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Issue 27 - Scott in Shetland

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Scotland Magazine Issue 27
June 2006


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Scott in Shetland

In the first of a new series tracing Sir Walter Scott's relationship with the Scottish islands, Ian Mitchell looks at Shetland

In 1814 Scott accepted an invitation from the engineer Robert Stevenson to accompany him aboard a ship of the Northern Lighthouse Commissioners, on a tour circumnavigating Scotland and inspecting the condition of maritime safety installations.

An unforeseen outcome of the voyage was the appearance in 1822 of the novel The Pirate, based on the impact Scott’s visit to Shetland had on him.

Scott’s first impression of Shetland was favourable, and was of Lerwick itself from the boat on August 4.

“It is a most beautiful place. The town, built irregularly on a hill, has a picturesque appearance,” he commented.

However on going ashore, he revised his opinion and decided it was “a poor-looking place,” largely because of the flagged streets which (surprisingly) he did not find picturesque, and the fact that hundreds of drunken Greenland whalers were engaging in riotous behaviour.

Some of the whalers attempted to storm the local jail (where their companions were held) with anchors and tackle, before the military from the fort intervened. Scott was, however, fascinated by the antique customs he found on the island, many accounts of which found their way into The Pirate.

At the exit of Clickimin Loch outside Lerwick he came upon a Norse mill.

“But such a mill! The wheel is horizontal and the cogs turned diagonally to the water. There are about 500 such mills in Shetland, each incapable of grinding more than a sack at a time,” he wrote.

His amazement is later doubled by encountering the Shetland plough, “which ripped the furrow, but did not throw it aside two women, converted (the slit) into a furrow by throwing the earth aside with shovels.” Though the click-mills were still widespread in Shetland, Scott reports that the Shetland plough was gradually dying out.

At one point on his travels Scott met with their host’s grieve, a Lowland Scot frustrated by the resistance of Shetlanders to ‘improvement’ – the locals insisting they would work as their forefathers did and not otherwise. This grieve possibly provided Scott with inspiration for the similarlyfrustrated Triptolemus Yellowley in The Pirate.

Scott was fascinated by the old Norse system of udal tenure and the absence of feudalism in Shetland, though he saw this as a barrier to improvement since it undermined landlords’ rights.

Lord Dundas, the principal landowner, was only paid a land tax, or scat, by the peasantry, though Scott noted approvingly that he “is now trying to introduce the system of leases and a better kind of agriculture.” The obstacles in the way of this were numerous; Scott noted that the ‘muirs’ of Shetland were regarded as ‘commonty’ (common land) by the population who grazed their beasts there, and that anyone had the right to erect a planty-cruive (a dyked enclosure) and grow crops wherever he thought fit. The land was generally unenclosed, and farmed in the run rig system, which had died out by this time in most of Lowland Scotland.

The maintenance of such “barbarous habits” in agriculture, Scott put down to the fact that the Shetlanders’ attention was constantly divided between sea and land, and they were therefore “not much interested in (cultivation) and are often absent at the proper times of labour. A Zetland farmer looks to the sea to pay his rent, and if the land affords him a little meal and kail and potatoes, it is very well.” By this time more than 1,000 Shetlanders went whaling to Greenland each year, earning from £20 to £30 each. Scott bewailed the fact that the Shetlanders were spending all this money on “procuring useless indulgences... spirits, tea, coffee, tobacco, snuff and sugar.” What especially annoyed him was that the lower classes had given up porridge! As well as material relics, Scott was interested in social ones. He remarked on the universal belief in Shetland at this time in Trows, little people who lived under the ground and caused all sorts of mischief, such as carrying off children.

Scott does not mention the Norn language directly in his account of his 1814 voyage, but it must have been clear to him then that it was extinct.

And in a note in The Pirate, he indeed observed that “the Norse language is entirely disused, except in so far as particular words and phrases are still retained” – dating its demise from the middle of the previous century. He also noted the decay of the old Nordic Sword Dance, which survived only on Papa by this time.

The decline of the Norse element in Shetland had a clear cause – the influx and predominance of mainland Scots. Scott noted that the landowners and clergy of the island, and the notables of Lerwick who entertained him to dinner in the townhall, “are chiefly of Scottish birth, as appears from their names: The Norwegians or Danish surnames, though of course the more ancient, belong, with some exceptions, to the lower ranks.” August 8 being a Sunday, Scott rode with a few companions to Tingwall, where they attended church, and then proceeded to Scalloway where he visited the ruins of the castle.

He later dined with a namesake, Mr Scott of Scalloway. Here Scott was to encounter his host’s two daughters, “pleasing, intelligent women and exceedingly obliging” who probably gave the writer the idea for the two sisters Minna and Brenda Troil in The Pirate.

The pair certainly gave him details of the Sword Dance. Scott and companions returned to Lerwick in the pouring rain, and the author fell from his pony on the way. Scott called this, the only road on the island, “ill-conducted and worse made.” On August 9, the vessel left Lerwick and Scott woke to find himself off Mousa, which he intended to visit, believing the broch to be “the most entire probably in the world.” Having clambered over it, he gives us a detailed description of it, but appeared rather unimpressed by the structure, saying, “to give a vulgar comparison, it resembles an old ruinous pigeon-house.” Yet he was to use the edifice in The Pirate to effect as a lair of the weird Norna of Fitful Head. After some scrambling about on the cliffs, Scott reboarded and headed off into the Sumburgh-roost.

The island bade a savage farewell to Scott and his companions, the notorious roost driving them 30 miles off course in a night when they had no sleep, and the morning saw them all “sicker than sick,” with even the experienced Stevenson “qualmish.” “This morning I have a headache and nausea,” commented Scott, who was a very hardy traveller.

Though taking much from his trip to Shetland for the book, Scott also took enormous liberties with events when writing The Pirate, including transferring much of the action from Stromness in Orkney where the tale of the original pirate, John Gow, took place, to Shetland!

Scott probably located his tale in Shetland, rather than in Orkney, because this location allowed him greater scope to play with residual Norse relics than did the more ‘civilised’ southern island, a fact he knew would appeal to readers who shared his taste for the exotic and “barbarous” – so long as it was far away, in time or in place. Scott’s fascination with the Nordic was to be a one-off affair however.

Later in the same voyage he visited the Hebrides, and this confirmed him in his love of all things Celtic. Thenceforth Scott began his literary ‘Celtification’ of Scotland, which marginalised not only the Nordic traditions of Shetland and Orkney, but also the Scottish traditions of the Lowlands themselves.

Scotland as a whole was to become “Scottland,” and identified with the Gaelic Highlands in a way that it had never been before.