Written by Dr Carol Christiansen
About this article
Shetland has been Carol's home since 1999. Moving to Shetland, just as she was completing her PhD in Archaeology (Textiles) at the University of Manchester, Carol began work as an Archaeology Assistant; first for Shetland Museum, and then later for Shetland Amenity Trust. Whilst working in this role Carol conducted numerous field surveys around Old Scatness with her colleague Biddy Simpson. Later, she worked with Bobby Friel recording military remains. From 2006 onwards Carol has worked as a curator for Shetland Museum. Within this curatorial role Carol records objects rather than archaeological sites. Carol points out that the shift in recording emphasis from archaeological sites to objects is of equal importance as"both forms of recording bring the past to life."
This blog post came about during a casual conversation with Carol, who asked me if I had been to Tumble Wick? I had not even heard of this site, and I became intrigued as Carol explained this extraordinary derelict fishing station to me. The outcome of Carol's explanation of Outer Tumble Wick is this blog post which brings into sharp focus that these maritime archaeological sites are eroding, and they will disappear!
So, enjoy reading about this fascinating site and put it on your to visit list! If anyone reading this post has any information about Tumble Wick please contact Moder Dy. We will be delighted to hear from you.
The little fishing station
One of the most interesting places for investigating heritage built over millennia has to be Scat Ness. This is the other peninsula that protrudes from the southern end of Shetland, running parallel to the better-known Sumburgh Head. On this wind-swept bit of land you will find two Iron Age forts, ubiquitous crofting structures, and WWII military remains, of which the decoy R.A.F. airfield structures and anti-aircraft position are the most interesting (Friel, p.16-17). But my favourite site is the little fishing station at Outer Tumble Wick.
To get there, drive south on the A970, cross the airport runway and pass the Old Scatness archaeological site. As the road curves to the left, take the signposted turning on the right to Scatness. Park at the end of the road, go through the new gate and follow the path along the wall. Remains of the dummy R.A.F. airfield buildings are within the walled park.
Follow the wall as it curves to the left and just as the track begins to slope to the sea, you will see the first evidence of the fishing station. To your right is the artificial drying beach, a gentle slope of hill inset with beach cobbles and quarried stone. Its position at the top of this little brae meant it was close to the landing site and still provided exposure to drying winds in all directions but north.
From the artificial drying beach, you can see the ‘heads’ of the larger noosts at the shoreline. This is one of the largest and best preserved noost complexes in Shetland. There are at least nine, the largest four or five at the southern end. A series of smaller noosts lies toward the north. There may have been a tenth noost, or an aisle between the two sets.
To the south, near the little loch, is another drying beach. The seaward edge of it is natural and changeable. The depth of stone behind it, adjacent to the small loch, may indicate it was purposefully extended away from the sea, establishing it as a more permanent and reliable drying area.
The first edition six-inch 1878 Ordnance Survey map shows the artificial drying beach as a defined rectangle. There are several long buildings, roofed and partially roofed, and a yard with adjoining open structures. It isn’t until the second OS survey in 1900 that the site is identified as a fishing station. The artificial beach has been reduced to a small circle and the open yard is gone, but five noosts and a pier are shown, reflecting the range of craft landing here. Over the 22-year period between surveys, the natural drying beach remains the same size and shape.
Nearly ten years before Scat Ness was visited by Ordnance surveyors in 1878, it was surveyed by Thomas Irvine and Andrew Dishington Mathewson. One of their early plans survives, undated, but thought to have been created about 1872 (Shetland Archives D16/389/19).
Here we see most of the same buildings as in the 1878 survey, albeit drawn at different angles. The artificial beach is identified as a ‘forced’ (i.e., built up) beach and a single noost is situated in the left corner of the natural beach. A report of the survey, dated 8 August 1871, mentions a ‘Park between Town and Station’, undoubtedly the walled fields to the north of the station where the military remains now lie. This is the earliest record I have been able to find identifying the site as a fishing station.
If you are interested in identifying and visiting former fishing stations, the 2nd edition OS maps are a good place to start. Be mindful, however, of relying on Past Map. The entry for Tumble Wick (Canmore ID 189994) identifies the remains as a farmstead, as interpreted from the 1878 OS map. It shows the artificial beach as a circle of shingle and outlines four noosts but fails to identify them as built structures in the list of structural remains, as it does for other sites. From the Past Map record you would not know this was a former fishing station unless you knew what to look for.
Since my last visit a few years ago, the sea has torn away at the shoreline. I was surprised at how much it has encroached toward the noost setting. This little site needs to be put on the endangered list and given a thorough recording. It served as a viable landing place for boats fishing around the rough waters of Sumburgh roost for decades. Now its orientation, facing as it does damaging North Sea winds from the SE, puts its own noosts in danger. What makes the Outer Tumble Wick station so valuable now is what its remains can teach us about poorer preserved sites with similar features. I recommend a visit sooner than later.
Friel, R. . Field Survey of Military Remains, Scat Ness, Shetland: a re-appraisal [unpublished report].
Shetland Archives D16/388/14. Report of survey and valuation of Scatness. 1871.
Shetland Archives D16/389/19. Large plan of Scatness, Dunrossness, undated, c1872.