16th October 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Strange finds from way back when on St Ninian’s isle sand

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Jellyfish are stranding in large numbers on Shetland beaches just now. There were dozens of “Moon” jellies, the clear, transparent ones with a pattern of four purplish blobs in the middle.

But also among them were the deep blue ones. Cyanea, reminiscent of the cyan colour in the computer printer ink blue shade, these lurid, intensely coloured creatures are one of Shetland’s most vivid visiting animals.

I wish I had a really big marine aquarium when things like this arrive. They would be so much more easy to see, in suspension in sea water.

As we walked along the Levenwick strand line, small circular patches of sand gleamed and sparkled, among the scatter of weed and jelly. At first we thought that they were the wet splosh patches where gull droppings had landed. But the shining patches, about the size and shape of a £2 coin, were completely without any mess. They were just shining, round spots of sand.

I wondered whether perhaps some smaller jellies, sea gooseberry or comb jelly creatures had also drifted Shetland-wards and stranded along with their cousins, the moon and the blue jellies. Has anyone else noticed hundreds and thousands of tiny jellies, each deliquescing to a small, round, shiny patch on the sand somewhere? I would like to get to the bottom of the mystery.

But now to another beach mystery, and one that has nothing at all to do with jellyfish, or wildlife of any kind.

A blissful blue sky and a young bairn clambering over rocks and pools at the north east corner of St Ninian’s Isle ayre; he might be five minutes, he might be an hour. What is the point of rushing? You can’t rush the process of discovering “secret caves”, hidden corners where spies might once have crouched, or pirates been glimpsed, crevices that might have held contraband.

There is nothing to do but wait while keeping a watchful eye on the tide. A small rock pool nearby affords puddling pleasures while the sea breathes in and out again. My eye glances across submerged pebbles, gritty sand, a limpet shell on its edge, half buried and something else.

There is an awkward, puzzling blob at one end. A crooked finger protrudes from the miniature seabed – dark, tawny orange, knobbly, pock marked.

It looks like iron; brownish, it is iron! But iron doesn’t float. How did a bit of iron get across the sand here and into a small puddle? A piece of a wreck? I tug and scrabble pebbles out of the way. It is wedged in a crevice. Jammed? No, there is a bit of play. Finally, it comes free. A horseshoe. A good sized one at that.

Back home (pre-Shetland) in the fields around Dick Turpin’s birthplace village of Hempstead in north Essex, a horseshoe found was no novelty. Shod Shires, Clydesdales and Percherons were the almost every day reward to bairns plodding through chores among quiet corners of barns, hedges and fields.

Once, a generation before, thousands of the “heavy horses” would have been familiar sights, tramping across fertile East Anglia, but not in Shetland. The Shetland pony in the south east of England was a toy; a pet for small children of better off families to ride on. This horseshoe was far too big for a Shetland pony anyway.

Somehow it had become lodged in a rocky neuk against the skerry and there it had winked at me from the bottom of a small rock pool. I held it, examining the surface and the bairn returned from a million miles of imagination away.

“What’s that?” A horseshoe, I reply.

“How? Where did you find it? Who put it there? What are you going to do with it?”

This horseshoe had a history; a story. We need to find out more.

“The story starts here” proclaims the new Shetland Museum, but in fact, the story in Shetland starts everywhere.

Wherever you are in the isles a story is waiting to be told, or a mystery to be solved. Six thousand years of human adventure, hundreds of millions of years of natural drama have all left tracks, trails and traces of scenes from the past.

The new museum boasts scores of explanations and demonstrations to fit the many mysteries. But it has one expert de-coder in particular who has put up with awkward questions from me for decades. I’m off to find Ian Tait, if I can. He gets more elusive by the day, as the work and the exhibits, stored, displayed, or in transit, pile up around him. But the effort of finding him will be well rewarded. Where better to find out more about an unexpected horseshoe?

Result? Fascination. History is not an exact science and the possible answers to the horseshoe mystery were just that – possible. But they led the mind and the imagination back through the time door, to a St Ninian’s Isle long vanished. The big farm ruled the roost. Changes were afoot. The houses in the isle were still standing but the folk were leaving and men had been contracted from “sooth” to set about demolishing every built stone and carting the whole lot away. The stone was required for the building of a giant wall right across the island from east to west. Sheep were to be the new residents.

It was possible that the heavy horses needed for this work were shod. Their shoes would have been bigger than shoes made for Shetland pony hooves. It was also possible that the demolished house, byres, barns, lamb houses, pig styes, dykes (maybe kilns too?) became a sea of loose, fallen stone, scattered over a wide area. Thus it is possible, if not actually probable, that the shod horses, heaving on their traces, the carts behind them, had to clatter and stumble over the loose stone while their men grabbed and threw the ragged chunks into the growing loads.

It would be easy to imagine a shoe working loose during this process. It would be easy to imagine a shoe coming off on the way back across the ayre. A lame horse being led to the stable that night, a blacksmith and a new shoe sometime later. The shoe that had fallen, remained behind where it had left its hoof. I pictured it, a tough hoop of grey iron, forlorn on the sand; covered and uncovered by turns, as winter seas and summer seas dragged the sand away and back again, shifting it little by little until it reached the jagged safety of the rocks.

Jill Slee Blackadder