Shetland is not known for its trees, and when most people think of Shetland, images of a treeless landscape come to mind. However, a few small woods are worth exploring, and none are better for an immersion in nature than the Kergord Woods, tucked into the hillside of the beautiful Weisdale Valley.
The woodland (known as Lindsay Lees) was planted here in the early 20th century is the largestand oldest plantation in Shetland – and boasts some of the islands’ tallest trees. Made up of mixed woodland, including spruce, larch, fir and sycamore, the forest makes up about nine acres in total, and visitors can explore them at leisure.
Within the trees, be sure to make your way to the upper section of woodland and discover the ruined cottage that now stands roofless. This was once a family home, known as Lindsay Lee. The woods beyond Lindsay Lee (to the north) are Leegarth. To the south of the plantation are the ruined remains of many 19th-century crofthouses, including the three houses at Scarpigarth and Tuslafield to the south.
After exploring the trees – and possibly braving the rope swing that spans a gulley within the woods – a visit to the Bonhoga Art Gallery & Cafe in the converted mill is well worth it. The cafe has excellent views down the burn that once served the mill – and the menu is fantastic, selling light bites, soups and cakes. The contemporary art gallery upstairs has a rustic yet modern feel and showcases many of the islands’ artists and makers.
How to get there:
From Lerwick, follow the A970 north to Sandwater and then take the B9075 west towards Weisdale. Or, for a more scenic drive, follow the A971 towards Walls and join the B9075 at Weisdale (following the signs for Bonhoga Mill & Cafe). When you come to the area of trees lining either side of the road, park in a passing place ensuring that other vehicles can pass, and go through the large gate and up the side of the hill towards the woods.
A darker period
Shetland’s relationship with the landowning classes, or lairds, like much of Scotland, has been one marred by periods of ill-treatment and persecution. The Weisdale Valley was no innocent bystander in a period that saw gross injustice, and it was home to amongst the worst clearancesin Shetland during the mid-19th century. The clearances were a particularly dark period in Shetland’s history, spoken of in whispered voices and hushed tones in the generations that followed.
The fertile limestone Weisdale Valley saw an entire community forcibly removed from their homes to make way for sheep. The valley of Upper Weisdale comprises 250 acres of good farmland, and Weisdale’s inhabitants had enjoyed some sense of security; they had relative
security of tenure under their lairds, and they were not obliged, like other parts of Shetland, to fish for the laird. For the most part, this meant that they could find additional employment away from the croft wherever they wished. Many of them went to the whaling and were away from home for long periods.
The 1840s across Shetland were difficult, known as the hungry ’40s, Weisdale was not immune to this rise in poverty. In 1847 it was clear that destitution and hunger were knocking at the doors of many, with 19 of the 64 families in the valley reporting that they had no meal to eat. Meal was a staple in the diet and, without it, hunger was a very real problem.
Between 1849 and 1961, the laird, David Dakers Black, evicted some 326 people from their homes to make way for large-scale sheep farming. Black used the stone from many of the now-abandoned crofts to build his large house (that sits within the trees by the road), which he calledFlemington (now Kergord House), and some of the other crofts were used to build the industrial mill (now Bonhoga Gallery & Cafe). Within a generation, the Weisdale Valley fell silent as the people were forcibly moved on and the sheep moved in.
Writer J.J. Graham reflected on how the valley appeared after the clearances, he said:
“The Valley had a strange appearance for late in Voar (spring). Rigs here and there lay undelled[uncultivated]. Few folk seemed to be on the move, an air of deadness prevailed. Except for Northhoose [Flemington or Kergord House]. The muckle [big] house loomed bigger and bigger as the [stone]mason and his men tore on”.
This poignant extract comes from his book The Shadowed Valley, a fictional tale based on the clearances in Weisdale.
Did you know?
Kergord House was used as a base for the secret Shetland Bus Operation during the Second World War. The Shetland Bus was a covert operation between Shetland and Nazi-occupied Norway that brought weapons and supplies into Norway to assist the Resistance movement, and took refugees out and got them to safety.
Written by Laurie Goodlad