A Shetland Story

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Shetland Story No.8

The Doctor - Part 2

It was a bright hairst day and the doctor had been summoned to attend a birth at West Burrafirth. The road went only as far as the pier, where there used to be a herring station, and so the doctor made his way to that point. From there he was rowed across the voe to his destination. The corn grew taller in those days and this year the crop was particularly good and so it stood there just beginning to turn golden, a proud sight to be seen. The doctor was a tall man, fully six feet in height. But those members of the family watching for his arrival could see only his hat as he slowly climbed the steep incline from the sea, walking at the side of the corn rig.

The baby boy was delivered safely and when the doctor touched his feet he pulled them away sharply. "Hmm, sensitive," said the doctor. As he was leaving, a resident auntie said, "You will just tell dis fokk tae hae nae mair". "That's their business", he replied. The new baby was named Francis Sinclair Walterson, a seventh child.

A great deal of the doctor's visiting was done on foot. The road system was limited and most of the croft houses were approached only by paths. But after the Great War he acquired a motorbike, an ex-army Rover, a great heavy clump of a thing. The roar of the engine could be heard at least seven miles away.

The doctor bought Bayhall at Walls and held surgeries there. Monday was the Walls and Sandness day, and since Tammie o'Gairden had got himself a Buick he got the job of driving the doctor to both these places. Tammie's brother Geordie also drove the doctor. There was no telephone at the doctor's house. What was the use of that when no one else had one? So when a driver was required the recognised signal was a white towel laid out on the peat stack.

One Monday in September the doctor went to Walls as usual, but he didn't stay long as he had a rather pressing engagement to see to at home. He came back in time to deliver his tenth child, a little girl. She was to grow up to marry the boy whom the doctor had delivered on that fine hairst day six years ago.

You would think that the doctor had enough to do attending to his huge practice, but somehow he managed to fit in a number of other activities. He was an elder at the Presbytery, he was on the School Board and visited local schools regularly and he took an active interest in the local agricultural show, exhibiting ponies, sheep, dogs etc. He couldn't be doing with humbug and may have rubbed a few officials up the wrong way, but he was genuine through and through and his patients knew it and appreciated it. And that was what mattered.

When he died his successor found it extremely difficult to cope with such a large practice and so that was when a second practice was created at Walls. It seems unreasonable for the Health Board to expect one man to manage so much, but obviously they were willing to do so as long as he didn't complain.

James Cameron Bowie 1867-1932

Olive Walterson    




Shetland Story No.7

The Doctor - Part 1

He trudged homeward through the deep snow, the thought of a hot meal and a warm fire spurring him on. It had snowed heavily all night long and although the day dawned bright and clear it was heavy going underfoot.

A messenger had come about the middle of the day asking him to come to Skeld, about eight miles away, to see his uncle who had taken ill. So the doctor duly set off on foot. It was getting dark by the time he made his way home, but he could still see quite well with the reflection of the clean white snow plus the clear starry sky, although there was as yet no sign of a moon.

He was within sight of his house and could see a welcoming light in one of the windows when he thought he heard laboured breathing behind him. He looked around and saw a man hurrying as best he could through the snow. When he caught up with the doctor he gasped out that his mother was ill and he thought it was maybe a stroke. Without a word the doctor turned in his tracks and made his way along with the man back to Skeld to what turned out to be the very next house to where he had just been that same afternoon.

It was a bright Sunday morning and Mansie was walking his way up from Effirth to the doctor's house. He was coughing and he was hoping to get some of that lovely, dark brown mixture that had fairly slackened up his cough the last time he'd had a cold. It made him feel warm way down inside. But as he glanced up he blinked his eyes and looked again. No, he wasn't seeing things. What had happened to the road outside the doctor's? It was black instead of the usual sandy colour of a water-bound road. And then he saw it moving and realised that it was a solid mass of people all dressed in their Sunday black or dark navy blue.

"Fifty-six today" said the doctor to his family. The doctor's practice included Weisdale through to East Burrafirth, Aith, Clousta, West Burrafirth, Sandness, Walls and Skeld. It also took in Foula and Papa Stour. In short, the whole of the Westside. He had a half-day on Sunday when he took his family to the kirk at Weisdale. (He also had one day off per month when he went to T.J. Anderson in Lerwick for family provisions.)

In the doctor's day virtually every croft house was not only inhabited but overflowing with extended families. The crofting community was a poor one but also proud. They did not like being in debt to anyone. The doctor never pressed any patient for payment, for he knew they would pay if and when they could. He was often paid in kind with some eggs, butter etc.

Spring had come early that year and the air was full of expectancy, flowers about to open, lambs about to be born, birds building nests. The doctor was feeling restless and was seriously thinking of taking his family away south to new horizons. He was the only one of his family still in Shetland, since his younger brothers had all gone far afield long ago. Two of them had gone to the New Hebrides, one as a missionary and one as a medical missionary. One was a planter in Australia and one a teacher in England. And here he was stuck in Shetland and feeling really in a rut. But when the rumour got about that the doctor was thinking of leaving there was widespread consternation. This just could not be. They needed their doctor. They called on him not only for their own ills but also to attend sick kye. There was no vet. There was no hospital either. Only serious operations were referred to Aberdeen. Everything else depended on their local doctor, including pulling teeth. The buck stopped with him. It was an awesome responsibility.

But his patients had complete faith in his abilities. They knew that they could depend on him to do his level best at all times, and so the thought of losing him galvanised them into action. As quickly as it could be organised a petition bearing about one thousand signatures was rolled up in a scroll and presented to the doctor asking him to please consider staying where he was. Well that was that. In the face of such confidence and trust there was only one thing to do. He stayed.

James Cameron Bowie 1867-1932

Part 2 of The Doctor continues in next month's Shetland Story

Olive Walterson    




Shetland Story No.6

Christopher Brown

He sat on a convenient stone made comfortable by the action of the waves and gazed out to sea while idly sifting sand through his fingers. It was Sunday and the heaviest part of the voar work was finished. The muck had been spread and the rigs delled and so tomorrow if it was weather they would start sowing oats and bere. Not for Christopher the two-hour long sermon in the kirk. On a fine day like this his soul cried out for the peace and solitude of an open stretch of beach. But as he watched there appeared round the point a large and strange vessel. He knew right away what it was since he had heard so many tales of the press-gang and its activities.

He knew how they came ashore and snatched young men from their beds, from their boats, from anywhere they could get hold of them and pressed them into service in the Royal Navy. They even intercepted whaling boats returning from Greenland and grabbed all but a skeleton crew. Oh yes, Christopher knew all about the press-gangs.

A small boat was lowered and three men rowed ashore. They saw the young man sitting on the rock and one said, "That's a likely looking specimen." He was indeed, being tall and powerfully built with fair curly hair and a fresh complexion. "But why is he not running away?" said another. The sight or even the rumour of pressmen usually sent men fleeing to the hills or attempting to hide somewhere. "I can't believe our luck," said the third, "This one is going to be easy."

But as they beached their boat and walked towards Christopher, he picked up a horse whelk and crushed it effortlessly between forefinger and thumb, reducing it to a powder far finer than the sand that he had been toying with. He crushed a second and a third shell while calmly contemplating the view and was aware of the men's steps faltering. "I think we had better leave this one alone," muttered their leader and they carried on up over in search of less intimidating material.

Christopher Brown drank in the beauties of nature all around him and went home refreshed and ready for another week's toil on the croft. In time, his strength became legendary throughout the Westside of Shetland.

Olive Walterson    




Shetland Story No.5

A Song of the Weather

Although we overheard a man on his mobile going to a funeral in Peterhead, there was in general a holiday feel at Luton. The plane left late because a stewardess was ill and a substitute had to be brought in at the last minute, but that just meant more time for the whisky and coffee drinkers brave at 0700. An easyJet hop to Aberdeen for 29 each, a delicious ham and cheese croissant at Aberdeen with really good coffee, and the neat and punctual flight to Sumburgh on airmiles, arriving at 1200; it means you really can get to Shetland from London in the morning. And a return trip for less than 60 and a handful of airmiles demonstrates accessibility to the hip pocket as well as to the atlas and appointment diary.

So, in the time it normally takes to read the Saturday Times and have that extra cup of coffee, here we are in Walls on the Westside of Shetland; the sun is shining and the curlews and oystercatchers flap noisily about in irregular loops and sweeps. The quartet of large white geese has gaggled around busily and curiously and gone, and the local collie has menaced and dropped her cover to reveal a completely soft inside. The view is classic Shetland; there is a small loch a few hundred yards to the front with swans and three pairs of tufted ducks on it. You can see the turret and flagpole of Vaila Hall and the wild stretch of Cliff Sound in the far distance, and, with binoculars the communication dishes above Bigton. The house is filled with and surrounded by the trappings of generations; photos of the grandmother and great-grandmother at the spinning wheel, baleful wally dugs on the mantlepiece, Ferguson tractor skeletons, crumbled dykes and a barn roofed with curved corrugated iron adopted from a Nissen hut.

It's late May and it's light until 2300, when the northern sky has a pale, electric blue glow. The sun is still there but has to take a bow and briefly recharge. Dawn skips us, and everyone else asleep at 0200, and we awaken with the day well through at 0800. We hear the first raingoose, whose news is as late as the BBC weatherman's. The sky has closed in, the air is quiet and the curlew echo bounces back as if hitting the studio roof. Two days; two seasons.

Being an occasional fisherman in Shetland is very much like taxi driving when the weather's good, it's good; when it's bad it's good for business. But that elusive trout can wait until tomorrow. Today we have things to do, people to see

Summer returns for a tour of Bressay. It is a forgiving day one so beautiful you can forgive the weather gods for all the sins of their forefathers. A blue sky from well before you awaken until the last flicker of direct sun on the palings at 2145. You can barely take your eye off the landscape, its shadows and the rainbow colours of the heather. But then next day the warm sun in the morning is a tease for the drenching that awaits at Voe. We run for the pierhead caf for a light lunch of lentil soup you can stand a spoon in. Fortified, we return along the Lang Kame, in the rain a real trough of despond. One day; two seasons.

Between the extremes there is an infinity of mediocrity. Degrees of wetness each with its own dialect word, a cloud cover as varied in form and intensity as the heather below. But you never forget the sun.

Ewen Mackenzie-Bowie    




Shetland Story No.4

The Jellicoe

In my fiddle collection there is one called "The Jellicoe", which got its name in this way:

A hundred years ago Clousta was a thriving west-side crofting community. It was helped by a brand-new hotel and a growing reputation as a holiday resort for trout fishers. I well remember seeing a colour illustration of a new trout fly named the "Clousta Blue". The hotel was destroyed by fire in 1905 but Shetland Museum has many photographs taken inside showing prize fish labelled with details of their capture.

It seems to have been the custom for local fiddlers to take their instruments to the hotel for the entertainment of guests and of one another, and on one occasion when a party of naval officers was present, the senior, named Jellicoe chose to dance a hornpipe while my father was playing an Aberdeenshire ditty called "Monymusk". (Dr James Cameron Bowie had been schooled and medically trained in Aberdeen.) The tune has a suitable nautical legend:

A ship went out along the coast,
And all the men on board were lost
Except the monkey, who climbed the mast,
And the fishermen hanged the monkey-O.

Later, while studying Buchan folklore, I found that an earlier version had as its last line:

And the Boddamers hanged the monkey-O

Tradition has it that when a party of youths from Peterhead met a similar party from Boddam within easy walking distance a shout would arise: "Faa hingit da monkey?"

The Jellicoe who gave his name to my fiddle of course became Admiral of the Fleet, Earl Jellicoe. His visit to Clousta was probably connected with the defence of nearby Swarbacks Minn, which was to become the wartime base of the 10th cruiser squadron. Two six-inch coastal defence guns are still in place on the island of Vementry, to the south of the channel.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 Jellicoe was given command of the Grand Fleet stationed at Scapa Flow in Orkney. During hostilities a daily leave train ran between the port of Scrabster on the Pentland Firth and the city of Perth. This train became known as "the Jellicoe" and when I was stationed for a time at Scapa Flow during the Second World War, I regularly travelled between Perth and Scrabster on a train which was still known as "the Jellicoe". Is it surprising that I have a distinct favourite amongst British admirals?

Hamish Bowie    




Shetland Story No.3

The North Boat

The dinner service was memorable; plain white crockery with a neat, blue circular badge purveying perhaps an over-long name for such a small organisation "The North of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland Shipping Company Limited", recently shortened by the substitution of "Steam Navigation" by "Shipping".

But my first sailings in the 1950s were by steam, in the St Clair, which etched in me the irrevocable concept that a proper ship was white over black with a tall yellow funnel. Other memorable features which, sadly, made as much an impression to a toddler as the crockery, were the square tin sick-boxes, lined with cardboard, hanging always a little askew on the mahogany side boards to each bunk.

A friend, far better acquainted than me with the detail of steam, recently waxed lyrical on the hissing, rhythmical heartbeat of steamships, compared with the shudder and din of motor vessels, and sadly I do not remember the sound of the St Clair. But I do remember the absence of it! There was no real vibration; but my goodness the ship did roll! The most celebrated roll in family history was the one which sent my brother Donald's plate of bacon and egg to the other end of the table, where a well-placed fiddle saved it. I don't remember the look of surprise on his face I was being sick in my bunk at the time but I love the story!

"The Clair" teased your senses; sound, with the deafening ship's whistle; vision, with the sheer elegance and refinement, the tables, the stamped tea services, the mahogany just everywhere. Touch; the thick white oil paint, coat upon coat, and the polished handrails. Taste; the porridge was excellent! Balance was your sixth sense and very necessary if a journey from stem to stern was to succeed while crossing the Roost. But often the most tested sense came with the loading of the sheep in wooden crates raised drunkenly by the yellow cranes beside the holds oh the smell!

I have a colour transparency taken from the foredeck looking back at a large, cream container marked "Bishop's Move". It was one of the last sailings of the ship, after it had been renamed St Magnus. (How can such anthropomorphic a collection of emotion, history and imagination have its name changed and retain its integrity? But it did.) That evening, sailing down the east coast of the Ness, I stood in the prow of the old ship and looked down at the black stem cutting through the dark green sea below. A small school of porpoises arrived and raced us. I could tell their fall and rise to breathe by the changing colour of their white patches from dark green to pale green to white. I don't know who won the race; they probably lost interest. But I know what Jack Dawson and Kate Winslet felt like on the prow of the Titanic. I was there long before and long after them, in my Shetland microcosm, with the porpoises, the grey dusk, the gannet escort, on the old ship which had tracked the same furrow for over thirty years - the last steam ship of the North of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland Shipping Company Limited.

Ewen Mackenzie-Bowie    




Shetland Story No.2

Shetland Trolls

In 1700 a visitor to Shetland, the Reverend John Brand, wrote that half a century earlier "almost every Family had a Brouny or evil Spirit so called which served them, to whom they gave a Sacrifice for his service, as when they Churned their Milk. They also had Stacks of Corn, which they called Brounies Stacks, which though they were not bound with straw-ropes, or in any way fenced, as other Stacks used to be, yet the greatest Storm of Wind was not able to blow any straw off them. Now I do not hear of any such appearances the Devil makes in these Isles."

My childhood home lay on the north side of a modest valley. To the south on the opposite skyline lay a croft called Troilhoulland, hill of the trolls. Further south, over the hill, around and between the crofts of Sefster, there are by tradition concealed underground passages, but only the Temple of Staneydale has so far been excavated. This area may well have been a happy hunting ground for trolls or brounies. But it is in the northern island of Unst, birthplace of Andrew T Cluness, that there is an altogether more convincing cavern between land and sea, around which Cluness has woven a credible tale of trolls in the dialect still better known as trows.

The impressive cavern of the Unst retreat encloses a pool of the sea "big enough and deep enough for half a dozen dragon ships to float upon it." But it must be said that not even one such craft could hope to get in! The entrance from seaward is so restricted that even a small row-boat could only get through at low water, with shipped oars and a crouching crew using their hands against the sides of the passageway. There is a well-concealed landward entrance and daylight enters by a rent in the cliff face, but this is concealed from above by overhang and too high to be seen from a passing ship.

The Cluness story "Trouble with the Trolls" tells of the mysterious dwellers in this Unst cave in Viking times and there are six other tales, some quite tall, to be read in "Told Round the Peat Fire", published by Shetland Publishing Company.

Hamish Bowie    




Shetland Story No.1

Johnnie Notions

In the days before DIY became a nation-wide cult, most rural communities had a handyman known for his practical skill and willingness to help his neighbours. Perhaps the most famous of those Shetland worthies was John Williamson of Eshaness, who flourished in the latter half of the 18th century. He was a true virtuoso, whose skills were noted and reported by visitors to the islands. He earned the by-name of "Johnnie Notions" but it is for his activity as an inoculator against smallpox that he is chiefly remembered. His fame overflowed Shetland when his expertise in this field was reported in 1791 in the first Statistical Account of Scotland.

Williamson was a contemporary of Edward Jenner, who developed inoculation using cowpox as a safer substitute for material taken from a smallpox sufferer, as had been the practice before 1796. The word "vaccination" was now coined (L. vaca, a cow). The older method was not without risk, but memoirs of disastrous epidemics as in Fair Isle and Foula were fresh, and the occasional death from smallpox after inoculation was an accepted risk. However, it seems that Williamson in several thousand cases had no fatalities.

Another contemporary, Dr William Buchan, whose best-seller Domestic Medicine is likely to have been known to Williamson, observed that fresh moist matter was more successful than the dried, preserved inoculum as used by the Shetlander. This may have influenced Williamson to use his cabbage-leaf dressing of the site. This being occlusive would have retained much of the moist secretions of the skin.

Sheer manual dexterity played an important part. Williamson made himself a special knife with which he raised a very superficial layer of skin, placing the inoculum underneath. This is the equivalent of the present intradermal technique used in protecting against tuberculosis. The attenuated bacteria of BCG are further weakened by the Langerhans cells in this superficial layer of skin.

Williamson's fee was a shilling or two (5 or 10 pence), where contemporary physicians are said to have charged up to a guinea (£1.05).

In recent years renewed interest in Johnnie Notions has elevated him to the status of local hero, and his memory is well served by a new gravestone in the Eshaness cemetery.

Hamish Bowie    


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