Aberdeen To The Shetlands
( Originally Published 1912 )
" Merrily, merrily goes the bark
Departure from Aberdeen—Voyage—The Shetlands—A Livelyy Passenger—Cabin Councils—Arrival at Lerwick—A Peep at the Town—Walk to Voe—The Lonely Muirs—The Cows-The Ponies—Pony Life in the Coal Mines—The sheep—Wool Manufactures—Improved Stock in the Shetlands-Back to Kirkwall.
MCCOMBIE, that standing menace to the vegetarians, bade us good luck on the pier. In the eyes of. Captain Parrott and his men, the sea was of course " as still as a duck-pond" ; but when we had passed the " Granite ". and the " Heather Bell," and were fairly outside the bar, the prow of the "Vanguard" began to dip ominously, and the ground-swell told its tale in the bay. Oblivion seize, those hours 1 Prostrate forms soon peopled all the couches and every inch of available carpet in the cabin. One voice of the night put in its feeble protest against our " using a head for a football" ; another groaned piteously when its owner was roused at Wick and told that he was resting over the mailbags on the floor ; and a third had the presence of mind to suggest whisky at 3 a.m. for "buckling on a gentleman's boots."
Wick was fast asleep, but its lightermen knew no slumber, while we give out flour and meal from the hold enough for a beleaguered city. A navy of tan or chocolate-sails studded the offing. One by one they came slowly into harbour, some with hardly the tenth of a cran, or only a cod-fish to mock their toil, and others with their richly laden nettresses glistering in the moonlight, like a sheet of molten silver. Four hours more, and we are at the entrance of Kirkwall Bay, and passing the long, low island of Hellersay. A heron is perched on the ruins of its Picts House, and here too is Thor, the Shetland bull, whose namesake was supposed to fish with a bull's-head bait for the Sea Serpent. There is quite a jubilee on the Kirkwall-pier, while the packet is unlading ; but the thought of thirty-odd leagues between us and Shetland sternly declines to be smothered.
Newspapers are a slender solace to begin with. We read languidly among the telegrams that The Ranger has won the Great Yorkshire, and Golden Pledge the Ebor; and, again, "it is four years since the game-bags have been so well filled." Then doubt is cast upon these returns by the Opposition. What are we to believe, when a Banffshire paper puts the Maharajah "Donald Singh at the. head of the list with 140 brace ; and a Perthshire authority will have it that they were " principally cheepers," and that the editor' and head compositor could have done as good work with sticks" ? They know' no such joys and disputes where we are going. In fact, they have no papers ; and the quiet natives pore with deep interest over the Orcadian's'. tale of the lapwing, which lost its young ones in a ditch, and died of grief on the spot. Now a new interest presents itself in the shape of a young English touurist, who is quite bomb-proof, and always exhorting the passengers to make an effort, and come upon deck to see something. " Come up, indeed ! " as we told him—" No, not to. see the last of the water-bulls from the lock of Olginmore,"
The seas have been " restless in these parts time out of mind, but they-were nothing to him. In another quarter of an hour,.. he is among us again. He has conceived the idea of throwing a bottle overboard with a joint statement that we have been shipwrecked in a brig about this date, and are floating in Northern latitudes, with only biscuits on a spar. He will become a subscriber, he says, to the . Orkney and Caithness papers for a quarter ; and if they ever notice that bottle, which he is convinced they will, we can be communicated with at our respective addresses. One of the passengers consents to " sign anything for peace and quietness," but the rest spurn his pen and paper, and the project is ultimately quashed. His announcement of the Fair Isle makes him rather more popular, and a few of us peep feebly through the portholes at those lonely fishers. They have no regular post, but the tacksmen bring them meal and take away fish; and so their life wears on. The captain chaffs them by putting on extra steam ; and the game stern-chase which they row for the sake of the newspapers, which he opens and sends to them over- the waves like fying-fish; would not displease Bob Chambers.
A more protracted interval between his cabin missions is at last explained by the fact that our friend, in default of other excitement, has developed a tendency to sit on the bowsprit. In vain do the sailors warn him that he will become a prey to the lobsters ; and of course a " difficulty" ensues with the mate, who follows up his "first warning" by collaring him. He argues the point vigorously with that officer, and fails to make any impression. The tea-party is anything but sympathetic when he tells them how he has been " insulted " ; and when the captain appears in his place, and affects, with quite a dramatic start, to know happiness once more, after having been weighed down for hours by the report of his loss, he makes a final appeal. First he adduces precedents " I sat on the bowsprit between Edinburgh and Aberdeen." " Did you ? " said the captain ; " but the sea isn't so deep in those parts." His great point is that he will lay the mate's conduct before the steamboat company ; and there the captain is quite with him, as " he'll get a gold medal for saving your life." But harmony is restored and the evening closes with toddy.
It is nearly midnight, and we are at the "sea-girdled peat-moss " at last. There are lights in every lattice when we steam into Lerwick Bay, and the "retaliatory " report of the cannon soon made us welcome. An August morning broke on a quaint, old, innless town, with one narrow, flagged street at the foot of a hill, up which you climb through alleys.
They bear the proud names of "Pitt" and " Re, form," but were more suggestive, during our brief visit, of perennial gutters and washing-tubs. Dutch clogs, seal-skin purses, and comforters seemed great articles of trade, and there were also photographs of Earl Zetland, holding a grey horse. Job Marson and Voltigeur are names unknown. Commander Smith of the revenue cutter, and fully six-feet-two by sixteen stone, is evidently the great man of the place, and makes a brave figure as he goes in full uniform, with his cocked hat and clanking sword to church. It is grand to watch his six blue-jackets pulling through the bay ; and he had just derived no small lustre from having brought an American skipper most promptly to his bearings, when Jonathan declined either to hoist his bunting or to show his papers.
Most tourists take a pony and a guide, and sally forth after "thick little trout with red spots." Loch fishing, however, is not in our way; our toes would brush the heather ; and Mr. Hay's Ordnance map, with green, red, and yellow lines, is an all-sufficient aid. The road out of Lerwick winds for a short space among boulders and peat-hags, then down a rocky path to the right, of which a woman with a huge caissie full of hosiery on her back seemed to make nothing, and over the strath at Dales Voe. The road became puzzling, so we asked a girl ; but she took fright at the map, and hurried swiftly down the hill to a cottage, whose women inmates came out and surveyed us with as much zeal as if we were a travelling gorilla. So we fall back on our map, and leave the green line, which means "road prior to 1847," cut the yellow entirely, as it is merely " surveyed," take to the red " formed by the Relief Board" for a short space, and finally hit off the green triumphantly by Laxforth Voe and Wabister. Sheaves appear in a valley, with small farm-houses here and there, and black and white cows, looking no bigger than trick ponies, on the hills, The sides of the road are wild and open, and the cottars' white crops are rich and yellow—with runchy. Some few planes and stunted elders, and a hermit ash in a garden are the only apologies for a tree. At the distance is a lowly straw-thatched hamlet, and seawards a bold Bass Rock, which seems a very Gibraltar to the Cheviots.
Public-houses and milestones there are none. If you'll call at some respectable house, and say you're hungry, it's quite enough," was our primitive "office" on this head. Even among the humbler folk you can get eggs and oatcake, and as much buttermilk as you can drink ; and a trifle in the baby's hand at parting will send you away with a blessing. Eggs, it must be remembered, are fourpence a dozen, " except when the fleet comes," and then even the mildest Shetlander is not caught napping. For threepence you may gene-rally buy a chicken, for sixpence to ninepence a good fat hen, and for eighteen-pence a goose. The latter are of the small grey sort, and are put out to wander on the hills from Whitsuntide to the end of November, and the procurator-fiscal descends with a month on any one who disregards the slit-mark in the web of the foot. A ewe costs about seven shillings ; and a cottar's wife, who fastened her two. year-old stot with a cord and a peg among the ooze, and lamented that it was not "longer-legged," thought it very odd of us that we would not close with her 42 offer. In short, for L60 one could stock a miniature farm, and have a team of four mare ponies. We are nearly a hundred miles from a grouse or a badger ; but there are a few hares, and there never was more than one fox in the islands. He was an escaped Icelander, and a regular parishioner of Lunnesting, where he led a merry bachelor life among the rabbits while it lasted. He occasionally ran down the sheep, and, by way of comment on the mutton, only ate their tongues.
Gradually we begin to strike inland through a succession of rudely-fastened gates on to a boundless muir, which sheep and ponies seemed to hold in fee. A skewball and a brown with tong matted locks stand moodily under a rock, one with a foal at her foot. A dun, as short on her legs as a Kerry, and a " cherry-red " chestnut trot off steadily to the heights along with a yearling, which winter will reduce into a mass of frosty wool; with fierce little eyes and four black feet. As for the sheep, they are off like a pistol-shot before one can `say, " Lie down, Croppies." A lusty lamb with Cheviot-looking wool, which will ere long run to hair at the points, scampers after the plainest of dams, which has milked till she is almost "at the lifting." Unity of colour there is none. One ewe was brindled, and others blue, grey, and black with white legs and blaze. "Black and all black" was quite common, and the colour would sometimes come rug-shape, or under the belly, or round both eyes. A pink or a white nose could hardly be called the exception. Still the palm for queerness rested with a lamb, speckled or ringstraked, we forget which, and with head-and horns like the pictures of the Evil One.
As the day wore on, the silence would have been terrible even to a seasoned Crusoe. For two hours and a quarter we met no one save a minister, who asked for the news by the packet, and was told of the death of Lord Clyde. There were no bleat, no nicker in the drowsy distance, no cry of the curlew, no " wild birds gossiping overhead" in that peaty, treeless waste. A solitary rane goose was sailing in one of the vast chain of lochs, just tipped by the evening sun. The murmur of a little brook across the road was quite a joyful thing ; and when we hadn't that solace, we wakened up the nearest sheep group with a " view halloo," just to keep life in us. Then our patience began to fail sorely.. Why had we ever loved a Shorthorn and nursed our love at Towneley and Athelstaneford ? What had we done that we were paying this fearful penance by walking "eighteen miles on end" to an unknown Voe or a remorseless Pa-Pa ? shall we ever again join in those merry sales at Blenkiron's, and the annual call for Dundee ? Why had we given up our herd rambles to English farm-houses, peeping out coyly among beehives and apple-blossoms, and redolent of fat bullocks and wedders, to roam in these ancient silences with threeyear-old mutton at 4lbs. a quarter ? Why, indeed ! There was no lodge in this wilderness. Twice over we stretched away to what seemed one, at the turn of the road, but it faded into a greywacke rock. The red line on the map knew no end. At last, we savagely doubted that map altogether, and longed for the gipsy patran. Half a mile more, and we hear voices—three girls at the crossroads in their plaid gowns and crinoline complete. A house, a bay, and a smack at anchor!—the long-desired Voe at last !
"The lighthouse top I see
There was a kind welcome from Mr. Adey, and abundance of fresh materials for a morning's ramble. The kirkyard on the edge of the bay was a mass of nettles and sea-faring graves, in which rest " Lawrence Tait, mariner, and his spouse Lileeus" , and the list on the door disclosed the fact of only three voters in the lordship. Thousands of carcases of dried cod were piled in the Iceland smack, and a few dozen were swimming merrily in her well. The store near the landing-pier was boundless in its variety, and descended from whisky, food, and raiment to comfits and casteroil. The ponies in the park were infinitely more sociable than their sisters on the muir, and an old dun mare merely put her lip down and her ears back, for conformity, while we wrote off our thoughts quite comfortably on her loins. That over, we strolled to the compound, and helping to " twist " two or three cows out of a lot for the South added a keen zest to breakfast.
The cows of Shetland are pretty much a pocket edition of the old-fashioned Yorkshire milch cow, but with more of the Shorthorn head. They are principally black and white, red and white, black with mottle grey, red, dun, and " red mixed with ashes," which may answer to our dark roan. About Edinburgh, where a good many are kept to feed in parks, white and black, and more especially white with black ears, are the popular colours. If the former are crossed with a white bull, the calves in many instances fall rich black roan. The Unst cattle are best, but in some islands the bad-coloured ones seem only born to a course of seaweed and starvation. Queys in store condition, from three to five, average £3 to £3 5S., and stots of that: age are scarcer, and from 5s. to 10s. dearer. Cows near calving range from £4. 10s. to 5 10s., but unless they are very well fed the queys scarcely ever have a calf in Shetland till their fourth or fifth summer. Some cows are sold fat off the islands in August and September, and the fleshers deem an orange tint on the skin their highest test of quality. A few between seven and ten from the very best pasture have died well " in Aberdeen at two to two and a half cwt. neat. Others are exported younger, and are fed off, about Edinburgh, without ever having a calf ; but the stots are liked better for stores, and, with good keep, will more than double their price in twelve months. Eight quarts of milk can be got at a meal, but five are not a bad average where no bean flour has been used. The bettermost class of Shetlanders have generally " butter and cream flying through the ,house ; " but, except in Unst, there is very little cheese. The " bland" is made by pouring hot water- on to buttermilk, and putting it into jars when-the curds are removed ; and at Voe they quaffed it like nectar, and vainly adjured us to do so.
The cattle are principally bred by ones and twos among the cottagers, and there are large gatherings of them at Lerwick on packet day, from August to October inclusive, Some years ago, when they were in less request, a friend of ours went over for some, and his wishes were made known, not from the pulpit, as has been sometimes the case, but by the beadle at the church door. The news spread as quick as an Indian patty-cake, and nearly fifty were in the church yard for inspection, when he looked out of the vicarage window next morning. " Proprietors' sales," as they are called, take place in May, when the small tenants sell their beasts to the dealer, on the understanding that he is to pay over the money to the proprietor, who thus secures his rent. They are all bought for grazing, and are put on some island when the grass is ready, to get freshened up for exportation later in the year.
There are a few garrons from the Orkneys for heavy draught ; but nearly every one uses the ponies of the country. Duns are in great request ; but the colour is not so much an object if the bone be only good. Greys and chestnuts are scarce : bay has not its wonted supremacy ; and bays and blacks are most common. Some buyers began to go against piebalds, from a belief that they had Iceland blood in them, and were softer and slower in consequence. Five or six hundred of these Icelanders have been known to arrive annually at Granton, Aberdeen, and Grange-mouth. They are, generally speaking, two hands higher than the Shetland ponies, and sometimes sadly stubborn on landing if they are not twitched under the lip.
The best ponies come from Unst; but both there and everywhere the breeders are far too indifferent to the points of a sire, as long as they are foal-getters. "About a quarter of Unst has a skeleton of red sand, stone and serpentine, with a thin soil studded with large red stones, and the knobs of rocks sticking up. Yet among these rocky incumbrances one sees scores of ponies picking, the green grass, which the light of heaven and the breath of the Gulf stream force up from so barren-looking a bed. Still, Unst may be regarded as the heart of Shetland ; and a sunny, genial-looking spot it is, when other parts of the country are dismal enough, in the late northern spring." The heather and the bog-grasses else-where do not make much milk, and the mare ponies sink so much in condition that they are invariably barren every other year. If very well kept they reach 44 inches, but the average is from 38 to 42. Their owners frequently lose sight of them for a couple of summers, and recognize them when wanted, not by any formal " Exmoor brand on the saddle-place or the hoof, but by a peculiar slit or bits of tape, clout, or leather tied through a hole in the ear. Each cottar has generally a few ponies on the hill, and when the May and October sales at the different stations are at hand, they circumvent them for selection by the dealers with a line of forty or fifty fathoms. Still, the poor, hardworking Shetlander is generally little more than the nominal lord of his pony poverty is his lot from the cradle to the grave, and, as the phrase goes, he is " still in tow." In his dire need the merchants become his mortgagees, just as the curers are to the herring fishers; they advance money on the security of his foal, and he doesn't get the best of it with "halvers' mares."
There is no need to call "the oldest inhabitant" in Unst to witness that an Indian file of forty horse ponies has been seen there carrying peats. The Ashley Act has changed all that, and only left enough of them for sires in the island. In fact, such a demand sprang up at the collieries that the Shetlanders could not resist the lure of £5 10s., and " ground up their saplings " at two years old. Now the demand is less, and they are satisfied with A. for them at that age. When the trade was at its height, upwards of five hundred were taken annually for the pits, and not thirty mares amongst them, and about two hundred for general use. They were of all ages from two to twelve, and for a very good one the pit owners would give the dealers as high as £8 to £10. The year 1857 was a red-letter one, and a noted dealer, Mr, Parris, of Kirton Mains, neat Edinburgh, brought over as many as two hundred and twenty in two weeks, and four hundred in the course of the season. In 1861, no less than six hundred and sixty-six came South by the steamer, and perhaps fifty more by sailing vessels. Such heavy sales, which were con tinued in a modified degree for some years, nearly drained the Shetlands of aged ponies ; but as the dealers' purchases have fallen off considerably these last two summers, the breeders have had a little breathing time. Now, a good horse pony and " a very extra mare" will average £7 and mares generally range about £2 below horses. The pit owners do not buy in December, as they are engaged balancing their books, but January and February bring a brisk demand, which dies out with the fires, and revives with them again.
The Welsh ponies outnumber the Shetland in the Durham collieries, and the Scotch have the lead in the Northumberland, where the present working seams are much thicker, and require larger ponies for "putting " purposes, or drawing coals from the " face" to the horse roads. For " putting," the pony height varies with the seam from nine to thirteen hands ; but there are other " ponies " on the main ways fully fifteen hands by the standard. The Scotch ones (which are chiefly bred in Argyleshire, Mull, and Skye, and the western part of Ross-shire) average twelve two, the Iceland twelve, the Welsh eleven, and the Shetland ten. Ponies from five to seven years old are preferred, but nearly eighty per cent. are between two and three. The great majority are very tractable, and the most vicious recusants are to be found among the Welsh. Some of the ponies have not seen the light for fifteen years ; and one horse at South Hetton descended in '45, and has not come up since. In well-regulated pits they are equal to well-kept hunters in point of muscle and condition. They have generally green food for a month during the summer ; and at South Hetton and several other collieries, where Mr. Charles Hunting, V.S. (a well-known writer on the subject), is in charge, the oats, beans, and peas are crushed and mixed with bran, and the hay is always chopped. They suffer principally from indigestion, but not nearly to such an extent as agricultural horses, and scarcely ever from diseases of the lungs, glanders, or farcy ; and if their eyes go, it is almost always from accidents in the dark. The runs vary from two hundred to six hundred yards ; but the average day's work is twenty miles, half of it with empty tubs. One tub contains 10 cwt. of coal, and weighs nearly half as much again ; and therefore when the seam dips five or six inches to the yard, the wear and tear of pony power is fearful. It is a perilous task, and broken backs, and necks, and legs swell the stable mortality bills to a very large amount.
As we have run the Shetland ponies right out of the islands to ground in Durham, we may go back and draw Unst once more for the native sheep, in which it and North Mavin are said to excel. They pass a strange, tameless existence, and continue to the last as shy as a rabbit. In June their owners muster a posse comitatus, of all ages and sizes, to sweep the hill. A dog is worse than useless, as the sheep never " pack" in a panic. A skilful woman can pull one in five minutes, and a three-shear (if we can use the term) will produce nearly 2lbs. There are three kinds of wool on one sheep, all- varying in quality. The fine-woolled or "the beaver" sheep has this fur or down all over it, under the protection of the coarse hairs ; whereas it is only found on the neck and a few other parts of a less kindly one. The white and light-grey wools vary from is. 8d. to 2s. 2d. per lb. ; and brown, or a peculiar, shade of it called " Mooriah Mound," will reach half-a-crown. The best sorts are knit by hand into those veils which defy AEolus, and those still more remarkable shawls from a yard to two yards square, which can be drawn through a wedding-ring, weigh little more than four ounces, take upwards of a year to make, and are sold as high as five guineas. Stockings are generally made from the coarser sorts, but a pair from the high-class wool will fetch a very great price. Every part of the staple has its use, and the refuse, when decomposed after the stocking process, is made into hats. If the sheep are taken south, they still carry the traces of their bleak and hedgeless birthplace in their manners and their blood. A seven-foot wall will not keep them in, and their storm-tried heads despise all shelter save the sky. So much for the native breeds.
On the farms of Vinsgarth, Reawick, Bigton, and Maryfield the Shorthorn has surely made his way for some years past. The first and second cross heifers have been kept for cows, and the young cattle are generally sold as two-year-olds. The Angus bull has been used to some extent at Quendale; and Symbister can boast of a pretty good Ayrshire. Shetland, however, is perhaps rather better adapted for producing sheep than cattle, and where the common have been divided the native breed has been crossed with the Cheviot, in a few instances to three or four generations. Still, the ewes and tups have been so often selected at haphazard that the offspring is a very indifferent sheep, which will hardly bear the expense of shipment to the southern market. The native ewes are now crossed much more frequently with a Leicester, and the produce are readily picked up by a certain class of buyers for the south. A flock of Cheviots has been kept for sometime past by Mr. Bruce at Vinsgarth, and part of them have been crossed with an Oxford Down from the Duke of Marlborough's flock; while Mr. Walker, of Maryfield,has used a Southdown tup. Pure Cheviot ewes are also kept at Lunna, Laxfirth, and Bigton, for breeding half bred Leicester. The proprietors in Hoy, Noss, Fetlar, Sumburgh, Grernista, Hillsburgh, and Vementry have more or less of the Cheviot blood, and are gradually progressing. Still, the difficulties and expense of obtaining and upholding a pure Cheviot flock in Shetland are very considerable. The moist climate, undrained pastures, want of enclosures, and consequent lack of shelter induce braxy to a great extent, and hence the flockmasters are anxious to part with their lambs at any price, rather than lose them altogether in the winter. The consequence is that, with few exceptions, the Shetland sheep stocks are of a very mixed character. Tenants are decidedly anxious and willing, but their aspirations are very much in advance of the encouragement given by proprietors.
The first cattle show was held at Lerwick in August, '64. Entries came from all parts, some by very indifferent and rugged roads, while others had of course to be put into boats, and ferried over the voes. The Highland Society gave prizes for cattle of any other pure breed than Shetland, and Aberdeen-shire and Caithness furnished the judges. In the improved cattle and sheep classes the prizes were awarded almost entirely to Walker of Maryfield, Bruce of Vinsgarth, and Umphray of Reawick. The entries were generally pretty good ; but the pig part of the show dwindled down to a brace of sows, and a boar whose prize was withheld. The " old original " cattle and ponies of Shetland mustered well ; but to bring the sheep, or to ask them to stop when they were there, was far beyond the power of man. As well try to lot and sell by auction white bulls from Chillingham Park, or the old Forest of Caledon.
One of those hopleless afternoons " which wets the puir Scotchman to his sark, the Englishman to his skin" did not improve the aspect of the " scattalds " or undivided commons, as we trudged back from Voe long before the signal-gun boomed out its half-hour warning over Bressay. The deck was quite a Shetland cattle market, and it was elysium to be once more among the busy band of farmers giving orders about their stock and getting a few last words with the captain. The reports of our mercurial friend were conflicting, but on the whole favourable. He had rung his bell at short intervals all the first night, and got up rather low-spirited on the morrow, but had ultimately. gone shares in a pony gig, and departed into the interior with a cattle dealer, who was anxious to show him life. The lights of Lerwick were soon far on our lee. Once more stretched in the. stern, and with nearly " forty miles in us," we revisit the Fair Isle. only in dreams. The sun is up and bright when we reach Kirkwall, and the Shapinsey mail is cleaving her way through the long seaweed tangle.