Last week, we had a terrific holiday in the sun-drenched beach resorts of…
OK, it’s a fair cop, the temperatures never reached double figures in the week we were there, and were driven down further by the constant northerly wind (reaching gale force at times, e.g. on our return ferry voyage to Aberdeen). But if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t want to spend all day baking on a lounger, then an archipelago which offers stunning scenery, fascinating heritage sites, varied wildlife (orcas were off the coast while we were there, although we didn’t see them), and some of the best roads in Britain – straight, wide, largely empty, and sans potholes – should be high on your bucket list. Shetland is a different world, and that’s emphasised by the blue and white flag that you’ll see flying everywhere. No, not the diagonal saltire (and you certainly won’t see a Union Jack for love nor money) – this is the horizontal/vertical Nordic cross of the Shetland flag. This is a resolutely independent place, where some, like one of the candidates in the forthcoming general election, still believe that the transfer of both these islands and Orkney to the Scottish Crown in 1468-9 was illegal, and that the northern isles should actually be independent; so woe betide you if you suggest to a Shetlander that s/he’s merely a Scot who lives in Scotland, and, come to that, if you suggest that their home is called ‘the Shetlands’.
As far as I was concerned, of course, it was an opportunity to check out the islands’ naval heritage after making several previous visits to Orkney, as described in earlier posts on this site. So this is the first of a series of short posts I intend to publish in quick succession, and it’s the one that deals with my main period of study.
Shetland was an important anchorage during the Anglo-Dutch wars; important, that is, for the Dutch, who used its many sheltered inlets, or voes – fjords by any other name – as harbours of refuge for their merchantmen. Bressay Sound, which lies between Lerwick and the island of Bressay, was a particularly favoured anchorage for the Dutch herring busses, so to deny its use to them, John Mylne, Charles II’s master builder, erected a fort at Lerwick during the second war. This wasn’t completed before the end of the conflict, although the very sight of it, and exaggerated rumours of its strength, were enough to deter a potential attacking squadron in 1667. (A detailed account of this episode can be found at p.178 of this old source.) However, it wasn’t garrisoned during the next war, leading to it being burned by the Dutch in 1673, and was only completed and brought into service in 1781, when it was named Fort Charlotte.
Ronas Voe, on the west side of Northmavine, the north-western peninsula of Shetland’s mainland, was another favourite harbour of refuge, and this was where the outgoing Dutch East Indiaman Wapen van Rotterdam overwintered in 1673-4, having sailed from Texel on 6 December 1673. But word of her presence was sent to Whitehall, and on 11 February three frigates, the Cambridge, Crown and Newcastle were sent north to attack her, which they did a few days later. Unfortunately, no logbooks which would provide a precise date, or description of the action, survive from any of the frigates, but the Wapen van Rotterdam was taken, briefly becoming a hulk named Arms of Rotterdam for her new masters. There are no firm figures for casualties in the engagement, but an indeterminate number of dead were buried in a mass grave on the south shore of the voe by the local people, who were rather more sympathetic to the Dutch, whose vessels they had hosted and traded with for many decades, than King Charles II and his ministers might have wished them to be. The grave site was marked by a simple memorial, and this has been renewed over the years; you can see more pictures of the area here.
Visiting the ‘Hollanders’ Grave’ is something of an adventure, as getting to so many places in Shetland can be. Although marked on Ordnance Survey maps, there are no signposts and no obvious or easy access, other than by skirting the premises of a fish factory to get down to the foreshore. But visiting this quiet, poignant place is definitely worth the effort, and it was good to be able to pay my respects to those who perished in an action that was, with hindsight, utterly pointless – for the Treaty of Westminster, by which Charles II’s kingdoms withdrew from the war, was signed on 19 February 1674, just days, perhaps even hours, after the battle in Ronas Voe.