Lasses Trust in Providence: Betty Mouat

by Claire White -

Claire White is a fiddler and singer-songwriter from Shetland. She has toured the world performing music, and is a proud ambassador for the Shetland fiddle tradition. Her most recent album, Lasses Trust in Providence, is a collection of ninth to twenty-first century women's tales, celebrating the 'She' in Shetland. We asked Claire to share some of these inspirational stories with us. In the first blog post of a three-part series Claire tells the incredible story of Betty Mouat and explains how she's celebrated her heroine in song and film.

Step back in time 133 years and picture the scene. It’s the 30th of January 1886 and a frail sixty-year-old Betty Mouat is boarding a fifty foot smack, the Columbine, at Grutness pier in the south Shetland mainland. Betty is bound for the capital town of Lerwick where she plans to sell knitwear. The weather is threatening but it doesn’t deter the three-man crew and their sole passenger from embarking on a three hour, twenty-four mile voyage. Betty is escorted to the ship’s small cabin where she settles in for the journey.

Just thirty minutes later the Columbine runs into trouble in high winds and heavy seas. Strange manoeuvres are observed from land and a rowing boat carries two Columbine crew back ashore. The traumatised mate and deckhand bring news that Skipper Jamieson has been accidentally thrown overboard and drowned, leaving Betty Mouat alone on the Columbine with a broken mainsheet, drifting in darkness towards an unknown fate.

Betty clings to a rope which is fastened to the roof of the cabin in order to stay seated. At no point in her ordeal can she contemplate sleep, rest or even lying down. Her only sustenance is a quart bottle of milk and two half-penny biscuits which she rations carefully. Wrapping herself in the skipper’s jacket, she takes comfort from his ticking watch, the closest thing she has to company.

For nine days and eight nights Betty negotiates the physical and psychological demands of her perilous situation before her luck changes. The Columbine grounds on the Norwegian island of Lepsøy, twelve miles from Ålesund. The boat miraculously hits the island’s only beach, avoiding collision with dangerous rocks which could have led to a shipwreck. Betty is carried ashore by locals using rope and put to bed in a fisherman’s house to recover. News of her rescue is telegrammed to Lerwick and Betty’s four hundred mile ordeal is over.

After regaining some strength, Betty sails from Norway to Hull in England accompanied by a journalist from The Scotsman. On arrival in the UK she embarks on the first train journey of her life to Edinburgh where she will convalesce with a Shetland couple, but not before meeting her admirers. Betty’s story hits newspapers in Britain, Europe and America, and she is greeted by a sizeable crowd at Waverley Station. The adulation continues at her friends’ home where visitors throng. Queues of people stretching back three hundred yards await a glimpse of their Shetland heroine at 8 Hermitage Terrace. Fashionable ladies of Edinburgh, London and beyond request hairs from Betty’s head, secreting souvenirs in lockets. Showmen offer her extraordinary sums to make public appearances but these proposals are declined because it would be sacrilege to make money from God’s great deliverance. Nevertheless, nearly £400 is raised on Betty’s behalf through subscription lists, with Queen Victoria gifting £20.

At the end of her third week in Edinburgh Betty feels well enough to travel home to Shetland. Her arrival in Lerwick aboard the St Clair is greeted by an immense crowd, and a carriage ride around town gives flocks of friends a first glimpse of their heroine. Betty’s task of greeting admirers and telling her story now begins. For thirty-two years after the Columbine episode she lives quietly in Scatness, crofting and entertaining the many Victorian tourists who visit her modest home. Betty is polite, accommodating and humble to the last, eventually dying peacefully in her sleep on February 6th 1918, the thirty-second anniversary of her last night at sea.

If you’re visiting Shetland, or if you live here and haven’t heard about Betty, take time to get to know her and you’ll be richly rewarded. She’s some lass!

Betty’s gift of a story came to me in 2014. I’d passed the sign for Betty’s Böd (camping booth) home near Sumburgh airport countless times, but had never stopped to consider who this woman was or what she’d achieved. Then a friend mentioned that she was knitting the Betty Mouat cowl designed by Kate Davies and told me the Columbine story. As a songwriter, I was hooked, and lyrics flowed effortlessly:

Betty Mouat’s Sang

I mind it joost lik yesterday

Da saat spray is still veeve

We lippened blashy wadder

But no da sea ta heave

An bal wis fae ee aert tae next

In 1886

Dan nor-aest on an uncan coorse

Driftin fae Scatness

Driftin, we’re aye driftin

We fin meids back an fore

An if göd fortune favours wis

We laand apo da shore

Athin no time I wis mesel

Columbine’s sol lodd

As skipper, mate an deckhand

Were aa taen overboard

Nine days, eight nichts, me löf alenn

No blinndin on da gaet

Twa biscuit an a jar o mylk

Me only faerdie-maet

Da makkin I’d taen nort tae sell

I traded in for rop

Eence nimble fingers noo I used

Ta hadd my body up

Til in a gale I ran agrund

On Norway’s Lepsøy Isle

An winnin safely back ashore

Felt lik me langest mile

In Norway first I kyuckered up

Dan Edinburgh for care

Whaar wimmen cam ta hear me tale

An tak a strand o hair

Dan tree weeks on I med for hom

Dis time apo da Clair

Da croods I’d come ta lippen noo

Were shön ta be nae mair

For back I cam tae work da laand

Da monarch’s twenty pound

Da only mindin o me vaege

An how I ran agrund

Tinkin noo at ninety-two

Back thirty year fae syne

Life’s rod his mony twists an turns

Da journey, it is dine

Soon after composing this piece I entered it in Edinburgh Folk Club’s songwriting competition, winning first prize. This was the inspiration I needed to research more Shetland women’s stories and to produce an album showcasing their accomplishments in dialect and English language.

By 2017 it felt necessary to create a film tribute to Betty in preparation for the album launch. Two shooting days in Shetland Crofthouse Museum, Betty Mouat’s Böd, Dunrossness Parish Church Kirkyard and aboard the Fifie Swan yielded footage to re-enact Betty’s journey and illustrate her sang. And so the story has come full circle.

If you’re visiting Shetland, or if you live here and haven’t heard about Betty, take time to get to know her and you’ll be richly rewarded. She’s some lass!

With grateful thanks to Roderick Grant for his book 'The Lone Voyage of Betty Mouat' (Impulse Publications Limited: 1973). Watch the Betty Mouat’s Sang film and buy a ‘Lasses Trust In Providence’ CD at www.clairewhite.info

Posted in: Heritage

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