so called ever since a vessel of that name perished upon it, commanded by William Kirkcaldy, of Grange, who was in eager pursuit of the Earl of Bothwell, and was very near him when his ship struck.

On the east lies the island called Fisholm: to the north-east lies Little Rue, and on the west Mickle Rue; the latter is eight miles in length, and two in breadth, and has a good harbour.

Near to Esting lie the isles of Vemantry, which have several harbours - Orney, little Papa, Helisha, etc.

To the north-west of the Ness lies St. Ninian's isle; it has a chapel and an altar in it, upon which some of the inhabitants retain the ancient superstitious custom of burning candles.

Papa-Stour is two miles in length; it excels any isle of its extent for all the conveniences of human life: it has four good harbours, one of which looks to the south, another to the west, and two to the north.

The Lyra Skerries, so-called from the fowl of that name that abound in them, lie near this isle.

About six leagues west of the main, lies the isle Foula, about three miles in length; it has a rock remarkable for its height, which is seen from Orkney when the weather is fair; it has a harbour on the one side.

The isle of Brassa lies to the east of Tingwal; it is five miles in length, and two in breadth; some parts of the coast are stable ground; and there are two churches in it.

Further to the east lies the small isle called the Noss of Brassa.

The isle of Burray is three miles long, has good pasturage, and abundance of fish on its coast; it has a large church and steeple in it. The inhabitants say that mice do not live in this isle, when brought to it; and that the earth of it being brought to any other part where the mice are, they will quickly abandon it.

Haverot Isle, which is a mile and a half in length, lies to the south-east of Burray.

The isle of Yell is sixteen miles long, and from eight to one in breadth; it lies north-east from the main; there are three churches, and several small chapels in it.

The isle of Hakashie is two miles long, Samphrey isle one mile long, Biggai isle is a mile and a half in length; all three lie round Yell, and are reputed among the best of the lesser isles.

The isle of Fetlor lies to the north-east of Yell, and is five miles in length, and four in breadth; it has a church, and some of the Picts houses in it.

The isle of Unst is eight miles long, and is the pleasantest of the Shetland isles; it has three churches and as many harbours; it is reckoned the most northern of all the British Dominions. The inhabitants of the isle Vaila say that no cat will live in it, and if any cat be brought to it, they will rather venture to sea, than stay in the isle. They say that a cat was seen upon the isle about fifty years ago; but how it came there was unknown. They observed about the same time, how the proprietor was in great torment, and as they supposed by witchcraft, of which they say he then died. There is no account that any cat has been seen in the isle ever since that gentleman's death except when they were carried to it, for making the above-mentioned experiment.

The inhabitants say that if a compass be placed at the house of Udsta, on the west-side of the isle Fetlor, the needle will be in perpetual disorder, without fixing to any one pole; and that being tried afterwards on the top of that house, it had the same effect. They add further that when a vessel sails near that house, the needle of the compass is disordered in the same manner.

There is a yellow sort of metal, lately discovered in the isle of Uzia, but the inhabitants had not found a way to melt it; so that it is not yet turned to any account.

The Ancient Court of Justice

In these islands was held in Holm, in the parish of Tingwall, in the middle of the mainland. This Holm is an island in the middle of a freshwater lake; it is to this day called the Law-Ting, and the parish, in all probability, hath its name from it. The entrance to this Holm is by some stones laid in the water; and in the Holm there are four great stones, upon which sat the judge, clerk, and other officers of the Court. The inhabitants who had law-suits attended at some distance from the Holm, on the other side the lake; and when any of them was called by the officer, he entered by the stepping stones; and being dismissed, he returned the same way. This was the practice of the Danes. The inhabitants have a tradition among them that after one had received sentence of death upon the Holm, he obtained a remission, provided he made his escape through the crowd of people on the lake side, and touched Tingwall steeple before any could lay hold on him. This steeple in those days was an asylum for malefactors and debtors to flee into. The inhabitants of this isle are all Protestants; they generally speak the English tongue, and many among them retain the ancient Danish language, especially in the more northern isles. There are several who speak English, Norse, and Dutch; the last of which is acquired by their converse with the Hollanders, that fish yearly in those isles.

The people are generally reputed discreet, and charitable to strangers; and those of the best rank are fashionable in their apparel.

Shetland is much more populous now, than it was thirty years ago; which is owing to the trade, and particularly that of their fishery, so much followed every year by the Hollanders, Hamburgers, and others. The increase of people at Lerwick is considerable; for it had but three or four families about thirty years ago, and is since increased to about three hundred families: and it is observable that few of their families were natives of Shetland, but came from several parts of Scotland, and especially from the northern and eastern coasts.

Fishing in Shetland

The fishery in Shetland is the foundation both of their trade and wealth; and though it be of late become less than before, yet the inhabitants by their industry and application, make a greater profit of it than formerly, when they had them nearer the coast, both of the larger and lesser isles; but now the grey fish of the largest size are not to be had in any quantity without going further into the ocean. The fish commonly bought by strangers here are cod and ling; the inhabitants themselves make only use of the smaller fish and herrings, which abound on the coast of this isle in vast shoals.

The fish called tusk abounds on the coast of Brassa; the time for fishing is at the end of May. This fish is as big as a ling, of a brown and yellow colour, has a broad tail; it is better fresh than salted. They are commonly sold at fifteen or sixteen shillings the hundred.

The inhabitants observe that the further they go to the northward, the fish are of a larger size, and in greater quantities. They make great store of oil, particularly of the large grey fish, by them called seths, and the younger sort sillucks; they say that the liver of one seth affords a pint of Scots measure, being about four of English measure. The way of making the oil is first by boiling the liver in a pot half full of water, and when it boils the oil goes to the top and is skimmed off and put in vessels for use. The fishers observe of late that the livers of fish are less in size than they have been formerly.

The Hamburgers, Brewers, and others come to this country about the middle of May, set up shops in several parts, and sell divers commodities; as linen, muslin, and such things as are most proper for the inhabitants, but more especially beer, brandy, and bread: all which they barter for fish, stockings, mutton, hens, etc. And when the inhabitants ask money for their goods, they receive it immediately.

In the month of June, the Hollanders come with their fishing-busses in great numbers upon the coast for herring; and when they come into the Sound of Brassa, where the herring are commonly most plentiful, and very near the shore, they dispose their nets, etc., in order, but never begin till the twenty-fourth of June, for this is the time limited among themselves, which is observed as a law, that none will venture to transgress. This fishing-trade is very beneficial to the inhabitants, who have provisions and necessaries imported to their doors; and employment for all their people, who by their fishing, and selling the various products of the country, bring in a considerable sum of money yearly. The proprietors of the ground are considerable gainers also, by letting their houses, which serve as shops to the seamen, during their residence here.

There have been two thousand busses, and upwards, fishing in this Sound in one summer; but they are not always so numerous: they generally go away in August or September.

Scalloway & Lerwick

There are two little towns in the largest of the Shetland Isles; the most ancient of these is Scalloway; it lies on the west side of the isle, which is the most beautiful and pleasant part of it. It hath no trade, and but few inhabitants, the whole being about ninety in number. On the south-east end of the town stands the Castle of Scalloway, which is four stories high; it hath several conveniences and useful houses about it, and it is well furnished with water. Several rooms have been curiously painted, though the better part be now worn off. This ancient house is almost ruinous, there being no care taken to repair it. It served as a garrison for the English soldiers that were sent hither by Cromwell. This house was built by Patrick Stewart, Earl of Orkney, anno 1600. The gate hath the following inscription on it - "Patricius Orchadiæ et Zelandiæ Comes." And underneath the inscription, "Cujus fundamen saxum est, Domus ills manebit: Labilis è contra si sit arena, perit." That house, whose foundation is on a rock, shall stand; but if on the sand, it shall fall.

The inhabitants say that this house was built upon the sandy foundation of oppression, in which they say the Earl exceeded; and for that and other crimes was executed.

There is a high stone erected between Dingwall and Scalloway; the inhabitants have a tradition that it was set up as a monument of a Danish general who was killed there by the ancient inhabitants, in a battle against the Danes and Norwegians.

The second and latest built town is Lerwick; it stands on that side of the Sound where the fishing is; the ground on which it is built is a hard rock, one side lies towards the sea and the other is surrounded with a moss, without any arable ground.

On the north is the citadel of Lerwick, which was built in the year 1665, in time of the war with Holland, but never completed; there is little more of it now left than the walls. The inhabitants, about thirty years ago, fished up three iron cannons out of a ship that had been cast away near eighty years before; and being all over rust, they made a great fire of peats round them to get off the rust; and the fire having heated the cannon, all the three went off, to the great surprise of the inhabitants, who say they saw the ball fall in the middle of Brassa Sound, but none of them had any damage by them.


There are many Picts' houses in this country, and several of them entire to this day; the highest exceeds not twenty or thirty feet in height, and are about twelve feet broad in the middle; they taper towards both ends, the entry is lower than the doors of houses commonly are now, the windows are long and very narrow, and the stairs go up between the walls. These houses were built for watch-towers, to give notice of an approaching enemy; there is not one of them but what is in view of some other; so that a fire being made on the top of any one house the signal was communicated to all the rest in a few moments.

The inhabitants say that these houses were called burghs, which in the Saxon language signifies a town or castle fenced all round. The names of fortified places in the Western Isles are in several parts called borg; and the villages in which the forts stand are always named borg.

The inhabitants of Orkney say that several burying places among them are called burghs, from the Saxon word burying.

It is generally acknowledged that the Picts were originally Germans, and particularly from that part of it bordering upon the Baltic Sea. They were called Phightian, that is, Fighters: The Romans called them Picti. Some writers call them Pictavi, either from that name of Phightian, which they took to themselves, or from their beauty; and accordingly Boethius, in his character of them, joins both these together; "Quod erant corporibus robustissimis candidisque;" and Verstegan says the same of them.

The Romans called them Picti, because they had their shields painted of divers colours. Some think the name came from Pichk, which in the ancient Scots language signifies pitch, that they coloured their faces with, to make them terrible to their enemies in battle; and others think the name was taken from their painted habit.

This isle makes part of the shire of Orkney; there are twelve parishes in it, and a greater number of churches and chapels. Shetland pays not above one-third to the Crown of what Orkney does.

The ground being for the most part boggy and moorish, is not so productive of grain as the other isles and mainland of Scotland; and if it were not for the sea-ware, by which the ground is enriched, it would yield but a very small product.

There is lately discovered in divers parts, abundance of limestone, but the inhabitants are not suffficiently instructed in the use of it, for their corn-land.

There is plenty of good peats, which serve as fuel for the inhabitants, especially on the main.

The amphibia in these isles, are seals and otters in abundance; some of the latter are trained to go a-fishing, and fetch several sorts of fish home to their masters.

There are no trees in any of these isles, neither is their any venomous creature to be found there.

There have been several strange fish seen by the inhabitants at sea, some of the shape of men as fat as the middle; they are both troublesome and very terrible to the fishers, who call them sea-devils.

It is not long since every family of any considerable substance in those islands, was haunted by a spirit they called Browny, which did several sorts of work; and this was the reason why they gave him offerings of the various products of the place: thus some when they churned their milk, or brewed, poured some milk and wort through the hole of a stone, called Browny's stone.

A minister in this country had an account from one of the ancient inhabitants who formerly brewed ale, and sometimes read his Bible, that an old woman in the family told him that Browny was much displeased at his reading in that book; and if he did not cease to read in it any more, Browny would not serve him as formerly. But the man continued his reading notwithstanding, and when he brewed refused to give any sacrifice to Browny; and so his first and second brewing miscarried, without any visible cause in the malt; but the third brewing proved good, and Browny got no more sacrifice from him after that.

There was another instance of a lady in Unst, who refused to give sacrifice to Browny, and lost two brewings; but the third proved good, and so Browny vanished quite, and troubled them no more.

I shall add no more, but that the great number of foreign ships which repair hither yearly upon the account of fishing, ought to excite the people of Scotland to a speedy improvement of that profitable trade; which they may carry on with more ease and profit in their own seas, than any foreigners whatever.

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