Unst

   UNST, a parish and island, in the county of Orkney and Shetland, 43 miles (N. by E.) from Lerwick; containing, with the island of Uya, 2831 inhabitants. The island of Unst, of which this parish mainly consists, is the most northern part of the Shetland Isles, and of the British dominions in Europe. It is bounded on the east and north by the German Ocean; on the west by the Atlantic; on the south by a channel four miles wide, separating it from the island of Fetlar; and on the south-west by Blumel sound, a frith about a mile across, through which the tides run with great rapidity and violence. It is nearly of an oblong form, measuring about twelve miles in length from north to south, and between three and four in average breadth from east to west; and is distributed into three portions, called respectively the north, midland, and southern districts. These comprise together 24,000 acres; about 2000 are under tillage, nearly the same number uncultivated meadow and pasture, and the remainder hilly and mountainous land mostly covered with deep peat-moss. The shore is encompassed by small islets, or holms, of which that of Ska, the most northern, is broken in every direction by creeks, bays, caverns, and headlands. The surface of Unst, though not marked by such lofty elevations as those of the other Shetland islands, is diversified with numerous ridges and hills, between which are level tracts of good fertile land, and some picturesque valleys, investing the general scenery with a pleasing character. One of the chief ranges of hills, named Valleyfield, 700 feet in height, stretches along the western coast; it forms a defence against the impetuosity of the sea in that quarter, and ends, in the northern extremity of the island, in the prominent headland of Hermanness, so called from an ancient warrior who is reported to have landed at the point. Parallel, and nearly co-extensive, with this elevation, on its eastern side, is a valley ornamented with a succession of lochs, some containing good-sized trout, and the largest measuring about three miles in length; they empty themselves into the sea at Uya sound, in the southern, and at Burrafirth, in the northern portion of the isle. To the south-eastward of this, in the direction of the loch of Cliff, which is three miles long, much of the land is stripped of its moss, and exhibits a rough, bare, and stony appearance, affording, however, in many places nutritious pasture for native horses and sheep. In the southeastern portion, also, are several lochs called "the Small waters," on account of their diminutive extent; and in every place throughout the island perennial springs of fresh water of excellent quality are abundant.
   The headlands are in general lofty and precipitous, especially on the northern, north-eastern, and western shores; and some of the channels are so difficult to cross when the tide runs in, that boats are frequently lost in the perilous attempt. The bays comprehend Burra-firth on the north; Norwick, Haroldswick, and Sandwick, on the east; Watswick, Wick, and Woodwick, on the south-west and west; Balta sound, on the east coast, about the middle of the island; and Uya sound on the south. They afford no protection for vessels, and are all rather dangerous landing-places, with the exception of Balta sound and Uya sound; these are defended against the sea by the islands from which they respectively take their names, and form excellent and safe harbours with both north and south entrances. The islands of Huna and Haaf-Grunie, and the holms of Newgord, Burra-firth, Woodwick, Weatherholm, Ska, and Heogaland, are all adjacent to Unst, and belong to it, but are used only for the pasturage of black-cattle and sheep. Among the numerous caves along this rocky, elevated, and precipitous coast, the most striking is one under a high steep rock at the north-eastern base of Saxa-Vord, the resort of large numbers of aquatic birds; it consists of a majestic natural arch 300 feet in length, of considerable height, and of sufficient span, and having sufficient depth of water to allow a boat to be rowed through it.
   The soil is in general tolerably good, in some parts very excellent; and the chief produce is oats, bear, and potatoes, the crops of all which are pretty heavy. Angus oats have been raised by some of the proprietors, as well as rye-grass, clover, and turnips, on grounds where more than ordinary attention has been paid to cultivation; and the crops are said to have equalled those in the best grounds in more southern latitudes. The trees, however, and evergreen plants and shrubs, are stunted in the extreme, the hurricane that frequently blows from the Atlantic throwing the spray entirely across the island, and destroying every kind of ornamental plantation. The farms, exclusively of a contiguous portion of meadow and grass to each, are barely six acres in extent, having, within these few years, been reduced in size to accommodate the tenants, who prefer fishing to agriculture, and who have neither time nor inclination to pursue the latter, except for the supply of their urgent necessities. The land is consequently all prepared with the spade. The out-field portion is generally sown with the black oats common to the district, and left, unmanured, to its own resources; the in-field portion, being adjacent to the dwellings, obtains the principal attention, employing, in spring, males and females of every age in its cultivation. The fences usually consist of turf, or turf and stones; and many have been constructed with considerable care during the last few years, the inhabitants being much more intent than formerly on inclosing their lands. The average rent of arable land is eighteen shillings per merk; and about 20,000 acres are computed to be still in common, 2000 of which, however, are capable of being brought under tillage. The sheep, black-cattle, and horses are all of the native kind, mixtures not having been attended with much success: the last are fast degenerating, on account of no attention being given to the best selections for breeding.
   Limestone is wrought at Cliff, and near Balliasta, and a mine containing the chromate of iron found in veins of serpentine is in operation; but this ore, once so largely wrought and so profitable, has latterly been greatly deteriorated in value, and is now comparatively but little raised, on account of the discovery in Norway and other parts of the same mineral, and its free importation into this kingdom. The island also contains gneiss, chlorite, talc, and mica-slate, quartz, hornblende, and a few other rocks. Belmont, the mansion-house at Buness, and a lodge near Uya sound, are the only residences of a superior class. The dwellings of the inhabitants, who live chiefly in the northern and southern districts, are either insulated or in small clusters, forming no assemblage at all entitled to the name of a village: the vicinity of the harbour of Uya sound is, perhaps, the most populous, having a neat range of tenements lately built along the shore, shops for merchandise, some warehouses, and some work-buildings for a blacksmith, a cooper, and a few boat-carpenters. Each neighbourhood has a water-mill for grinding corn, which every farmer uses for himself. The parish is entirely destitute of roads, though open in every part to persons on horseback. The inhabitants send their cattle for sale to the market-town of Lerwick: after driving them with great difficulty over mountains, and through many swamps, they are obliged to transport them in boats across two dangerous sounds before they can reach the Mainland. The other disposable commodities they carry to Lerwick in their own boats, in which they bring back sundry articles for domestic use. The women are all employed in the manufacture of shawls, stockings, and gloves of various quality, some of which obtain very high prices; and coarse woollen cloth is also made, chiefly for the clothing of the inhabitants. Fishing forms the principal occupation of the men, who have within the last few years added to that of ling, cod, and tusk, which they have long been in the practice of salting and drying for the markets of Leith, Ireland, and Spain, an important fishery of herrings. These they take in large quantities; and in a recent year were cured 840 barrels, valued at £500, making, with the other kinds of fish exported, to the amount of £3230, and that kept for home consumption, valued at £2000, an aggregate obtained by fishing of £5730. A government post is established here, which communicates twice a week with the general post-office at Lerwick.
   The parish is in the presbytery of Burravoe and synod of Shetland, and in the patronage of the Earl of Zetland: the minister's stipend is £249 per annum; almost wholly arising from a vicarage-tithe of certain quantities of ling-fish, oil, and butter; and he has a glebe of fourteen acres of land, valued at £9 per annum. The church, which is situated nearly in the centre of the island, was built in 1827, near the site of the old church of Balliasta, at the cost of about £2000; it is a handsome and substantial edifice containing 1224 sittings, of which twenty-four are free. There are places of worship for members of the Free Church, a small one lately built for Independents, and another for Wesleyans. The parochial school, situated in the midland district, affords instruction in English reading, writing, arithmetic, bookkeeping, and navigation; the master has the maximum salary, with a house, and about £6 per annum in fees. A school in the northern part of the parish is supported by the General Assembly; the same branches are taught as in the parochial school, and the master receives a salary of £25, and about £10 fees. A school-house, also, has lately been built in the southern district, chiefly at the expense of the late William Mouat, Esq., of Garth: a teacher has been appointed, with a fixed salary, by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge. The principal antiquities consist of a chain of round towers, open at the top, and built of massive stones, and which are continued round the island; they are called Pictish castles, or burghs, and are supposed to have been originally erected for signal stations, as information might be rapidly communicated from them in every direction, by means of fires. At Muness is a ruinous castle, the property of the late Mr. Mouat, which is said to have been built by Laurence Bruce, of the family of Cultsmalindie, in Perthshire, who fled hither to avoid the consequences of a fatal quarrel with a neighbour. This building, the main entrance of which bears the date of 1598, is an oblong square, twenty-four feet high, measuring sixty feet by eighteen within the walls, and having a tower at each angle. Two obelisks of ancient construction, the one near Greenwell, and the other in the vicinity of Uya sound, are thought to mark the scenes of some celebrated battles; and on Crucifield hill are several concentric circles of earth and stone, with the earth raised in the middle, used probably as pagan sanctuaries. There are also six old burying-places around the ruins of six ancient churches, and the remains of a large number of chapels, to one of which, called the Cross Kirk, or St. Cruz, near Haroldswick, pilgrimages were once occasionally made by some of the inhabitants, on account of its supposed sanctity.

A Topographical dictionary of Scotland. . 1856.

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