Shetland’s abandoned places
by Laurie Goodlad -
In the first in a two-part series, Laurie Goodlad explores some of Shetland's abandoned buildings and delves into their history.
These are buildings I am always asked about when I take guests out on tour, or places that have piqued my interest over the years. Many of these buildings, although vacant, remain privately owned by individuals or well-meaning charitable organisations and entering the building or surrounding grounds is trespassing. The structure and fabric of many of these buildings are fragile and may be dangerous, so please, if visiting, exercise responsibility and do not attempt to enter the premises. Your photos will always look better from the exterior – I promise!
Park Hall is a two-storey, three-bay, classical house made from poured concrete. The house is in Shetland’s West Mainland and sits just off the main road to Walls (A971), a few miles west of Bixter in the parish of Sandsting.
Park Hall is the first house that piqued my interest as a child. Growing up on the west side of Shetland, we passed it every week on the journey to town for the airrents [groceries]. Over the years, I watched in dismay as its condition deteriorated; windows growing darker and cracks appearing like wrinkles on the crumbling facade – a far cry from its halcyon days of neo-classical style and grandeur. At one time a Moorish-style temple stood proud in the grounds, discreetly concealing the septic tank, this has now all but disappeared.
Reputedly sold in recent years for £1, Park Hall was built by Doctor Bowie. Despite appearances, the building is not that old, built around 1900; it was constructed using a common practice of pouring concrete in-situ. Photographs of the construction show shuttering as the concrete was poured. Often mistaken as a laird’s [landowner’s] house due to its size and grandeur, Park Hall was the private residence of a doctor and his family.
Going on to inspire the imagination of another generation, I’ll always remember passing Park Hall with my son, who was then aged about three. He boldly announced that Dr Bowie had been “killed while he was casting mossy peats [cutting peat] and eaten by a t-rex”. I’m sure Dr Bowie’s demise was no more dramatic than anyone else’s, but for many years he firmly believed his own tall tale.
Still in Shetland’s West Mainland, the ruined house and Chapel of Our Lady are set amongst a handful of lush-greenery and small, stunted trees that cling to the small peninsula on the western shore of Weisdale Voe.
We’ll begin with the old chapel, of which only the foundations remain. The chapel, called Our Lady’s Chapel is an aamos kirk. An aamos is a dialect word that means: “A gift promised in the hope that a wish will be granted to the donor”. You might ‘lay on an aamos’ and, if this wish is granted, the person who was thought to have brought the luck is said to have ‘won the aamos’.
The chapel was a sacred place, funded by seamen who sought refuge in Weisdale Voe during a storm, it was thought to hold special powers and people, usually women, would visit the chapel and leave offerings or gifts in exchange for a wish. Perhaps a wish that their men would safely return from sea, or that an ailing child would recover; whatever the wish, the chapel was thought to be significant.
This ritual was often viewed as a pagan act in a Christian society. Yet, the power of the kirk brought people back time-and-time-again under cover of darkness, with their meagre offerings of coins or some other gift that could be secreted away into the chapel walls.
Beside the ruins of the kirk stands another ruin, the derelict remains of the Clunies-Ross family home. They were wealthy merchants and landowners, and the house is typical in style to the laird’s houses of Shetland. John Clunies-Ross (1786-1856) was a seaman who famously became King of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, a small coral-archipelago in the Indian Ocean, starting a dynasty of Clunies-Ross monarchs that would stretch over 150 years. The fiefdom came ended in 1978 when, under growing pressure from the UN, the island was sold to Australia.
Clunies-Ross first spotted the island, discovered and named by English sailor Keeling in 1609, in 1825, and after a brief survey, moved his family there to live and colonise in 1827. He established coconut plantations that were worked by labourers, slaves in all but name, from the then East Indies (present-day Malaysia). Charles Darwin even visited the islands and commented on the workers that he ‘employed’, noting that although free to move around as they pleased, they were kept primarily as slaves. By 1831 – just four years after habitation – 123 people were reported to be living on the island.
The islands’ passed through the ranks of Clunies-Ross’ for the next 150 years and were formally granted to the family by Queen Victoria in 1886. The Clunies-Ross’ even developed a unique currency comprising of colourful little plastic tokens. Descendants of John Clunies-Ross from Sound still live and work on the island today.
I’ve included the little house at Clavel, just a few miles south of Bigton in Shetland’s South Mainland, for a couple of reasons. Not only is it picture-perfect, standing on a rise in the landscape amongst rich-green pasture, but it has also been used as a filming location for the popular Shetland tv series. The house was the site of one of the shootings in the hit series featuring Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez.
Clavel in most respects is typical of the type of building you will find abandoned in Shetland, and it’s something that I’m asked about a lot: ‘why are there so many abandoned houses’. The reasons for this are complex but, in simple terms, the occupants moved on at some stage in history, and the buildings were left, as they stood.
Clavel and other houses like this that you see in the landscape are traditional but-an’-ben houses; single-storey, two-room houses with adjacent byre and barn. They were traditional in Shetland right into the 20th century and are stylistically similar to the Viking or Norse longhouses that came with the arrival of the Vikings from the 9th century.
Most of these croft houses have been abandoned as new homes were built; larger, modern spaces with insulation, piped-water and the room to accommodate growing families. After this, the old family homes were left disused – becoming shrine-like, as the only tangible thing remaining from the long-forgotten faces of a family tree. These homes were small and compact, built onto the very hill that they stood, with neither foundation nor any concept that one day, the inhabitants might want a bathroom, a home office or a utility room. By nature, they were damp, drafty and crowded, yet they evoke nostalgia as immeasurable as the passing of time through their walls.
Clavel was laterally the home of the late James Robert Sinclair who was born there in 1930. He lived there till 2007 when he moved into the fold of the community in Bigton. Watch a short video featuring James Robert Sinclair of Clavel by Shona Main.
Posted in: Heritage