A friend from London said the beauty of Shetland is best seen when looking outward and not inland! How true! As a bairn, I was one of the very privileged brought up on a beautiful Island; with even more equally striking islands on our doorstep. On the east of our Island home we were protected by the Clift Hills, to the east of these hills are the villages of Cunningsburgh and Sandwick. Almost vertical rugged slopes that form the shore line of Clift sound. For me as a child these hills always captured my imagination, what was over the other side?! My interest intensified when some of the older boys at school came back from the Clift Hills with souvenirs from what they said was a crashed plane. I suppose looking back in time I was a typical youth just entered his teenage years and like most boys of that age had a sense of adventure. I enlisted a friend from next door who was of a similar age and two of my younger cousins and we planned our trip.
We waited until the coast was clear and “borrowed” a small boat from the Easter Dale beach, rowed out between Burra and Trondra and south down Clift Sound. We landed on a beach directly below Holm Field; 290 meters high. As we began our climb we passed by what looked like the remains of “planticrubs”, a small circular dry-stone enclosure for growing cabbage plants.
After some serious climbing which took around an hour we reached the top. The panorama took my breath away Burra Isle and the surrounding isles lay below us like an open map. We spent hours looking for the aircraft wreckage with no success. Our exploration was cut short when we noticed the sea had changed it was now producing white capped waves and it was coming from the direction we needed to travel back. After some serious rowing and what seemed like an eternity we found shelter between Burra and Trondra and saw in the distance a crowd of people on the beach with my mother at the front and none too pleased!
It was many years later in the wool store that I discovered how she knew we were there. An elderly crofter on the south east side of the isle was in with his wool clip. “Oliver”, he said, “Did you ever wonder how your mother found out you were climbing the Clift Hills”. “No” was my answer. He smiled and told me had watched us through his binoculars since we had made land, and phoned home. “You had underestimated the tide and wind and indeed you were very fortunate to have made it back safely!” I took the opportunity to ask him what were the remains at the foot of the hill above the beach; they were in fact “planticrubs”. He said they were positioned there by Burra crofters a long time ago as there was a scarcity of suitable ground on the east side of the isle.
He then proceeded to tell me a story handed down over the centuries by islanders in his district. As was common place throughout the Shetland Islands it was the women folk that did the croft work while the men were off fishing. On a particular occasion a group of women from the south of the island had rowed across and were working in their “crubs” when they were set upon men from the east side of the mainland. In an order to carry out summary justice, the husbands donned women’s clothing and armed themselves with weapons which they hid under their clothes. After a period of time the same offenders appeared and attacked the defenceless women. Revenge was sweet as the intruders were set upon and duly dispatched!
I heard the same story from another crofter from “over the hill” on the east of the mainland, his version was the other way round, the women of his district were attacked. I have my doubts about his story. When Catherine and I climbed Royal Field from the east side and looked down on “planticrubs” not far from his village, why would they travel so far when the enclosures were on their doorstep!
Since that first expedition it had always been a desire of mine to go back to the hills again, perhaps discover part of my youth and find that wreckage. I spoke to a crofter from the district, along with his son, and learned that they had erected marker posts which led you to above the site. A few years ago my wife Catherine and I trekked from the East side of Shetland until we reached the summit of nearby Royal Field 294 meters following the trail. On the western slopes of the hill and overlooking Burra Isle we discovered the remains of the wreckage and the memorial to the crew of the plane that had perished on these slopes in 1944.
The views were indeed spectacular perhaps all the more poignant for me when I thought about my journey from the other side over 50 years before. I now knew why on that first trip we found nothing. I had climbed the wrong hill Holm Field was the neighbouring hill to the north!