by Tim Senften
IT IS difficult to pinpoint just when Shetland’s mining history began. One of Shetland’s absolute earliest mining remains is a small quarry of fine-grained volcanic rock called felsite, at the Beorgs of Uyea on the northern end of Ronas Hill, and was used by early Shetlanders needing material for making the unique Shetland knife. But the search for useful or precious minerals in Shetland didn’t end here.
Early Shetland and mining: Found just south of Cunningsburgh, and a short walk from A970, the Catpund Quarry is an ancient soapstone or steatite quarry. Known as ‘claber’ or ‘klebber’ in the Shetland dialect, this area can be dated as far back as Roman times, but could very well have been used as long ago as 1500BC. Signs of people having carved out bowls, flat baking plates, lamps or other useful tools, in the easily carved rock, can be found along the burn. Looking at the form of an ancient bowl being carved out, one can imagine its owner coming back to continue his work the following day but, for some reason, he never returned.
For years after, people in Shetland searched for valuable minerals. With sweat dripping from brows, workers hacked and shovelled ore with anxious expectations of wealth and riches. These mining adventures were meant to fulfil dreams, but more often resulted in broken men, lost investments and wasted efforts. The dreams were often abandoned and their owners came and went with stories almost forgotten.
The Sandlodge Mine: Located near Sandlodge, at Sandwick, this early mine is the best known in Shetland. The family of John Bruce of Sumburgh leased the land out to different entrepreneurs through the 19th century, including Alexander Crighton, Robert Redman and the infamous John Walker. Since the late 18th century, copper was mined here at different periods by different companies, all of which fought against rising water filling the shaft, unskilled labour, poor quality ore and financial difficulties, often leading to bankruptcies. When it closed in 1929, the east mineshaft was 275 ft (84m) deep and was sealed with a thick cap of cement in 1931.
Forgotten Shetland Mines: Other Shetland mines whose stories are waiting to be re-discovered, are: The Garthsness Mine (copper/iron); Fladdabister (copper); The Levenwick Mine (iron); The Fair Isle Mine (copper); The Fetlar Quarry (chromite); Hillswick (steatite); Cunningsburgh (iron/copper); Fitful Head (iron) and Clothister (iron).
Today, soapstone is still commercially mined in Unst.
For more information on Shetland’s mining history see the website at www.laplandica.com.