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  • Writer's pictureStephen Jennings

In Depth - The Sheep Thief

This is an unusual post for us but since it's Halloween season we thought this rather obscure, dark and fun poem would be our In Depth feature. Published in 1906, it is by Eric Duncan who was a one time Shetland resident (see what little we know of his biography after the poem). It follows the local legend sometimes known as Black Eric, a version of which can be read in George Stewart's Shetland Fireside Tales from 1892.



AWAY beneath the northern sky

The rugged Isles of Shetland lie

Land of the Vikings, who of yore

Ravaged each neighbouring sea and shore,

And oft, in battle fierce, defied

The Danish and the Saxon pride.

Their day is gone, their power is vain,

Yet cliffs and caves their names retain.

And still, as in that age afar,

The ocean’s everlasting war

Rages around their bulwarked home,

With futile wrath and frantic foam.

There rises, on the western coast,

Where beat Atlantic storms the most,

A giant cliff - a dizzy height -

Ascending far beyond the might

Of wildest waves. Thorsfjeld its name,

From the strong god of hammer fame.

It seems a mountain cleft in twain,

The landward slopes alone remain:

Sheer from the summit to the sea

It stoops, in grey immensity.

Full thirty yards adown the steep,

Behind a ledge where ravens sleep,

Still may the sailor mark,

Rent in the rock, an aperture

Low browed and wide, a fitting door

To cavern rude and dark.

The cragsman’s eye has never seen

The secrets of that cavern deep;

The cragsman’s foot has never been

Upon that ledge where ravens sleep.

Swung in mid-air, he eyes in vain

That door and shelf of rock:

O’er hanging crags their guard maintain.

Seaward he springs, a hold to gain;

The rocks his inward sway restrain,

And all his efforts mock.

Here dwelt, the old traditions say,

What time the Isles owned Norway’s sway,

A Being strange and strong.

With deep-set eyes of lurid cast,

Of stature low, with shoulders vast,

The disproportioned creature passed

All noiselessly along,

Frightening the carle at closing eve,

Who in his heart did well believe

He saw a Trow of nether earth,

And not a man of mortal birth.

His clothing was the skins of sheep

Which wandered near his stronghold steep.

A stout crook-headed iron rod,

Rounded and pointed like a goad,

For weapon in his hand he bore;

And so was called, the country o’er,

From Fitful Head to Nordenhaff,

The Sheep Thief with the iron staff.

Now, how he did contrive to climb,

Or how descend, that height sublime,

Without a rope, companionless,

Men oft would speculate and guess.

His long arms for the crags seemed made,

And probably his staff did aid.

Indeed, a certain Hakon Gyar

Some awe and wonder did inspire

By telling how, when in his skiff,

One calm dark night below the cliff

He saw a smoky brightness start

Forth from the cave, and upward dart,

Which, as the mountain top it struck,

The form of horse and rider took.

And this, he said, did clearly show

That Tangie bore him to and fro.

But Gyar was of romancing vein,

And credence small his tale did gain;

And to the dwarf, ’twas thought, alone

Some subterranean way was known,

Opening on Thorsfjeld’s eastern combe,

Through which he brought his plunder home.

Sad havoc in the flocks he made

That through the Thorsfjeld country strayed.

His nightly frolics were, to creep,

In their own garments, to the sheep,

Then suddenly upon them rise,

And break their legs, or pierce their eyes

With his staff point. It was his joy

To torture, mangle, and destroy.

As fast as any dog he ran,

Outstripping far the swiftest man;

Ay, even men began to fear

Singly to range the region there,

For late, a shepherd from that place

Had disappeared, without a trace.

In all Dunrossness there was not

A man like Ola Brand,

Great Sumburgh’s stoutest son was but

A stripling in his hand.

A giant he, in height and build,

The huge war-axe which he did wield

Was known on many a bloody field

Within the southern land.

And he could take a galley’s chain

And snap it with a jerk in twain,

Like straw-rope, easily.

Barehanded he a bull had foiled;

Amazed, the charging brute recoiled,

To find himself of horns despoiled,

As Brand walked idly by.

Brown moorland, hill, and sheltered glen,

From Thorsfjeld east to Levenden,

And north from Quendal’s sandy bay

To the great hill of Halaleigh,

St. Ringan’s Isle, and Westerskord,

All owned him for their Udal lord.

Hundreds of light-brown sheep had he,

Which pastured on the grassy lea

Of Thorsfjeld, and his tenants all

Had sheep in heathery Westerdahl;

And every year they lost their best

By this wild plunderer of the West.

But now the bounds of suff’rance tame

Were past, when o’er the hills there came

To Ola, on a summer noon,

The tidings of his shepherd gone.

No word he spake of bad or good,

But straight to Thorsfjeld took his road.

Hills, moory wastes, before him lay;

He reached the height ere close of day.

Upon a rock he took his seat,

And waited there the Thief to meet,

While soft the evening fell,

And limitless to the north-west

The placid ocean heaved its breast

With slow majestic swell.

What is that hollow sound so deep?

The tides which through the Dorholm sweep

With melancholy wail;

That ocean door through which a ship

Might run with swelling sail;

While overhead the mighty arc

Of rough grey stone, like skin of shark,

And underneath the surges dark

Echo the shrieking gale.

So changed the scene, with dying day,

Its glorious hues for sober grey;

Deep silence settled all around,

Save for the Dorholm’s slumbrous sound.

But on that rampart of the land

Still sat and waited Ola Brand.

Hark, was not that a stealthy tread?

The watcher quickly turned his head,

When, swift from out the spectral dimm,

A shapeless form advanced to him.

Like lightning from his seat he sprang;

At once upon the boulder rang

The clangour of the iron staff.

Aha! cried Brand, with scornful laugh;

And ere the dwarf regained his sway,

He seized and wrenched the bar away.

Out through the dark it whizzed and spun

Like fiery meteor, and was gone.

Then Brand (his lordly form upreared

To its full height) vainglorious jeered

His little enemy;

“Although I cannot strike a blow

With such as thou, yet deign to know

Thy staff is gone where thou wilt go

To bear it company.”

Sudden he ceased, for with a bound

The dwarf was at him, and around

His body quick had cast

His long lithe arms, like steely bands,

And pinioned to his sides his hands,

And held him tight and fast.

As northern hunter, in the grasp

Of bear, on icy field,

Strains every nerve, with choking gasp,

While slowly ’neath the mighty clasp

His ribs begin to yield;

So Ola, in the stern embrace

Of that weird Being, for a space

Did struggle fruitlessly.

And landward now their course they urge,

Now to the mountain’s utmost verge,

Above the quiet sea.

As to the precipice they swung,

With desperate strength, all torn and wrung

One hand did Ola free;

And by the neck he clutched the dwarf,

As cragsman grasps the sentry skarf

A fearful hold took he.

Like as a sponge in flood that swims,

When squeezed, spouts forth its copious streams,

So, forced by that gigantic grip,

Flew the black blood from nose and lip

Of the fell Thief, who slacked his hold,

And, hurled upon the greensward, rolled

Insensate. His rash foe, as well,

Spent, breathless, almost fainting, fell.

Powerless for ill, they lay a space,

When all at once a thundering pace

Startled the stillness of the place,

And, ringing in their ears,

Roused e’en the Thief! Far down the side

Where Thorsfjeld melts in moorland wide,

Clearing a rod at every stride,

A wondrous horse appears.

As black as coal that horse did seem,

Straight as an arrow-flight he came,

His eyes and nostrils flashing flame,

Which flared above his head;

He mounts the mountain at a breath,

As springs blue lightning over heath;

Up blazed the grass beside his path,

And fell in ashes dead!

He scales the crest, a moment halts,

Then terror first Brand’s soul assaults.

But lo! the Thief upon him vaults,

And o’er the cliff they flew.

“No liar, then, was Hakon Gyar,”

Said Brand, betwixt dismay and ire.

“The wretch is leagued with demons dire,

And what can mortal do?”

As, baffled, now he seeks his home,

Behold! a lessening of the gloom.

Sudden the glimmer which had crept

All night along the North Sea, leapt

Aloft into the grey, and sprays

Of green and gold, and purple rays

Blended with rose-hues, following fast,

O’er the dim waves a radiance cast.

Rona’s majestic summit flamed,

And many a lesser ward-hill beamed.

At Ola’s feet on Thorsfjeld crest

Up springs a laverock from its nest,

To raise on high the morning song

Which fellow-choristers prolong.

The bright north-east still brighter glows,

Each night-born shadow fainter grows,

Till in full blaze of summer light

The glorious sun bursts on the sight.


The days pass on. The summer dies;

On wings the Shetland autumn flies;

Low in the south the sun’s pale ball

Contends with clouds, which conquer all.

Bleak winds across the moorlands roar;

Thunder the waves along the shore.

On Rona’s peak and Halaleigh

The early snows lie, scant and grey.

A six-hours’ day! Winter has come;

Now is the sky a leaden dome,

While tossed and fanned by Boreas old,

The cloud-chaff sweeps o’er hill and wold.

One dark December morn, when wind

And drifting snow their might combined,

And over naked land and sea

Ruled with unbridled tyranny.

Within the house of Ola Brand

His servants all assembled stand.

They meet to search the wilds for sheep

Beneath the snowdrifts buried deep,

In glens, and dahls, and skords, and gylls,

Upon the lee-sides of the hills.

“Do ye,” said Ola to the men,

“Hold northward over Levenden,

The slopes of Halaleigh ascend,

And westward thence your course must tend

Across the wastes to Westerdahl,

Scouring the glens and passes all.

To Thorsfjeld I will take my course -

Ye fear the Thief and Demon-horse;

But ne’er must it be said that I

From man or fiend did flinch or fly.”

Then speedily the peasants shared

The digging implements prepared,

And forth upon their quest they fared

Into the blinding grey.

And soon the stoutest of the throng

Of Ola’s ponies, staunch and strong,

Hair black and shaggy, thick and long,

His master bore away.

Along the stormy ridges swept

Clean bare, the watchful Northman kept,

Though oft perforce the pony leapt

O’er hollows full of snow.

Fierce growled the blast, with growing wrath,

In eddying gusts around their path;

They held the course with labouring breath,

They scarce could see to go.

So passed they on, o’er moor and bog,

Till, dimly through the rushing fog,

The bulk of Thorsfjeld loomed;

And high above the windy jar

Rose the deep tones of ocean’s war,

As through the Dorholm arch afar

The billows rolled and boomed.

The Thorsfjeld glens traversing round,

With care did Ola search and sound,

And many a buried flock he found,

Some dead, but most alive;

For those small sheep are brave and stout,

The wintry storms they weather out;

Roaming the treeless wilds about,

On heather shoots they thrive.

And Shetland snows are quickly gone,

By furious sea-gales overblown.

The mountain slopes he thus explored

Northward, to where the surges roared,

When, rounding a projecting rock,

The pony swerved, with sudden shock,

And there the Thief before them stood,

His right hand grasped his iron rod

(The selfsame bar by Ola sent

Far through the summer firmament),

A struggling sheep was in his left,

Whose skull a recent blow had cleft.

Dropping his prey, with blackest scowl,

He raised his bolt and with a howl

At Ola sprang, whose iron hand

Received the blow, but took command

Of the grim weapon. Whirled on high,

The Dwarf still clung tenaciously,

Till dashed to earth, the horse’s feet

Made his discomfiture complete.

Not thus might that dark life be sped;

Instant he writhed him free and fled

Staffless. He seemed to fly as fast

As if with wings, before the blast,

Heading where winds and waters rave

Around the cliff that guards his cave.

Fast in pursuit did Ola come,

Urging his pony through the gloom,

Though scarce the sturdy beast had need

Of hand or voice to quicken speed;

And many a rough ravine they crossed,

But soon the fleeing shape was lost -

Enveloped in the murky white,

Away it passed beyond their sight.

They reached a gyll both wide and deep;

Endless its length, its sides were steep,

And drifted soft below.

The pony rose in headlong leap;

He touched, but footing could not keep,

And man and horse, all in a heap

Rolled back into the snow.

Quickly arising, Brand espied

A horse upon the farther side,

And, in the gully broad

Deep sunk, he left his own to wait

Till he returned, or extricate

His wallowing bulk alone, by fate

The Stranger he bestrode.

With arrowy speed the Stranger flew

Away, away; the path he knew,

Up Thorsfjeld’s mighty breast;

And hot his body seemed to grow

To Ola’s touch, and flakes of snow

Fizzed on his hide, and made no show;

And ever on he pressed

Till, as he reached the topmost height,

Beneath his feet the frosty white

Did blacken, melt, and hiss.

Fire from his eyes and nostrils sprung,

And back to earth the Northman flung

Himself, as out the Demon swung

Into the wild abyss!

Then, as he crouched upon the verge,

Shriek upon shriek rose o’er the surge -

Dreadful unearthly cries.

The shuddering giant feebly crawled

Close to the brink, and shrank appalled.

Far down the precipice,

Dim, as the spray-clouds swept aside

A space, the Outlaw he descried,

Clinging, with aspect horrified,

Above his cavern door;

While close beside, on sable wing,

The Demon-horse was hovering.

Not timely succour now to bring;

No, furiously he tore

The shrieking wretch, who strove in vain

With one long hand to grasp his mane.

Eluding each dire stretch and strain,

The taunting fiend, with hellish pain

His whilom master wore.

And now the spray mists intervene

A welcome veil across the scene;

And now they break - the cliff is clean.

That sight was seen no more.

And thus the region had relief;

Thus vanished from the wilds the Thief.

Never again on Thorsfjeld’s crest

Did he appear, or sheep molest.

His staff, preserved by Ola Brand,

Was long the wonder of the land.

No human blacksmith forged the bar;

’Twas wrought beneath the earth afar.

If anyone save Brand alone

(Whose mastery now it seemed to own)

Did handle it, as men are prone,

It burned his fingers to the bone.

But greatest marvels pall at last,

And this strange relic of the past,

Of trows or elves the workmanship,

Was destined by ill chance to slip

From place of honour dismally;

For Ola fashioned it to be

A thing a menial place to fill -

The spindle of a water-mill!

And thus it wore itself away

With groans and shrieks from day to day.

Sparks flew from underneath the mill;

In truth it served the purpose ill.

At length one night when winds were high,

And densest clouds obscured the sky;

When, swoln with melting snow and rain,

The burn of Shandrick rose amain,

Forth to the mill, through slush and mire,

With corn to grind, went Hakon Gyar.

Quick as the quern began to spin

Did ear-astounding screams begin.

Around the mill, above, below,

Wild yells of more than human woe.

Louder and louder waxed the cries;

The peasant’s hair began to rise.

Now Hakon Gyar, though he did try

His own exploits to magnify,

Was not faint -hearted, but to hear

That din was more than man could bear.

And so he was about to turn

The stream, and stop the uncanny quern,

When suddenly, with thunderous roar,

The mill-roof bodily uptore

From off the walls, and fled away;

And Gyar in utter darkness lay,

Crouched in a corner, stunned with fright,

Staring upon a fearsome sight.

For lo! the Sheep Thief’s awful form,

Bright, mid the blackness of the storm,

Upon the flying mill-stone stood

And pointed to his ancient rod.

The flying mill-stone rent in two,

Into his hand the spindle flew,

And through the floor, in dark turmoil,

The waters break, and round them boil.

Wildly the shattered building sways;

It trembles, totters, to its base;

The walls bend inward. With a bound

Gyar cleared the door, and, well-nigh drowned,

He struggled to a knoll, which stood

An island in the raging flood.

Down went the mill, in ruin down;

Above it foamed the waters brown,

And on the knoll, in mortal fear,

The peasant kept his vigil drear,

Till broke the gloomy morn at last,

And through the shallowing tide he passed,

Reaching his home; but from that night

His form was bent, his hair was white.

Eric Duncan was born on the 9th of July 1858 in Houlland, Sandwick. The son of Robert Duncan, also from Houlland, and Barbara Manson of Setter, he in 1877 followed his uncles to the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Most famous for his memoir, From Shetland to Vancouver Island, the preceding poem came from his work Rural Rhymes and The Sheep Thief published in 1896.

In addition to being an author and poet, he was a pioneering farmer and store owner who conducted his adopted region's first census and became its first postmaster. Highly regarded as the local philosopher, he died on the 29th of March 1944.

Married to Anna Aske, a fellow immigrant from Stockholm Sweden, in 1889, they together built Sandwick Manor in 1910-11. Also known as the Eric Duncan House, it is now a registered heritage property due to its historic and aesthetic value.

Eric and Anna's only child, Lieutenant Charles Andrew Duncan, was tragically killed at the Pas de Calais on the 28th of September, 1918 at the age of 23. Not long after, on the 3rd of December, 1921, Anna died at the young age of 54.

In a strange coincidence with our Halloween theme, 'Aunt Anna' is said to haunt Sandwick Manor but in a rather Casper kind of way.

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