In my time at the wool store I have listened to many tales from farmers and crofters skilled in the art of storytelling. I would often hear different versions of the same story, told in a particular way which would capture my attention. I will continue on with yarns’ being stories, from the south of the island, Bigton in particular; famous for its beautiful scenery and, for me personally it’s story tellers.
St Ninian’s Isle is one of the most famous islands in Shetland; namely for being connected by the UK largest tombolo, a narrow piece of sand known locally as an Ayre. Another claim to fame is that it was home to the St Ninan’s Isle Treasure hoard of Pictish objects dating back c750 – 825 AD. The treasure was discovered during excavations on the island in 1958 by a 15 year old Shetland schoolboy helping with the dig. He was part of a team excavating the ruins of a medieval church that once existed on the island. The treasure consisted of 28 pieces and was mostly silver, in a wooden box, buried under a stone slab marked with a cross.
We had a fair number of crofters in the Bigton area, quite a few of them were gifted storytellers, and I would always question them on the history of the area and the treasure trove in particular. The story that fascinated me the most was not of the treasure but of a particular crofter; no doubt the story has been embellished on over the years. As one would expect there was a fair amount of local interest in the treasure site with lots of speculation as to the find. It was said that one of the professors involved in the excavations was so fascinated by this particular crofter, his stature and size of his head as well as his teeth. If my memory is correct, he supposedly had a double row of lower teeth. The professor asked him to come to Edinburgh to conduct tests, as in his opinion the man closely resembled the Picts that had settled in Shetland around 300AD!
St Ninan’s Isle is a very special place for Catherine and I; it is where I took Catherine on our first official date in May 1968. We visited the church site and walked along the steep cliffs at the West Side of the island, on our walk we came across a stout wooden post firmly anchored in the ground at the top of one of the steep cliffs. I asked the farmer who owned the Isle and as to the purpose of the post as there was no fence nearby. He had told me, “This was where a Bigton crofter would fasten his rope and climb down the cliffs to recover sea driven wreck wood.” The crofter was none other than the same person who had helped the padre down the cliffs in the fateful aircraft crash at Fitful in the 1940s. A practice he carried on until his late 70s. Cliff climbing was fairly common place at that time even in the 1960s, in Shetland many a piece of wreck wood would be utilised on the croft.
Stories of shipwrecks around this coastline were often told. One elderly crofter once told me he was travelling to his work early one morning from his home in Bigton when he saw a ship’s lifeboat drifting in past St Ninans Isle and heading toward the sandy ayre. He contacted a neighbour, who set off to retrieve the vessel, which he said had washed off the decks of a Russian merchant ship caught in a storm to the West of Shetland.
Another yarn by a Ness crofter was when they were off hand-line fishing to the West of the small uninhabited island of Colsay, their fishing lines would snag into what he said were two wrecked ships, possibly Dutch. I had asked how he knew this, and he’d said to me, “It was a story passed on through the generations, and the wrecks, called the Two Ships, was where the fish would gather around, and they always caught fish around the wrecks.” It was very important in times gone by before the advent of electronic fish finders that knowledge was passed on through the generations of successful fishing ground in order to feed their families.