Past Times: A Hillswick blacksmith

From Shetland Life, November 1985, No. 61

by Alex Mowat

My great-grandfather, Laurence Mowat, was born in Dunrossness in 1805. When he left school he went to Lerwick to serve his apprenticeship with a Scotsman, Sandy Gillie. After he had served his time and worked on for a few more years he was on the lookout for a place of his own so when he heard there was a vacant smithy at New Street Scalloway he applied for it and started a business there in 1828. At that time there were several smithies in Scalloway as all the ironwork required by fishermen and crofters was made by hand. One of the smithies stood at the head of Blacksness Brae where the cottage known as Annslea now stands.

After my great-grandfather got settled in he went along to see the old blacksmith who worked there. The old man welcomed him and told him that his name was Peter Duncan and that he belonged to Hillswick. When my great-grandfather asked him how he came to be working in Scalloway this was the story he told:

“When I was a young man in Hillswick I was the skipper of a sixern, and along with many more crews fished from our station at Stenness, during the summer months. In the winter-time I worked as a blacksmith in a smithy I had in Hillswick and made ironwork for the fishermen and crofters in that area.

“On this particular summer we had done well at the fishing as the weather had been fairly good. One fine day we set out as usual to the far haaf and set our lines. After some time we noticed the wind beginning to grow from the north west and the sky darkening, as the wind increased. We began to haul our lines but before long we had to cut them away as the squall was upon us. It lashed us in all its fury and soon we were fighting for our lives in terrible seas. I was at the helm, keeping the boat running before the gale while the crew were baling out the water as the seas were breaking all over us. But it was all to no avail as a terrible squall hit us, throwing us all into the sea.

“As I was struggling to keep my head above water I felt something hitting me and I put out my hand and grasped an oar. This kept me afloat but I knew it could not be for long, then I felt the oar bringing up into something and it turned out to be the water-logged boat. I held on to the gunnel and after a long struggle I managed to pull myself on board. There was no sign of any of my crew.

“I lay in an exhausted state for a while then I found an old daffick wedged beneath the taft and began to bail. It was a long time before it made any difference but, slowly, the boat began to rise in the water. I took the oar and started to steer before the wind as the rudder had been swept away and I prayed to God that if I was spared to make the land I would stay there the rest of my life.

“After a long time I thought I could see the breakers ahead and then skerries appeared out among the spindrift and then small islands. I steered in past them and came to the entrance to a harbour which turned out to be Scalloway and I landed at the west slip at Blacksness where many men were waiting and wondering who this could be.

“I was in an exhausted state and their kindly hands helped me ashore and carried me to the nearest cottage in Blacksness Brae where I was given hot drinks and dry clothes. After a few days I recovered enough to walk about, I told the kind folk that I would keep my vow and stay here and I would set up a smithy to earn my living and never go to sea again.

“They told me of the ruins of a smithy at the top of Blacksness Brae, so I set about building it up with the help of my neighbours and I have been working here all these years and am now an old man.” As he grasped the handle of the bellows to blow up his fire he said, “This is the oar that saved my life for I made the bellows handle out of that oar.”

There is a sequel to this story. In 1935, when the late John Ross was digging out the foundation for the front extension of his house at Annslea he came across the remains of a smithy forge containing scraps of iron and ashes. He brought my late father, Laurence Mowat, to see it as he was also a blacksmith, and he confirmed that there was once a smithy there belonging to old Peter Duncan.


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