Shetland Islands

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SEPTEMBER, 2013 - "We arrived at the airport in Sumburgh and set off for Lerwick, a town that in the past relied on the Dutch herring industry and didn’t become the capital until the 17c. At the harbour is a memorial to the crew of the whaler Diana, a whaling ship that in 1866 got trapped in the ice at Baffin Bay for six months. The Captain and many of the crew died. As many of them were from Lerwick the memorial was built. In 1869 while making her way from the Davis straight she encountered a strong gale and was washed into the Donna hook sands on the Lincolnshire Coast and broke up. Her loss ended the whaling industry in Hull.

The Customs House used to be The Tollbooth dated 1770 and housed the Sheriff’s Court and Prison. Outside is a Lodberry a place for loading and unloading ships. Lerwick had a reputation for smuggling. In recent times an assortment of barrels, kegs and jars have been found in cellars and tunnels under the streets.

Our next stop was Scalloway, Shetland’s capital in 17c. Shielded from Atlantic gales by the rugged isles of Trondra and Burra, its harbour was a refuge for ships. Scalloway Castle was built by forced labour for Earl Patrick Stewart in 1599, and was occupied for less than a century and is now roofless. On the waterfront is a memorial to the Shetland Bus Heroes who made the village their base in WW2. They used to rescue Norwegians from their Nazi occupied homeland. A model of one of these little boats stands on top of this memorial.

In Weisdale there are a lot of ruined Bods (small cottages), where people were moved on to make room for sheep. There are very few trees on the Shetlands because the strong wind kills them. The only shops are in Lerwick with a few in Scalloway, and only a few tea rooms exist. The dramatic cliffs at Eshaness are made from lava. and volcanic ash.

Johnny Notions’s Bod belonged to Johnny Williamson who invented a type of smallpox vaccine which saved 3,000 people in the villages. He lived between 1740 and 1804 and was given the nickname Johnny Notions.

On the last Tuesday in January nearly 800 torch-bearing guizers march behind a Viking galley which is burnt with great ceremony. This is called Up Helly A and the leader of the procession is called the Jarl. Jarls spend all year building the galley, their costumes and shields, and torches, which are made from 4ft poles with hessian sacks rolled and nailed with a cement base applied to prevent flames going down the torch pole. The torches are soaked in paraffin with each one absorbing over half a gallon and weigh over 14 pounds.

Artefacts in Lerwick museum include early houses, implements, waterproof shoes made from animal skins as well as a costume worn by a Skekler and his assistant to bring luck to a bride and groom (known as straw boys).

The Napoleonic war broke out in 1793 and the Royal Navy started press gangs. When the Navy tried to take Ursula Smith’s two brothers she resisted them, but was unsuccessful and a Lieutenant Wilson returned and beat her with the butt of his pistol, breaking her tooth, bursting her cheek, and cutting her eye. As she tried to get away he hit her on the head with his sword. Next day she was taken to Lerwick where her wounds were dressed and she reported the incident to the authorities. Lieutenant Wilson was convicted for assault and endangering her life, but he was only sentenced to 14 days in prison.

Another lady of note was Betty Mouat who as a frail 60-year-old, in 1886, went on the packet boat, Columbine, to sell her knitting in Lerwick. The wind became violent and the skipper and the mate were blown overboard, the other sailors tried to rescue them in a little lifeboat, but to their horror they saw the Columbine had sailed off on its own. A steam freighter went out but there was no sign so they assumed it was lost. Nine days later, with only milk and biscuits to eat, Betty and, the Columbine washed up on the coast of Norway. It was seen as a miracle and Queen Victoria sent her £20. She lived to 93, 32 years after her ordeal.

The Town Hall in Lerwick has wonderful stained glass windows and carvings. There are also ceiling shields. Another trip was to the Bod of Gremista, later home to Arthur Anderson, who started out by salting fish, went to sea, and eventually became head of P&O.

Our final visit was to Jarlshof. Here some 100 years ago a violent storm exposed massive stonework under a grass mound, above the sandy beaches at East Voe, near Sumburgh Six main levels from stone age hut 4,000 years old, through to Iron Age Broch, to Viking Village, a farmstead and a wheelhouse emerged. Nearby is Betty Mouats Bod, while Scatness Broch stands in the field next door. The last view of Sumburgh is the lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson who accompanied Sir Walter Scott on a cruise to the Shetlands in 1814. This inspired Scott’s book The Pirate which is set around Fitful Head and gave Jarlshof its name."

(Best wishes from Jackie Towler)



Above left: Lerwick Harbour and the Customs Hall and Tolbooth

Left: Johnny Notions' bod.


A mock-up in the Museum of the interior of a Shetland Cottage.


shetland6The memorial to the Shetland Bus Heroes.


Stained glass windows in Lerwick Town Hall, depicting kings, their wives, and their families.

shetland4An Up Helly A warrior.
shetland5Betty Mouat, was lost at sea for nine days, on the packet boat Columbine, which was washed up on a Norway beach.
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