Past Life: Memories of Gruting School

From Shetland Life, September 1984, No.47

By Magnus F. Peterson

When I heard that the primary school at Gruting, Bridge of Walls, was to be closed for good, I couldn’t help but think back to the many happy days I spend there from early 1900 until after the First World War.

My father and mother were both teachers at Gruting, he looking after the older pupils while she taught the beginners. His salary at the beginning of the War was the princely sum of £92 (per year, not per week!). Towards the end of the War, the Burnham Scale came into operation for Shetland, thus putting him in the millionaire class by almost doubling his salary – much to his relief because by 1914 he was financing three sons at the Institute in Lerwick.

During these days, the number of pupils at Gruting school dropped from about 80 at the turn of the century to about 30 at the beginning of the First World War. All the pupils walked to school, there being no transport or even road of any kind. The longest walk was from Hoganess, about three miles over open, unsheltered moorland with two burns to cross, one without a bridge. In the winter-time this was hazardous enough for he older boys and extremely so for the small ones, yet, strangely, the Hoganess children were the best attenders in the school, always early and rosy-cheeked.

In addition to the three ‘R’s, the school provided (during “dinner-hour”) instruction in handling small boats, of which there was a plentiful supply on the beach some fifty yards from the school. They included Dagmar, Ibis and Minevia (all 17 ft at waterline); Andromache, a lath and tar sculled tub (very much unclassified!) made by two pupils and named after a large cruiser that visited the voe for a couple of days; and an 11 ft flat-bottom also home-made. We also made rafts by floating tilfers under two oars, with two boat seats across the oars to stand on. This arrangement usually disintegrated in about three feet of water, so the need to be able to swim, either clothed or naked, was many times demonstrated. Swimming lessons were always available for the boys with the “Master” pacing the beach with boots unlaced and jacket ready to throw off – but only once did he have to demonstrate in reality how to rescue a non-swimmer out of his depth.

There were two big “treats”, not officially in the school curriculum. One was when w were allowed to go to the haddock fishing – out the voe to the open sea, past the Muckle Flaes to raise the back of Vaila and Watsness to the north, Culswick and Giltarump to the south, with only Foula between us and America, and thirty fathoms below the keel. Out there you might see the occasional large whale with several porpoises in attendance or an occasional large shark following to the surface the other half of a haddock still attached to your handline. The other “treat” was to crew a boat at the annual regatta from Bridge of Walls around Gruting Holm to the buoys at Hogan Skerries and Breiwick – shifting ballast at each tack, jibing, and bailing out the shipped water while keeping an eye n the other competitors.

A boy’s life outside Gruting School was also much taken up with other kinds of fishing such as piltocks in the spring and mackerel in August, and naturally at school there were daily reports (between boys) of the number of score of piltocks or mackerel caught the evening before and plans for the future.

Very few boys bothered with brown trout fishing in the burns or lochs, but I can remember recording 72 brown trout from the Gruting burn for the month of April – most of them returned alive to the burn. Of much greater interest was the use of small pieces of old herring net, rebarked and set along the shore. Normally this kept the pot going with a few piltocks and mackerel, or even a sea trout now and then; but there were also odd herrings all in a bunch and, once, three large skate which were brought aboard by releasing one end of the net and wrapping it around the fish before hauling the lot aboard as a parcel to be disentangled on the beach. I also remember swinging a four foot shark aboard by the tail; he had been lying in the net but was not meshed. For a short while I kept that shark for show in a zinc bath before releasing him into the sea again.

Perhaps the most thrilling kind of fishing for a boy then was to wade in wielding a bamboo came with three cod hooks lashed to its tip to ‘rick’ a five foot conger eel and stagger up the beach with the prospect of an excellent gun-case made from its skin.

So, life at the Lea, Gruting, in the early years of this century could be full, healthy and forever remembered.

Now the school is to be closed: that is indeed sad. Sad because it seems wrong that so many people tend to prefer the town to the country and that their children perforce must find their enjoyment in the street rather than in the bite of the cold wind at dawn with the dew drenching bare feet as they hurry down to ease the boat off to see what the night has brought to their net.

Magnus F. Peterson

The author of this article lives in Milton Keynes. His working life was spent as an engineer at Fairey Aviation and then at the Manchester Guardian. He has always maintained his close links with Shetland. His parents were teachers at Gruting for almost fifty years (early 1890s until 1928). They were Christina Ann and John Scott Peterson. She had previously taught at West Burrafirth, he at Clousta. Their own children all of whom were educated at ‘The Lea’ were: John (deceased); Isabella (died aged 12); James MacInnes (a professor); Magnus Fraser (the contributor); William Gordon (deceased); Emily (Mrs Milne, deceased); Peter Hewitt (a well known local doctor, deceased).


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