Scalloway Castle, Shetland.
“Always eyes watching you and the voice enveloping you. Asleep or awake, indoors or out of doors, in the bath or bed—no escape. Nothing was your own except the few cubic centimeters in your skull.” ~ George Orwell, 1984.
Following the annexation of Shetland to Scotland in 1469 (see this blog), wealthy Scottish landowners began to migrate north in search of new lands and riches. The period of the Stewart Earls is perhaps one of the most unpleasant periods in Shetland’s history, and it did little to endear native Shetlanders towards their new ruler, Scotland. The Stewart Earls – Patrick in particular – are quite possibly the most infamous figures – or villains – in Shetland’s history, and most probably the most hated. Tyrannical rulers, they brought pain and suffering to those they were supposed to serve.
On acquiring the lands of Orkney and Shetland, King James I was quick to begin giving out portions of it to friends and relatives. These incomers brought many changes to a Shetland that had, until recently, been culturally and legally affiliated with the Old Norse way of doing things.
A view of Scalloway Castle today, nestled in the village of Scalloway, on Shetland's West Mainland.
The Stewart Earls'
In 1581 – just over 100 years following the annexation of Shetland to Scotland – Sir Robert Stewart became the first to Lord over Shetland. He was an illegitimate son of King James V and a half brother to Mary Queen of Scots. Robert and Mary grew up together in the palace and were both educated in France, as Catholic. King James V died in 1542 and a six-day-old Mary, the only legitimate heir, succeeded him to the throne. Mary and Robert remained firm friends, and in 1564 Mary knighted Robert, making him Earl of Orkney (and later, in 1581, Lord of Shetland).
Earl Robert wasn’t much liked in Shetland during his period of rule, and in 1593 he died and was succeeded by his son, Patrick.
Mary Queen of Scots was a half-sister to Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney & Lord of Shetland.
Earl Patrick Stewart, known as ‘Black Patie’, was even more detested than his father before him. Although he, like Robert, spent much of his reign in Orkney, he did have residences in Shetland; both at Wethersa, Sumburgh and later, the great castle that he had built in Scalloway. His rule represents a time of great suffering in Shetland’s history that was punctuated by oppression and harsh, iron-fisted rule from outside Shetland – Scotland. Many of the traditions of Black Patie are veiled with sinister speculations, and it is difficult to decipher what is true and what is legend. Yet his name has gone down in history, and he is pegged as one of the most wicked villains in Shetland’s history.
The ruined house in the background was Earl Patrick Stewart's residence in Sumburgh, before that, his father had a house here that Patrick converted into a kitchen and servants' quarters. Photo: Sophie Whitehead.
Not content with residences at Sumburgh (the Earl’s House at Jarlshof) and Wethersta, Patrick ordered the building of his grand castle at Scalloway in 1595. Using forced labour the castle was completed in 1600 and built from locally quarried limestone with sandstone finishings imported from Eday in Orkney. Patrick didn’t stop at Scalloway; he was also responsible for the Earl’s Palace in Kirkwall. Both these buildings, and Muness Castle in Unst represent the Scottish Tower House style and nothing like it had been seen before – or since – in Shetland. Folklore tells us that to build the castle, Patrick mixed eggs, blood and human hair with the mortar; the truth of this is unclear, but for anyone growing up in Shetland, this is a story that is often regaled to children.
Scalloway Castle. Image: Shetland Museum art collection (ART 86151)
The castle was the administrative seat of power in Shetland and, from about 1600, it became the base for the Ting, or parliament, meetings that had been held at the Law Ting Holm in Tingwall since the Norse settlers arrived and settled.
The inscription above the door of the Scalloway Castle perhaps says more about Patrick’s cruel rule than about the castle itself:
"The house whose foundation is
Rock will stand
But will perish, if built upon
Inside Scalloway Castle: L; staircase, a design known as 'scale-and-platt', a relatively modern innovation replacing the traditional spiral stair. R; Inside the Great Hall of the castle.
This reads more like a post-mortem of Patrick’s rule that was to come to an abrupt end in 1609. The downfall of Earl Patrick Stewart can’t be attributed to the long-suffering everyday Shetlanders who had endured so much at the hands of their Lord, but rather, to the landowning classes who resented the aggressive and heavy-handed approach Patrick took to rule. He made himself a very unpopular man among all – rich and poor – by raising taxes and demanding more and more from an already overstretched society. Patrick was no diplomat, and he was known to quarrel violently with anyone who opposed him – even those closest to him. He was a man with mounting debts who, in response to these, increased taxes on the people. The taxes were collected in the form of wadmel (a rough, woven cloth); a low-grade butter used as oil and, fish oil, used for lighting. As well as heavy taxes, his people were required to cut and supply peat to keep the castle fires’ burning, and any driftwood – a precious commodity in a treeless environment – was also taken by their ruler. From the 1590s, not long after Patrick came to rule, word of his ill-treatment filtered back to Edinburgh, and they soon became too outrageous to ignore.
Perhaps one story that sums up Black Patie is the tale – and I call it a tale as there are several versions, but this one’s my favourite – of how he came to be discovered by the King’s men. The story goes that, having been tipped-off that the King’s men were on the hunt for him, Patrick hid in a turret in his castle at Scalloway. Patrick was a great pipe smoker and while hiding – and passing the time of day – he lit up his pipe and took a long draw of the sweet tobacco. Unfortunately, for our poor villain of the story, the pipe smoke gave away his hiding place, and the King’s men were able to find him and cart him off to Edinburgh to face justice.
Muness Castle, Unst. Built by Laurence Bruce of Cultmalindie.
It wasn’t just the castle in Scalloway that sprung up at this time. Patrick’s uncle (Robert’s brother), Laurence Bruce of Cultmalindie (Perthshire), also built a grand castle at Muness in Unst. Laurence was appointed tax collector (or Sheriff) in Shetland around 1571, during Robert’s period of rule, and went on to build his grand castle in Unst. The inscription above the door reads:
"Listen you to know this building
Laurence Bruce he was
That worthy man
Who earnestly his heirs and offspring prays
To help and not to hurt this work always."
The castle was started in 1598, just a few years after Patrick began his castle in Scalloway. Muness is arguably far grander, or at least more comfortable, than Scalloway although Laurence never got to see it completed before his death in 1617. Despite Laurence wishing that the castle would represent his great legacy, it was attacked and razed by privateers in 1627, a mere 29 years after it was started.
Muness Castle, Unst.
Both Scalloway and Muness now stand as roofless ruins, representing a period of tyrannical and cruel rule in Shetland. It is little wonder that there was no real effort to save either of these grand buildings from falling into rack and ruin. For those who had endured the suffering under the Stewart Earls, this was a time to be forgotten, not enshrined.
The fall of the Stewart dynasty did not mark the end of Shetland’s troubles from outside rule. Scottish landowning families continued to hold great influence over Shetlanders, and their lands and the people continued to face hardship and oppression until the Crofters’ Act of 1886. This act gave tenants, for the first time, security of tenure and loosened the tight grip of the ruling classes – or, Lairds as they were known in Shetland.
Another significant change came in 1611, while Earl Patrick was still locked up in Edinburgh awaiting trial. The Scottish parliament produced a piece of legislation that outlawed the use of Norse Law, abolishing the Law Book, that had been used to govern over Shetland for generations. This legislation meant that Shetland now fell under the same laws as the rest of Scotland and the final tie to Scandinavia was severed.
Until next time, I hope you all stay home, stay safe and stay well.
“Visitors want to have the best experience; they want to see Shetland through the eyes of a local. They want to taste the salt on their faces, smell the sea and bear witness to the wind in their hair. They want to drink in the sights, the smells and the sounds of an island community. They want to be shown the places they would otherwise not discover. They want to piece together the fascinating jigsaw and truly discover Shetland; this is the trip they have dreamed of.”
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