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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part II: Chapter 6


Summer Season—The Dutch Fishery on the' Shetland Coast— Its Ancient Magnitude and Importance—The “Hollander’s Knowe ”—The Dutchmen on Shore, and some of their Amusements—Their “Busses”—Boat-Sailing off LerWick—Fishing of Herring on Lines—Mackerel Fishing in Autumn—History of Lerwick—Progress of its Population—Fort Charlotte— Rifle Corps—Anderson Institute—Widows’ Asylum—Parish School—Episcopal School—Municipal Affairs—Water-Works —Over-crowding— Small Lodging-Houses—Fever Hospital— Courts, Civil and Ecclesiastical—Markets—Want of Public Places of Amusement—Scenery—Cemetery.

CUMMER, which comes late in this northern ^ latitude, brings with it not only bright skies, smooth seas, green fields, and good fishings, but numerous visitors. Amongst distinguished strangers, by no means the most unwelcome in the Zetland capital, are the Dutch fishermen. “The herring-fishery of Shetland, carried on by the Dutch, was in ancient times an undertaking of the greatest national importance.” “It seems generally agreed among authors that it yielded them, for a long course of years, £3,000,000 sterling yearly. It would, however, be no difficult thing to prove, to the satisfaction of the candid as well as critical inquirer, that while it continued to flourish in their hands, they drew from their fishery, out of the ocean washing the coast of Shetland, to the amount of £200,000,000 sterling. In the year 1633 there were so many as fifteen hundred Dutch herring-busses, each of eighty tons burden, employed on this coast, with twenty armed ships, carrying thirty guns each, and a fleet of dogger boats to the number of four hundred, each sixty tons burden.” This information is derived from Captain Smith, who was sent to Shetland, in the year just mentioned, expressly to report on the Dutch fishery. Impressed with the vastness of the enterprise, the gallant captain was unable to conceal his astonishment at his countrymen, who could look on “Shamefully passive, while Batavian fleets Defraud us of the glittering finny swarms That heave our firths, and crowd upon our shores.”

With true sailor-like frankness, writing long before “Free Trade” had a being, he says, “If the king would send out such a fleet of vessels for the fishing trade, being in our own seas, and on our own grounds, and all strangers were discharged from fishing in those seas, that the subjects of the three kingdoms only may have it, it would make our king rich and glorious, and the three kingdoms happy; not one would want bread, and God would be praised, and the king loved.” The king here referred to is the hapless Charles I. If that could have made him rich, glorious, and loved, what a pity both for his own sake and that of his subjects, he did not fish herrings. But his “divine right” gave the “blessed martyr” “other fish to fry.” “Not many years had elapsed, in the same century, before the number of busses that visited Shetland amounted to two thousand two hundred. Owing, however, to wars and other causes, a diminution took place, and for several years following, no more appeared than three hundred or four hundred.”  In 1703, the French fleet, following up its victory off the Fair Isle, sailed into Bressay Sound, and burned four hundred busses, leaving one hundred to convey home the crews of those destroyed. Again in the year 1772, the French burned one hundred and fi^ty of these vessels in Bressay Sound. In the year 1774, “the number of Dutch vessels only amounted to two hundred; but there were as many, at the same time, belonging to the Danes, the Prussians, the French, and the Flemings; the English had also two vessels, and the Scotch one.” In the end of the last, and beginning of the present century, this great enterprise was much crippled by the wars consequent on the French Revolution, and from that shock it has never recovered. During the present century, the number of Dutch vessels fishing on the ' Shetland coast has generally been from thirty to sixty.

As already mentioned, the annual visit of the Dutchmen was the occasion for extensive commercial intercourse between them and the Shetlanders. Large quantities of native hosiery, stockings, gloves, nightcaps, rugs, <fcc., were either sold for money, or bartered for groceries. A great annual fair was held in the end of June, on a hillock three miles from Lerwick, still called the “Hollanders’ Knowe.” None of the busses were provided with boats, and therefore the men of Lerwick and neighbourhood found extensive and lucrative employment, in conveying these Dutch visitors to and from their vessels. Although it is no longer possible to cross Bressay Sound on a bridge of busses, as it is said to have been in the good days of yore, when two thousand of such craft graced the harbour, the arrival of these picturesque vessels, and their equally picturesque crews, still lends an agreeable variety to Lerwick life, in the end of June each year. While their ships are in port, the Hollanders spend much of their time on “ de wall,” as they term the shore. In face and form they are all very much alike; the former being of the Teutonic cast, and the latter, of course, of the “ Dutch build.” As to dress, however, they present considerable variety. The more respectable looking wear the striped cotton blouse, with cloth cap and trousers, and leather shoes, which is so common amongst the peasantry of France and the Netherlands. The majority have their feet incased in sabots, “clogs,” or “dumpers” of wood, whose shape very much resembles their ships in miniature. These clog-shod ,Dutchmen have their heads protected by sou-westers, or more sombre-looking cloth caps, their bodies by blouses of striped cotton or canvas, and their “understandings” by long stockings, surmounted sometimes by knickerbockers; at others, by genuine petticoats— all of canvas. Thus attired, it is very amusing to see them walking up and down the street, with long pipes in their mouths, and their hands in their pockets. As a recent writer has very justly remarked, they are a very “ quiet, peaceable, decent sort of people.” They can both take and give “de schnapps,” but they almost never get the worse of drink. Nevertheless, they are by no means devoid of frolic. In their season, it is no rare sight to see a group of honest Netherlanders parading the street, with their hands round each other’s necks, singing the praises of “ de Vaterland,” to the accompaniment of a concertina. When a sufficiently open space is reached, the vocalists stop, and dance to their music with a grace which may be imagined from the nature of their shoes.

During their sojourn in Lerwick, one day has been set apart, from time immemorial, for a very favourite pastime with the Dutchmen, viz., exercise on horseback. It is to be regretted that, of late years, this holiday has not been taken advantage o£ Most amusing scenes are to be witnessed between the Hill-head and the Knab on this “Dutchman’s riding day.” They have lately been very . felicitously described by an abler pen than mine, and this description I shall take the liberty of transcribing.

“On that day,” says Mr Kerr, “dozens of those who have horses assemble, steeds in hand, on a piece of ground above the town, and thither, too, betake themselves the horsey portion of the Dutchmen for twopence worth of equestrianism, which consists of a gallop out for half a mile or so and back again: For the most part women and boys are in charge of the steeds, with every conceivable kind of halter, from the decent leather to the old and apparently rotten rope; some with saddles and stirrups, some with saddles without stirrups, some with an unambitious piece of coarse cloth or straw mat. Here a great tall fellow goes up to a very little {pony, pays his twopence —it is always prepaid—and prepares to mount. But -how is he to get the sabot, with a point like the prow of his own buss, into the stirrups? It evidently can’t be done Off go the sabots—a shake is all that is necessary—and he gets into the saddle. At first he grasps only the bridle, but as the pace quickens—and it soon does that, for he means to have his twopence worth—you see his hand slip round to the back part of the saddle and take a firm hold. This is all very well, but the saddle itself is shaky, and the pony’s back short; so he must have more leverage by grasping the tail. There, now he’s all right; but the motion is neither graceful nor easy, and his hat flies off. This was expected, for the woman or boy in charge follows behind for the double purpose of increasing the pace by whipping, and picking up anything that may be shaken loose. And now that he gets toward the end of his ride, heel, bridle, and lash are pressed into service. One hand is required to hold on either by saddle or tail, the other is needed for the lash. How, then, can he dispose of the bridle ? In his teeth of course, and there he holds it. On he comes full swing. The road is very rough and downhill now. His legs are well extended, and he is making no prehensile use of his knees. This can’t last long. Hallo! there he’s off rolling, with little harm done. At least one Duchman’s ride did not terminate so innocently, for tradition tells us that a skipper, once upon a time, galloped too fast and too far, till both horse and rider went over a precipice, at the Knab, and were dashed to pieces. The place is called the “Dutchman’s Leap” to this day.

These fishermen keep both themselves and their ships scrupulously clean. “ Each buss is provided with seventy nets, each eighteen fathoms long, and has a crew of fourteen men. There are rollers at the sides of the ship and of the hold, for the convenience of pulling in the nets; and the masts are jointed near the deck, so that they may be lowered for the purpose of lying-to, for the purpose of hauling in the nets. The crews set to work, and clean and barrel the herring as fast as they are taken out of the nets; and as soon as the whole fleet has barrelled as much as makes a ship’s cargo, a yagger is immediately despatched home, and returns empty for another load. By this expeditious process the herrings arrive at the Dutch ports fresher and in fetter condition than the best brand herrings of our Scotch fisheries.” Clumsy as they appear, the Dutch busses are very comfortable and commodious, excellent sea-boats, and not bad sailers. Their appearance is old-fashioned enough to suggest the idea of an old Roman galley. Those who admire the antique and the picturesque will rather regret that our old rivals in the empire of the seas are condescending to “ take a wrinkle from us.” During the last three years, many smart-looking smacks, similar to those of Grimsby and Hull, have appeared amongst the Dutch herring fleet.

Boat-sailing is a very favourite pastime with the Lerwegian youths, who handle their little vessels most dexterously. On a fine summer afternoon, the harbour presents a very lively appearance, when graced by numerous smart little craft, with large white sails, neat rigging, and gaudily-painted hulls. The boats are all native built, and vary from ten to fifteen feet of keel. Their rig is either that of the sloop or the lugger. They bear a great spread of canvas for their size, are good sea boats, sail swiftly, and lie remarkably near the wind.

As already mentioned, the herring fishing, as an industry, does not commence before the middle of August. In the months of May and June, however, shoals of herrings frequently enter the bays, when they are easily captured by means of dandy lines. These consist of bare white hooks, suspended by pieces of whalebone, which are kept in their proper place by a lead, and attached to a line. The lines are constantly wrought up and down through the water. The capture of herrings in this way, often pursued by the regular fisherman, affords excellent sport to amateurs, who greatly enjoy the excitement it involves. On being taken out of the water, the fish present a beautiful, sparkling, silvery appearance. Lerwick also affords facilities for the fishing of mackerel in August and September. It is conducted by means of flies from boats, kept constantly in motion, either by sails or oars. They move in shoals, and for this reason, as many as from twelve to twenty are often caught on the same line at a time. The capture of mackerel is excellent sport, combining as it does fishing and boat-sailing.

History.—As already mentioned, Lerwick appears to have been founded as a trading post with the Dutch early in the seventeenth century. During that century, and the beginning of the next, it seems to have enjoyed considerable prosperity, owing to the arrival of large numbers of busses in the summer time. Thus, in 1701, it contained between two and three hundred families, but towards the middle and end of the last century, it gradually declined. Mr Low, who visited Lerwick in 1778, tells us its inhabitants at that time only consisted of one hundred and forty families. Since the commencement of the present century, the town has been pretty steadily on the increase, and, although all along there has been an insufficiency of employment for the inhabitants, its prosperity does not seem to have been quite so dependent on the visits of foreign vessels as in the earlier years of its history. The following table will illustrate the increase of its population during the present century:

Population in

The population of Lerwick in 1800, 1811, 1841, is placed in different type, because it is merely estimated from that of the whole parish—town and - landward portions combined. In the other years of the census, the populations of town and landward districts were taken separately.

The erection of the New Town is a substantial proof of the increase of population. Many of the new inhabitants are decayed crofters from the country districts. Others have abandoned their farms and removed to Lerwick, rather than submit to the new regulations now enjoined on certain estates.

Fort Charlotte.—This fortress was originally built by Oliver Cromwell, who evidently found some difficulty in holding the islands against the Earl of Morton, a great favourite and staunch partisan of the unfortunate Charles I. It was repaired by Charles II., in 1665, at a cost of £28,000. In the Dutch war of that period, Lerwick mounted from twenty to thirty cannon, and was garrisoned, for three years, by three hundred men, under the command of Colonel William Sinclair, a native of the county. It is probable some of these guns were mounted in the old Battery, a fortification, now ruinous, situated near the Knab, on an eminence which overhangs the south end of the town, and that the three hundred men were divided between there and Fort Charlotte. After this time, the garrison was withdrawn, and the citadel fell into disrepair. In the beginning of last century, Lerwick was visited by a Dutch frigate, which burnt the fort and several houses in the town. In 1781, the citadel was completely repaired, and named after the Queen of George III., Fort Charlotte—containing accommodation for two or three companies. It was mounted with twelve guns, and during the great wars of 1802-15, was garrisoned by a veteran bataljiop. On the establishment of a permanent peace in the last-mentioned year, the troops were withdrawn, and the buildings in the fort have since been used for various useful public purposes. At present, they serve as a prison and court-room, a custom-house, an armoury for the Rifle Corps, a coastguard station, and a drill station for the Royal Naval Reserve. The twelve cannon, after doing duty as4 military ornaments (for they never fired a shot at an enemy) for nearly eighty years, became useless,fand were removed about 1855.^ Fort Charlotte was thus deprived of guns, until 1860, when a marine battery was erected on the ramparts for the use of the Naval Reserve, and mounted with two smooth-bore 32-pounders. This battery has recently been enlarged, and mounted with a 6J ton rifled gun. It is beautifully fitted up so as to represent the “tween decks” of an ironclad. The “great gun ” is of the most modern construction, and, with carriage and slides, weighs over twelve tons. It is only used for gunnery drill. Target practice takes place at a one-gun battery at Freefield, three hundred yards north of the fort, where the Reserve men command a much more extensive range.

Rifle Corps.—The 1st Zetland Rifle Volunteer Corps, which has its head-quarters in the fort, was first organised in I860, and was greatly indebted for its early success to the zeal and energy of the first commanding officer, Robert Bell, Esq. of Lunna, then Sheriff-Substitute of the county. Lieutenant Bell, on leaving the county in 1865, was succeeded by Arthur J. Hay, Esq., under whom the corps continued to flourish, until it soon became a company, and the commanding officer received the commission of captain. This force now numbers about ninety non-commissioned officers and privates, besides the captain, lieutenant, ensign, and surgeon. Whatever be its military advantages, the Rifle Corps has been eminently useful in promoting the physical education, and, through that, the moral purity of the young men attached to it.

The Anderson Institute was erected and founded in 1862, as already mentioned, by Arthur Anderson, Esq., who represented his native county in Parliament from 1847 to 1852. Over the principal entrance is placed a sculpture in honour of the late Thomas Bolt, Esq. of Cruster, Bressay, which represents an incident from which the founder dated his success in life. Mr Bolt, attired according to the fashion of the day, in taking leave of his clerk, Arthur Anderson, then about to enter the navy, is represented as imparting to him the sage advice of “Do weel and persevere.” This worthy gentleman, whose memory is thus deservedly honoured, was the last of a Shetland family held in high esteem for many generations. In the hall, which is a small but lofty apartment, with a handsome Gothic roof, are hung beautiful oil paintings of Mr and Mrs Anderson, which were presented to that gentleman by the community of Shetland in 1866. Besides the hall, the building contains three large and commodious class-rooms, and ample accommodation for the principal and his boarders. The Institute consists of an upper school or academy, and an elementary school, ooth of which are well attended. It is presided over by a principal, who is assisted by two male, and three or four female teachers. For the first four or five years of its history the Institute did not come up to the expectations formed of it, but since the appointment of the late principal in 1867, it has been judiciously managed, and the excellent nature of its tuition has been shown by the high places taken by the pupils at the University Middle Class Examinations.

The Widows' Asylum, situated on a prominent site, exactly at the south end of the town, was erected and founded in 1865 by Mr Anderson, in compliance with a dying request of his excellent spouse. It is intended for the benefit of Shetland widows, those of sailors and fishermen who have perished at sea having the preference. It consists of forty-two apartments, which give accommodation to about twenty-one widows and their families, under the inspection of a matron. In connection with the Asylum is a pension fund, also provided by the generous founder, the benefits of which extend in equal proportion to each parish in Shetland. The recipients of this fund are widows who do not reside in the Asylum.

The Parish School, already referred to, is also in a highly efficient state, and well attended. The master is assisted by two or more pupil teachers. The principal class-room of this handsome building, the erection of which is highly creditable to the public spirit of the heritors—is the largest and most commodious hall in the town, and the use of it has frequently been granted for concerts, lectures, &c.

The Episcopal School, situated alongside the church, is largely attended by children of the lower orders, amongst whom it has done much good. There are one or two private schools in the town.

Municipal Affairs.—In the olden time, Lerwick, like other parishes in Shetland, was governed by a Bailie. By the abolition of the office, great inconvenience appears to have been occasioned. It was only in 1817 that Lerwick obtained a charter, and was erected into a Borough of Barony, under the government of two Bailies and nine Councillors, who are elected by the burgesses triennially. Under the charter, and older Police Acts, the powers of the Town Council and Police Commissioners were very limited. In 1867, however, the “Lindsay Act” was adopted in the Borough, and the hitherto separate bodies of Town Council and Commissioners of Police amalgamated, whereupon the Town Council immediately set about the much required sanitary improvements of carrying out a regular system of drainage, and bringing a proper supply of water into the town. The water is brought through pipes from the “Sandy Loch,” which stands on high ground, two miles west of Lerwick. However unable the town may be at present, to bear the heavy expenses incident on these improvements, there is no doubt it will be greatly benefited by them.

Overcrowding exists in Lerwick to a greater extent than in probably any town of its size. Among the lower orders the dwelling of each family consists of one room, generally from ten to twelve feet square, and seldom more than seven feet high, which serves all purposes, diurnal and nocturnal. Frequently, however, in addition to a family of from five to ten individuals, two or three*lodgers sojourn in their already crowded abode. Tenements of the same class constitute the ordinary lodging-houses for sailors, and the peasantry from the country districts. “ Mine host,” in this instance, is generally an elderly female without a family, or with a very small one. These one-roomed lodging-houses are generally much more overcrowded than the ordinary family dwellings. Very often they accommodate a dozen lodgers of both sexes, and in one instance, I have heard of twenty-two human beings passing the night in such a “Black Hole.” The good health which commonly prevails, despite such


untoward hygienic circumstances, seems only explicable on the principle laid down by a late esteemed member of the medical faculty, long resident in the town, who used to remark that in Lerwick “the Stoney Hill is the poor folk’s doctor.” As might be expected, typhus occasionally visits the dingy lanes of Lerwick. The small Fever Hospital, near the Knab, which accommodates fourteen patients, has been of signal service to the town on these unhappy occasions. It is a good specimen of a cottage hospital, built long before the immense hygienic merit of such erections was known.

Courts.—Being the county town, Lerwick is the seat of the Sheriff, Commissary, and Justice of Peace Courts. Here also the Commissioners of Supply and Road Trustees meet at certain statutory times. The Bailies sit for the trial of petty offences in the borough, as occasion requires. The Provincial Synod of Shetland also holds its annual meeting here, and the Presbytery of Lerwick, and the Free Church Presbytery of Shetland, assemble more frequently. The assemblages of county gentry and “ country parsons ” thus occasioned, lend an agreeable variety to the social circle of the Zetland metropolis. Some of these Courts excite considerable interest. The annual meeting of the Synod of Shetland, hitherto held at the same time as the county meetings, in the end of April, has for some years been the scene of very animated debates, attracting large audiences.

Markets.—The town is very well supplied with fresh meat by the butchers. Many families continue to supplement their supplies by killing cattle about Martinmas, and salting them down for winter use. Fish can generally be obtained in abundance during the summer months, but is often scarce in winter. The country districts amply supply the town with potatoes, while the gardens of Lerwick, or the greengrocers’ shops, furnish a good stock of fresh vegetables. Poultry is generally scarce, but the article of food whose supply is most 'deficient is the very important one of milk. From this deficiency, it is to be feared, the health of the younger members of the community frequently suffers.

There are no public places of amusement and instruction. This want should be particularly felt in the winter time, when there are so many sailors at home. The poor fellows, being forced by discomfort out of their humble lodgings, generally spend the long and dark evenings in the streets, where they are exposed to drink and other allurements. A comfortable reading-room, it was thought, would conduce greatly to the physical comfort, as well as the moral and intellectual welfare of these men. Such an institution, conducted on the most approved principles, has lately been tried, but, to the shame of Shetland seamen, be it said, it has had to be abolished because scarcely one of the class it was designed to benefit ever entered it. The Shetland Literary and Scientific Society, in its early years, provided a course of lectures during the winter, but these have been discontinued for the last four or fire seasons, and both the society and its library and museum have, unfortunately, become objects of little regard.

Some fine walks may be had in the vicinity of Lerwick. A fine specimen of a Shetland rocky coast—with most varieties of cliff, Stack, headland, and, beach— may be viewed on a ramble along the shore, from the Slates, with its well-formed natural pier, towards the Knab. From the top of that promontory—not its extreme point, which only a sure-footed cragsman can reach—a very extensive and interesting prospect of almost every variety of Shetland scenery amply rewards the pedestrian. In ominous proximity to the hospital, on the steep slope overhanging the freestone quarries, and overlooking Bressay Sound, is the Cemetery, recently formed, and beautifully laid out in terraces and walks. This district was not always a resting-place for the dead, for immediately above it was the Dutchmen’s “Rid Berg,” and on the height over that again, the old battery, a fortification long since disused.

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