Past Life: Unst, my delight

From Shetland Life, August 1983, No.34
by Berta Inkster

Our island poet, Basil R. Anderson, wrote:

Dear Unst, my own, my well-beloved,
O fairest Isle to me,
Of all the many bosom gems
That stud the Northern Sea.
With joy I hug thy rugged sides,
Where high-crowned Saxavord
Looks down on Muckle Flugga Light
And swelling Burrafjord.

These are my sentiments exactly. Unst is my birthplace, and I have always loved it. I was told that, when I was being taken out in my pram, I almost fell out of it trying to reach the wild flowers which grow in profusion along the roadsides. I love the beaches, the rocks, the hills, the cliffs and the lochs. In winter, when the flowers are asleep, I love the muted lovely colours of the stone dykes; green and black serpentine, blue and yellow chromite and lovely quartz.

I am intrigued with all the mystery of those pre-historic sites. The standing stones – who set them up, and why? The Circles on Crucifiel called the Rounds O’ Tivla – what were they for? Is it true that a condemned man could get a pardon by running the gauntlet from the Heogs to the circles near the Baliasta Kirk? Who made the scalloped edge on the Crabbie Stane at Gunnister, and for what purpose? Is it the ruins of a little temple or a priest’s cell that stands a little above and to the south of the stone? I’ll likely never know the answers now.

However, some of Unst’s history can still be read in the man-made beaches that once were spread with salt fish when the fishing was done from the sixarens – a hazardous occupation. Then there are the remains of the concrete facings along the voe in Baltasound and the shore in Uyeasound, reminders of the great days when Baltasound was the “Herringopolis” of the North. There were 33 herring stations along the voe, and six in Balta Isle. Once it was possible to walk right across the voe on herring sail boats. One weekend in 1905, a census was taken of the folk on boats and station at Balta Isle and there were 1000 folk there.

All this made a busy place in other ways. In the 1892 Manson’s Almanac there are listed for Unst bakers, a butcher, a blacksmith, boatbuilders, cattledealers, carpenters, carters, coopers, dressmakers, fishcurers, a gig hirer, joiners, letter carriers, licensed grocers, general merchants, lightkeepers, a lime manufacturer, lodgings, masons, manure manufacturers, a police constable, painters, sailmakers, shoemakers, slaters, steam boat agents, tailors, tailoresses and wheelwrights. All the spinners and fine knitters who did so much for the island aren’t mentioned! There were 19 herring boats owned in Unst that year. There couldn’t have been many folk unemployed during the summers then.

Unst has been fortunate in several ways in having natural resources which gave work and security to some families after the boom years of the fishing were over. Serpentine and talc quarrying followed the chromite works. Defence works and camps during the war were followed by Saxavord Camp, which gives many of our local folk employment, as does Unst Airport.

Folk are materially a great deal better off than when I was young, especially the youth, with all the wonderful aids to entertainment they have in this electronic age. I wonder often if they have the same joy we had when bairns, in running over the soft sandy road with bare feet, and maybe getting a lift in a cart to sit high above a majestic Clydesdale.

Looking back to teenage years, was there ever a bad Sunday night in summer? All the young folk would go to “da Meeting” and then walk or cycle to the North Side to meet the old Earl, which usually arrived about 9 o’clock.

I loved the dances. There weren’t as many then, and every one was sheer magic to me. One fiddler and a pianist were all that were needed in any of the halls. Of course, there were no amplifiers. Did folk have more acute hearing then, or were they quieter? The local concerts which were held in all three halls were real entertainment, with singing, fiddle solos, recitations, readings and always a play or two.

In winter we played badminton. There were two clubs in Baltasound, and some great players, and many a hard battle took place! The halls were lit by Tilley lamps which had to be pumped up regularly and which provided warmth as well as light. I don’t think anyone would like to go back to them now.

Unst has inspired many writers and poets, and I commend to you the poem Vagaland wrote about Norwick, part of which goes:

Oh, mony a time, wi caald an dreary wadder,
Whin da aert is duddered laek an grey,
We come a-mind, lass, o a fair green island
An Norwick, wi a sunny Joolie day.

An hear agyin da sea, aye hushin, hushin,
Closs ta da warm saand upo da ayre,
An see agyin dat rigg aa green wi coarn,
An see da bright red poppies growin dere.


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