Connecting maritime traces: A view from Shetland

Around the turn of the 21st century; this century, and having lain undetected for almost one hundred years in an abandoned croft house in Gord, Cunningsburgh, in Shetland’s South Mainland, a dressed stone slab appeared from the debris around the former household.

Inscribed sandstone slab, Cunningsburgh. Date: late 19th – early 20th centuries
Detail from an elaborate carving of a fishing boat, under sail, including the inscription of an indistinct but definite LK number and possible boat name.
Shetland Museum and Archives SPO 1996.204

Inscribed sandstone slab, Cunningsburgh. Date: late 19th – early 20th centuries
The initials R.H. and J. H. carved across, and therefore postdating, the inscribed bowsprit of a complete boat. 
Shetland Museum and Archives SPO 1996.204

Inscribed sandstone slab, Cunningsburgh. Date: late 19th – early 20th centuries
Showing a single, small pictogram of a smack under sail on one side of the slab.
Shetland Museum and Archives SPO 1996.204  

Inscribed sandstone slab, Cunningsburgh. Date: late 19th – early 20th centuries
This intricately inscribed sandstone slab was found in a ruined croft at Gord, Cunningsburgh. Carved on one side is a small pictogram of cod smack, of the type dated to around 1880, discovered as part of “New Connections” research. On the alternate side is another more elaborate inscription of a fishing boat, either a smack or a drifter, with an indistinct but definite LK number depicted.  Sometime later, initials have been carved across the bowsprit of this complete boat.  There is also a hint of what remains of another carved boat, the lit lamps and masts. The full carving is now lost due to the stone having been broken. 
Shetland Museum and Archives SPO 1996.204 
Photograph taken by Catherine McCullagh

As the stone’s finder scraped the earth from its surface a beautifully carved cod fishing smack sailed into view.  What was its history?  Why was it there? Who might have carved it?

The houses of Gord look over the sheltered harbour of Aiths Voe on which, for hundreds of years, the maritime history of Cunningsburgh has been centred. To see photographs of sail drifters in Aiths Voe, taken at the beginning of the 20th century, during the time that the voe was home to the herring station, click here and here.

Had the carver of the stone gazed out over the fishing boats hauled up at the Aiths Voe fishing station?  Was he a sailor just home from a trip on the boat so carefully carved. Does the stone recall a season spent at Faroe or Iceland hunting cod?

To listen to a recording of 94 year old Shetlander Robert Hardie, made in the mid 1970s, in which he recalls being a fifteen year old boy in a fishing smack going to the fishing at Faroe, click here.

What were the destinations the carver might have travelled to? Were they named on a ship’s crew list recording voyages made or were they a skipper with a Master’s certificate?

Discharge book, Hugh Adamson. Date 20th Century
This is an image of the discharge book belonging to former merchant mariner Hugh (Hughie) Adamson, of Cunningsburgh. These documents record personal details of the sailor to whom they belong including likeness, eye colour, distinguishing marks, character, and their conduct – a reference for future employment. Hugh’s conduct, recorded for each ship he served on, was always set down as “very good”. These records also detail length of service, career progression, certificates gained, and the dates of a mariner’s services and the ships they sailed on. They are sailor’s passports for their service at sea.
Hughie Adamson’s Personal Collection

Had the carver of the Cunningsburgh slab seen similar graffiti on visits to other places?

Graffiti Wall, Westray, Orkney. Date: late 19th – early 20th centuries
Images of sailing schooners and fishing boats predominate among the abundance of graffiti on these wall panels saved from the Gallowhill barn, Westray, in the North Isles of Orkney.  They are now on permanent display in the Westray Heritage Centre. Most are of Westray-owned vessels from the late 1800s – early 1900s, when the barn was being used for social events.
Westray Heritage Centre

Perhaps a special stone carving tool was to be found in the carver’s kit?

Sailmaker’s palm from a set of sailmaker’s tools, Yell. Date: 20th century
This palm is from a set of sailmaker’s tools used at sea by Matthew James Robertson of Yell.  Like mariners in the past, and through to recent times, he would have gathered together a mixture of his own tools, including beautifully hand-crafted objects, or heirlooms and handed down manufactured tools like this.
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 2012.110


Was this the carver’s way of depicting the beauty, art and history of a fishing vessel rather than having a painting to hang on the wall?

Still Waters in Heavy Seas, by Jim Tait. Date: 1990
Ironically the movement in this painting shows that this seine net fishing boat had to ride out many storms to bring home her precious catch, a contrast to her name-wish that she would sail in quieter seas. Built from wood and steel in Buckie in 1986, her first skipper John Anderson of Scalloway fished in her for several years. She was sold to Swedish owners in 1996.
Shetland Museum and Archives ART 1990 247

Older now, in the 1950’s, would the carver have wandered down to Aiths Voe, observing significant features in the landscape and recalling the local traditional fishing meids that mark this landscape from the sea?

To listen to a recording of Charles Simpson and Dodo Watt speaking about fishing meids located around Shetland’s South Mainland click here.

Might the carver of the Cunningsburgh slab have lived to witnesse the lifting of the Oceanic lifeboat from the Aiths Voe boat shed that this historic boat had been stored in? Might they have helped to put this boat onto a cart and discussed her transportation to the Quee croft, there to be used as a boathouse?

Boat House, Quee, Shetland. Date: late 20th century
This boat house was known in Cunningsburgh as the ‘Quee boat’. Quee is the name of the croft where she was originally erected and used as a shed.  Local lore describes her as a lifeboat from the liner Oceanic that wrecked on the Shaalds of Foula during World War One. Now restored the Queeboat belongs to Cunningsburgh History Group, and is an important part of their collection.
Shetland Museum and Archives SL03900

Queehouse, Cunningsburgh, Shetland. Date: 20th century
Cunningsburgh History Group

Queehouse, Cunningsburgh, Shetland. Date: 20th century
Cunningsburgh History Group

Would the Cunningsburgh carver have kicked a foot through the seaweed on the rocks and thought to take a load home for their crops?  The only sea borne debris they would have encountered at one time being a porcelain bottle top or a biodegradable coir rope?

Rope, Barbara Fraser. Date: 21st Century
This photograph was published online by Shetland crofter Barbara Fraser of Gulberwick to demonstrate how plastic debris, mainly old plastic rope, has built up in her garden soil. Barbara uses seaweed which she gathers from the shore as fertiliser. It is a stark visualisation of how easily this debris enters the food chain.
Cunningsburgh History Group BF OIPC

Did the carver of the Ship graffiti, heading home, pass the hulk of the fishing boat Laurel lying on her side, waiting like a huge, beached whale to be carved up and her ribs used for fencing posts?

Hulk of fishing boat Laurel LK680, photographed by JA Hughson. Date: 1950s
Here we see the herring drifter/cargo boat Laurel LK680 in her final resting place at Aiths Voe, Cunningsburgh. Beamier than normal she was bought by a Cunningsburgh man to be broken up for a fencing post scheme.  While some parts were used or stored most of her remained in the voe to rot. She became a familiar sight to local folk and some remains of her can still be seen today.
Shetland Museum and Archives HU01328

Did the carver’s mind drift to the feed of salt herring waiting at home, perhaps cured by a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a cousin, who had learned to gut locally caught fish, then going on to work at the gutting in Lerwick?

Packing, Shearers’ station, Lerwick, Shetland. Date: 1960s
This photograph shows women packing herring in barrels at J & M Shearers herring station, Garthspool, Lerwick. The women worked alongside male coopers who sealed the barrels. The hardships of the work united people. Lasting friendships and many marriages were forged.
Shetland Museum and Archives 00132

These questions and more emerge when we look at the traces of our maritime cultures, pasts, present and futures, connecting through people and place.

To view a film of Shetlander Pat Christie speaking about her knowledge of and passion for the maritime cultural environment of the shores close to Cunningsburgh click here.

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

Find out more

Visit the Cunningsburgh History Group web page by clicking here.

Visit the Westray Heritage Centre website by clicking here.

Visit the Shetland Museum and Archives website by clicking here.

To find out more about meids visit Shetland Place Names by clicking here.

To return to the home page, click here.