In the first of a two-part feature, Jonathan Wills remembers the time he spent in Unst in the 1970s, as a crofter, crewman and later skipper of the Grace Darling.
I first saw Muckle Flugga at the age of 16, in the summer of 1963, when I went camping in Unst with three school friends – Bruce Cheyney, Geoffrey Owers and a boy named Keith whose father was then C.O. of RAF Saxa Vord. We pitched our tents on the north-west slopes of Saxa Vord, at a place called Da Croon o’ da Ura. We were prospecting for gold. We didn’t find any but we had a lot of fun and a splendid view of a golden sunset over Muckle Flugga and Out Stack (which I was later to discover had a local name, Da Shuggi).
Ten years later I found myself a couple of miles south of Saxa Vord, repairing two derelict houses and bringing a croft back into cultivation at South Quoyhouse (“Kews”) in Unst. Six of us, all recent graduates from Edinburgh University, had decided to try running a croft co-operative. The locals called it a hippy commune but it really was a co-operative and I still have the cash ledgers to prove it. These show it never made any money but we survived without going on the social and raised three strapping toddlers between us before going our separate ways.
Growing our own food was surprisingly successful but we needed some cash as well and paid work was hard to come by in Unst at that time. However, I’d not been in Kews long when I heard, from my friend Bill Sinclair at Alec Priest’s shop, about a part-time job as a crewman on the Muckle Flugga attending boat, the Grace Darling. In the teeth of a north-west gale I cycled over to Da Ness in Burrafirth and, somewhat short of breath, presented myself for inspection and interview by Lowrie Edwardson, then nearing retirement after 36 years in the post. Having established that I’d been messing about in boats for a while (albeit mainly rowing and sailing dinghies in Lerwick Harbour), that my Shetland grandfather was a boatbuilder and also called “Lowrie”, and that my uncle, yet another Laurence, was indeed Peerie Lollie Smith, the former Inter-Club racing champion, the Muckle Flugga Attending Boatman appointed me on the spot, presumably judging that my nautical genes would make up for my lack of other qualifications.
A year later Lowrie got his pension and, there being no other applicant, I was appointed in his stead by the Commissioners of Northern Lights, with effect from October 1974, at the magnificent salary of £1200 a year, “all found” – the latter item being the more valuable as it included a free house, free coal, free electricity, free phone, free clothing, free shoes and as much foul weather gear, paint and old rope as you could make use of. The NLB even supplied your light bulbs and washing up liquid in the annual “requisition”.
We had no phone at Kews where I was living at the time I joined the crew but Lowrie explained that this was no problem. All I had to do was buy a radio with a short wave dial, tune it to a certain frequency and listen every morning at nine. Then I’d hear him saying “Hello, da Rock, hello, da Rock. Dis is da Ness callin’ da Rock. Ower.” And then the duty keeper on the Rock would reply, saying what the sea looked like and whether it was weather for a relief or maybe even for a cargo trip. Sometimes it would be only a “bare relief”, which meant conditions were marginal and you might nip in and switch keepers but you couldn’t lie there long enough to transfer any cargo or fresh water barrels. If it was a day for it, you got on your pushbike as soon as the radio transmission ended, and by the time you reached Da Ness the boat would be sliding down the slipway out of her shed.
Lowrie was quite a character. On shore he roared a lot, particularly when he’d had a glass of home brew, but there was no ill in him and at sea he inspired great confidence. He could judge the sea state perfectly, which of course was how he’d managed to keep himself and his crew alive for 36 years. It would be quite easy to kill yourself going into the Flugga Landing, were you to misjudge the waves, as I was to discover.
My first trip was just a routine lightkeeper relief for Lowrie and the rest of his crew, but I found it rather hair-raising. The 36-foot-long attending boat, the Grace Darling, was heavy, immensely strong and immensely difficult to steer when going astern. She’d been clinker built in the 1930s at a famous yard in Leith and the story was that when they ordered her the Northern Lighthouse Board specified that each plank was to run the full length of the hull. When the NLB surveyor found there were indeed some planks scarfed together, he ordered their removal. Out they went, and with them the yard’s profit on the job.
On most trips you were fairly sheltered until the boat came out past Da Gord into the mouth of Burrafirth. This was because we very rarely went out in northerly or north-easterly winds. My Lerwick grandfather and uncle had brought me up in terror of the tide rip at Da Nort Mooth, whither I was forbidden to venture in a rowing boat or sailing dinghy. I’d done some sailing around the Shetland coast with the late Richard Moira in his little folkboat yacht Shearwater and we’d run into some nasty “strings” on our travels. So I was already quite cautious about tides, but Flugga Sound was still an unpleasant surprise. It had a violent race that I found extremely alarming until Lowrie explained you could almost always avoid the worst of it by making a detour. This commotion in the ocean was caused by the action of tide against swell and sea, producing those short, steep waves that sank so many homeward-bound sixareens in centuries gone by. If you studied your tides you could usually get to Da Rock, even in a southerly gale. Surprisingly, a gale from the right direction could flatten the sea enough to allow you to attempt a landing.
I’m not sure Health and Safety would let you do today what we routinely did over 30 years ago: the skipper had to judge the swells and pick the exact moment when it was safe to steer into the geo on the south east side of the lighthouse, between Da Muckle Flugga and Da Peerie Flugga. The problem was that a line of rocks lay right up the middle of the geo, culminating in a long, jagged stack called Da Comb. What you did, once you’d picked your wave, was take the boat in between Da Peerie Flugga on the port side and the reef on the starboard, then swing her hard a-starboard between the point of Da Comb and the westernmost fang of the reef; then you almost immediately put the helm hard over the other way and the motor full astern; this manoeuvre brought you neatly alongside Da Comb, a couple of metres away from cast iron rungs set into the sloping rock; just as you came to a halt, one of the lightkeepers on Da Comb threw a warp to the crewman in the stern, who quickly “took a turn” round a bollard on the port quarter while, simultaneously, the other keeper flung “da buropp” (the bow rope) to the bowman for’ard; the first keeper then lowered “da briest ropp” – a very long warp made fast to a ring bolt on the north side of the geo – with the loose end tied on to the rail at Da Comb; the “briest ropp man” grabbed it and made fast to a double stanchion on the starboard side and there you were – sitting safely on a three-point mooring.
It sounds complicated and it was, but the whole process took less than 30 seconds after the final turn into the landing place. I saw a couple of dropped buropps in my three years with the Grace Darling (due to furious flanns of wind sweeping down from the Flugga) but I can’t remember anyone ever missing a throw or a catch of the stern or breist ropps – which, come to think of it, is probably the reason I’m still here to write this, all these years later!
Another reason is that the ropes were of manila, none of your synthetics, and they stretched a little under tension. This was important, as I found when I misjudged the sea state on one of my early trips as skipper: it was a fairly dirty morning and we’d just made fast for a “bare” relief when I saw the look on the face of the bowman, Peerie Willie Mathewson. He was staring astern, aghast. I looked back over my shoulder just in time to see the breaking wave from the north-east sweeping right across the geo. There was nothing to do but hope all three lengths of manila held. They did, although we got a soaking and a bad fright. And I had just learned why these moorings were always completely renewed after just a few months – not only did this provide the local crofters and boatmen with an almost unlimited free supply of the NLB’s finest “old” manila rope, but it also kept our heads above water.
Once you were moored up at the landing, the boat was lying directly under the Blondin wire, a fixed steel cable named after a famous 19th century French trapeze artist. It was anchored to a massive iron fitting, concreted into Da Comb, and soared 200 feet up to the winch house on top of Muckle Flugga, right across the geo. The third keeper was in charge of the winch engine, which paid out a second wire, shackled to a running block from which hung a tackle and a hook. Hanging on the hook would be empty boxes and other gear going ashore. When the running block had travelled to the bottom it struck a stopper block on the Blondin wire and automatically lowered the cargo net into the boat. The crew immediately unhooked it, hitched on the outgoing cargo nets (up to three of them, sometimes), and hand-signalled the winchman to haul away. Meanwhile the relief keeper or keepers were swinging ashore on another block and tackle, hanging from a gantry on Da Comb. As soon as they’d landed on the rock, the homeward bound keepers immediately joined the boat. If it was calm, the breist ropp man would slack off his warp so the Grace Darling lay alongside the rock on rope fenders and the keepers could just step aboard off the rungs of the ladder, but more often than not they had to put a rope around their waists and use the block and tackle.
At this time I was 27 years old. The youngest member of my crew, Bertie Mathewson of Noosthamar, Buddabrake, was “chust a boy” at 57; Peter Sinclair of Annsbrae was in his late sixties; Peerie Willie Mathieson from Stourigarth (Bertie’s cousin, despite the different spelling of the surname) was in his seventies, as were the brothers Willie Gibbie and Johnnie Charlie Mathieson from Upperhoose, Buddabrake (also Bertie’s cousins). Sometimes sprightly 40-somethings such as Tom Bruce of Stove, or Ali Sinclair, or Lowrie’s nephews from Baltasound would stand in as relief crew, as would Al Williamson and Julian Pollock, my crofting co-op colleagues from Kews, but of the permanent crew I was the youngest and by far the least experienced.
Looking back, I’m surprised how tolerant the crew were of my unkan nautical notions, most of which had been gleaned from reading Arthur Ransome, Joseph Conrad and the Hornblower books. I quickly learned that in a Shetland crew the skipper does not bark commands. Orders, if given at all, are delivered sotto voce, often as quizzical suggestions, for example: “Du could mebbe turn her noo, Jeemie?” The Old Man governs his shipmates by subtle persuasion, superior ability, long experience and an intricate knowledge of the life history, personal peculiarities and kinship linkages of each and every one of them. In addition, he has earned their respect over the years. I had none of these essential leadership attributes.
A major reason for the crew’s survival after I took over from Lowrie Edwardson was the Grace Darling’s incredibly reliable two-cylinder Lister diesel engine, which never faltered. Part of the reliability came from it being air cooled and thus not vulnerable to cooling water blockages, but it was a very noisy beast as a result and conversation was impossible if you were standing anywhere near it. A novelty, to me at least, was that the skipper didn’t control the engine. That was the job of the donkeyman who stood over the motor with his back to the skipper. In my day this job was done by the imperturbable Peter Sinclair, a Burrafirth crofter and fiddler old enough to be my father. On my first “solo” landing I called “Come astern, Peter!” when I judged the moment to be right. Nothing happened. “Come astern!” I repeated. The hunched back still ignored me. “Astern!” I roared. Peter turned round at that and, with a winsome smile, said: “Shü’ll com astern when shü’s ready.” After that, I left him to it and we got along just fine.
Once we’d left the slipway at Burrafirth there was no way for the keepers on the Rock to recall us until we were within sight of the landing. We had a portable radio in the boat but it never worked. I sent to Edinburgh headquarters for a new one and that didn’t work either. There was a massive old compass but I used it rarely – to steer home in fog and, on one wild day, to find my way past Da Framd stack through sea smoke in a south-westerly storm. No radar, of course, nor an echo sounder, nor really any of the navigational aids you find these days on every little plastic bathtub yacht in the marina. There were out-of-date distress flares and a faded set of semaphore flags in the stern locker.
Soon after I took over as boatman, the NLB marine superintendent, a stern but kindly man always referred to as Mister Simpson, ordered me to make an inventory of all the equipment in the boat, the boatshed and the boatman’s store at the head of the jetty. The first stirrings of health and safety legislation were being felt in the NLB offices at 84 George Street, Edinburgh, and Mr Simpson made it clear that Lowrie’s retirement was an opportunity to renew a few of the North Unst brooms. During a lengthy excavation of the NLB’s property I discovered the corroded remains of the boat’s navigation lights, some extremely heavy and completely flat batteries (so that was why the radio didn’t work), a heavy canvas drogue, eight moth-eaten lifejackets, a spare set of huge oars, a mast with a complete set of rigging – and two canvas sails that had completely rotted away. Lowrie had stowed all this stuff in the rafters years before, rightly judging it of no use whatsoever and just so much extra weight to carry.
On receiving my report Mr Simpson was much exercised by what might happen if the engine stopped and so, I must admit, was I. He immediately ordered new lifejackets, distress flares, and all sorts of goodies, including new standing lug and jib sails made of Terylene. He then instructed me to carry out a safety exercise with the crew, to make sure they were familiar with all the gear and emergency procedures. He even authorised payment of wages for this extra trip.
The great day came and we launched into Burrafirth. We motored out to the middle of the firth and then stopped. I asked the crew to step the mast in the tabernacle, having by now learned that brusque naval orders had no effect. This proved quite difficult as it became clear none of them had stepped a mast for a very long time, if ever. There were long discussions about where the shrouds and forestay should go. Things got even more complicated when I suggested they might haul away on the main and fore halyards and hoist the sails. Then I hinted that they might consider paying out the sheets so we could run before the wind. For a little while we bowled down Burrafirth quite happily. Then I swung her to port and expressed my opinion that this might well be a good time to see how she tacked to weather. The sheets stayed slack. Slowly it dawned on me that most of my crew had no idea how to sail a boat and had very rarely done so, certainly not in their time with the Grace Darling. They’d all been born after the internal combustion engine was invented and, by the time they started going to the Flugga, the attending boat had a reliable engine and no longer used sails or oars. Apart from “aandowin’ alang da Burrafirth shore ta da eela” (and that was years ago) they’d hardly been in other boats.
The emergency drill was going nowhere. Lodged corn was lying in the Burrafirth rigs, waiting to be cut with a sickle after the latest autumn gale (several of the crew still kept kye in byres on the ends of their houses, old style). We were wasting valuable daylight. So we stowed the gear and never used it again. I was considered somewhat eccentric for insisting that we always carried it, and the spare oars, in case the Lister ever conked out on us. Even odder to them was my habit of always wearing a lifejacket. They tried on their new ones once, made admiring remarks, and then left them in the boatshed. When they’d all gone home I smuggled the lifejackets back aboard and hid them in the for’ard locker, just in case.
The crew did, however, appreciate the new oilskins I procured for them and the small increase in wages I was able to squeeze out of Mr Simpson. I did a thorough paint job on the Grace Darling and Mr Simpson seemed pleased when he came north to inspect. Fortunately, it was a wild day when he arrived and there was no chance of us carrying out a second emergency sailing drill for his benefit. I merely assured him that the crew were familiar with all the equipment.
Their fee for the famous safety exercise was later described in the boatman’s store as a “flattie”. At that time the crewman’s wage for a trip to the Flugga, whether you managed to make a landing or not, was just enough to buy you a bottle of rum from Alex Priest’s shop on the road from Burrafirth to Haroldswick (by no means the cheapest source of strong drink in Unst). If you were called to Da Ness on standby, in case the sea should moderate enough for a quick dash to Da Rock when the tide turned, the wage was enough to buy a half bottle of the same fluid, hence the saying: “I doot he’ll only be waddir fur a flattie da moarn!” If you had to stay home all day and listen to the radio at hourly intervals for a call to Da Ness, your “home standby” fee was enough for a quarter bottle in your hip pocket.
The second part of “Muckle Flugga and Me” will appear next month in Shetland Life.
Material from this article and other sources also appears in a new book from the Unst Heritage Trust. Muckle Flugga, the Impossible Lighthouse, is the story of Britain’s most northerly lighthouse, full of anecdotes and good photography. It’s available at £6 from North Isles and Lerwick shops, or can be ordered by post from the Unst Heritage Trust.