Granny Tam's beach with the ruins of their house behind it, on the now-uninhabited island of Papa.
We are our ancestors; we are here because they lived. We are here because they nurtured our parents and generations of grandparents before us. Some of our relations we have the privilege of knowing. Some, like George Arthur Fullerton, we know because we hear about them, we’re shown grainy photographs and told that they left this world before we arrived.
For me, they are the solemn faces which look back at me from the gallery of black and white photos at Granny’s. They are names on an unfamiliar and distant branch of the family tree. Names I’ve heard woven into conversation for as long as I can remember, but have no real knowledge of. I know that we are connected. When we speak of our family, we speak with pride, even for those we never knew or met.
Shetlanders, for generations, depended almost entirely on what the sea gave them. And as quickly as the sea could provide, it could also take away. This story is about what the sea took from my family on a cold day in November 1914.
To set the scene, this particular branch of my family came from a small, now-uninhabited island – Papa (not to be mistaken with Papa Stour). A few miles from Burra, Papa is 146 acres and, at the time, supported two close-knit families.
The story begins in November 1892 with the birth of Thomasina, the fifth of nine children to George Arthur Fullerton and Grace (nee Goodlad). This baby who would grow up in Papa would come to be known to me as ‘Granny Tam’ – my great-grandmother. A woman I never met.
Sisters Thomasina and Grace Fullerton.
Life was tough, and the land was worked at a subsistence level. The men went to sea for fish to boost the household income, pay the rent, fill the table and all the hungry mouths who sat around it. Meanwhile, the women knitted, their clacking wires a rhythmic melody which filled the silence left by the men at sea. Their work was bartered for commodities such as tea and sugar. For the men, being an able seaman was vital, and boys were introduced to the water from a young age – as soon as they could support an oar.
In 1914 Granny Tam and her family left Papa and moved to Meal – just a few miles away, in Burra. Life on Papa had become too tough for the family following the unexpected death of their father – my great-great-grandfather – George Arthur Fullerton.
George, born on 13th February 1863 in the neighbouring isle of Oxna, married Grace Goodlad from Brough, before moving to Papa in the 1890s. Inheriting one of the crofts the family remained there until his death in 1914, working the land and raising a large family in the small but-an’-ben house they called home.
L-R; Grace Fullerton (nee Goodlad), John Arthur Fullerton & George Arthur Fullerton.
A day they would never forget
I can hear the excited cries of the two young boys making their way to the shore, hauling the boat from the safety of the winter noost, running her over the whalebone linns into the sea beyond.
It’s a beautiful beach – Granny Tam’s beach – the pebbles make that hypnotic sucking noise as water passes over them, in and out, rising and falling with the tide. But on this day, in November, the sea would have worn a fiercer guise – one of foreboding.
It was just an ordinary Tuesday in November when George and his two young sons, William (18) and Archibald (15) set off in their 11-foot rowing boat. They had heard word that wreckage and driftwood had been spotted a few miles away. According to family history, they had never gone out in the boat to gather wood before; the Atlantic usually gave up enough onto the isle to supply their needs. In this instance, the people of Papa had heard that enough had come ashore in neighbouring Langa to make it worthwhile – if risky.
Their suspicions were confirmed – a quick check of The Shetland Times that particular week reported that there “was a large quantity of wreckage floating around the west side”.
On this night, they arrived safely in Langa and were able to collect a barrel of oil before turning back for home. By the time they left it was late and the wind was beginning to freshen again. It was November, and it was Shetland; it would have been dark, with a cold and biting wind. There was a big swell and a fair amount of motion in the water. This is confirmed by The Shetland Times, reporting that a strong gale had struck Shetland, accompanied by sleet and thunder. It was described as the “severest gale experienced for some time.”
What was to happen next was described as a “Pathetic and tragic story” by The Scotsman. Halfway between Papa and Langa, with home in sight, George collapsed in the boat, having had what was believed to have been a heart attack. And, with a freshening headwind, his young sons struggled to make headway on the oars, forcing them to turn back towards Langa. In the consuming darkness, and with pressures of weather and their sick father praying heavily on their minds, the boys landed on the south end of Langa.
South end of Langa where George Fullerton was landed ashore.
Pulling their failing father from the boat they attempted to resuscitate him. They put his rubber boots on his hands in an attempt to preserve what little life, and warmth, were left in him. Their heroic attempts were futile. The rocky outcrop provided no comfort or protection from the full force of the wind and the now driving Atlantic sea. They finally gave up on life at around 3am, and remained with him all night, cowering among the rocks for shelter.
Police and newspapers reported that the boat was carried away while they were trying to revive their father, leaving the three of them stranded, exposed to the elements and raw chill of the wind that engulfed them. Despite these printed reports, my family maintain that the boat was never carried away but that the weather was simply too bad for the boys to put to sea in. It’s important to remember that they were young. I look at my son, at seven, and wonder how he would have felt had he been pulling the oar that night; and then I have to stop as it hurts too much to consider.
Thinking about that night tears through me like a knife. Not only had they lost their father but they also had no way of getting him back to land, and no way of raising the alarm. I think of their mother at home, pacing the floor, waiting for her husband and family to return, knowing that with every passing hour the chance of getting them home alive diminished.
Hours later, and as daybreak emerged and the tide subsided, the boys were able to scramble onto the island to seek adequate shelter, leaving their father behind. On Langa they found modest refuge as the wind continued to rage for the whole of Wednesday, right through the night.
The Scotsman said that William Slater, Papa, could only watch the plight of the family, and that, when the wind eased on Thursday morning, he and his crew were able to effect a rescue. The Shetland Times described the boys as being in “an utterly exhausted condition”.
Granny Tam had a different version of this story. She remembered watching the boat returning from the window of their house in Papa and seeing that it only carried the boys – her father was not there.
Granny Tam said that when the boys returned to where they were forced to leave their father, his body had already been swept away by the boiling sea. A few days later, when the sea had calmed, a group went out to look for his body, scouring the coastline around Langa, Scalloway, Trondra and Burwick. Eventually, a dredge recovered him and he was laid to rest at the cemetery in Papil.
It’s hard to imagine how this tragedy affected the two young sons who survived the ordeal; thirty-six hours exposed to the elements without food, drink or warmth.
Following the tragic death of her father, Granny Tam and her remaining family were forced to move away from Papa. It had become impossible for them to eke out a meagre living from the land. The young men were called up to war and, with their father gone, there was a real shortage of men to work the croft, doing the heavy work and fishing. The family, feeling more isolated than ever, and increasingly vulnerable, moved to Meal and into the fold of a larger – albeit still an island – community.
Granny Tam spoke about the decision to leave Papa. She told my dad how they were poorer than ever when they came to Burra because they had given up a croft with land in exchange for a house without land. The only difference between their situation in Papa and Burra was that they remained poor, but they were no longer isolated and poor.
Shetland’s reliance on the sea and what it can provide was, and often still is, a double-edged sword. This story played out in communities throughout Shetland, but this one is close to my heart because it’s the story of my ancestors, my family, our heritage.
Much of this is oral history passed down from one generation to another. Some of it is the hard truth, pulled from the pages of newspapers – an impartial, unemotional account of the bare facts of a family tragedy. I am most grateful to my dad Arnold, and my late great-aunt Joey, for listening to Granny Tam’s stories and keeping these memories very much alive.
This blog is dedicated to the memory of Granda, Ronnie Goodlad (31st March 1935 - 31st January 2020).
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