Where exactly was that round towered church in Ireland, Bigton? Every time I am near enough, I scan the cluster of buildings that makes up the village today and try to imagine it hundreds of years ago, when the church was still standing. The actual site may be known to someone, but my local informant tells me that it is lost to history. What excitement there would be if a gardener, a drain-digger or strainer-post-setter discovered the foundations. “Lost to history” has such a hopeless, mournful ring to it.
I was once shown a huge chunk of stone, carved on three faces, as though it had formed part of a pillar or corbel. It was said to have come from the church. But how could such a big and decorated structure just disappear? Apparently there is still a portion of the local area called “the steeple green”, so the church couldn’t have been far away. Still, the present day cemetery has a lot to offer in terms of scenery.
If you stand in the car park beside the cemetery in Ireland, there is a magnificent view south across the valley, with St Ninian’s Isle to the west, the ayre to the south and curving hillscape beyond. Bigton clusters at the heart of the panorama and sea, sky and a brindled carpet of marsh and cultivated ground frames the whole effect. The scene is one of great tranquillity and charm, but there have been some dramatic moments in the past.
The pre-walk for the first of this year’s Shetland Field Studies Group walks began here last Sunday and there could not have been a more glorious day for walking. Even in June, Sunday’s weather conditions would have made an impact, but for April it was stunning. The day before had been beautifully sunny and I was sure Sunday would be the same and dressed for warmth and insulation. But it turned out so perfect that I was roasting before we had gone half a mile.
The cliff top walk between Ireland and Maywick is one of Shetland’s finest routes but, as yet, it has not been visited by the access team. There are dozens of fences to cross and only two or three have stiles. Some of the fences are old, with straggling, rusty scraps of wire draped at intervals over rather drunken looking posts, while others are solid, tight and high, often topped by a strand of barbed wire.
Sadly, here and there, lengths of wire have been abandoned, with loops of foot-snatching wire protruding from the ground. Some posts too are quietly rotting under a loose mantle of grass, ready to trip on. But as long as you can manage to cross a fence, safely both for yourself and for the fence, there are wildlife, geology, and history delights to make it all worthwhile.
At intervals along the coast there are small streams which splash down through tiny channels, or small gorges, carrying the drainage from the west-facing slopes. They empty out into the sea in a variety of trickles, seepage pools or waterfalls, depending often on the state of the tide. They often form in the junctions between different geological formations and there are some spectacular examples of these along the route. The massive Stack of Griskerry, the spectacularly broadly banded Burgi Stacks and the dramatic natural arch further north, not to mention Maywick itself, with its sheltered sands and towering cliffs.
If cultivated, enclosed land is an indication of fertile ground, then there must be a significant quantity of it here. Strips of fenced land fan out all round Ireland and extend well out towards the north. There has been hard graft in the vicinity for generations. Now most of it is down to grazing. A beautiful flock of moorit yowes turned to stare curiously at us as we crossed one particular gully.
Grazing was fairly close so there were few botanical highlights on the route, but close cropped scurvy grass was actually flowering in a few patches. These exposed and much nibbled blooms were doing their best for early insects, but they had a much harder life than the Mayflooers, or primroses along the verge-side drains south of Maywick which I admired on my return leg. Evidence of sea pink clumps was everywhere, just stuffed with buds. There’s going to be one big, pink festival of banks flooers in early June.
Birds are in the ascendancy and we saw our first scootie-alan (Arctic skua) and bonxie (great skua) during the trip. The scootie-alan was making a great racket and I have since heard that there was a sea eagle around at the time, so maybe it was frightening the skuas.
Snipe were hunkering down in the marshy areas and skylarks were singing their hearts out in the cloudless sky. There were clamouring shalders (oyster catchers) and a steady procession of maalies (fulmars) and various gulls (maas) as well as a small colony of kittiwakes at one point. Two large flocks of geese flew past and in some places, goose droppings on the grass above the banks showed just how much more there had been before.
Some puzzling remains of stone structures were found too, which may have had interesting histories. Upstream from the Dyke End Geo stood what from a distance looked like the remains of a mill. But there was no loch. Closer inspection proved it to be a kind of planticrub, but one with a doorway. Planticrubs have no doors – very strange.
Further along, on a narrow headland a little south of Grifskerry, was a rough circle of large boulders, at the end of a very old, buried, faelly dyke. A second old dyke forked away from the structure and vanished over the edge of the geo – equally mysterious.
Even odder were the squared-off, low sets of stones in the centre of two small, shallow valleys even further along to the north. The first one reminded me of a simple grave site, but whatever had been buried (if grave it was) must have been done years and years ago. The stones were well overgrown. The second one had more and bigger stones, but didn’t look quite as old. A few eroded sites may well have been overlooked, as we didn’t always manage to keep close into the banks.
I was extremely grateful to a crofter in Maywick who told me stories of a small loch we had noticed a short distance inland. He said that folk used to carry their herring baskets up there and leave them to steep. There were apparently leeches in it, and they would cluster onto the baskets to eat the fragments of fish and other organic matter, thereby cleaning them. It made me wonder how many other stories there are which tell of detailed use of features in the landscape in the area.
What Press Gang tales, smuggler stories, battles with poverty, foreigners, raiders, shipwrecks, tempests, could be unearthed if one only had unlimited time? Well, as I write, there are still a few days left to investigate. Why not come on Sunday’s walk and see how much more we manage to unearth?
Jill Slee Blackadder