Muckle Flugga and me

Jonathan Wills concludes his account of life in Unst in the 1970s, when he was skipper of the Muckle Flugga attending boat, Grace Darling.

We had no drunks in the crew of the Grace Darling, and Bertie Mathewson was a confirmed teetotaller, but most of us enjoyed a dram and now and then there were a few nips taken in the boatman’s store when we came ashore after a bad trip. Peerie Willie Mathieson solved the problem of the price of rum by making his own hom bru – a fearsome firewater concocted from “a drap o’ treacle, a scar o’ yist, a coarn o’ malt an twatree gallons o’ watter” (he would not be more specific about his recipe) and always working away in a stone jar by the side of the Stourigarth Rayburn. I have fond memories of long, slightly woozy hours spent yarning with Peerie Willie over a “gless ir twa” while gales of sleet howled outside. “Man, hit’s waddir fur naethin’ idder!” he would chuckle as he refilled my glass. Right enough, we did seem to get harder winters thenadays. I learned a lot from Willie about the Flugga, Unst history, the Universe and everything. He was a wise and learned man despite his lack of what we like to call education.

Even stronger bru was available at Petester, on the west side of the Loch of Cliff, when the keepers and I would walk out over the hill to spend some of their “victualling allowance” on Tom and Maria Stickle’s lambs, freshly killed on the premises by the time-honoured Halal method. Oh, Health and Safety, wert thou living at that hour! The mystery is how we managed to find our way back along that mile-long sheep track in the winter darkness, our heads swimming with hom bru, a carcase on each shoulder and a song in the air. Our PLK (principal light keeper), Magnie Leask from Otterswick, East Yell, was a great man for the singing, although none would have called him a great singer. What he lacked in timbre he more than made up for in enthusiasm, and he also made up his own songs, many of them about Da Flugga and its inhabitants. We used to appear together on the stage at Baltasound Regatta concerts, where his comic songs about local characters and their misanters were always in demand. When I bought a ram that failed to perform, for example, he wrote and sang a song about my embarrassment, to my further embarrassment.

Sandy Wyllie and his wife June were my good neighbours at the Shore Station and friends to this day. Sandy was an energetic young ALK (assistant light keeper) and a keen DIY enthusiast. He spent much of one winter building a completely illegal (and not entirely seaworthy) wooden dinghy in the workshop on Da Rock. It was illegal because, after an infamous murder on Little Ross lighthouse near Kirkcudbright in the 1960s, when the culprit had escaped in a boat, someone in “The Office” had forbidden keepers on rock stations ever again to keep boats.

I suspect, but cannot prove, that some of the timber in Sandy’s boat came from the “coffin boards” that every rock lighthouse used to have in store in case a keeper died (whether by murder or from too much of his comrades’ cooking) and the survivors had to make a box to hold his crang until the attending boat could reach them. Sandy’s paint job was beautiful and the little craft was much admired as she swung down the Blondin wire for her first cruise among the rocks of the Flugga. Later we took her ashore with the Grace Darling and she became our loch transport for the victualling runs to Petester. How we escaped drowning I don’t really know. There wasn’t much freeboard some nights.

Sandy Wyllie’s inquisitive nature led him into some rare adventures. He remains the only person to have swum around the Flugga, or rather the Waithing Skerries, to give this spectacular group of stacks the old and proper name, Muckle Flugga being only one of them. I believe he landed on them all: Peerie Flugga, Cliff Skerry, Tipta Skerry, Pulsa Stack, Rumblings and Vesta Skerry. He didn’t do it in a wanny, wisely picking his weather and his tides, but he did do it and he did it, I was reliably informed, stark naked. His visit to Tipta Skerry was particularly memorable. On this flat-topped rock there stand to this day two steel goalposts, complete with crossbar, erected by contractors’ workmen for a lark one Sunday in the 1960s when they were building the new accommodation on Da Rock. The story goes that Sandy played the last game of football on Britain’s most northerly pitch. The opposing team was composed of several hundred puffins, the ball was a plastic fishing net float, and the score was 94-nil in Sandy’s favour. I may have made that last bit up. The memory plays strange tricks and sometimes embroiders good stories. Whatever, Sandy later became a respectable coastguard officer in Lerwick, where his duties included lecturing nautical novices on maritime safety.

We carried a lot of cargo to and from the Flugga. In winter the weather usually confined us to the fortnightly reliefs with perhaps the occasional water trip if there was a spell of fine, frosty weather. This was a major operation, from filling the large, grey plastic casks from the NLB’s own water supply at Da Ness, rolling them down the pier, lowering them into the cargo nets with a rope tackle and then hitching them on to the Blondin wire, two in each net, and standing as clear as we could in the boat while they were hoisted up, with never a steel toecap nor a safety helmet in sight. We never dropped one.

Come the summer, any decent weather at all saw us at the Rock with cargoes every day – first the vital fresh water and then dozens of barrels of diesel. While I was there we had a big construction project on – the building of a completely new aluminium alloy staircase from Da Comb to the top of the Flugga, complete with reinforced concrete landings. This kept us busy with cement cargoes, sand and shingle and, of course, more water for the concrete.

As well as these official cargoes the Flugga did a thriving trade in bags of firewood, chopped on the Rock from builders’ waste lumber and driftwood. PLK Bill Gauld was professionally qualified for this task, having been a lumberjack in a previous existence. He was also an expert on the Doric and a voracious reader. He usually took out an extra box with him, full of books to keep him going for his month on the Rock.

Tommy Georgeson from Scalloway (who ended up as a millionaire’s chauffeur in the Isle of Man) was a keen, self-taught painter. His portraits and landscapes in oils found a ready market and we had to take great care with the finished canvases (or, more usually, hardboards), as sometimes the paint was still slightly tacky when they came down the Blondin wire. Tommy was one of the original teddy boys and well into the 1970s could be seen putting on the style ashore with his winkle pickers, long jacket, string ties and Brylcremed forelock. A true original, like so many of the men who found their way into the lighthouse service.

There was a henhouse on Da Rock and for some years one of the keepers’ rota tasks was to feed the hens, collect the eggs and clean out their quarters. This was just before my time but the story goes that a soft-hearted student, doing a summer stint as an “supernumerary” keeper, felt sorry for the birds being locked up all day and decided to let them out for a run one morning. The hens that didn’t blow away were immediately devoured by bonxies and that was the end of the Muckle Flugga Poultry Farm. So they say . . .

I got quite a surprise one morning when a new keeper, Lawrence Johnstone from Leith, came down to the boat with the rear wheel and several other pieces of a Ferguson tractor. Lawrence, who still lives at the Shore Station, having bought one of the Ness flats when the Flugga was de-manned in the mid 1990s, explained that he was a time-served blacksmith and a crofter friend had asked him to overhaul his old Fergie. During that winter he completed refurbished the old smiddy on the Rock and we hauled the entire Fergie out there and back, a few pieces at a time. Soon we added Lawrence’s wrought iron pokers and other smith’s work to our list of valuable exports.

The late John Henry Priest of Norwick and Tom Priest of Kews were our local assistant keepers. Many the tale was told of their occasional sprees ashore but once on the rock and settled down they were reckoned two of the steadiest workers in the service. Tom was a kindly soul and endlessly helpful to us at Kews, lending us an ancient dumper truck which for a while was our only transport across the moor (our houses didn’t have a road). In return we invited him over for huge meals and occasional parties, which made a change from his lonely bachelor existence in a semi-derelict croft house, and later in a caravan. He obviously thought we were mad (after all, who in their right mind would choose hard labour and poverty on an Unst croft with no amenities when they could be in an office in Edinburgh?) and we thought him a bit odd, too, but we got along splendidly.

Lighthouses were officially “dry” but one Christmas Eve a keeper going on duty decided it would be a good idea to take a few cans out with him so the boys could toast the New Year when it came in. We’d been waiting for weather for many days and it was a pretty hairy landing. It was late in the day when we eventually got in to make the relief. All went well, however, and the single net with its precious forbidden cargo started the long haul up to the winch house as we headed for home and the keepers clewed up the ropes on Da Comb. Imagine the consternation, then, when a violent flan caught the lightly-loaded cargo net and tipped most of its contents into the sea. The keepers rescued what they could from the surf but only one can of lager could be found. It was taken up to the lighthouse and carefully stored in the fridge. At the stroke of midnight on Hogmanay it was reverently opened and passed first to the PLK. “Happy New Year!” he said, took a deep draught – and immediately spat it out. The can was full of salt water.

The Muckle Flugga people I had most to do with were the late Bertie and Eena Mathewson at Noosthamar, Budabrake. They were an agricultural revolution in their own right, turning a nondescript croft at the head of the Burrafirth banks into a flourishing holding with some of the finest sheep and store cattle in Shetland. Bertie had many shares in the hill and was forever fencing in apportionments and re-seeding; he ran the Hermaness Common Grazings Committee according to his strict interpretation of the rules. For years he and Eena overwintered more than a dozen kye and followers in the byre on the west end of the house, feeding, watering and mucking them out by hand in the traditional way. The water was carried in by buckets, not piped to the stalls. Neither could drive so they had to hire or barter for tractors and machinery from a complicated network of friends and relations. We volunteers from the “Kews commune” were welcome additions to the workforce, and keen to learn from our new friends. They and their forebears, after all, had been “living off the land” and “being close to nature” for a very long time.

Bertie and Eena had no children of their own and seemed to adopt our youngsters and us. I’ve rarely experienced such kindness and hospitality as in Noosthamar, where I spent many a winter’s night yarning, eating vast meals (we used to joke about Eena urging Bertie to “aet anidder lamb!”) and drinking beer that Eena won in Sergeants’ Mess raffles at the RAF camp but would never touch. As the night wore on, I would use their ben end as a study where I tried to finish my Ph. D. thesis and start my book about Shetland and oil. They had electric light. In Kews we only had paraffin lamps – and babies, whom the noise of a typewriter kept awake.

Watching Bertie going about his work was a lesson in itself. Everything he did on the boat or the croft radiated calm, unhurried deliberation. At first it looked boring and pedantic but then you saw the quiet, proud pleasure he took in doing a job properly, and you understood: there was a right way to make fast a rope on which your life depended; a right way to launch and retrieve the boat at the slip without damaging her; there was even a right way to roll up your oilskins and tie them with string for the long walk home from the Ness around the beach at Burrafirth. And there was time to do it all. If the corn was lodged by wind and rain, as it often was, then there was also a right way to save as much of it as you could with a scythe or sickle; a dess o’ hay or a scroo o’ aets had to be biggit right or the fodder would rot; and animals had to be treated with care and respect or you wouldn’t get the best out of them. In Bertie Mathieson’s working life you saw the wisdom of many generations and centuries of experience made manifest. He was happy to share his skills. Not many could match his standards and as he got older this exasperated him more and more, but what he achieved, while hardly ever leaving Burrafirth before he retired, was truly amazing.

I don’t go back to North Unst much these days. Partly it’s because my life has been so full of other interests and commitments in other places since I left the island in 1976, but mainly it’s because so many of the folk I remember are no longer there. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, at the Muckle Flugga and in Burrafirth in the mid-1970s I was witnessing the last days of a profession that had lasted for 200 years, and of a rural way of life a thousand years old. Both had to go I suppose, but I do miss them.

Jonathan Wills


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