One of my favourite pastimes has been hill walking, always wanting to know what is over the next rise; this interest was a direct result of my childhood holidays in Vidlin. I am pleased to say that my wife Catherine also shares the love of exploring our islands. I still recall place names from that era mostly associated with summer sheep ‘ caas’, gathering them in for the shearing. One area of hill eluded me a remote part of Vidlin, Collafirth Ness which I was told had to be accessed by a narrow path high up on the side of a steep hill called the club of Swining, put one foot wrong and you had a free fall into the sea!. Perhaps my minders at that time felt this journey would be too dangerous for me at such a young age?
Throughout my years at Jamieson & Smith I have had the privilege of handling the wool from most of the areas of Shetland including Collafirth Ness. The clip from there was typical fine Shetland fleece with all the classic native Shetland breed wool characteristics especially its handle (softness) brought on by decades of selected breeding to achieve the finest wool quality. Contributing to this was also the type of pasture the animal was on and in the case of the Collafirth Ness wool you could tell by the ‘blue grey’ shade of the fleece that the sheep were grazing on the native peat and heather hills.
Working daily with crofters one could also learn first- hand the, layout of a particular area also listen to the stories handed down over the decades. In the case of Collafirth I have had the good fortune to have workmates who have had strong family ties to the area. All were descendents of people who lived and crofted there. One colleague in fact owns and works a family croft previously the home of his grand-uncle. So over the years I have been furnished with many facts of life in this beautiful lonely remote valley.
Collafirth in the mid eighteen hundreds was home to over 100 people, the life blood of the community was mainly fishing and crofting, the crofts were small and usually fashioned out of the native peat and heather moors and hills. With its location along the steep shores of the voe (inlet) there was ample seaweed used as a fertiliser along with an abundant supply of peat in which to improve the land, even today you can still see the greener shoots of grass along the shoreline, the result of hard labour by generations of crofters. The man of the croft was the main earner most often a fisherman crofter, some were also seafarers journeying around the globe as merchant seamen or as in some cases press- ganged into the navy where they were often away for years at a time, many sadly didn’t return. In their absence their wife would have to provide for the family, in some cases as many as eleven children. Not only responsible for the well- being of the children but also the crofting chores as well, many supported the family by hand spinning and knitting travelling over the steep hills to the settlements of Voe and Vidlin to sell their knitwear.
In 1946 extra employment came to the area when a weaving shed was built on my workmates croft at Grostane and employed up to 4 people. The shed was built by the Stewart family formerly of Levenwick, they were textile merchants and also were a wool broking firm operating out of Leith and Galashiels in the borders of Scotland. When I joined J & S in 1967 quite a lot of the wool we purchased locally was shipped to Leith and then on to Galashiels, I had the good fortune to meet and assist in judging Shetland wool with one of the Stewart brothers Mark in 1968 at the wool store. The weaving shed ceased to operate in 1978 this coincided when Mark Stewart retired from the company. This was a blow to the community leading to more families leaving the area in order to seek employment, as had happened with changes in fishing leading to the decline of the smaller inshore fishing boats.
Due to the almost vertical hills on each side of the long narrow inlet of water known locally as a voe, arable land was at a premium, however when you eventually scale the steep slopes you will come across the aptly name Mill Loch a large stretch of water enclosed by even more hills also except for a shallow narrow valley that meanders down in an easterly direction toward the sea. Here you will find the remains of the community water mills which drive the mill stones by the force of water to enable the grinding of corn grown by the crofters to provide them with basic flour for baking.
There are quite a few stories about the area down through the decades mainly of hardship and misadventure, in some cases sadly with the loss of life on these steep hills caused by a slip of foot. There was one such story that that enthralled me so much that resulted in Catherine and I visiting and exploring Collafirth, 60 years on since my aborted visit as a child when on my summer holidays in Vidlin, over the other side of the hill to the East.
My former work mate, who like me had spent his summer holidays with his grand-parents on their croft at Collafirth, told me the story of the furthest out croft along the shore called Camperdown. My immediate reaction to the name was that is a strange name for a croft in Shetland which are usually local dialect or Norse connection names. The story he began was of two brothers with the surname Duncan and originally from mainland Scotland, had taken part in a major naval battle fought on October 1797 between the British North Sea Fleet under Admiral Duncan and the Dutch fleet off the North West Dutch coast not very far from the village of Camperduin, it ended with a decisive victory for the British fleet. On their return to Shetland one brother made his home in Collafirth the other in the south of the isle in the village of Sandwick, calling their properties Camperdown after the battle.
Camperdown is the last croft remains along the shore, although on the map at the very point of the Ness it says there is a ‘homestead’. These ruins are rather large to be a croft dwelling; I asked an elderly former Collafirth crofter about the ruins he said it was the remains of what had been a Pictish broch.
As we neared the completion of our journey along the shores and hills of Collafirth we looked down on the remains of what was a thriving crofting community, home to over 100 people at present populated by a handful of people. One could only reflect that this was a perfect example of the demise of crofting in our Islands, in my early years at the wool store there were several resident crofters in the valley sadly none remain there now.
At least I still have the memories and stories of these hardy people and for that I am very grateful to all the crofters and workmates who have passed them on to me over the years.