Shetland’s Mining History

Skimming through pages of the Caledonian Mercury, Sept. 1790, the newspaper highlights Shetland’s early commercial mining attempts. “…the value of the Shetland Islands is only beginning to be known. There is now a number of miners sent … to work a copper and iron mine lately discovered…in the estates of Sumburgh and the iron in the estates of Quendale, both the most productive of this kind of any discovered in Britain.”

quendalemine01

    Photo: From 1790, the Quendale Copper Mine as it looks today

Naturally, this single report can raise eyebrows and give questions about Shetland’s mining history. The unlikelihood of a small North Atlantic group of islands being given such recognition is surprising, but the story behind this fact contains elements of rivalry, power, ignorance and years of blind investments leaving scars of disappointment in its wake.

Roots
It is difficult to point out exactly when Shetland’s mining history began. As early inhabitants crossed the hills and walked the shores of Shetland, they learned about rocks and stones, where these could be found and how these could be useful. Continue reading

Shetland Mines 01…

…Sometimes, the best place to be is in one ’s own thoughts, as long as you don’t get lost in them. Recently, I’ve contributed a small article on the mines of Shetland, and forgot that this website is a link for all who may want to know more. Thanks to a sharp Shetland Museum employee, I got the word that readers are waiting. A humble apology and many thanks for the wake-up signal!

Since this is only a blog, I don’t intend to follow research procedures in defense of content. This will come later in a peer-reviewed work. With small bits and pieces, my intentions are to excite readers about early Shetland mines, to learn a little about mining history and perhaps about their background; their own identity…their own heritage.

People ask me, “Why older mines?” I’m not really sure. I just want answers to my questions. For each question I answer, I get even more questions. And, so it keeps rolling on and on.

Shetland’s Mines
From the very first people arriving on the shores of Shetland, a need for the island’s rocks and minerals are apparent. As these people wandered over the hills and the land, they made observations of rocks and stones and skillfully learned where useful types could be found. When needed for any purpose, people went to these deposits and gathered what they needed. Rocks and stones were close by; at hand when needed.

One example of this is the need for shelter. The archeological excavation of Old Scatness is a great example of early people using Shetland rocks for dwellings. Another example is the need to keep warm. For whatever fuel was used, fires needed a spark. Shetland doesn’t have natural flint and ancient people learned that quartz could produce sparks and could start fires. And a third example is early Shetlanders needing household tools or implements for daily living.

catpundquarry02Photo: The ancient Catpund Quarry, Shetland. This is a scheduled area-please respect this.

The Catpund Quarry
Because of need and simple knowledge of rocks and geology, primitive Shetland people used what was available and knew where to find it. The Catpund Quarry is an example of where people over many years have exploited the serpentine, or soapstone, of Shetland to chisel out bowls, ladles, plates or decorative figurines for themselves or to barter and exchange with. Knowing that soapstone holds heat and is easily formed, it was a valuable commodity thousands of years ago.

At one time, this quarry was of interest for Robert Hunter Wingate Bruce up to 1924 and eventually for The Sumburgh Mining Co., apparently up to and around the early 1970’s. In accordance with the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act of 1979, the Catpund area was registered in the General Register of Sasines, counties of Orkney and Zetland October 28, 1988 (Ref. Historic Scotland) and was soon excavated afterward. (Uh oh! There I went and put in some researchy stuff! Sorry!)

Supposedly, there’s to be a book, or something, coming soon. With this, we will just have to wait and see. But, it is tempting to wonder just how many more of these ancient quarries can be found in Shetland and where?

For myself, I got an enormous thrill seeing this quarry for the first time. Having only seen mining remnants as early as the 17th century, Catpund gave the possibility of observing a quarry that is over 3000 years old and worked at different times; independent of each other.

Please give this place a visit or two. If traveling out of Lerwick, south on A970 and having passed through Cunningsburgh, estimate about 1 kilometer from the point of leaving Cunnigsburgh. On your right, you should see the “old” asphalted road. Park here and near the burn/bridge that can be found. Follow the burn immediately up the hill from your parked car, respecting the fencing and minding your step. About 250 meters, and along the burn, you should see a small fenced-off area. This is the Catpund Quarry. (Ordnance Survey Map 466- maps are fun) Clothes and shoes appropriate for the outdoors.

REMEMBER: This is a protected and scheduled area. Do Not Disturb…anything! Treat it like a crime scene. Much more must be learned from it. Just observe and enjoy.

For fun, ask yourselves these questions…

    How much of the stone has been removed out of the earth over the years?
    How big of an area all around was used?
    What tools did people use to chisel out bowls, plates etc.?
    How many unfinished implements can still be found waiting for its owner to return?
    What was the work like? Did they work in groups? Alone? Were children along?
    What have I learned from my visit? Did I enjoy it? Will I have use of this knowledge someday in the future?

Whew! Now, a couple of pictures from Catpund Quarry…for the less energetic!
catpundminevy05-copyPhoto: Panoramic view of Catpund Quarry area. In foreground dwellings possibly from Middle Ages
catpundquarry01Photo: Thousands of years ago, people chiseled out useful implements leaving shadows of these in the soapstone at Catpund Quarry