Island Life in my Forefathers Time

I grew up on Burra Isle, the largest of the islands off the west coast of Shetland and close to the neighbouring mainland village of Scalloway, the former ancient capital of Shetland. I was very aware of the smaller islands around us, from Sunday boat trips and fishing expeditions with my father and grand – father. It was in the late 1950s that I also discovered that I had close family ties with these smaller islands. I clearly recall an elderly gentleman with snow white hair visiting my grand –parent’s home. His name was Laurence Duncan. His family had originated from the islands of Hildasay and Langa, he was closely related to my Great – Grandmother, also a Duncan, who was born in Hildasay. Her father was born on the island of Langa according to our family tree. Laurence wished to visit Hildasay so I and a younger cousin accompanied him in our grand- father’s boat. He showed us where the family home had been, now in ruins. The island has now been uninhabited since the late 19th century. He told us a sad story of how one of his relatives had drowned in the freshwater loch while swimming to a small islet for birds eggs.

Hildasay Ruins
Scalloway Outer Isles
Isle of Langa Ruins
Ruins on Langa

If my memory is correct he also said there had been a herring station at one time, perhaps at a place called Tangy Voe. We visited the old quarry (famous for its red granite) we followed the path of what had been similar to a railway which he said carried the granite, and we saw the rusty remains of the tracks at the top of a steep sheer rock face where the cargo ships would take on board their; cargo some of which went all the way to Australia. I was a bit sceptical of some of his stories. When crossing with the boat he said where he came from down under they had huge fish similar to skate which would leap out of the water, later in life I was to learn this was a stingray.

Oliver at the Quarry
Freshwater Loch at the Quarry

However, later in life my father told me that Laurence Duncan and his family immigrated to New Zealand, I now have found out this was in 1922. The Duncan’s acquired a fishing boat and continued with their trade as fishermen, and in the absence of fishmongers shops would travel around the district selling fish out of a hand cart. It was not so long ago at a Hamefarin, (Shetland word meaning home-coming) where people from every corner of the globe to celebrate their roots in the islands of their forebears I was to hear the name Laurence Duncan. An elderly lady in her 80s visited the wool store, she hailed from New Zealand and I told her that we had distant relatives in New Zealand and their surname was Duncan. I was astonished to hear from her that her father and brothers had been rescued from their sinking fishing boat by a member of the Duncan family who had emigrated from Shetland. I believe this story was documented in a local publication.

Hildasay From Papa

While writing this blog another startling coincidence took place; Fraser Duncan from New Zealand and his partner called along the wool store. They were in Shetland for Up Helly Aa and were also visiting relations in Shetland. Fraser and I are, in fact cousins and he is a descendant of Laurence Duncan,- who if I am correct is a great – grandfather to Fraser. I asked Fraser if he could research the fishing accident involving the Duncan family.   

IMAGE ISLAND INFORMATION JIM SMITH                                                                           

Island Information Jim Smith

 These small islands, for instance Papa, do not have much arable ground so crofting must have been quite a hard task; it was fishing that was the main provider. The islands were very close to the fishing grounds; however in the early days sail and rowing were the means to get to their destination. There was a demand for fishing vessels to be built and in Papa they had a renowned boat builder one of the Slater family. Papa would have been a very important island for all the smaller islands, as I mentioned in a previous blog about Papa it was home to the “ Peerie Kirk “a small church; it would not only be a place of worship but also a chance for these islanders to catch up with what was happening in their own lives and island communities.

Peerie Kirk Papa

All these smaller islands are uninhabited now the last residents of Papa leaving in the first of 1930 as they found it impossible to survive in these harsh conditions and with a down turn in fishing. I recall writing a short piece on my day out for a Jamieson & Smith blog called “Oliver’s day out in Papa”, describing gathering and shearing the Smith family sheep. I think this was posted around 2010; imagine my surprise when receiving a phone call from a grand- son of one of the former residents. His grand- father had left Papa and eventually emigrated to either New Zealand or Australia. The question was could I provide him with information on his ancestors and their time in Papa. My old boss, Eva, put me in touch with an elderly neighbour who had close family ties to Papa who could tell me details of life on the isle at that time. I contacted the gentleman in Australia and provided him with information and also the contact details of the elderly crofter. I am very pleased to say that two years later the grand – son and his family visited Papa, not only did he visit he actually followed in the wake of his ancestor by rowing from Scalloway to Papa. I am proud to say I met him and his family on the beach as he set foot on the former home of his grand – father. It was a very emotional reunion. I have no doubt there are many other instances of families returning to our islands to discover their families origins.

Slater Return to Papa
John Slater & His Family at the Home
Slater Plaque at Papa

2 thoughts on “Island Life in my Forefathers Time

  1. I really need a primer on all the islands. “Shetland” is many islands, but not all the islands you write about are part of Shetland, correct? Because you refer to island off “the West Coast of Shetland” (which amuses me because I only think of continents as having “coasts”). So if there are other islands around Shetland, are they called something collective (like all the islands that comprise “Shetland”) or are they just known by their individual names? And all are part of Scotland, correct? Like I said, I need a primer!


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