Past Life: Hamar House, Baltasound

From Shetland Life, April 1985, No.54

Walls have ears and if only stones could speak what stories they could tell. When I go round old houses, whether they are ruinous, lived-in or converted into Folk Museums, as so many are nowadays, they produce different feelings in me – the sadness of Lund, the excitement of Tankerness House in Kirkwall and the beautiful gardens peeping at me through the windows, and my amazement at the converted farm buildings in Voss in Norway with its many buildings in their natural setting and showing all the toil and fun in the life of a small community between 1700 and the 1920s. More and more people are turning to these old houses which have created over the years their atmosphere and character and are so much part of the community.

We all see things differently but to my biased way of thinking the house in Hamar in Baltasound, which started life as early as 1613, is well worth listening to. It has been altered and extended, as is natural in an old building, and this rather improves the visual effect.

In 1605 David Nisbet of Kirkabister, Yell, acquired four merks of land at Hammer (old spelling) and in 1613 a man by the name of Skow Williamson lived in the house. His descendants lived in it until about 1875. Skow’s son, Erasmus Skoweson of Hammer, had two daughters, Synevoe and Dorothea Erasmusdochter. Dorothea, heiress of Hammer, married William Thomason in 1664 who was the grandson of Mans Norsk, minister of Unst prior to 1593. William came from Virse, Norwick. He and Dorothea had a daughter, Marrable Williamsdochter, who married Ninian Spence of Houlland, Yell, and the house remained in the Spence family until about 1875.

George Low, writing of his tour in 1774, gives instructions how to keep off the blind rock of Swinnaness (now the beacon): “Keep mid channel steering directly south till you bring out the house of Hammer, or that by itself next the sea.” After that the mariner should “stand boldly in for the harbour”. In the 1930s my mother always put a light in the “lighthouse” room when the old Earl of Zetland was due in the south entrance. The captain said it was most useful.

The front extension was probably built soon after the Baltasound church was built in 1827 – now rebuilt as St John’s – as the facing stones are similar. The house would have been heightened at the same time and the windows enlarged.

During the great herring fishing boom in Baltasound, Hamar was used to accommodate men who were employed in the industry. The late Magnus Clark from Gerratown told me his father used to stay in the house, the Haroldswick men living on the top floor and the Baltasound men below them while the ground floor was for general use. His father told him of the fun and tricks played between the occupants of the two floors. The late Mrs Spence, Clibberswick, was a gutter in those days and lived in one of the outbuildings which still has the old fire, even though it leads nowhere now.

It is presumed that Erasmus Skoweson in the 1600s would have made his living in the great white fish trade carried out largely by Dutch and Hanseatic merchants. Hamar itself is udal property right up to the present day. The Booth and Strand of Hammer figure prominently in the title deeds, the fish being dried on the Strand between Hamar Pier and Westerpark.

On the night of the 7th/8th April 1897 the house was gutted by fire and it remained roofless until 1920 when Erland Sandison restored the building to its present state. The roof timbers must be as good now as they were 65 years ago and the house itself ready for another 300 years. It remained the Sandison family home until 1980 and during the slump of the 1930s my father, Charles, had the sunken garden built by the late William Henderson and John Stickle and others mainly to create employment for a few Unst men.

In my opinion Hamar in its fine setting and with its lovely sheltered walled garden and many happy memories would be a tremendous asset for public use in some form. It must be one of the oldest houses in the island and it would be sad if it were to be sold to someone outside the island for temporary use as a holiday home.

June Owers


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