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A walk to Roermill

I love to visit the sites of my ancestors, it's where I feel them the most. Whenever I visit Shetland, I explore new locations around North Roe, the places my ancestors walked.


In March 2005, I went for a jaunt with Magnie Tait to see the isolated beach at Roermill. We parked at Sandvoe, then wandered past the croft houses, where one of Marion’s caddy lambs cozied up to us. I followed Magnie along the Roermill burn, as he knew the best path to take. But even with his expertise, I got wet as I squelched through the peat in his shadow. We finally reached the pebbly beach that opened into Sandvoe, and the sky was a brilliant blue as we explored the ruins of an old fishing booth and water mill, stories in stone just waiting to be told.


Magnus Tait walking to Roermill, March 2005


Roermill is a small inlet off of Sandvoe at North Roe. Though somewhat tucked away by land, it is easily accessible by sea. While fishing boats did not leave from Roermill, the rocky beach provided an ideal location for drying and curing during the haaf fishing days of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A booth was built at the foot of Roermill burn, just above the beach. Here, the factor kept salt and other supplies, and would have stayed during the summer season.


View from above Roermill towards the beach, c. 1900s

During the off-season, the location was isolated enough from the rest of the community that, in the 1770s, a pirate ship carrying sixteen guns anchored there for a long stay. The locals were aware of them, and they stayed there relatively peacefully until Jacob Stays, one of their crew was caught stealing onboard. In punishment, he was bound hand and foot and buried alive on the Roermill beach. The people of North Roe were so horrified that they informed the authorities in Lerwick, but the pirate ship sailed off before any action could be taken. It is said that his body was taken from the beach and buried nearby.


When Hay & Co. took over the tack for North Roe in 1862, they promptly fixed up the booth and continued business there. Their account book for 1863 shows expenses for an assortment of items including paper, ink, kishies, nails, wood, tar, a tarpaulin and a padlock to keep goods secured.


Hay & Co. North Roe Account Book, 1863 (Shetland Archives)

Other expenses went toward paying skippers and crew to freight the fish, salt, and other supplies needed to run the bustling fish-curing site. The beach boys (young men before the went to the fishing) and beach men (too old to go to the fishing) who split and dried the fish also received their wages from the account. Five shillings and seven pence (“Johnsmas Allowance”) were spent on the Johnsmas (or Midsummer) Day Foy to reward the workers mid-season with music, storytelling, and spirits. I picture distant family members visiting, laughing, and dancing. Life at sea was gruelling and uncertain, so it was important to appreciate moments of jollity and rest.


As the fishing died out, the booth fell into disrepair and the site was mostly abandoned apart from the sheep, the occasional crofter who came to scan the beach for wreck or mill grain, and now, the person who wants to get away for a beautiful walk. But beware the trows! Roermill is known as a “trowie place,” a site they are likely to haunt.



Photos:

Old booth at Roermill with the roof still on, from above and below

Crop from Map of Northmavine from Uyea to Brebister c 1780. with Roermill highlighted

Hay & Co. expense book

Magnie Tait, walking along the Burn of Roermill, towards the beach


Sources:

Hay & Co. North Roe Account book (SA:D31/7/180)

Voices from the Past: Stories of North Roe by Karen Inkster Vance, 2023 (pp. 43-44)

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