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  • Writer's pictureStephen Jennings

The Many Ways to Die in Shetland

This is a written version of the Halloween night presentation this year (2019) which followed the AGM. There were many sources of information some of which can be found below. What is not listed is research work in the Shetland Museum and Archives as well as oral contributions from sources familiar with aspects of the material. We hope you enjoy!

The first way to die that we’re going to look at is the circumstance of murder and the oral tradition surrounding Gilbert Hendry, gifted poet and adulterer.

It seems Gilbert’s tongue and quill surely dripped with honey for, though married, he took upon himself a younger local lass as another lover sometime in the 17th century. Despite the appeals and prayers of his friends to cease his behavior, one even lying in wait one night to implore him to reconsider the fateful road down which he travelled, Gilbert’s lust for the woman seemed only to increase. But erelong, our debaucher of all that is holy and good, was seen one evening walking alone along a loch side when he was joined by a mysterious man dressed all in black. As concerned onlookers watched they continued to pace deep into the darkness. The next morning the body of Gilbert Hendry was found with his head caved in and his brains spattered though no rock of size could be found matching the fatal blow whilst the turf around the body was heavily trodden. God had paid retribution fitting adulterers and whoremongers and smote him as a lesson and terror to us all.

This oral tradition related to us by the Reverend John Brand as parable is a simple lesson in punishment for a crime, spiritual or otherwise. Yet if we examine the scene and the circumstances – adultery with witnesses, Gilbert being waylaid shortly before the fateful night, the head caved in with a weapon now missing, many footprints around the body - we can do away with divine judgment and simply call it a case of murder.

We may also see circumstance as evidence with Gunnister Man from the late 17th or early 18th century as well. His death and shallow burial have remained a mystery as is true of any definitive identification. Was he the victim of murder? Why use of what appears a hurried grave than a proper Christian burial? Are there other objects he was carrying now missing and why were the coins left on his person?

Or maybe he was simply a stranger in a strange land and got caught out in a storm and perished.

Let’s turn to a circumstance where we have more evidence of a crime but the crime itself is in question, Donald Robertson.

Now resting in the Cross Kirk cemetery at Eshaness, his is perhaps Shetland’s most famous grave as seen by the epitaph:

Donald Robertson, born 14th January 1785. Died 14th June aged 63 years. He was a peaceable, quiet man, and to all appearances a sincere Christian. His death was much regretted which was caused by the stupidity of Laurence Tulloch of Clothister (Sullom) who sold him nitre instead of Epson Salts by which he was killed in the space of five hours after taking a dose of it.

In this case we have the knowledge of time, place and mode of death but was there more to this? Laurence Tulloch went on trial for culpable homicide shortly thereafter and, though found guilty, he only served 8 days in jail after which he moved his family to Aberdeen. However, the allegation has never been far from the crime – rather than negligence, Donald Robertson was murdered due to the close friendship he had with his male housemate.

A final examination of a most gruesome murder comes in the case of Yakob Stays. It appears our victim was in for what some might regard a just punishment since he was a privateer and aboard one of two pirate boats taking shelter in Sand Voe in North Roe in the 1770s. Yakob was a thief so determined that, though shackled in the hold of one of the ships, he still managed to break his bonds to steal from his shipmates. Having had enough, they finally bound him and dragged him ashore where they buried him alive much to the horror of local residents who placed a stone to mark his grave. It is still said that on some dark and windy nights his ghost can be seen rising from the grave…

Death on the seas is no stranger to Shetland and the events of Yakob Stays calls to mind another body of questionable origin – Channerwick Man. If we recall, winter storms unearthed skeletal remains dating to between 1760 and 1820 which were very carefully and respectfully excavated by Dr Samantha Dennis. Buried not far above the high tide mark as we know it today and in a grave too small to fully accommodate the body, these remains were peculiar in that there was no coffin, the right leg was twisted awkwardly behind the body and the hands were also behind and close together as if once tied. Though it’s not unusual for those who died at sea and whose body washed up on Shetland’s shores to be wrapped in a sailcloth and buried close to the coast edge, it may have been unusual to have your hands tied and been unceremoniously dumped in a grave.

But the seas, they claim many unfortunate souls and they’re not always so mysterious. All of us are familiar with fishing disasters such as ‘the bad day’ in 1832 and the Delting Disaster in 1900, but sometimes life has small personal disasters in store for us…

Such was the fate of the man who put in the two posts connecting what was once a cradle or basket between Noss and Bressay, plunging to his death on the descent after his success. This is a fate shared by those who engaged in fowling, the scaling of sea cliffs for the taking of young sea fowl, including the story related to us by Sir Walter Scott of a boy of 14 who fell from a cliff while his mother was a short distance away working at the peats. Few, however, are as tragically interesting as the fate of Margaret Wilson. It seems she slipped into the water whilst she and her betrothed, Andrew Gardner, were at the banks. The wind catching her petticoats, she sailed away never to be seen again as poor Andrew watched helplessly on.

More often than not, the sea claimed its victims in these ways and by ones and twos – people moving across a voe in their small boat, fishing close to shore or on their way from one place to another. A prime example is the emptying of Papa Isle late in the 19th century where the residents of the only two crofts had to move to Burra and Scalloway after three of the men were capsized by a wave and drowned whilst collecting driftwood. Occasionally this feat was accomplished by a denizen of the deep, such as an innocent whale, but sometimes our cetaceous friends weren’t so innocent…

Conviction of witchcraft could be a ghastly and immediate way to die in Shetland. Take the case against Marion Pardone and her husband Swene who were both tied to a stake, strangled to death and then burnt in 1644. It rested on 15 accusations one of which was the capsizing of a boat where she turned herself into a porpoise and drowned the four men. This targeting of fishing crews is something we see in other witch trials in Shetland, sometimes by simply spellcasting. Yet, more often, the witch’s evil eye is cast towards the terrestrial, chiefly cows and other humans. They were known through special incantations to steal milk, sicken a cow, sour butter or cause sickness among their fellow residents. Marion herself is thought to have brought illness to a former servant, Madda Scuddasdochter, who could only free herself from the spell by drawing the blood of the witch. This she did by racing across the room and biting Marion on the fingers whereby she made a miraculous recovery in the space of two weeks.

We see the same trends with the earlier triple trial of Katherine Jonesdochter, Jonka Dynneis and Barbara Thomasdochter whereby Jonka was caught attempting to sink her husband’s boat by spellcasting and all three were implicated in tampering with the production of milk and butter of others and causing sickness and death among the people. Especially lurid in this trial was the sexual aspect – Katherine having laid with the devil for 40 years from when she was a young lass and Barbara for causing impotence in a man who spurned her. All three were strangled and burnt at the stake on October 3rd, 1616.

It is prudent to pause here and discuss some interesting aspects of the witch trials in Shetland to perhaps lend a little perspective. As a start, the raw numbers look like this: anywhere from 2500 to 3800 witches were executed in Scotland, depending on the source, whilst Shetland had a total of 31 people tried, not all of whom were executed. Prior to 1604, during the time of Patrick Stewart, there were 10 people tried, none of whom received a death sentence. Instead they paid fines and lost their property. In total, the numbers in Shetland are much lower than Scotland as a whole.

There are also aspects to the witch trials that may not always get the proper attention with the public. For example, going back to the 10 people tried before 1604, there is no mention of the Devil. It isn’t until Patrick Stewart is removed from the scene and the Presbytery put in control that we begin to see the language mirror that of the mainland and the trials become sexed up, albeit for the women tried as opposed to the men. This is the case with our earlier triple trial, the first in Shetland with demonological associations. A main reason for this isn’t necessarily religious zeal, though we’d be foolhardy to completely dismiss it, but more the perception from south that Patrick Stewart had left the people in a moral vacuum where violence, adultery, theft and all manner of sin had poisoned society.

Another aspect is the quashing of traditional folk medicine and beliefs. It shouldn’t go unnoticed that many of those on trial were at one time utilized to heal sickness in humans and animals and their spellcasting was little more than a manifestation of the extreme superstitions of the people in general. This was an area the church saw as both the work of the Devil and of popery, a twin monster to be slain.

Finally, what much of this is about is insecurity in general, food insecurity specifically. One can’t help but notice most of the accusations levelled against the accused are about curses on cows, crops and fishing or, in other words, the source of food. The accused tend also to be more often on the margins of society and to be viewed as outside the community – the hag living on her own or the irascible couple, such as the Pardones, who can’t seem to get along with anybody. And quite frankly, they are often damn good at what they do to feed themselves and frequently better than their neighbours. This is perhaps best illustrated by looking at the folklore of Luggie…

Said to have been executed on Gallow Hill in Scalloway in the 1470s, he was accused of sorcery because he was supposed, on a whim, to go to a cleft in the rocks near what is now known as Luggie’s Knowe, at any time of day, cast a line and pull up fish already gutted and roasted. He could do the same when at sea, cast a line and pull up fish ready to eat for he and his wary companions. It was the agency of the devil and evil spirits, direct from Hell’s hot oven.

Sadly, food insecurity and starvation were very real for many Shetlanders. One such example is the oral tradition of the Valladale folk. In this tale an entire family was caught in the crop failures and collapse of fishing in the 1690s. Despite their neighbours best efforts, the entire family starved to death, their last moments attended by a priest. Regardless the exact reliability of this tale, it does accurately mirror the plight of the time – marginal land, especially in Northmavine, and the Little Ice Age where agricultural and fishing collapse throughout Scandinavia and Northern Europe are well recorded.

A second tale of Valladale folk, one more deeply rooted in records of the time, is of a family, one of eight families, cleared from the Ness of Hillswick in 1821 by Arthur Gifford of Busta. Settling in the even more marginal Valladale, and tragically looking across the water at their former home, the family of William Smith failed to prosper. Again, we see repeated crop failures as the primary reason. However, complicating matters is the age of the family when evicted – elderly parents and three sons, the youngest aged 54. Not much else is known of them other than the family line apparently goes extinct when the last member commits suicide by leaping into the sea in the 1850s. He is buried at the door of the croft house.

Perhaps no story comes closest to capturing the true horror of poverty than the oft cited Kirstie Caddel. Born in 1813 in Northmavine, she begins life in the manner typical of a Shetland girl at the time and at the age of 25 she marries a local man, James Jamieson, and they set up on a croft and have a son. After a short time, they decide to give up the struggle of the croft and move to Lerwick where James goes to the herring fishery but perishes in the disaster of 1840 whilst Kirstie is pregnant with their second child. Now a widow, her situation becomes more dire shortly after the child is born when they all contract smallpox and her first child dies. She then begins a relationship with Jarm Caddel and they have a child together but are then rebuked in front of the kirk session. Seeking poor relief beginning in 1841, she is tossed around for the next 15 years during which time, in 1844, she desperately steals clothing for her children spending 35 days in jail once easily caught. Finally and callously removed from the poor rolls at the end of November 1854 and evicted from her room with her three children, they are left homeless, shoeless and at the mercy of the public. Sleeping at the top of stairwells, first at Church Lane and then in the Lerwick town house which was the only public building at the time, she dies early in January 1855 from destitution, cold, hunger and sickness.

For many others, some facing the same fate of Kirstie Caddel, the desperate times called for more desperate measures – crime! – but it was surely another way to die in Shetland.

Many of the crimes throughout our history can be viewed through the eyes of desperation or opportunity rather than from a place of malice. The penalties for these, especially thievery of food or provision, were indeed most often harsh. Take the case of the Esplein brothers in 1615. Brought before the court on numerous charges of sheep theft, including 30 in one go by Christopher, they were convicted and whilst Nicoll was banished from the west side and threatened with hanging if he should ever steal again Christopher was immediately hung on Gallow Hill.

Another interesting case is that of Mareoun Thomasdochter and her sometime partner in crime, Margaret Rolland. In 1625 they were both tried and convicted of stealing sheep on multiple occasions and both found guilty. Mareoun Thomsadochter was immediately taken to a cliff with her hands bound and cast into the sea to drown. Margaret Rolland, on the other hand, claimed she was with child and produced three witnesses to verify. Her sentence was deferred until she had delivered. We don’t know whatever happened to Margaret as the court didn’t sit for the next three years. She may have had a lucky escape but, in all likelihood, she faced the same fate as Mareoun once the baby was born.

It’s worth pointing out again the issue of food insecurity related to the harshness of the sentences. It wasn’t simply that they were judged to be common thieves, they were often taking from people who were themselves on the edge in a very marginal land, especially Northmavine, and a single instance of thievery could push the victims into the same position many of the thieves found themselves. For added emphasis, you find many court cases where you could assault someone with deadly weapons – clubs, knives, swords - with every intention to kill them and your sentence would most often be a fine.

And violence was ever present, in large and small ways. We have in the past examined the body of a warrior, probably Norse, who endured extreme wounds and was disinterred from elsewhere and reburied at St Ninian’s. There has also been the well-known story of the battle of Quendale in the middle of the 16th century where it is said as many as 60 Shetlanders were slain by the Lewismen. But there are small battles too. A most dreadful example was the chasing down and murder of the Parson of Orphir by Orcadians. It seems whilst Patrick Stewart was incarcerated the Parson continued to carry out his cruel work. Once he was executed, however, the Parson became vulnerable to the same fate at the hands of a mob. Fleeing to Shetland, he was pursued by four Sinclair brothers who finally caught up to him near Nesting where they slew him and, as if that was not enough, it is said one of the brothers – still in a rage – tore open the Parson’s chest, ripped out his heart and drank the blood from it.

The Skerry Fight, roughly 100 years later, was another of these small battles but this time between two powerful families. Before it was codified in law, there was the understood custom of anyone being allowed to construct a fishing booth near the shoreline on any unenclosed land. Returning to the booth they had built the year before, the Giffords found themselves, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, under siege by the Sinclairs being led by the matriarch of the family and their champion Magnus Flaws. After an exchange of musket fire, Magnus jumped on the roof in steely determination to get in, tore a hole and was immediately shot dead by the Giffords. The Sinclairs fled the field leaving behind the matriarch who was briefly held then released, no charges being sought on either side.

This is distinctly not the case with the Faw family trial, also known as The Garth Murder, in 1612 and it is quite illustrative of nearly all that’s been presented to now. Brought before the court on charges of theft, sorcery, fortunetelling, adultery and incest were the Faw family of Big John, son Little John and daughters Katherine and Agnes with Katherine facing the additional charge of the murder of her husband, Murdo Brown. As what was known at the time as ‘Egyptians’, the Faws were Romani, today commonly just referred to as travelers, as was the victim, and this was the beginning of a crackdown on this particular ethnic group. Among the accusations was they could steal milk from another’s cow, tell fortunes and cast spells. They were also looked upon and judged to be common thieves with loose morals, particularly in the case of Little John. One unusual aspect to the case is that until this point the travelers were largely allowed to adjudicate and pass judgment within the confines of their own community.

As to the charges, Katherine was accused of stabbing her husband with a knife though it was claimed she was merely defending herself after he had first drawn a sword on her. Though the court heard an argument that she was goaded into it by the rest of her family, she was the only one to face punishment – death by being thrown from a cliff and drowned.

We should end All Hallows’ Eve on a high note, or a low one depending on perspective, by having a quick look at what, to some, might be a surprising way to die in Shetland - unconventional love.

Shetland is full of magical stories about trows, mermaids, kelpies and selkies. Sometimes these can sound nice – a man captures the skin of a selkie, she becomes his wife and they raise together a family for years. But beneath the surface, if you will, neither the circumstances – forced imprisonment and what amounts to sexual slavery – nor the outcome is forever so quaint as she always finds her skin and returns to the sea. As a tale from Papa Stour relates to us, the outcome for mermaids is occasionally not so great either. It seems one day two fishermen are out pulling their lines when a mermaid hooked underneath the jaw suddenly appears. In a panic, one of the fishermen grabs his knife and plunges it into her heart condemning himself to a short and miserable life.

In the real world, unconventional love can have very mortal consequences. Take the case of Nicoll in Bressay in 1613 who was executed “for the abominable cryme of bowgrie comittit be him with ane kow”. Another case of death by unconventional love was the trial in 1618 of Johne Thomsone who was found, and admitted, to have been in a carnal relationship with his pony for a full seven months. In this case he was tied to a stake, strangled to death and burned for his crime. Tragically, so was the pony!


Gordon Donaldson, edited by - 'Court Book of Shetland 1615-1629'

Liv Helene Willumsen - 'Witches of the North: Scotland and Finnmark'

Laurence Johnson - 'Laurence Williamson of Mid Yell'


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