WILLIAM BLACK went about to dub the Hebrides our Thule; but that title better belongs to the islands of fellow-countrymen-
Who dwell beyond the Pentland’s roar
And watch dim skerries white with drowning seas
And hear Æolian moanings of the breeze
Wandering ever about a surf-strewn shore
Beneath broad skies with billowy mist-wreaths hoar
Through winter days that gloom but never freeze
Nor chill the Northern heart’s devotion.
The Orkney and Shetland Isles, whoever were their original inhabitants, became restocked from the kingdom that figures in legendary history as “Lochlin,” and still plainly keep much of the Scandinavian character, on other coasts of Britain appearing only in patches and strains, or, as in the Southern Hebrides, overlaid by Celtic features. These “Nordereys” had early been known to Gothic pirates, crushing the nascent Christianity believed to have been planted by Cormac and other disciples of St. Columba, ghostly fathers whose memory seems to survive in the Papas of the archipelago. The Norwegian kingdom, converted in turn, established its power more or less firmly all over the Hebrides, with occasional assaults on Ireland and Scotland ; and for three centuries the Orkneys made a Jaridom dependent on Norway. The Icelandic sagas throw a weird light on their confused history of feuds, treacheries, fire and sword, bouts of drinking and devotion, from which, as the kingdom of Scotland took shape, begins to emerge a contention between relationships of kindred and of vicinity. The quasi-independent Jarls of Orkney fitfully recognised a suzerain in Scotland as well as in Norway. At one time we find this Norwegian Nizam seated across the Pentland as Thane of Caithness; then again a Scottish earl is imposed on the Orkneys. The position of Shetland is more obscure at this period, but till well on in the middle ages all the Hebrides belonged to the archiepiscopal diocese of Trondhjem.
When the last Norwegian invasion of Scotland had been defeated on the Clyde, Haco retired to Kirkwall, there dying in 1263. The winds warred against that armada, whose failure was not so much a decisive blow as one strain in a gradual loosening of Norse authority over the isles. Soon afterwards, Haco’s son formally resigned to Alexander III. all dominion of the Hebrides, except in the Orkneys and Shetlands, which were specially reserved to the Norwegian crown, by and by absorbed in that of Denmark. But two centuries later, when certain differences between these thrones came to be adjusted by the marriage of James III. to Margaret of Denmark, her father pledged the islands to Scotland for the bulk of her stipulated dowry, 60,000 forms, that have never been paid; and so we hold this part of our kingdom on a pawnbroker’s title, as to which international lawyers might cover acres of foolscap, if Denmark were disposed to clear off the mortgage.
Even earlier, Sinclairs and other lords from the mainland had pushed on to the Orkneys, which afterwards became so oppressively exploited by esurient Scots that theirs was no beloved name here; and the islanders, even now that old resentments are forgot, decline to look on themselves as Scotsmen. The mass of the population are of Norse stock, whose language died out here as slowly as Cornish at the other end of the kingdom; and still it colours the local dialect, that kept a quaint Quakerism of thee and thou, with a continental slurring of the Ii in such words. The islands are reckoned as a Scottish county, but their particularismus considers itself rather as a boat towed in the wake of Great Britain; and they speak of going to Scotland as Cornishmen of crossing the Tamar into England. Another correspondence with Cornwall is in the prevalence here of dissenting forms of Evangelical doctrine. Then, like the Cornish moors and cliffs, those of Thule are dotted with grey monuments of forgotten faith and bloodshed, long washed out of memory.
Except by isolated incidents, the islands enter little into the history of Scotland, since the days when it was alternately a refuge and a raiding ground for their Viking chiefs. Kirkcaldy of Grange was shipwrecked here in pursuit of Bothwell. Montrose pressed some of the islanders into his service, else they took slight interest in the wars of Whig and Tory. More than one stirring naval engagement came off at this northern end of the kingdom, long exposed to raids from French and Dutch cruisers, against which, indeed, most of the islands were well defended by their perilous reefs and currents. Their latest appearance in history was a hoax that deceived newspaper readers of 1866 into believing the account of a Fenian raid on Unst, with such details as a forced ransom, the taking of hostages, the minister hanged by his own bell-rope, all set forth so seriously that a man-of-war is said to have got as far as Aberdeen on its way to the rescue.
The two groups number some eight score islands and islets, not half of them inhabited. Lying in the Gulf Stream, they have a wet and windy climate, variable rather than severe, often cool in summer, raw and rheumatic in winter, when a truly dark December affords little chance for skating or curling. That many- weathered March of our islands usually brings the sharpest cold to this end of them. The whole archipelago is so broken into balms and indented by voes, that on the largest islands one will never be more than a few miles from the sea; nor is it easy to take a mile’s walk without coming oil a reed-fringed, foam- edged basin of fresh water, over which salt spray blows into one’s face across the rough cliff-bound flats that swell up into waves of moor, but seldom into imposing hills. Except in a few favoured spots, where thin clumps of stunted wood are nursed like gardens, a telegraph post is the only kind of tree breaking the bleak horizon above heath and bog, with a lonely farmhouse, a huddlement of cottages, a patch of fields now and then to remind us that this is no wilderness. Seen under its too frequent shade of sullen sky or drizzling showers, such a landscape strikes the lover of lush nature as dismal, yet it has its bright moments, sometimes its halcyon seasons in the long days of the far northern summers, and at all times taking features of its own. “The scene, which on a sunless day seems hard and cold, with occasional gleams of sunlight, becomes a perfect kaleidoscope of varying colours.” So writes Mr. J. R. Tudor in his excellent book on the islands, which also tells us of” vivid greens” in early summer, of glorious shows of red clover to relieve the prevalent dulness, and of a rich spangling of spring flowerets that here linger into June and July. The little purplish Primula Scotica has been called the queen of Orkney blooms, among them some rare in the North, and some that seem dying out in a hard struggle for existence. The writer who thinly disguised himself as “Shirley,” thus sums up our Thule’s finest features :-
For the artist there are vast spaces of sea and sky; the shining sands; the glories of the sunset; and above and beyond all the pageantry of the storm. For each day a fresh drama is transacted upon the heavens. The morning hours are often brilliantly bright; but ere mid-day the sun is suddenly obscured; the storm-cloud rises out of the Atlantic; sometimes the wind and rain lash the panes for hours; sometimes the cloud breaks upon the hills of Hoy, and passes away like a dream. The dénoz2rnent of the drama is always obscure; you cannot predict what the end will be, and so the interest never flags. And among the land-locked bays and through the narrow channels there is excellent boating for those who can circumvent the tides. Unless, indeed, you know something of the obscure laws which govern the ebb and flow of the ocean in this network of islands, you are pretty sure to come to grief. For round many of them it runs like a mill-race. Between Hoy and Stennis, for instance, the ebb is simply a foaming and swirling torrent, against which sail and even steam are powerless. That vast body of water pouring into the Atlantic is as irresistible as a Canadian rapid. But if you study the tides, you can seek out secluded nooks, where the seals are basking on the tangle, and the wild duck are wheeling round the bay, and the blue rocks are darting out of the caves, and the grouse are crowing among the heather, and where for ten months out of the twelve the peace is absolute, and silence unbroken save by the shepherd’s dog.
It has been remarked how the very superstitions of such a land run naturally to fishiness, as indeed all over the Hebrides uncouth leviathans haunt the fog banks, dragons lurk in the hollowed cliffs, sea-serpents in the voes as water-bulls in the lochans, and treacherously smiling mermaids, more to be shunned than all these monsters, delude men to their doom among slippery reefs. The mermaid legends may well have been suggested by half-human glimpses of seals. Our critical age is also disposed to relate them to occasional visits of Eskimo or Lapp adventurers, seen only to the waist in their skin canoes. Not so long ago there were people in the islands who boasted descent from “Finn” strangers, very possibly kinsmen of an aboriginal pigmy race, Picts, “Pechts,” or what not, that may here have left their memory in the “Trows” or “Trolls” of land mythology, and their name in the Pentland (Pechtlana’) Firth.
Fishing and fowling, as well as antiquarian puzzles, have long been attractions to these rocks and waters, that begin to be more visited for their own sake, now that our generation develops a taste in out-of-the-way aspects of nature. It was a lucky hit for the archipelago when in 1814 Walter Scott accompanied the Northern Lights Commissioners on their jovial tour of office, at Stromness picking up from a toothless Norna that story of the pirate Gow which he so well dressed up in the contents of his note-book. One admires his dexterity in conducting the plot so as to bring in the lions of a trip, his companions on which could have no doubt of the authorship. Gow was a real character, whose name, to be translated Smith, pairs with Paul Jones, another eighteenth-century corsair, of whom it is told that he was scared away from Lerwick by the red flannel petticoats of women marching to market, as the French invaders of Pembrokeshire were by red-cloaked Welshwomen, mistaken for an army of soldiers. It seems strange to remember how Scott’s fellow-tourists were kept on the alert by the fear of American privateers.
From the Orkneys Byron also took an authentic hero for his Island in George Stewart, midshipman of the Bounty, “tempest-born in body and in mind,” whose Otaheitean child was living here in the middle of last century. Then Orkney has poets of her own, such as John Malcolm, the soldier ; David Vedder, the sailor; and Mr T. S. Omond, known as a writer on as in metre, from whom I have quoted at the beginning of this chapter. Professor Aytoun, whose lyre had such a range of strings, was connected with the islands as their Sheriff; while one of his Christian names hints at kindred with the Shetland Edmonstons distinguished in natural history. Clouston is the name of another “family-pen” here; and that of Moodie, husband and wife, was transplanted to Canadian authorship. Rae the Arctic, and Baikie the African explorer set out from so far north. From Orkney came a whole galaxy of Traill writers. The three Laings, all notable in literature, were of an Orkney family. So was Washington Irving, who indeed narrowly escaped being born on Shapinshay, as our American cousins will be interested to know. J. R. Lowell was of Orkney blood by the spindle side; he could remember his maternal grandmother as dressing in black on Independence Day and lamenting “His Majesty’s unhappy differences with his colonists.” By the way, in Bonnie Scotland, while explaining how, spite of such names as Munroe, Buchanan, Grant, Arthur, McKinley, no born Scotsman has yet been President of the United States, I forgot to mention that President Polk (Pollock) boasted lineal descent from John Knox. It may be added that President Roosevelt is certainly of Scottish stock on one side, even if his paternal line be not connected with some John o’ Groat or Dirk Hatteraick.
In Scott’s day the islands were backward in cultiva- tion, though what with fishing, wrecks, smuggling, and kelp-burning, the people seemed uncommonly well supplied with luxuries. Poverty may have originally prompted that strange superstition as to the danger of saving lives from the sea, which lingered in Cornwall, too, almost up to our own day. The islanders counted on what they could make out of “God-sends” such as helped to furnish Magnus Troil’s house and the pack of Bryce Snailsfoot; and it was a serious loss to them when the beaconing of their stormy waters diminished the harvest of flotsam and jetsam. Scott tells how an Orcadian answered Mr. Stevenson remarking on the bad sails of his boat : “If it had been His will that you hadna built sae many lighthouses hereabout, I would have had new sails last winter.
The ground was much divided among small proprietors, as it still is to a less degree, and small holdings are common, so that the islands were, quite needlessly as regards the Orkneys, some think, put under the Crofters Commission. The people of the southern group are more thriftily prosperous than in the Hebrides. They had their fit of standing out obstinately against “improvements”; then they suffered from the set-back of the kelp industry, here very profitable for a time, but its failure proved a blessing in disguise as turning their attention to agriculture; and they seem too well off now to trouble about kelp, on which the landlords would still set them working at “orra” times. In the last half-century tenants and “peerie” lairds showed the sense to follow enterprising landlords like Balfour of Shapinshay, so that now many of the farms compare with those on the mainland. There is a flourishing export of cattle, much improved by the introduction of good stock. Along with their ponies and hairy sheep, almost as wild as goats, the islands had a breed of small cows, from whose milk was made their peculiar drink bland, resembling the koumiss of the Tartars. Some quarter of a century ago an effort was made to push this beverage in London, where, however, it seems not to have “caught on.” Then living in Kensington lodgings, I patriotically ordered a case of it, which, as the weather was hot and the liquor “up,” I put under my bed, taking this for the coolest spot at my command, but ignorant that it was over the kitchen fire. I had hardly got into bed when, one by one, the bottles began to explode, till the whole battery had fired itself away. Above me slept no less a fellow-lodger than General Gordon, not yet of Khartoum; and I wondered whether my bombardment might have brought China into his dreams.
The Shetlands, for their part, are grander, wilder, rougher, poorer, colder, wetter, less “improved,” in general, more Norse and primitive. Their industry is rather at sea than on land. Mr. Tudor quotes an apt saying as to the difference between the people “The Shetlander is a fisherman who has a farm; the Orcadian a farmer who has a boat.” Through the fisheries the Shetlanders were long in closer touch with Holland and Scandinavia than with Scotland, which for centuries has been spreading her tentacles over the adjacent Orkneys. A century ago Dutch and Danish coins were more familiar at Lerwick than the head of George III. ; and up to a later time, Norwegian weights and measures were used all over the islands. The Orkneys are, or were, well stocked with grouse and snipe ; sea-fowl are the game of the Shetlands, not that they lack in the southern group, among which the great auk was killed off three-quarters of a century ago. Straw-plaiting was once a resource of the Orkneys. They are rich in cattle, the Shetlands rather in sheep, where the chief home industry is the hosiery knitting that keeps women’s fingers busy even when their backs are bowed under peat creels. The Shetlands, in short, bear much the same relation to the Orkneys as the Highlands to the Lowlands, though the old name Hialtland seems not so fitting as Sea-land, the former spelling of which is preserved in the Earl of Zetland’s title. Till lately the Shetlands were less visited by strangers ; but now a tide of tourist-travel seems to be setting strongly to the northern isles, that offer such a change of air for southrons able to put up with somewhat scrimp accommodation, while hospitable goodwill as yet must take the place of hotel luxury.
The tourist’s easiest goal is Kirkwall, capital of the Mainland, alias Pomona, central mass of the Orkneys. The old grey town, cramped into narrow ways, stands at the head of its “Church Bay,” about the towering Cathedral founded by Jarl Ronald in memory of his uncle, murdered St. Magnus. This is one of the few noble Scottish fanes that came almost unhurt through the Reformation, though mutilated by tempest and by neglect, and only in part still used as a church. It rivals Glasgow as the finest of northern Cathedrals, its special character being a height and narrowness that give imposing effect, and some of the architectural ornaments are of striking beauty, as the east rose- window and the carved doorways in which different colours of stone were well combined. By the will of a late eccentric Sheriff, a considerable sum becomes available for the restoration or decoration of this ancient fabric.
Beside the Cathedral stand the ruins of two palaces the Bishop’s, in which King Haco died, and the later Earl’s, built by Patrick Stewart, tyrant of the Islands, as was his father before him, a left-handed son of James V., set up in life with this misused dominion. Patrick’s oppressions were so scandalous that he came to execution, as did his son Robert Stewart, for rebellion, so, like the Dukedom of Orkney conferred by Mary on Bothwell, who never got the length of admission into Kirkwall, the Stewarts’ Earldom passed away, belying its boastful motto, Sic fuit, est, et erit. These offshoots of royalty seem unlucky in their intromissions with Latin, for one of the charges against them was Earl Robert having described himself as “Filius Jacobi Quinti Rex Scotorum,” a slip in grammar that came to be judged treasonable, as indeed did Wolsey’s good Latinity, “Ego et rex meus.”
The royal castle has disappeared, its site commemorated by the name of an hotel ; but Kirkwall has still several quaint and venerable mansions, once inhabited by the island aristocracy, behind which are hidden gardens that in this climate seem more precious than palaces. In short, Kirkwall is quite a place to” delay the tourist,” whose visit will probably not coincide with the New Year football Saturnalia, kept up here as on Shrove Tuesday in some English towns; but he may come in for the dwindled delights of the Lammas Fair, described by Scott in all its glory.
The vicinity is full of antiquarian interest. From the hill above the town, as Dr John Kerr says, one can see “memorials of every form of religion that has ever existed in Scotland.” A few miles off, towards the other side of the island, is a region strewn with prehistoric remains, like the moors of Karnac in Brittany. The most famous lion here isl the Stones of Stennis, a circle of sacrifice, sepulture, or what not, second only to Stonehenge in our islands. On the opposite side of the deep double inlet of Stennis, half fresh and half salt water, stand or lie ruins of a similar circle, near which a modern Vandal has demolished the” Stone of Odin,” where Minna Troil would have pledged her faith to Cleveland by clasping hands through the opening of a pierced obelisk, gentler rite than that carving a captive foe’s back into “a red eagle,” for which one of these stones once made a scaffold. Not far off is the famous Maeshowe tumulus, whose mysterious runes have tried the ingenuity of many interpreters. Similar chambered mounds, “fairy howes” to the people, are found nearer Kirkwall, as in other islands, all over which may be encountered “grey, grim, and solitary standing stones, bearded with moss, which are kith and kin to the prehistoric obelisks of Stennis.” A sight of a very different kind is Balfour Castle, on the island of Shapinshay, where a mansion imitating Abbotsford has been decked out in exotic greenery, that seeks to vie with the gardens of Lewis Castle.
At the north end of the island, Birsay is visited for the ruined “palace “of the Jaris, and for the fishing of its lochs. The only other town is Stromness on the west side, a snug little port, for which the sea is “a domestic institution,” as Mr. Gorrie says. “It ripples familiarly up the short lanes between rows of houses, and the bows of vessels stretch across second- storey windows.” A ship’s cabin serves, or used to serve, as smoking-room in the garden of the hotel. The shop windows, besides sea stores, chiefly exhibit sweets and stockings, but such hints of innocent tastes may be overlaid in early summer, when thousands of herring-fishers come to make the place an unsavoury rendezvous, as it once was for whalers and Hudson Bay traders. Stromness should be noted in Scottish history for a law case in which this champion of open markets broke down the trade monopoly hitherto arrogated by royal burghs, like Kirkwall ; and these competitors love each other as Margate loves Ramsgate. Its museum contains an interesting collection of fossils, among them that primval monster the tlsterolepis, of which Hugh Miller made his celebrated discovery hereabouts.
Off Stromness lies Hoy, an island containing the cream of Orkney scenery. On the north-west side the cliffs are higher than any of our mainland, and beside them rises the Old Man of Hoy, now on his last leg, but he once had two to prop up “the grandest natural obelisk in the British Isles.” The difficulty is to get a view of these giant rocks by leave of the rushing tideways and the squally winds. I have seen them only from their edge, yet might as well have been in Cheapside, when such a heavy drifting mist came on that I was glad to grope my way down, steering cautiously by half-obscured knolls, as shown on the Ordnance Map. The clearest sight I saw was the abashment of an English tourist, who suddenly emerged from the fog sans culotte, with fluttering shirt tails, wearing his most indispensable garment over his arm, perhaps from some mental confusion between Arcadian and Orcadian customs, or the had reckoned on meeting no one more modest than that Old Man of Hoy. Sights more safely visited are the Dwarfie Stone, the glen of Berriedale, the Kaim of Hoy, whose rock profile gratefully presents a silhouette of Sir Walter Scott, and the Enchanted Carbuncle seen by faithful eyes sparkling on the side of the Ward Hill. This is the highest point of the islands (1556 feet), from whose top, on a fine day, one has them spread out on the sea like a toy map, and can count their lower Ward Hills that once gave alarms of the approach of a foe.
Even the short crossing to Hoy may turn out a little adventurous ; and the gentle tourist is not apt to make his way to less famous islands, their funnelled and tunnelled cliffs cut off from each other by such wild seas that this amphibious constituency has for its elections a fortnight’s grace beyond the rest of Britain. Next to Hoy, Rousay is the most Highland of the Orkneys, and North Ronaldshay is said to be the most primitive, as South Ronaldshay the most fertile. Each sundered portion cherishes a parish patriotism, once breeding hot feuds, but now chiefly represented by nicknames interchanged between the islanders, the Hawks of Hoy, the Crabs of Harray, the Sheep of Shapinshay, the Limpets of Stronsay, the Mares of Rousay, and so forth, neighbourly pleasantries that in the Shetlands take more offensively personal forms, as the Thieves of Yell, and the “Honest Folk” of Unst, so named with a note of interrogation. Some quaint Norse family names abound here, such as Haicro, Harcus, Inkster, Bea, Cursiter, Isbister; and, as one might expect, these are found so closely packed together that, on one island, a school – inspector mentions a roll of eighty children having among them only eight surnames. Scottish names are commoner in the Orkneys, my own for one, a branch of which “louped” so far north as Rapness in Westray, whence its thrivingest shoot came back to Perthshire, buying from his impoverished chief the family estate of that ilk with a fortune made apparently not in those wild seas, but as a public official. The Orkneys more than the Shetlands were overrun by Scottish lairds and their dependants who, like the English settlers in Ireland, fell much into the popular sentiment and grew to be more or less loyal sons of Thule.
As link between the Orkneys and the Shetlands, in the middle of Sumburgh Roost, where the Gulf Stream rushes almost as violently as through the Pentland Firth, stands the lonely little Fair Isle, a foul one for ships, which, like the Faroe Isles, gets its name not from beauty, but from the Norse faar, “sheep.” A botanist tells us how its one meadow is almost dyed in the season by the blue flower of the “sheep’s bit.” This cliff-walled island was once visited chiefly in the way of shipwreck, and still strangers are rare birds here, warmly welcomed, unless they turn out to be revenue officers or such-like, the sight of whom used to set the people scurrying like rabbits to their burrows, while they opened their arms to preachers of any denomination. In Scott’s time they had a pastoral visit only once a year, sometimes not so often, where several couples might be ready for marriage in a lump, and a dozen children for baptism, one of them old enough to make an unedifying comment on the ceremony, as the novelist records. The great event in Fair Isle history was the shipwreck of the Spanish Armada’s Admiral, whose people quartered themselves here through the winter in a high-handed manner, that seems not to have hindered kinder relations with the fair islanders. A trace of their sojourn appears in the hosiery made by possible descendants of Spanish sailors, still showing the Moorish patterns brought to Andalusia, and thence to this bleak spot. These people do not always get such good words from their rare visitors as do the unsophisticated inhabitants of Foula, which, lying out to the west of the Shetlands, remote like St. Kilda from the Long Island, presents in its circuit of some nine miles what has been judged the noblest cliff scenery in Britain, in summer so clamorously alive with sea-fowl that “the air seemed as if filled with gigantic snow-flakes.”
One might here fill pages by quoting from enthusiastic ornithologists, and telling exploits of the daring cragsmen who have exterminated or thinned out some of the nobler fowl; but I have so much to say about man that I must leave beast and bird out of view. The Shetlanders are born fishermen, a craft that calls for no small courage in these latitudes. It is only at odd times they turn to their rugged and thin soil, whose most outstanding production seems the small She/tie ponies, in great demand for use in southern collieries. Sir M. Grant Duff tells of one brought to the mainland, that it had to learn what oats were good for. As for the hungry sheep, a Midland squire I knew once transported a flock of them to England, where they forthwith fell to cropping their way through the hedges in which they found unwontedly toothsome pasture. Even domestic animals may show a touch of the sea, for seals are sometimes tamed as family pets. Otters are the Shetlands’ amphibious beasts of prey. The great game here is the “Ca’in’ whales,” now and then a sperm whale, that sometimes blunder into narrow voes, to be assailed with a general hue-and-cry of every soul that can get near them, as described in the Pirate, and in Mr. D. Gorrie’s Summers and Winters in the Orkneys.
Rounding the point of Torness, and stretching across the mouth of the bay, the fleet of small craft again hove into view, and pressed upon the rear of the slowly-advancing and imprisoned whales. Among the onlookers there was now intense excitement, the greatest anxiety being manifested lest the detached wing should follow the previous practice of the main army, and again break the line of the boats in a victorious charge. The shoutings and noise of the boatmen recommenced, and echoed from shore to shore of the beautiful and secluded bay. A fresh alarm seized the monsters, but instead of wheeling about, and rushing off to the open sea as before, they dashed rapidly forwards a few yards, pursued by the boats, and were soon floundering helplessly in the shallows. The scene that ensued was of the most exciting description. Fast and furious the boatmen struck and stabbed to right and left, while the people on the shore, forming an auxiliary force, dashed down to assist in the massacre, wielding all sorts of weapons, from roasting-spits to ware-forks. The poor wounded monsters lashed about with their tails, imperilling life and limb, and the ruddy hue of the water along the stretch of shore soon indicated the extent of the carnage. The whales that had received their death stroke emitted shrill cries, accompanied with a strange snorting and humming noise, which has been not inaptly compared to the distant sound of military drums pierced by the sharp piping of fifes. As the blood of the dead and dying more deeply incarnadined the sea, it gave a dreadful aspect of wholesale butchery to the murderous close of the summer whale-chase. Some of the larger whales displayed great tenacity of life, and survived repeated strokes and stabs, but the unequal conflict closed at last, and no fewer than a hundred and seventy carcases were dragged up the beach. One or two slight accidents occurred, but to me it seemed marvellous that the boatmen did not injure each other as much as the whales amid the confusion and excitement of the scene.
The largest of the Shetlands also bears the name of Mainland, on the east side of which nestles Lerwick, the only town in these islands. Chiefly consisting of one long, narrow flagged Street, with a modern esplanade upon a crescent bay, some of the houses actually standing in the water, for the convenience, it is said, of the smugglers who were frequent visitors, Lerwick is taken to resemble a Dutch seaport, a comparison carried out by the Dutch and other foreign fishermen familiar here. A new town has in our time sprung up on higher ground above. The place of Kirkwall’s Cathedral is taken by a very fine Town Hall, to the decoration of which the magistrates of Amsterdam and Hamburg contributed in recognition of old intercourse, as did several Scottish municipalities. Fort Charlotte, now station of the Naval Reserve, was originally built by Oliver Cromwell, who stretched his heavy hand so far north. The harbour is locked by the precipitous Bressay Island, outside of which lies the sundered Holm of Noss, once reached from its neighbour by a dizzy cradle, swung from cliff to cliff, which might well be revived as one of the “fearful joys” of the Earl’s Court Exhibition.
Other sights of the Mainland are Scalloway, on the west coast, the ancient capital, where the tyrant Earl Patrick built a castle; Fitful Head, with its grand view from the end of the southern promontory; the Broch of Mousa, most perfect example of such structures, on an islet off the east coast of this promontory ; and Papa Stour, an island on the other side, riddled with creeks and caves, one of which MacCulloch dubbed the finest in Britain. Then the main island is pitted with countless lochs, “one for every day in the year,” in which, as in the inlets, fishing can still be had free.
To speak of the other islands, Yell, Fetlar, Whalsay and their satellites, would be merely repetition of similar characteristics as summed up in Black’s Guide, their interior usually a dull stretch of hills, bogs, and pools, but the coast, especially on the west side, a wonderful show: “Mural precipices over 1000 feet high, the abode of myriads of sea-fowl of all descriptions; solitary islets, feeding on their flat green tops flocks of timid lambs; isolated ‘stacks,’ cleaving the skies; gloomy ‘hellyers,’ within whose sunless shades the tide ebbs and flows; here a gravelly beach piled high with heaps of cod and tusk and ling in process of curing; there a narrow gio, with a herd of seals sunning themselves on its tangle-covered rocks,—such are the varieties of the Shetland seascape and landscape.”
The northernmost island is Unst, which Mr. Tudor pronounces at once the most grandly picturesque of them all, “bar Foula,” and also the most thriving, for along with some remarkable mineral rarities, it has oases of cultivation that have earned it the title, “Garden of the Shetlands.” One of the stone circles here is believed to mark the ancient meeting-place of the Shetland Thing, or popular assembly, before its removal to Tingwall on the Mainland. In modern days Unst has been famed as residence of the Edmonstons, that family of naturalists, and as sojourn of Biot, the French savant, while carrying out his delicate astronomical measurements. In Blot’s account of this task, he praises the warm hearts and peaceful lives of the Shetland families, so close knit in kindliness, but for which he could not imagine what kept them in their poor and ungenial country.
Off the north end of Unst, seven hundred miles from the Bishop’s Rock Lighthouse of Scully, England’s most southerly point, our Ultima Thule is the isolated crag of Muckle Flugga. Here towers a lighthouse, the building of which, half a century ago, was itself a perilous achievement, as with so many more of.
Those ever-burning fires that smile O’er night’s bleak ocean many a mile, To welcome Albion’s truant child From Indian shore or western wild.
Lighthouses have indeed been a boon to the navigators of these stormy seas, as steamers to their inhabitants, though of one pious islander it is recorded how his first acquaintance with such a fiery craft fulfilled his vision of the Day of Judgment.