UK Genealogy Archives logo

Bressay, Burra, Quarff, Orkney

Historical Description

BRESSAY, BURRA, and QUARFF, a parish, in the county of ORKNEY and SHETLAND; containing 1798 inhabitants, of whom 904 are in the island of Bressay, and 870 in the late quoad sacra district of Burra and Quarff. These three ancient parishes, now united, comprehend six islands and a part of the tract called Mainland. The district of Bressay is to the east of the mainland, and consists of the islands of Bressay and Ness, separated from each other by Ness Sound, and from the mainland by Bressay Sound. Bressay island, which is nearly six miles long, and varies in breadth from two to three miles, exhibits a highly-diversified surface, especially in the western portion, where the rugged features of the coast, the tracts of arable land stretching from south to north, and sloping to the sea, interspersed with cottages, with lofty hills rising in various directions, contribute to form a scene marked to a considerable extent by beauty and grandeur. Among the elevated ridges running in irregular lines through the island, and the spaces between which are covered with a mixture of pasture and peat-moss, is a dorsal eminence on the eastern side, called St. Andrew's or Ander hill, upwards of 400 feet in height. At the southern extremity is a lofty elevation called the Ward; also Beacon hill, rising 724 feet above the level of the sea, and which is covered with peat-moss and various kinds of short grass and heath: its sombre hue and majestic height render it a striking object in the scenery. The coast is every where rocky, abounding with fissures, caverns, and headlands, the last chiefly in the southern portion of the island; and there are twelve lochs, which, however, are of very inconsiderable dimensions, only two or three having the extent of half a mile in length or breadth: some of them are celebrated for their fine trout.

There are several sounds or channels, formed by, and taking their names respectively from, the islands to which they are adjacent. The chief is Bressay Sound, which expands into a fine bay towards Quarff, on the south, where its waters deepen, and afford excellent anchorage for vessels in stress of weather. Many hundreds of Dutch boats, in time past, used to resort hither to fish for herrings; but the sound has derived its greatest celebrity from other circumstances. In this fine harbour, the fleet of King Haco was moored several days after sailing from Norway in his unsuccessful expedition against Scotland. In later times, the notorious Earl of Bothwell, who had fled to Shetland for safety, being pursued in his adversity by Kirkaldy of Grange, with great difficulty escaped by sailing out at the northern entrance of the sound, in which direction his enemy's vessel, attempting to follow him, was wrecked on a very dangerous rock, since called the Unicorn after the name of the ship. The other channels are, Ness Sound, less than a quarter of a mile broad, supposed to be about twenty feet deep, and dangerous to pass with an easterly wind; Cliff Sound, not quite half a mile broad, with nine or ten fathoms of water, and of difficult navigation in stormy weather; and Stream and Burra Sounds, the latter of which is the safest and must tranquil of the whole, and peculiarly adapted to small vessels.

The quantity of land under tillage is small compared with the waste, and employed chiefly in the cultivation of oats, bear, and potatoes, the two first being sown in alternate years, and potatoes once in four or five years. The soil is manured with a compost of sea-weed, dung, and mossy earth, and with the garbage of herrings: the last is held in high repute for the purpose. Some improvements have been made in agriculture within these few years, chiefly in rebuilding the farm-cottages in a superior manner; but various obstacles, the want of leases, the state of the roads, and especially the poverty of the inhabitants and their extensive occupation in fishing, repress all systematic attempts to establish agriculture on a good footing. The annual value of real property in the parish is £1527. The rocks in Bressay and Ness are the old red sandstone; in Quarff, clay-slate and mica slate; and in the isles of House, Burra, and Halvera, of the primitive formation. At Bressay there are flag and slate quarries in operation, the produce of which is shipped to different parts of the country, and sometimes sent to the south; and in Quarff and Burra several species of limestone of inferior quality are found. The lands appear to have been formerly better wooded than they are at present, trunks of trees, of some bulk, being found among the mosses. The only plantations recently made are in the vicinity of the mansion-house, and consist of willow and ash, the former being the most flourishing; and near these, of older growth, are aspen, elm, laburnum, poplar, and plane trees, which seem to be in a thriving condition.

A large proportion of the population is engaged in the fisheries, the principal of which are those of ling, cod, and herrings. Various other kinds of fish, such as tusk, halibut, skate, whiting, and flounders, are taken at different times; and sillocks, on which the inhabitants to a considerable extent live, are taken throughout the whole year: oysters, also, are found at Burra in abundance. The ling-fishing employs about thirty boats, generally carrying six men each. The cod-fishery, beginning about Whitsuntide, occupies numerous sloops of between fifteen and twenty tons' burthen; and at the termination of this fishing that for herrings commences (usually in the month of August), in which the same boats are employed as those engaged in the ling-fishing, with some of larger size. About thirty women and children are employed in Bressay, during the season, in curing herrings; and the manufacture of herring-nets has recently excited much interest among the inhabitants: nearly every female in Quarff above six years of age is occupied in knitting woollen-gloves, and those in Burra in knitting stockings. For ecclesiastical purposes the parish is in the presbytery of Lerwick, synod of Shetland, and in the patronage of the Earl of Zetland; the minister's stipend is £158. 6. 8., with a manse, rebuilt in 1819, and a glebe valued at £12 per annum. The church, which is conveniently situated, was erected in 1815, and contains 370 sittings. There are places of worship for dissenters. The parochial schoolmaster has a salary of £25. 13., and teaches reading, writing, arithmetic, and book-keeping.-See Burra, Ness, &c.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851 by Samuel Lewis