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Fetlar and North Yell, Shetland

Historical Description

FETLAR and NORTH YELL, a parish, in the county of Shetland; containing 1745 inhabitants, of whom 761 are in Fetlar, 36 miles (N. by E.) from Lerwick. This parish, which is situated nearly at the northern extremity of the Shetland Isles, consists of the island of Fetlar and the northern part of that of Yell. The former is bounded on the north by the channel separating it from the islands of Unst and Uyea, on the south by the wide channel which divides it from Whalsey island and the Mainland, on the east by the German Ocean, and on the west by Colgrave Sound, separating it from the island of Yell. North Yell is bounded on the west and north by the Northern Ocean, and on the east by the firth called Blue-Mull Sound, which divides it from the island of Unst. Fetlar measures about seven miles in length and four in breadth, comprising 786¾ merks of land under cultivation (a merk being about three-quarters of an acre), and between 10,000 and 12,000 acres which, with the exception of 1200, are undivided common. North Yell is six miles long and five broad, and contains 634 merks of cultivated, and from 12,000 to 15,000 acres of uncultivated land.

The situation is bleak, and the surface hilly; but there are no lofty elevations, the highest grounds not rising more than 300 feet above the level of the sea, and being, in each district, alternated with tolerably fertile valleys. Both the islands are singularly irregular in figure, and the coast is indented with fissures, creeks, and bays of various extent. Of the last the principal in Fetlar are those of Aith, Tresta, Strand, Mow ick, Funzie, Gruting voe, and Urie bay, where a kind of pier has lately been erected; but none of these are considered safe harbours. North Yell, in this respect, has much the advantage: the bays of Basta voe and Cullivoe form excellent retreats and landing-places; besides which, it has the bays of Papal and Gloup voe. Colgrave Sound, encompassing Fetlar from south-west to north-west, is a rapid and dangerous channel, about nine miles across in the widest, and three miles in the narrowest, part. Blue-Mull Sound measures in the narrowest part about three-quarters of a mile across, and the sound between the islands of Fetlar and Unst is from four to five miles broad: in both these channels, but especially in that of Blue-Mull, the tide runs with great force, and the passage is often hazardous. The rocks on the coast are frequently covered with sea-fowl; wild pigeons are numerous, and flocks of wild swans often visit the islands. There are many small lakes, abounding with trout, the largest of which is a lake in Fetlar, near the manse, about three-quarters of a mile in length and a quarter in breadth.

The inhabitants are employed in agriculture and fishing, the latter occupation engaging most of their attention; In Fetlar the soil is of various descriptions, sandy, clayey, marly, and all of it shallow, with very little peat; North Yell, except the patches cultivated along the shore, is one great peat-moss. Each district produces good oats and potatoes; barley is cultivated only to a very limited extent, and wheat is rarely to be seen, owing to the want of inclosures to protect these kinds of grain, and of sun duly to ripen them. The ground is generally turned with a spade, the number of ploughs being very small; and the state of agriculture throughout the two districts indicates strongly the want of resources, and of much more attention and skill, to place it on a respectable footing. In North Yell many plots of common ground have recently been brought under cultivation, and a few in Fetlar. Sir Arthur Nicolson lately commenced an improvement farm. The sheep and cattle are mostly of the native breed, small but hardy, and they appear to thrive better than any other kinds: a mixed breed of sheep, introduced some time since by Sir Arthur Nicolson, has not been found well suited to the climate, and a few cows of a larger growth, which have been tried, have in the same manner proved unequal to meet the severity of the district. The ponies bred are of the same size, vigorous spirit, and untiring strength, as those in the other isles of Shetland. In this parish the rocks comprise mica-slate, quartz, chlorite-slate, gneiss, clay-slate, and serpentine. Chromate of iron, now supposed to be exhausted, used for a long time to be occasionally quarried in the island of Fetlar. With the common stone from the same locality, a mansion-house has been built by Sir Arthur Nicolson, and another by Mr. Smith; and quarries in the island of Yell have supplied a material for the erection of the houses of Gloup, Greenbank, and Midbrake, the dressings, however, being of freestone brought from Lerwick. Sir Arthur has also erected au observatory, on a mound in the immediate neighbourhood of his mansion. The annual value of real property in the parish is £806. The ling-fishery occupies much of the time of the inhabitants; in addition to which, tusk, cod, saith, and other kinds are taken nearly all the year round: the herring-fishery, formerly considerable, has in a great measure failed of late years. The fish caught in winter are salted, and preserved in vats till spring, when they are dried and exported to Leith; those taken in summer are preserved in the same manner, and sent, not only to the market of Leith, but also to Ireland and Spain: the produce of the herring-fishery, which is carried on in August and September, is forwarded, when cured, to Leith and to Ireland. The stations for the ling-fishery are, Funzie, on the eastern side of Fetlar, and Gloup, on the north side of Yell, towards the Northern Ocean. Urie, Strand, and Aith banks, in Fetlar; and Cullivoe and Bayanne, in North Yell, are or were stations for the curing of herrings. A large quantity of skate, halibut, haddock, sillock, piltock, and whiting, is also taken, furnishing the inhabitants with a considerable portion of their subsistence: there are oysters at Basta voe, and a good supply of several other kinds of shell-fish. The parish is entirely destitute of conveyances and roads; and the intercourse with Lerwick, the only market-town of the Shetlands, is so uncertain and dangerous, that, although the post-office in North Yell communicates twice a week with that place in fair weather, letters are often delayed for a long time on their route.

Ecclesiastically the parish is within the bounds of the presbytery of Burravoe, synod of Shetland, and the patronage is vested in the Earl of Zetland. The minister's stipend is £1S0, including the sum for communion elements; with a manse, and a glebe valued at £9 per annum. There are two churches, both very near the sea-shore; that in Fetlar was rebuilt in 1790, and accommodates 269 persons, and that in North Yell was built in 1832, and contains sittings for 390. The Wesleyans have a place of worship in Fetlar. The parochial school is in North Yell, and affords instruction in reading, writing, arithmetic, book-keeping, and navigation; the master has the minimum salary, and receives a few pounds in fees. In Fetlar is a school of much longer standing than the parochial school, supported by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge; the master teaches the same branches as those taught in the other school, and receives a salary of £15, and a small amount in fees. There is a small subscription library. The antiquities comprehend the remains of several chapels and forts, a Roman camp at Snawburgh, several fonts which have been dug up at Aithsness, and a few urns containing ashes and bones.

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