Shetland Islands Council convener Sandy Cluness writes this week about his favourite place, Snarravoe in Unst, which has poignant associations for him.
Snarravoe is a deserted little hamlet, standing on a ridge of a hill overlooking Belmont to the south and westwards to Cullivoe across Bluemull Sound.
A hundred and thirty years ago, when Shetland’s population was well over of 30,000, Snarravoe would have bustled with life, with women working the narrow field strips, men heading for the fishing grounds, and the children playing their simple games. The nearest practical source of supplies was Cullivoe, and the winter’s supplies of peat were also brought from Yell. Only sheep and a variety of birdlife inhabit these ruins today.
I admit to a degree of bias in my choice, as this was the site of my ancestors’ croft for generations. My grandfather lived alone as the last resident until his death some sixty years ago. He was a survivor of the July gale of 1881, wading ashore through the wreckage of other boats – 60 men lost their lives during that storm, signalling the end of the haaf fishery.
The First World War brought further tragedy to these islands. I am told that it was my grandmother’s practice to accompany each of her five sons as far as the head of the loch when they returned to the war – miraculously they survived, unlike many other islanders.
Six hundred Shetlanders died in the conflict and the effects of these losses, together with substantial emigration, led to a 50 per cent reduction in our population from the 1880s to the 1970s and the arrival of the oil industry.
I tend to visit Snarravoe once or twice each year, and usually when the weather is fine. I prefer to go alone, marvelling at how these modest homes could have accommodated such large families. I find my favourite place to be both beautiful and tranquil, but maybe I am just trying to commune with the ghosts of the past. I hope that my descendants will feel the same way, as it is only by being aware of our history that we can lead full lives ourselves.