18th July 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Past Life: A vanished landmark

From Shetland Life, June 1984, No.44

by George P. S. Peterson

On the morning of 2nd May Mr Gibbie Fraser of West Burrafirth phoned to tell me that the Horn Stack at the back of Papa Stour had disappeared. The stack was still there a week or two before as Mr Fraser was in the habit of using it for a meed when working lobster creels in that area. I am interested to learn this and yet saddened to think that the last remnant of the Horn o’ Papa has gone for ever.

It was on 31st January 1953 that a tempest of appalling proportions wreaked destruction along the coasts of Britain. North-westerly winds of hurricane force pushed immense seas before them from as far away as Iceland into the North Sea and the resulting high tides breached the dikes of Holland and flooded the low coasts of eastern England. Many lives were lost in Holland.
Well do I recall the newscaster bringing to the notice of the public placenames we had never heard before, like Schouwen in Holland and Donaghadee in Northern Ireland whose lifeboat crew gallantly battled the raging elements to assist the stricken Princess Victoria, the Larne-Stranraer ferry, which sank with a heavy loss of life.

That day in Papa Stour the sea swept up over the beaches and many scores of yards across the grass. It flattened sheep shelters and crub dykes and floated boats in their winter noosts. It poured across Links o’ Kreed to make the Little Ness an island and the terrific onslaught of the open ocean meeting the resistance of the cliffs sent spray shooting hundreds of feet into the air.

And on this day the arch of the Horn collapsed into the maelstrom. A mere stump was left of a stack some forty of fifty feet high. It is this stack that has now vanished. The puzzling thing is that there has been no heavy weather lately from a direction to bring it down. Mr Fraser assures me the Horn Stack was there a couple of week before and he says he will have to readjust his meeds for his “leaders”.

The cliffs at the Horn are not spectacularly high – perhaps no more that 100 feet or so. The promontory of the Horn was pierced by an arch about 40 feet high and a boat could pass under it. The horn itself was a protuberance of rock at the cliff edge that jutted to nowhere above the arch – the left over fragment of some volcanic upheaval.

The name, Horn o’ Papa, was a household word. It was sought by fishermen and tourists and many an idle stroller paused to ponder the scene – the gaunt dark red cliff, whitened and blotched by seabirds, the tang of fresh sea air, the restless ocean, the froth of seapinks at the edge of the banks and the heart-tugging calls of the longwees and kittiwakes. And many a courting couple added their initials to those cut into the shallow turf at the Horn – initials which disappeared eventually into the grass, just as the Horn itself disappeared under the ravages of time, leaving behind only a name. How like life itself!

This leads one to speculate on how many prominent landmarks, once standing so proudly have passed away leaving behind a mere name. The name, Sooth Horn, is still remembered – but there is no horn. Another name, Stour Hunn, means “Great Horn” but it has long since fallen and plunged beneath the waves though the name lingers on.

Further afield in Burra Isle (the Broch Isle – so named because of its prominent fortress) there is an area called Broch but no traces of this structure now remain. Probably not nearly as large as the brochs of Mousa or Clickimin, it must have been visible as a hilltop feature from the sea on the west side of Shetland and even from the east side through the Scord of Quarff.

While we are discussing placenames I am surprised that some scholar has not considered the Gaelic element in Shetland. We are conditioned to accepting (quite correctly too) that the great majority of placenames in Shetland are of Norse origin. But from my own knowledge of the names in Papa there still exists a significant percentage of pre-Norse words. One of the best known caves is Kirstan Hole – neither “Christie’s Hole” as a map of 1880 has it, nor “Kirstan’s Hole” as it is often called today. A Gaelic dictionary reveals that “cuartan” means a “maze” or “labyrinth”. The Gaelic pronunciation inserts “s” between “t” and “r” and here we have a word that describes the cave perfectly for there are side passages that lead off the main gallery. Incidentally part of the roof subsided in 1981 so that there are now two openings to the sky.

Again a protuberance called the Crobbie, near Broadie, defies explanation from Norse sources. But a Gaelic dictionary says that “crubag” means a “claw” or a “crab’s nipper”. Allowing for the “g” being dropped (a common phenomenon in northern European languages) you have a close resemblance to the Gaelic. Furthermore the claw is obvious, not in the shape of the outcrop but in the rock strata, bent like plasticine aeons ago by forces unimagined today.

There are other examples of Gaelic words in Shetland, not only in Papa and Sandness, but also further afield, all of which I find of interest. Here we have proof that the Viking settlers fraternised with the indigenous population to the extent that they adopted their “foreign” placenames. And perhaps it might just suggest that a Celtic culture existed, at least for a time, contemporaneously with the Norse and that there may have been traffic, not only between Shetland and Norway, but also between Shetland and the North of Scotland.