Sunday, 25 October 2020

Symbister, Whalsay (Shetland), the northernmost hanseatic trading post

This is really an incredible place! Accessible only by ferry, Whalsay Island is one of the most isolated of the Shetlands, far into the North Sea at the latitude of Bergen in Norway.

Why on earth would anyone in the 16th century be interested in a port so far away ? Well, whales first of all. Whalsay = Whales Island *, and the trade with German Hanseatic towns was all about seafare. The Hanseatic post at Symbister, though just a small cabin, was a counter of intense business.

The importance of Whalsay as a seafare island resulted in the establishment of the trading booth at Symbister in 1563: the Pier House (Da Böd) was the counter for the export of dried and salted fish to the Hanse, the alliance of trading guilds that established and maintained a trade monopoly over much of Northern Europe between the 13th and 18th centuries. The trade was done first by way of the League's 'Kontor' in Bergen, then (as illicit trade became the norm) direct with Hamburg and Bremen.

German ships sailed to Symbister and brought their goods - iron tools, seeds, salt, cloth and some luxury items - to barter for dried and salted fish (mainly cod) from the island. This old Hanseatic house was used by the Germans for about five centuries until 1707, when they were forced out by a high import duty raise.

Two centuries later herring was the focus of activity. The peak year for herring catches was 1834, but these had declined dramatically within a few years. Fishing boomed again in the late 1800s and in the mid 1900s, but each time this was followed by decline.

The Pier House in the red circle, at Symbister waterfront.

Today, Whalsay is a thriving community largely because of a relatively new fishing phenomenon: the pelagic trawler. These huge vessels are built for deep sea fishing, and keep their catches fresh over prolonged periods at sea.

The new pelagic fleet mooring at Symbister harbour.

Whalsay Island, Shetlands

The island measures some five and a half miles from south west to north east, and some two miles wide.

The most remarkable historic site here is undoubtfully the Böd, the old Hanse boot now modestly refurbished as a museum. Inside, it tells how ships from Hamburg, Bremen and Lübeck sailed to Shetland every summer. The first written trade record dates from 1557.

The brae to the rear is still known as Bremer Strasse.

The museum in the Pier House tells how ships from Hamburg, Bremen and Lubeck sailed to Shetland every summer, bringing seeds, cloth, iron tools, salt, spirits, luxury goods and hard currency.

But Symbister and other places like Isbister, Marrister, Brough and Kirk Ness have something else worth to visit. The rest of the island is sparsely populated, there are no precisely defined villages, but nature spots are rewarding.

Symbister, Whalsay

Coordinates: 60° 20′ N, 1° 1′ W
Populstion (island):  over 1000

Symbister is the largest village and port on the island of Whalsay, Shetland. The population in 1991 was 797. The focus of the village is the harbour, which is home to small fishing boats as well as large deep sea trawlers.

The village is overlooked by the granite mansion Symbister House, built in 1823.

Symbister from the sea; the community centre down left, the School and Symbister House top centre.

Symbister House, a Country House from 1823.

This is the finest Georgian mansion in Shetland. Since the 1960s, the House (also called the New Haa) has been used as part of Whalsay High School, providing education to students of age 4–16. On the grounds of the Symbister House an old wooden boat sculpture has been placed.

Down and back from the school, the Heritage Centre is installed in the old Farmers House.

The Community and Heritage centre, for meetings, exhibitions and keeping historic memorabilia.

Kirk Ness, at 60º 22' N, is a small island linked to the north coast of Whalsay by a tombolo, which has been reinforced so a road could run on top of it. Surprisingly enough the only building on the island is a kirk !

This is the only parish church on Whalsay, dedicated to Holy Rood; the original church from 1733 has been remodeled in 1867.

A modest new interior in clear wood.

* norse Hvalsey or Hvals-øy