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

Farmers & Crofters Stories Part 5 Out Skerries.

It was on my holidays in Vidlin I became more aware of the tiny group of Islands lying just off the coast to the called Skerries; a local lady I came to know in Vidlin came from the Skerries. I learned more about these remote islands; they were much smaller than my island home, Burra. The way of life was exactly the same crofting and fishing, its location surrounded by rich fishing grounds. However, it was the stories of sunken treasure that captured my attention and my imagination ran riot. Imagine, a Spanish galleon wrecked on the Skerries!

Out Skerries
Catherine at Skerries Shop

It was in the late 1970s that a man who had originated from the Skerries came to work in the wool store; I began to hear more details of what went on he told me he had been the lighthouse boatman and was responsible for ferrying the keepers back and forth to the light from the main isle of Skerries and had actually bought Grunay Isle. The actual lighthouse was situated on the nearby Bound Skerry a small rocky island. The next landfall from here to the East was Norway, 200 miles away.

Bound Skerry Lighthouse

It was May 1993 when Catherine and I were very fortunate to visit the Out Skerries as members of the Shetland Folk Dance group where we joined in with the inhabitants of the islands in dancing the night away to traditional Shetland music. The evening ended at sunrise the following morning.

Skerries Sunrise


Skerries Houses

After a few hours’ sleep we were taken by a local fisherman across the short stretch of water to Grunay Isle where he gave us a guided tour of the island approximately 55 acres in total. Not far from the small jetty we came across the semi- detached Lighthouse Keepers houses built of brick and with a flat roof, the distinctive white painted harled surface were now showing severe signs of neglect. The inside, especially the kitchen area, still showed signs of the previous occupants with canned foodstuffs adorning the shelves and cupboards.

Arriving Grunay Isle
Grunay Isle Lighthouse Keepers House

The land surrounding the buildings was fairly flat, the absence of sheep meant the grass was very overgrown. Our guide told us one of the past lighthouse keepers had created a small golf course and as if to substantiate this produced a golf green flag from the building. Taking into account the remoteness of the surroundings a round of golf would certainly have eased the boredom.

Grunay Isle Golf Course

It was only when we began exploring the island and listening to our guide that one could appreciate the rich culture and heritage we were fortunate enough to be amongst. On the north shore of Grunay was a huge ruined structure the locals called a broch dating long before the arrival of the Viking settlers from across the North Sea. We appeared to journey through time when down on the seashore in the ebb tide came across a cannon which our guide explained could have come from one of the numerous shipwrecks on these rugged and rocky Islands which was the end of many a seafarer throughout the centuries.

Grunay Isle Cannon

While exploring the rocky foreshore we came across wreckage not from a ship but an aircraft, our guide explained it was the remains of an allied bomber returning from a mission in Norway. It crashed landed on Grunay Isle in 1942, with the loss of its three man crew.

Plane Wreckage Grunay
Grunay Isle Memorial Plaque

Out Skerries Lighthouse was a vital part of wartime activity, it would have been the first landfall seen by the Norwegian boats, The Shetland Bus, carrying escapees from German occupied Norway to nearby Vidlin on the Shetland mainland. The significance and importance of this beacon of light meant that Grunay Isle and the lighthouse were often attacked by German planes. Sadly the only local casualty of the war was a resident of Grunay Isle when a German fighter dropped a bomb on the lighthouse buildings. We left Grunay with our own thoughts of our visit I will always remember a small unspoilt island with a tremendous story to tell.

 If Grunay was not enough to occupy my thoughts our guide suggested we travel to a small rocky outcrop in the south of the main isle called the Steig. He said we were to take care as it was quite tricky to reach the summit in order to achieve this we would have to rock climb.

Catherine Climbing The Steig

Along with two friends, Catherine and I did make the trip and eventually rested on a raised mound the locals called the Viking’s Grave, reputedly the burial site of a Norse explorer. We overlooked the entrance to the narrow harbour and saw the local ferry just offshore, we were to find out later they had been observing a pod of Orca chasing seals. At the same time we saw a small boat just off Mio Ness, we discovered it contained divers visiting the site of a wrecked ship that foundered in the 1600s. In the distance the distinct shape of the island of Noss East of Lerwick and leaving the shore a tall ship under sail heading for Norway. What better way to end a truly memorable trip of a lifetime.

Ferry Leaving The Skerries

In and About Lerwick Harbour Sea Birds.

The port of Lerwick is a natural harbour formed by the Mainland and the island of Bressay which lies of the East coast of Shetland. There is an opening at each end, locally known as the North Mooth and South Mooth  which enables the tide to flow freely through the harbour, ensuring the sea is always clean and crystal clear. It is ideal for fish of all types. The sea bed is made up of sand, the Norse named Lerwick, “Muddy Bay” and is home to several species of fish. Of course, where there are plenty of fish there is always an abundance of sea birds as well as waders along the sea shore.

Raft of Eider Ducks (Dunters) Off Bressay

From our house and on our harbour walks and boat trips to Bressay we are very fortunate to have seen bird life close up especially on the cliffs of Noss a small island at the back of Bressay and a haven for breeding sea birds. I would like to share with you some of the images I have taken over the years of the different species of birds on our walks around the shore, with Shetland dialect names in brackets.

Angry Arctic Tern (Tirrick)
Black Back Gull (Swabbie)
Arctic Skua (Bonxie) Chasing a Gannet for its Catch
Arctic Skua (Bonxie) Success
Oliver Feeding Arctic Skua
Gannets (Solans) at Noss
Kittiwakes (Weegs)
Heron (Hegri) Under Attack
Black Headed Gull
Fulmars (Mallies)
Young Fulmar
Cormorant (Scarf) Drying its Wings
Oyster Catcher (Shalders)
Puffins (Tammy Norie)

Farmers & Crofters Stories Part 4

As mentioned in one of my first blogs my childhood summer holidays in Vidlin played a major part in my life; the influence it, and the way of life, had on the path I would choose to travel was phenomenal.. It could have been the impressionable age I was at, just before my teenage years, but I took a great interest in listening to the local story tellers. In one of my many trips travelling with the Johnson brothers of Kirkabister around the district, we were to visit Lunna Farm where they were going to help with the shearing. I had just started hand shearing and found the much larger Cheviot cross bred sheep too heavy for me to handle. The farmer said I could have a look around the farm in particular Lunna House, a very distinctive imposing building which stood on the shoulder of a small hill overlooking a small church which I knew as the Lunna Kirk. To the East was the entrance to Vidlin Voe a fairly long inlet, and to the West another very sheltered Voe (Bay). Down on the seashore to the West was a very well built stone jetty and what looked like an old fishing bothy and the ruins of what looked like a small broch, I was to find out later it was a lime drying kiln.

Cheviot Cross Sheep
Lime Kiln & Jetty

I returned to the sheep shearing where the shearers were starting a lunch break, and I told them where I had been and what I had seen. I had quite a few questions and one elderly crofter who came from Outrabister Lunnaness, further along the coast to the north said he would show me around. We started at Lunna House and to my surprise he opened the back door and took me in, he explained a brief history of the Haa House. It had been a Laird’s House from around the 1700s and it was supposedly been built on the site of a Viking settlement. The building was most famous for its use in the Second World War as a base for the Shetland Bus operations. The inside of the house appeared to have changed little since the last Norwegian residents. On the walls were deer antlers, grand- father clocks, the beds were as they had been left, it was if it was frozen in time and just waiting for the occupants to return. I was full of questions, which were answered by someone who had actually witnessed the activity; the coming and goings of the wartime operations concerning the movements of men and materials between Shetland and Nazi – occupied Norway from 1940. The sheltered harbour at Lunna was ideal for the servicing of the small fishing vessels which were instrumental in providing help to the resistance in Norway. Outside and passing through what appeared to have been a walled garden we followed a grown over pathway which led to a flat grassy area. My guide began lifting a fairly large rusty object from a bed of nettles, I gave him a hand to set it up and lo and behold it was in the shape of a man. There was a stay welded to the back which propped up the figure which he called the “ Iron Man “, it was easy to see its former purpose by the amount of bullet holes in the structure, it had been used by the resistance fighters for their target practise. I returned to Vidlin much later in life and despite a thorough search and questioning the locals the Iron man had vanished.

Lunna House
Lunna Kirk & Haa House

 We went down the hill directly below Lunna House and he pointed out the original gateway to the house. The old driveway was still partially visible leading up the hill. A nearby hill opposite the house was the remains of a watch tower where the laird could observe his workers in the fields and also returning from fishing trips. The fish were dried out on the beach and the laird’s factor would have paid a close watch on the valuable catch.

Watch Tower

The small church, the Lunna Kirk, close to the gateway was well known to me. In my summer holidays I would attend services every second Sunday with my hosts the Robertson family from Kirkabister. It like the Haa House captured you with its simplistic beauty, the inside changed little since it was first built, and I believe it is still in use.

Lunna Kirk
Lunna Kirk From the Sea

After the shearing we were treated to a first class meal in the farm house where there were a few drams and the stories began. One infamous story teller a crofter from the neighbouring district of Lunnaness appeared to have centre stage fuelled no doubt by the liquid refreshments. He was a master at the telling of his stories, and in no time had the dinner party in raptures. The story that had a major impression on me was about a Shetland Ram that he was keeping in a lambing shed attached to his croft house. The crofter was coming on in years and he had a home help a local woman who would come and clean and prepare his meals. I remember with a very straight face and sombre voice he told us the lady found him slumped in his resting chair in the porch of his house. She was quite concerned with his appearance what had befallen him? Was he unwell? His reply, “the night before he had taken the basin if food into the Ram, all he could recollect was on opening the door into the darkness was an almighty blow and pain in his chest caused by the ram hitting me, I managed to close the door and just managed to enter the house and the resting chair”. He continued, “Can you go and see if I managed to feed the Ram”. She returned a short time later in a state of alarm shouting “can you come and see; I went with her and found the ram lying dead on the floor the result of the blow to my chest”! The group at the table roared and laughed, and when I drive past his croft in Lunnaness I always smile remembering that special day and listening to one of the master storytellers.

Lunnaness Sheep
Shetland Ram with Round Horns

In and About Lerwick Harbour Fishing & Support Vessels.

The way of life involving Lerwick harbour has been well documented over the centuries by much better qualified individuals than me. Lerwick was given the name ‘LeirVik; (muddy bay) by some of its first explorers the Vikings, from across the North Sea to the East of us. However it was the Dutch fishermen in the 17th century who discovered Shetland’s rich fishing grounds, and ultimately responsible for the development of the natural sheltered harbour and the actual town of Lerwick. Overlooking Lerwick Harbour is Fort Charlotte which was reputedly built during the First Anglo Dutch war and held off a Dutch fleet in 1667. My own personal connection to the fort; it is recorded that my parental ancestor Saunders Tough was stationed there after he fought at the battle of Waterloo.

Fort Charlotte
Fort Cannon

My own first hand experiences of Lerwick harbour has been touched upon in past blogs, however my everlasting memory of life involving the harbour took place in the late 1960s or early 70s, before the building of the Burra bridge. It was at the back end of the summer that I was awakened in the middle of the night by persistent banging on the caravan door I was staying in at the time. It was a policeman and he was looking for the caravan owner my dad who also part owned the family fishing boat the Dauntless. He said the Dauntless was in danger of breaking loose from its moorings in the harbour and being driven against a much larger vessel the steel built North Isles ferry, Earl of Zetland. I explained dad was in Burra Isle, as was the rest of the crew. The policeman insisted I accompany him to the quayside. It was when I left the caravan I realised how serious the weather was, a fierce gale from the North East and driving rain. Down at the pier the waves were so severe they were breaking over the pier and here was the Dauntless swinging back and forth in the storm holding by one rope forward. There were two Lerwick port staff along with another policeman standing on the pier, I asked ‘why did they not board the Dauntless?’ and was told it was not their concern and, in any case, it was too dangerous. I asked where would I find heavier mooring ropes and was told in the forward rope locker in the bow. I waited my chance between waves and managed to jump on deck, eventually opened the locker, climbed down and found a heavy rope which I passed up the hatch and on to the deck. I was trying to throw the rope ashore when a familiar blue car a Morris Cowley drew up opposite me and out came my father in- law to be and foreman of the Malakoff slipway. He took one look at me and burst out laughing and then proceeded to jump aboard, climbed up the wheelhouse and somehow opened a window and disappeared inside. Minutes later the engine started and he shouted orders to me and the audience on the pier to let go the one last remaining rope. We made our way in the teeth of the gale to the lea of the Malakoff slipway pier and in total that night we moved three boats to shelter. He said he would drive me back to the caravan, when I calmed down and stopped shaking with a mixture of fear and cold, asked him was this a normal activity for him. He replied now and again he would check the local boats in bad weather. He never looked for thanks or payment and when he received the award B.E.M. for service to the fishing industry I totally understood why the fishermen held him in such high regard. He was a great servant to the fishermen of Shetland. Over the years I occasionally would mention our experience of that night and he would always break out into his renowned laughter. I must have looked a comical sight soaking wet and totally out of place in what for me was a totally alien environment of breaking waves and a hostile sea.

Rough Day
Malakoff Floating Dock
Old Style Fishing Boat – Nil Desperandum
Pilot Us
Modern Fishing Boat – Purse Netter
Modern Trawlers

Our fishermen have to brave what can be at times severe gales and heavy seas which can often happen very suddenly. They are comforted by the fact if they were to experience difficulties help is on its way. Shetland has two Severn Class lifeboats, one on the West side and the other the RNLB Michael & Jane Vernon stationed in Lerwick on the East coast.

Lerwick Lifeboat

Farmers and Crofters Stories Over the Years Part 3: Tammie o Gorie.

I have mentioned in previous blogs my fascination with listening to crofters stories for well over 50 years. However one of my favourite stories regarding a crofter fisherman actually involves me being an integral part of the story. I have well documented my failings as a fisherman in my younger years in the blog of the Roadside Beanie. When I was 13 my dad invited me to go off to the drift net herring fishing on the family fishing vessel the Dauntless, my first “deep” water fishing experience. We left Lerwick harbour on a beautiful summer’s day passing by the islands of Bressay and Noss to the east of Lerwick. We were heading for a fishing ground known as Millscore, 22 miles South South East of the headland called the Bard on Bressay.

Dad on the Dauntless
Headlands the Ord and Bard

I was fairly anxious about this experience taking into account my previous trips at sea albeit inland, and on a smaller boat. I was assured that I would feel a lot better as this was a larger vessel, and I could take the wheel and keep us on course for the fishing grounds. At first my uncle the skipper was on watch for the first hour reassuring me I was keeping on course following the overhead compass. My uncle left the wheel house as we were joined by the cook, an elderly gentleman who hailed from the North East of Scotland. He too said I was coping well and he would leave me and attend to other duties. I would keep glancing out the rear wheelhouse window watching the Shetland mainland recced into the distance and then to disappear altogether.

Bard in the Distance
Cliffs of Noss

There was no sign of the cook and it seemed a long time since he left me. I clearly recall looking out the port window and could not believe what I was seeing a solitary fisherman in a small boat, occasionally dipping out of sight between the undulating sea swell. He gave me a wave which I returned still not believing someone could be so far off with no land in sight.

Fisherman Returning Home

Some- time later my other uncle arrived checking the compass and asking where was the cook, I explained I had not seen for what seemed like hours, sincerely hoping he had not gone overboard. I asked about the man in the boat so far from land, I was told it was Tammie o Gorie, a crofter from the south end of Bressay, and that he was catching fish by hand line. It appeared to be fairly common to see him fishing in this area. I have explained in a past blog what unfolded on my first solitary fishing trip, it would be fair to say it was a defining moment in my life!

Tall Ships, Noss on the Horizon
Dauntless Hauling Nets 1962

It was during the wool season of 1967 when weighing in this particular crofters wool clip I came across the croft name Gorie Bressay. I told him of my previous sighting of him several years before and the circumstances. He smiled and said “so you weren’t cut out for the fishing “. My last sighting of Tammie of Gorie was in a grocer shop at the bottom of King Harald Street where he was selling or bartering his dried salt fish. If I am correct the shop keeper was formerly from the island of Bressay. This was fairly common occurrence in the life of the crofter fisherman, a way of life and a case of survival and making a living.

Quite a few years later I had the good fortune of actually visiting Gorie. Sadly the croft house was empty, Tammie having passed away. I had a good look around the croft and found it had been well cared for. In the walled enclosure well away from the sheep there were fruit bushes and it was obvious the garden had been well worked providing all types of vegetables for the house holder. I asked a local Bressay man who told me had acquired Tammie’s boat, called the Veng, after an area in the south end of Bressay. He had gifted it to our local museum so hopefully it will be restored to its former glory and a testimony to the life of a crofter fisherman for generations to come. I for one will always remember my first sighting of Tammie o Gorie, in my eyes a legend!

Gorie Gavel End
Gorie From the Hill

In and About Lerwick Harbour Oil Traffic, Fishery Protection & Lighthouse Tenders.

Black gold, the oil industry arrived in Shetland in the first of the 1970s, changing forever the way of life in our islands. Sullom Voe in the north of Shetland provided deep water berthing for huge oil tankers which carried away a considerable amount of oil which added to the nation’s wealth. Most of the materials required for the constructing the oil terminal had to pass through the port of Lerwick. Fairly recently an oil refinery was built at the Sullom Voe site. Not only did huge amounts of materials come through our port but also thousands of workers arrived in Shetland to erect the plant. This put a strain on the islands hotels and guest houses and lead to liners and floating accommodation barges being brought in.

Oil Refinery Parts Brought in by Barge
Travel and Study Ship & Oil Workers Accommodation Barge Foreground

Shetland is surrounded by oil rigs and a lot of them are serviced through the port. Stand by vessels, which remain in the vicinity of the rigs in all types of weather, are also frequent visitors.

Deep Explorer Diving Support Vessel

With the recent downturn in the oil, the older, less productive oil rigs are being decommissioned and Lerwick Port Authority has provided facilities to carry out the work.

Oil Rig Lerwick

With all the sea going traffic it is very necessary to have all the emergency services such as the lifeboat and search and rescue helicopter Oscar Charlie. The Shetland coastguard station based in Lerwick and overlooks the harbour, is responsible for a huge area of the sea and land. They monitor all oceans going traffic including the oil rigs in the vicinity and are the focal point for all types of maritime incidents including calling out the lifeboat & cliff rescue.

Coastguard Helicopter
Lifeboat & Winchman

Occasional visitors to the port are the fishery protection vessels: they are responsible for policing the U.K. waters and ensuring fishing quotas are adhered to. Another is that of Greenpeace International who have been sailing the world’s oceans protecting our planet and fighting for environmental justice. One of their vessels MV Whales Forever is seen in my images calling along Lerwick Harbour for repairs before setting off on another mission in the North Sea.

Fishery Protection Vessel
Greenpeace Whales Forever Arriving
Greenpeace Whales Forever

Being the maritime cross roads of the North Sea it is not unusual for passing ships to call along the harbour whether it is for emergency ship repairs or for a courtesy call. In Lerwick harbour’s past the port was used by Navy ships especially in the war years, and in the Cold war era when we would see all sorts of naval vessels including submarines.

Norwegian Navy Foreground and Bressay Ferry