Farmers’ and Crofters’ Stories Told to Me Over the Years

Over my 50 plus years at the wool store, work was very physical and at times quite demanding, however the early years were most the interesting and enjoyable. I explained in the first of my blogs that the wool producers were paid on the day. I would spend quite some time working out the various prices of a crofters clip and, at first, this was done by a ready reckoner. The producer was always present at this transaction and often it was the case they would share with me their stories of life in general and of times gone by.

I would like to share with you some of these stories and to avoid any offence I will not mention any names; I will post images of the area or district told in the story.

I will start at the South End of Shetland, Fitful Head in particular; it is a lofty headland which overlooks Sumburgh Airport and has a strong connection with my fore bearers. At a very early age I first came to know the area from my grandmother, who told me that this was where some of my ancestors came from; a place called the Garths Banks. It’s an area of rough ground close to the seashore and lying beneath  Fitful Head, supposedly the first port of call for my 5x-great grandparent Saunders Tuff, as he was known in Shetland. His proper name was Alexander Tough. He was born at Fintry in Aberdeenshire on 19th February 1775. A soldier of the 92nd Highland Regiment, referred to as an Army Orderly and also a batman he served all through the French War, and fought at the Battle of Corunna (which was a battle of the peninsular war in 1809). Saunders was reputedly part of the bodyguard of the commander of the British forces Sir John Moore. Saunders was wounded in the battle and was awarded a medal for bravery under attack. While carrying out his duties for a Sir William Wood, sometimes referred to as Captain Wood, he met Margaret Wood, William’s only daughter. The favourite part of the story told to me by my grandmother, was of Saunders and the daughter Margaret running away together, escaping from a castle and making their getaway on the back of a white horse only to end up on a boat. This was a very vivid scene set in the mind of a young boy living in a small island, I suppose my imagination ran riot. I could envisage them landing at Grutness, most southerly harbour in the islands, and setting off north. It is recorded that they became acquainted with one of the late Grierson’s of Quendale, landlords, and were invited to stay and settled in a croft known as “Refuge”, at the head of a windswept valley sweeping down from Fitful Head. The township was behind the Garth Banks and rested on the cliff edge below the heights of Fitful Head. Saunders and Margaret Wood would appear to be the first crofters in our family lineage! They had three daughters, two married men from district; the other married a John Henderson from Setter, Burra Isle; our side of the family.

Catherine Climbing Fitful Head
Close to the Cliff Edge at Fitful Head
Croft House Remains at Fitful Head (Refuge?)

 Fitful Head was reputedly the home of a Shetland folklore legend named Black Eric, a hermit who lived in a cave deep in the cliffs; he was renowned for his sheep thieving. This was fairly common in Shetland in times gone by, there are several areas in Shetland with stories of the local sheep “tief”, I recall my dad telling me this story when we were passing by Fitful Head in the family fishing boat, named the Dauntless, travelling from Burra to Lerwick for the summer herring fishing. 

Fitful Head Cliffs
Sheep in the Banks at Fitful Head
Cave in the Cliffs

The next story is also war related; the Second World War specifically, and a story told to me by an elderly farmer from the south mainland. Fitful Head once again is the setting of the story and the tragic event took place in March 1942. The aircraft was a Halifax bomber returning from a failed attempt to sink the German battleship ‘Tirpitz’ at anchor in a Norwegian Fjord. “It was unable to land at Sumburgh Airport,” the farmer had told me, it was circling the airport at night but could not land as the airstrip was under a lights out curfew the plane crashed into the cliffs on the west side of the headland. The first knowledge of the incident was by three farmers gathering their sheep on the slopes of the cliff. The farmer telling me the story said they’d come around a bend in the cliffs and came across two airmen; it was if they were sitting resting on the grassy slope, but both were deceased. A search of the area unearthed wreckage further down the cliffs at the steep rocky foreshore, the location of the crash site made it impossible to land by sea. They sent for a local man who was renowned for his climbing abilities, he ventured down the cliff and discovered the remains of a third crew member. It was impossible to recover the body, which was buried on the rocky cliff face. A padre from nearby Sumburgh airfield was lowered down by ropes with the help of the local climber and prayers were said over the body.

Sumburgh Airport on the Left
Possible Crash Site

Later on at the wool store I was very fortunate to work with the daughter of the farmer who had told me the story; she confirmed what her dad had told me. I believe the relatives of the ill-fated crew wrote to the farmer in question and his family were involved, along with people of the district, in erecting a memorial stone tablet which was placed at the top of the cliff. I have not seen the memorial; however one of the crofters who were putting the stone in place described to me the difficulties in erecting the memorial at the cliff top, it proved to be a hazardous operation.

Fitful from Ireland, Bigton

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