Past Life: Frobisher’s Shetland Hansel

From Shetland Life, December 1984, No. 50

By E. J. Smith

It is not generally known that Sir Martin Frobisher, that grand seaman and explorer, on his first voyage in search of new seas and lands came by Shetland and was glad to betake himself to the quiet sands of St Ninian’s Isle to repair his vessel and take onboard fresh water.

Queen Elizabeth had financed Frobisher’s voyages, the first of which took place in 1567, his vessel being the Gabriel and its master Christopher Bell. Frobisher recorded the events as follows: “The day being Friday, about 12 of the clocke, we wayed at Detford (Deptford) and set saile, all three of us, and bare down by the Court where we shotte off our ordinance, and made the best show we could. Her Majestie beholding the same, commended us, and bade us farewell, shaking her hand in and out of the window.

Afterwards she sent a Gentleman aboard of us who declared Her Majestie had good liking of our doings, and thanked us for it, and also willed our Captaine to come next day to Court, to take leave of her.”

With this load of good wishes they set sail again heading north along the coast of Britain until “the 24 day, at 2 of the clocke afternoone we observed the latitude, and I had sight of Faire Yle being from us 6 leagues north and by east. The 25 day from 4 to 8 o clocke in the forenoon, I cast about to the Westward point called Swinborne (Sumburgh) Head, being north north west from me and the land of Faire Yle.

“I sailed directly to the north head of that same land, sounding as I did so, having 60, 50 and forty fathoms and grey and redde shels; and I sailed to see if there were any roadshedde for a north-west wind; found by soundings hard rockes and foule ground, so did not ancre, but plied to and fro with my foresail and mizzen till it was high water under the Island.
“The 26 day having the wind at the south, a fair gale, came to Swinborne Head. The Island of Fowlay being west north west from me, 6 leagues. I found my elevation to be 37 degr. and my declination 22 degr. 46 min.”

Here a contemporary commentator adds the explanation to the narrative: “By elevation he meaneth the distance of the sunne from the zenith.”
Frobisher then goes on: “At that present time being near to Swinborne Head, having a leake which did trouble us, also to take in fresh water. I plyed roome with a sounde which is called St Tronian’s (St Ringan’s – the old name for Saint Ninian) and did ancre in seven fathoms of water and faire sand. You have coming in the Sound’s mouth, in the entring, 17, 15, 13, 10, 9, 8, and 7 fathoms, and there we roade to a west sun, and stopped our leake, and having refreshed ourselves with water I set sail from St Tronian’s and turned out till we were cleare of the Sound, so sailed west to go clear of the island of Fowlay.”

It must have been a sight worth seeing, even then, the Elizabethan crew stopping the “leake” and the fresh water part going to and fro from the inexhaustible burn running by the Vaedrik, rolling their barrels, and very likely singing as they went over the shining sands. Thus Frobisher was hanselled by fresh, sparkling water at St Ninian’s Isle. His voyages, though not yielding him the desired result, brought him into great favour by his work in “planting the English ensign firmly in Newfoundland soil” and later on by his distinguishing himself in the great battle against the Spanish Armada


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