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We’ve had some incredible winter weather here in Shetland these past few weeks; still, frosty and bright, with very little wind. The usual rain that generally punctuates January, leaving the hills looking washed out under a grey sky, have been notably absent. Instead, Shetland has been dressed in a white frosting, and we’ve been enjoying long walks and snowy picnics.
With this cold snap, the freshwater lochs have frozen over, and they glisten in the low light of winter as the sun merely lifts her head above the western horizon and gently kisses the land before disappearing once more.
The beauty has brought many people out with sledges and cameras to enjoy and capture these precious frosty days, which are little experienced here nowadays. In the past, prolonged periods of frosty, cold weather were frequent, and winter sports such as ice skating and curling were commonplace. Today, our climate is milder, and we have less extended periods of cold, and the ice, when it does form, is fragile and thin.
It has been worrying to see so many foolhardy people attempting to walk over and cross the frozen lochs. It is this that has prompted me to write this blog, to act as a warning and a reminder that ice, as tempting as it may seem, can be incredibly dangerous.
The most tragic of tales is set in the picturesque Tingwall Valley, dominated by the beautiful lochs of Tingwall and Asta.
For this story, I draw you back in time to the 19th century. The tragedy befell the Turnbull family and is centred around the parish minister, John Turnbull, who served the community from 1806-1867. He and his family were based in the Manse, a grand two-storey building overlooking the Tingwall Loch.
Reverend Turnbull, who originally came from Ancrum near Jedburgh, moved to Shetland as a tutor before joining the clergy. He married Wilhelmina in 1811, and the couple went on to have seven healthy children. Unfortunately, John was to outlive all but one of his children. The first of the many tragedies he was to endure occurred on 28th December 1836 in Tingwall.
John was away from the Manse on church business in Dunrossness – quite the journey in the early 1800s when there was no road network in the isles, and the only way to move around was by pony, foot or boat. It was also very wintery, with thick snow and, as we will discover, a layer of ice on the lochs. These conditions would have made the journey back home all the more arduous.
Arriving home late at night after a messenger sent for him to return immediately, John was surprised to find the house in absolute silence – unusual given that they had a family of seven young children. He looked through the house for a clue about his family’s whereabouts, and that’s when the shocking truth emerged.
On entering the parlour, he discovered the lifeless bodies of his beloved wife Wilhelmina, their five-year-old son, John, eight-year-old Barbara, and a young maid. His other children had been taken away by a neighbour, and there was nobody at the manse to offer any explanation about what happened and why his family were laid out dead on the table. A deathly silence hung in the air.
It transpired that, after an afternoon spent outdoors, the family had fallen through the ice and perished in the freezing water. The children, John (5), Barbara (8), Robert (11) and Grace (13) had been out playing with the maid – the elder children had left home by this time. Their mother Wilhelmina had grown concerned that they had been out too long, and as she joined them on the ice, which then gave way under the added weight. Robert and Grace could do no more than watch on in horror as their two siblings, mother and maid perished in the water.
In a bitter twist of fate, it seems that John had been forewarned about the dangers of the ice and was urged to ensure his children take extra care on the frozen loch. A friend had written to him following a vivid dream involving the children. He had warned the minister of this premonition. The minister, not one for fanciful ideas, had dismissed the warning, stating that he didn’t believe in ‘visions of the night’.
With no other minister available to hold Sunday service three days later, John took the pulpit and delivered his sermon. The funerals of his family were held the following week.
Further sadness was to dominate the minister’s life as he lost an additional four children before his own death in 1867.
He was survived by only one child, Grace, who lived into her eighties.
This tragedy, not uncommon in Shetland’s past, should act as a reminder that as beautiful as a frozen loch may appear, it is dangerous and can claim the lives of those who venture onto it.
Until next time, stay safe,
A little about Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.