Place: The bonny Isle

Marsali Taylor visits Whalsay to learn more about the island’s fascinating history.

Approaching Whalsay’s south-west corner, you see a rounded, green island with a long scattering of houses across it, and, in front, the metallic white superstructures and coloured bows of boats behind the breakwater.  The houses are mostly new-looking; above them, to the left of the fishing boats, is Symbister Mansion House. On the right of the island is a squared, greened-over quarry, where stones were taken for the breakwater. Before it, the long cream building is the fish factory.

Whalsay’s known for its fishing fleet. Here, as you come into the harbour, is today’s way of life. The breakwater’s impressively large – it was extended in 1990 – and behind it are three of Whalsay’s seven-strong fleet: yellow Charisma, black Antares and navy Zephyr. They spend most of their time here, as they have only two to three months at sea, catching their quota of herring and mackerel, then nine to ten months tied up. Catching less keeps the prices high and the fish stocks viable. These boats use the latest sonar technology, which can spot the shoal, assess the species and calculate exactly where it will move to. The nets are raised by hydraulics, and the fish pumped aboard into refrigerated seawater tanks. They keep longer that way, meaning the boats can go further afield. The catch is mostly landed in Denmark and Norway. Like their Hanseatic trading ancestors, these fishermen are paid in foreign currency.

The whitefish vessels are within the smaller breakwater: Havgull, Prevail, Athena. There are only five left, from 15 in the 1970s. Some of the fishermen of the great pelagic boats go off with the whitefish boats in their months ashore. Others work with lobster creels from the smaller boats in the marina. The salmon cages to the left guard the entrance to North Voe, the suggested site for the new ferry terminal.

Whalsay’s fishing history goes back a long way. On the far side of the harbour is a small stone building built by its own dock, with a pulley wheel protruding from the wall. The Hanseatic Böd is the last known example of the many small trading stations that were set up across northern Europe in medieval times. This one was restored in the 1830s using left-over granite from the building of Symbister Mansion House, but it could well date back to the 1500s.

The böd is now a museum. Inside, it smells of timber, from the open-beamed roof and floor. You can see the stone slates through the rafters. Downstairs, there are barrels, lines and hooks in a flat box, and double doors that open to give you a closer view of the pulley system. Boards give the history of the Hanseatic League, a highly-organised trading system controlled from Bergen which lasted from 1400 until its last council in 1669. A map shows the routes: by sea from Bergen to Lubeck, Danzig, Riga, Keval, as far east as Novgorod and Vitebok, south to London, Bremen and Bruges, and overland to Genoa and Venice. In 1539, over 20 per cent of the “stockfish” (dried, salted ling and cod) sold in Bremen were from Shetland. At that time they were caught in fourareens.

Shetland stockfish were said to be particularly good, because of the unique way of curing them, and were in demand for provisioning sea-going ships. Shetland knitted goods like jumpers, underclothes, stockings and gloves were also in demand. They were traded for fishing gear, particularly lines and hooks, rye and wheat flour, mead, beer and spirits, household goods like linen cloth, muslin, soap and ironmongery, and money. The Gunnister Man’s Dutch and German coins were far more common in Shetland than Scots or English pounds. Merchants had to be licensed, and there were strict laws on weights and measures.

Whalsay also had links with Germany outwith the Hanseatic League. A number of German traders made annual trips here, sailing in early spring and leaving in August / September. One, Segebad Detkin, is even buried here at Lind; his tombstone says that he carried on business here for 52 years before his death in 1573, and his descendants continued for a further 100 years. Detkin’s booth and ships in Whalsay were attacked by pirates in 1566.

Another trader left his name on a skerry in North Voe: Kurt’s Stane. This could be Kurt Warnekind, who was trading in the 1640s, or Kurt Hemelingk, who ran mad and attacked his crew in 1557. They defended themselves, and although not seemingly hurt, Kurt died two weeks later. His brother accused the crew of murder, and their leader, the carpenter, Gert Brecken, hid out in Whalsay. When he gave himself up he was tried in Bremen.

The German visits continued after the end of the Hanseatic League, but increasing attacks by French privateers in the 1680s and 1690s, along with the cold summers and failed harvests of the 1690s and the smallpox epidemic of 1700, lessened the trading opportunities, and finally the salt tax levied after the Act of Union in 1707 stopped the last seven German merchants coming.

The house opposite the böd is of the same age, perhaps originally the house of one of several udal lairds on Whalsay. After that it belonged to Hay and Co. The hand pump beside it was still in use until the 1950s, for water for the fishing boats. The road going up to Symbister House is now known as Böd Walk, but its older name was Bremenstrasse.

Once the German trading links were broken the Scots lairds gradually took over from the udal lairds, and imposed their own fishing system. The laird bought the boat and lines, and took two-thirds of the profit. Instead of cash, the men were given credit, which had to be used in the laird’s own shops. Men who tried to circumvent this system by going to the Greenland whaling could be turned off their crofts. Whalsay was ruled by the Bruces; the first laird arrived in 1582, and the last died in 1944.

Stretching back from the böd to the ferry pier is a long, curved shingle beach. It’s completely artificial. From further up Bremenstrasse you can see just how much further the voe once extended, and there are even iron rings in rocks well inland which were once used for tethering ships. The stones for the beach were brought from the Shetland mainland. Fish would be salted, then laid out on the beach to dry. The workers were the men too old to go out in the sixerns, and young boys.
At the centre of the beach is a cottage with slitted walls, the skeo where the beach boys kept their gear, ate their lunch and dried the fish in periods of wet weather. When it was in use this beach would have been covered with arm-length ling and cod, caught using long lines from sixerns. Steady drying was important; the beach boys had to be ready to cover the fish during a shower, or take it into the skoe during longer periods of wet.

At the pier end of the beach, opposite the peerie dock, is a fish house from the early 1700s, the start of the sixern era. Gear was stored here, and the all-important salt. A cannon sticks out of the dock, from the imperial Russian Naval transport ship Efstavii, which was lost here in 1780. Over 300 men were lost. Catherine the Great sent the laird a tea-set as a thank-you for the isle’s efforts in saving the few survivors, but he refused to pay the customs duty on it, and it was never seen again – so if there’s any ranselman’s descendant out there with old pieces of Russian china, now you know where they came from.

Sixern fishing was a hard, skilled trade. The men would row out till “land doon”, around thirty miles towards Norway. Then the hooks would be baited and thrown by a nimble-fingered crew-member. There could be up to three lines each for three of the men in a six-man boat, while the others steadied the boat to run them out steadily and keep them from tangling. A stone like a quarter paving-slab, the “cappie” held the line at the bottom for two or three hours, then the men would haul it up with, hopefully, a good fish on each hook. They’d be at sea for two days, and away from home much longer, for during the season they lived in lodges on Griff Skerry. The last of these lodges were swept away in the storm of 1937.

The sixern era ended when the herring boom began. The last beach boys worked here in 1909-1910, when the sixerns were replaced by the decked boats. The beach at Symbister became a herring station, and there’s a reminder of that too, one brown and white gutters’ hut, where the gutting lasses stayed over the summer. The smaller building beside the fish store was a couperage – the couper was employed all winter, making barrels. After World War II a new class of dual purpose fishing boats evolved. These new boats fished for herring in the summer and white fish, mainly haddock, in the winter.

For a real look at the fishing history of Whalsay, go up to the Whalsay History Society’s building. As you go up Bremenstrasse, you pass a long, three-storey grey-roofed house looking out over the harbour – the Old Haa, built in 1702. It had a huge walled garden – the walls and gate arches are still impressive – and trading ships going to Spain would bring back earth as ballast. The earth was put in the laird’s garden. It was also said that there was a secret tunnel to the dock – many lairds made money smuggling gin and tobacco. There were special places where this contraband was landed, and one landing place near Marrister was known locally as “da gin kigs”. Beyond it are much older, unharled cottages where farm workers once worked, the remains of a Wesleyian chapel, and then Symbister Mansion House itself, now the school.

It’s said to be one of the finest examples of a small Georgian house in Scotland, a square building of pale brown granite, topped by a narrow grey roof with small arched windows set in it. Across the sound, you can see where he got his granite, from the quarry of Stavaness below the Manse o Neap. The blocks were rowed over to Symbister, craned ashore and barrowed up to the building site. The men undertaking this arduous work were said to have been paid three ha’pennies a day. The lower windows are each set in an arched recess, and it has an impressive pillared entrance – apparently Mr Bruce said the pillars were the wrong size, and refused to pay for them, but used them anyway.

The building on the far side was a vertical-wheeled mill, which was still working in the 1940s. The machinery was wrought-iron, but the teeth were oak, so that they could easily be replaced. The corn was brought by boat to the Hame Dock, and cost three-hapence a bushel to grind. The square tower in the middle of the back walkway was the laird’s privy – there were three seats, with the middle one higher. The upper storey of it was a dovecote.

The building on the side nearest to the road is the History Group’s museum. It was the farmer’s house and byre, and has been beautifully restored by the Amenity Trust. There are three rooms. One’s a general museum with exhibits including Bruce family photographs, (including an old lady in a sedan chair), a corner set up as a croft-house and information on Whalsay weddings. A red, gold and brown paisley shawl of 1871 is displayed, and a knitted wedding dress.

The middle room has a kettle and space to eat lunch or do historical work. There’s also a clearly annotated map of the archaeology of Whalsay, showing what there is, and how to get to it.

The final room (the former byre) is a wonderful exhibition on Whalsay’s fishing history. A beautifully-drawn timeline shows very clearly how each type of boat was overtaken by another. The photographs of Whalsay’s fleet through the last century include the Swan as a working vessel.

The steps of the history society’s museum give a view along the old cartsheds, a long front of granite with arches set along it, and an ornamental urn topping the centre. The history society has exciting plans for this “Midden Court”. They want to create a multi-purpose area linked to the school by a tunnel under the laird’s privy. It’s to include a cinema screen with stowaway seating like the museum’s, a child-care room and two classrooms. There will be a walkway between the new glass-walled complex and the original walls, and the roof will be of turf. The former cartsheds will be transformed to student accommodation, with a shower block, toilets, an FE area and studios. The project now has planning approval, so the group are starting to look for sponsors for the community’s 5 per cent of the £4 – 5 million cost.

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It only takes an hour to drive the roads of Whalsay, but there’s a lot to see outwith Symbister. Records for Whalsay really only begin in 1804, with the Meal List, which gave the name and house of every one of the 640 islanders. At that time, Symbister was simply a trading station and fish beach; people lived on the better quality land in the north and east of the island, in Marrister, Brough, Skaw, Challister and Isbister, with a few in Huxter, Hamister and Clate. The Bruce lairds tried to make Symbister into arable land, but when that failed it was divided into twenty-seven crofts and rented out around about 1905 – the start of Symbister.

There are several reminders of the ruthlessness of the lairds as you drive round. Going sun-wise, looking across at Linga, you can clearly see the green of a former croft-house yaird. It last belonged to a Claus Hughson. He was at sea when the laird and his factors visited his wife and asked her to sign papers selling them the isle. The wife refused, and the laird dropped his pen. When she picked it up for him, he had a witness to the fact that she’d shown willingness to sign. Claus died in 1803. About that same time Thomas, his son, and his wife moved across the sound to Marrister, where they could look at their old home.

At Brough, there’s a surprising “street” of semi-detached crofthouses, made in the 1850s by the laird’s masons after they’d finished Symbister Mansion House. Lint House commemorates an old crop, and the Kirk down by the shore, with its view over tumbling water to the Houb, has had many refurbishments – the last major one in 1867, dates from pre-Reformation times. The crofthouses head in a long slope down to the shore, meaning that everything had to be carried up-hill to the byre. Furthermore, the laird wouldn’t allow downhill delling (because you lost the last spadeful to the shore), making a hard enough task even harder.

The Banks House was built by men from Brough for “the laird’s witch”. Her mother was a Sandison, and the laird’s son’s mistress. When he married someone more suitable, his father sent the factors to throw the mistress and the child out of their house, and she fled to Brough. There’s a picture of the daughter in the history society’s museum.

At Challister, there are more reminders of the lairds. One house belonged to a John Irvine, who was thrown out when he went to the Greenland whaling, and the old farm by Vatshoull Loch was built by the Paton family in the 1820s. Two of them were also turned off for going to the whaling. The Bruce family were said to have lost the Challister lands playing the gambling game “loo” or Lanterloo, a French gambling game which in Whalsay became known as “Lant”. It was thought to have been brought home by sailors. A little further on is the ancient Norse village of Vaivoe. Fish were dried there in Hanseatic times, and now it’s being re-settled, with a number of new houses.

Skaw, the northernmost village, brings us cheerfully up to date, with Britain’s most northerly golf course. The club has 160 members, and people from outside also fly in to play – some in their own private aeroplane.

If you’re up for a walk across the hills, then there are a number of very ancient sites on Whalsay. Yoxie is an extremely unusual building. It was found to have been a chambered structure with the upright stones; it resembles a figure of eight and measures 61ft 6in. by about 36ft over all, with a long entrance – the only other similar one is at Tarxien in Malta. Close by is the Benie Hoose and further up the slope is the chambered Cairns of Pettigarth’s field which were excavated along with the Benie Hoose in the mid 1950s. There are other cairns at Ward of Challister, as well as the Iron Age fort and blockhouse on the Loch of Huxter.
This can be glimpsed from the Isbister road, and in dry summers it’s possible to walk across the causeway to it for a closer look – but take long boots. The upper stones were taken to build the school, but the foundations are clear.

The village of Isbister is one of the oldest of Whalsay’s villages. It wasn’t part of the laird’s lands, and was one of the last places in Shetland to practise rig-a-rendle. There are a number of original houses here too. From here you can see Griff Skerry, where the fishermen stayed during the week.

Christopher Grieve, who as “Hugh MacDiarmid’ was the key figure in the 1920s literary renaissance of the Scots language, lived on Whalsay for some years, and his cottage now a camping böd is at Sodom between the Loch of Huxter and the outskirts of Symbister. Again, the museum has a display on his time here. Coming back into Symbister, we’re right up to date with the blue-roofed primary school, the leisure centre and the emerald-green astro-turf pitch. A turn past Symbister Mansion House, where the laird could survey his kingdom, down Bremenstrasse, and it’s back to the ferry for the journey home.


For this article, I’d like to thank Andy Sandison of the Whalsay History Group. My visit to Whalsay was part of a Tourist Guide training day, and Andy was our guide.


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