Isles Views 17.07.09

Whalers’ farewell

For the last two summers a team of scientists led by Andy Foote has been studying killer whales around Shetland, part of a bigger study of the population of the north-east Atlantic.

During their time here the “whalers”, as they were referred to locally, spent most of their time in the North Isles and the Wind Dog Cafe in Gutcher was something of a home and headquarters to them.

Not only could they eat at the Wind Dog, but they could use the wireless connection for their computers and keep up with their emails. Now the work here is complete and they leave Shetland, the next project a study in the Western Isles.

Last year when the Shetland study started the team gave an illustrated presentation to an interested gathering and through that and all the friends they made they were able to built up a network of people who kept them informed of any whale sightings. They were highly mobile and responded at a moment’s notice.

Last Wednesday evening the Wind Dog was packed to the door with people listening to Dr Foote give an hour-long talk about the work in Shetland and at the end there was generous time given to questions and the opportunity to speak to him and his colleagues.

They have identified around 1,000 killer whales in the north-east Atlantic and they have been able to obtain a large number of samples to build a DNA database. They have discovered that, like some land animals, whales sometimes die because their teeth have worn away and they can no longer feed.

It seems that the killer whales that feed on seals have far less wear on their teeth than the animals that dine on herring and mackerel. They may live to be as old as 60 or even 80, whereas fish eaters may be finished at the age of 30 or 40. To satisfy hunger whales will eat at least one seal per day and the fish eaters will devour herring by the hundred.

The talk was part of the Shetland Nature Festival and it was attended by many of those involved. Organiser Helen Moncrieff was there as well as Brydon Thomason and Wendy Dickson. Television presenter Simon King was there with his family and he was seen busying himself helping the staff to clear tables and shift chairs.

At the end of the talk and the questions Dr Foote thanked the Wind Dog, especially Margaret Tulloch and Maggie Bowler for all their hospitality and friendship, and he presented a framed set of four photographs of killer whales to Andy Ross, co-owner of the cafe, to mark the landmark birthday that he has recently celebrated.

The whalers have clearly enjoyed their time here. Dr Foote said he would be back and added that “Shetland would not be a bad place to live”.

Widwick rock fall

When Andrew Nisbet is not at his day job of being a pilot at Sullom Voe he likes to spend time in his own boat fishing, cruising out from his berth in the Cullivoe marina.

Recently he when was at Widwick, on the north-west coast of Unst, he saw that there had been a big rock fall in a geo just inside the South Holm.

The head of the geo is steep and a big lump of the hillside has come away and fallen into the geo; it looks like the face of a quarry newly blasted. Mr Nisbet does not know when it happened but it was since the last time he was there with his boat. He suggested that the fall might have been caused by the earthquake which took place earlier this year.

Christian Aid week

The annual Christian Aid collection in Yell and Fetlar has, once again, been a good success.

Organiser Lillias Johnson said the total raised was £1,394.21 and she wanted to thank the many collectors who willingly went from house to house. Special thanks to everyone who took time to sign the Gift Aid forms.

A possible £100 will be added to the total from forms returned by folk paying income tax. Mrs Johnson thanked all who contributed to the worthwhile charity.

Haaf Gruney lasses

More than 206 years after the event there seems to be a revival of interest in the story of the two milkmaids from Uyea Isle who drifted across the North Sea to Norway in 1745.

They were servants at the big house in Uyea and had to row to the isle of Haaf Gruney daily to milk the cows. As the name suggests the isle is green and offers good grazing and cattle were kept there during the summer months. This goes back a long way and up to fairly recent times.

The two sisters, whose surnames were Williamson, went there as usual on 4th August. Normally it only took 10 minutes to row across but they never came back.

Accounts differ as to what happened. Some say that they got lost in fog while others say that a sudden storm blew up and they were driven before it after they broke an oar.

They were eight days at sea and the only food they had was the milk. They finally landed in south-west Karmøy. Initially the folk there gave them a hostile reception. They seemed to think that they might be witches and posed some sort of a threat. However, after one of the lasses stood up and made the sign of the cross they were accepted and cared for.

The two girls never returned to Shetland. In time they married Norwegian men and it is said that some of their descendants are alive today. There are many differing accounts of the story and little detail is known.

However, articles appeared in the May and July editions of the Shetland Life magazine in 1983. More recently Marsali Taylor from Walls has written a play based on the story and Robert Hughson, custodian at the Unst Boat Haven, has a keen interest in the story. Mr Hughson, a Uyeasound man, or myself would be pleased to hear from anyone who knows more about the incident.

Flugga trip off

As part of the Nature Festival a trip to circumnavigate Yell, Unst and Fetlar had been arranged for last Sunday. The Yell Sound ferry Daggri would have made the voyage with, on board, many experts on different aspects of Shetland’s wildlife, archaeology, history and culture.

Sadly the weather forced a postponement. After three weeks of the most glorious, calm weather the wind blew strongly from the north or, even worse, the north-east for the next week and organiser Brydon Thomason wisely called it off on the Friday.

It is a big disappointment for Mr Thomason because he had put a lot of work into organising it and he knows, better than anyone that, had the weather and sea conditions been right, he was offering passengers a fabulous experience.

As it turned out the Sunday, when the trip was due, was a better day. It was fine abüne, as they say, but the sea had not gone down and, had the trip gone ahead, there would have been more than a few disjasket faces north of the Out Stack. It is hoped that the trip can be made a little later in the summer. Watch this space.

Rognvald journey

Bob Pegg, Tom Muir and Bill Taylor came to Shetland recently and did a show in the auditorium of the Shetland Museum and again in Haroldswick, telling the story of Earl Rognvald’s journey to the Holy Land, Rome and Constantinople in 1152. The reaction to it was quite remarkable.

Some would say that Shetland audiences are spoilt with the quality and variety of entertainment on offer. This show was entirely different from anything seen here before and audiences were enthralled by the story so skilfully told by Tom Muir and the medieval music played by Bob Pegg and Bill Taylor on unusual instruments like Pictish harps and the horn and stone ocarinas.

Sadly, as far as they are concerned, the show is over. They have no plans to perform it again. However, it gave so much enjoyment to the folk who saw it, especially in Haroldswick, that a return visit to Shetland cannot be ruled out.

Farmer’ market

There is a farmers’ market on Sunday in the Baltasound Hall from 2pm to 4pm. There will be the usual wide variety of local produce and crafts for sale in the main hall.

This month the soup, teas and home bakes will be provided by the Unst Yoal Club. To book a table for either produce or crafts phone Anna Niven on (01957) 755245.

Lawrence Tulloch


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