Monday, August 30, 2010

A tale of mystery and shipwreck

Which might have started on a dark and stormy night, but which equally might never have happened at all. When we were staying in Shetland earlier in the summer my father told as about a spot romantically called the compass wart. It’s basically a compass carved into a stone on a hilltop near his house, and something which I had a vague memory of hearing about before but was pretty sure I’d never seen. It came up during the course of a forced march (pleasant family walk) when we paused to admire the view, and in my case get some sort of breath back, on a particularly wild cliff top.

Local legend (according to dad) has it that a ship carrying china went down off of this spot, but the sailors managed to climb up the mast to safety then made their way to the top of a hill and carved the compass into the rock along with their initials. However despite enquires he has never been able to find the name of the ship or the date she went down. It seems there are, or should be, pretty thorough records of shipwrecks so the Scottish one thought that once he had the coordinates it shouldn’t be too hard to find a likely boat.

Plenty of research has followed with very little in the way of concrete evidence which is where the mystery comes in. The Scottish one has come to doubt that there was a shipwreck, or more specifically as we’ve found dozens of recorded wrecks  in the immediate area, has come to doubt in the existence of this one wreck and its sailors activities. I’m still inclined to believe the story, mostly because it seems to be widely accepted as fact and I’m assuming there’s something behind that.

What we do know is that there is a compass – accurate according to some experimenting with the Scottish ones phone – surrounded by initials, we also know that generations of local youths have gone up there and carved their names in the rock too. The Shetland museum puts a tentative date of around 1850 on the carving (suggested by people now in their 80’s confirming that it was a known landmark throughout their grandparent’s lives) but is prepared to believe it may be much older.

The only other piece of corroborating evidence I’ve come across so far, and it’s fairly circumstantial, is in place names. Shetland still has a full complement of names for just about every inlet, crevice, rock, lump, bump, nook, or other general cranny that you can spot. I could tell you about three but my general ignorance isn’t typical. It seems that news of our wreck first came ashore at a place that has since been known as the bite of the ‘news’ (a spot about a mile or two down the coast from the potential wreck site, but equally, at least in my opinion, a potential wreck site itself) which is almost directly below the compass wart. I can at least confirm that on an early OS map (1882) that this spot is marked as Neus.

Further furtling about on the internet revealed that a Wart (which I assumed would be a descriptive reference to a lump on a hill) is a beacon on the top of a hill, or a watchtower, or any hill that had a watchtower on it. Ideally we would have found a heap of stones indicative of a watchtower, or even a spot on the OS map to suggest a building – but nothing doing, although there is a dry stone wall which might have cannibalised any remaining rubble long ago because apart from a complete lack of shelter this spot would make an ideal lookout point, and if it was an established lookout point it would answer a few questions.

We’ve spent a lot of time speculating as to what the compass was for (education, a marker, directions, a memorial, a rendezvous point, the list goes on) mostly because neither of us could really understand why shipwrecked you would spend your time wading through bog to climb a hill (actually I’m of the build and inclination to always wonder why you would climb a hill, especially if it involves wading through a bog in unpractical footwear, but for some reason it keeps happening to me) and then spend a whole lot of time carving a compass without adding the ships name. If however there was a light or any other signs of humanity then it would be an obvious thing to do.

This is turning into something of a quest for me; the compass wart itself is an oddly haunting place. It’s hard to imagine a bleaker or more blasted spot despite the prospect. Strategically it has a lot to recommend it – excellent views up and down the coastline which back in the fish station days would have been invaluable for keeping an eye on your boats to make sure they didn’t make any unscheduled stops. It’s the kind of place that you can almost smell a story – smuggling and wrecking both came to mind, as did desperate attempts to escape the press gangs. Look where you will, especially if you look out to sea, and it’s easy to ignore the few signs of modern life around you. I’ve had a good search through the Shetland archives image collection and can confirm that if anything it’s a much quieter place than 150 years ago.

The compass location isn’t a secret but neither is it marked or advertised in any way. I must have walked past it a few times without knowing about it, but it’s more than that easy to miss – which adds to the sense of mystery surrounding it. A definite feeling that something has been suppressed and is now more than half lost in history – I really need to find out something about that wreck...

Finally a big thank you to the Shetland Museums and Archive  who very kindly gave me permission to use their images, it's an excellent resource well worth browsing through - I know I've looked at literally thousands of images and still have a mass of material left to explore


  1. I love doing this type of research -- and shipwrecks too? Oh, I love this post!!

  2. If you can think of any ways to get more answers let me know!

  3. Gold star for use of the word "furtling" , there was I thinking it was a random Derbyshire word that nobody understood! I am very impressed and happy x

  4. Hi dear, Interesting comments on the compass Wart, A wart is also a hill top, from where people got a good view, legend has it that these sailors came up here to light a fire in the hope that a passing ship may see it and come to there rescue!!!!! and while there they carved the compass.

  5. A likely story. Sure there's more to it than that - and why no name for the ship?