Ninth Stop: Muness
Arriving at the gloomy, stormy Shetland Isles on a rocking boat of sea-sickness, our high hopes for an exciting and eventful stay were soon dimmed. The tiny and most northern island of Unst at first glance seemed barren of life, trees included. For the first few weeks the weather was the absolute worst, wind and rain so powerful you couldn’t step outside for a breath of fresh air. But when the days started improving and we began to cautiously venture out on our ramshackle bicycles to explore, we soon discovered that the island of Unst was an archeologist’s treasure trove of Neolithic burial cairns, Viking longhouses, standing stones, and even a castle of its own.
Muness Castle, the most northerly fortalice in Britain, was built in 1598 by the newly appointed Chamberlain of Shetland, Laurence Bruce. Laurence, originally from southern Scotland, thought the Scandinavians in Shetland were ‘lesser people’, and had no qualms in exploiting them to their fullest potential. Similar to the Sheriff of Nottingham villain in “Robin Hood”, Laurence Bruce raised the taxes to an exorbitant amount and soon became filthy rich off of the poor Shetlanders. Laurence also took a cut of the profits made by Dutch merchants who bought low and charged high prices for goods sold to the inhabitants. If that’s not enough, evidently Laurence Bruce helped himself to the local women, and is believed to have fathered approximately twenty-four illegitimate children beyond his ten legitimate children. The Chamberlain rested safe in the knowledge that the Earl of Orkney, his overlord, seldom bothered with visiting the Shetlands, and he acted without fear of reprimand. After the construction of Muness Castle, however, The Earl of Orkney found the fortress to be a direct challenge to his authority, seeing as Laurence didn’t bother asking permission from him to build it. The Earl prepared a force to attack Muness, but was dissuaded by his family as Laurence Bruce was actually of a distant relation (unfortunately for the Earl). In 1627, to the joy of many, the evil Chamberlain got what was coming to him when a dreadful pirate ship from Normandy came out of the mists and destroyed large chunks of Muness Castle.
What’s left of the castle lays in relatively intact ruins, though now only two stories high rather than three. Muness was built in a “z” formation with two circular towers at diagonally opposite corners (like a “z” shape… in case that wasn’t clear) and originally had a walled courtyard on its southern side, but that was destroyed long ago. Muness castle was not only built as a manor and home for Laurence Bruce, but also as a defensible fortification complete with gunloops to defend himself from, well, everyone that hated him.
There have been whispers of a spectral haunting within castle Muness, that is, a few vague rumours on the internet. Something about a shadow dressed in a frilly waistcoat and breeches? The island of Unst, however, is home to a much older legend of a ‘White Wife’ that materializes in people’s vehicles coming from Uyeasound (a five minute drive from Muness) towards Baltasound. As the story goes, if you are a young man driving alone along that road at night you have a chance of meeting her ghost. It is rumoured that the White Wife is looking for her son and will never rest until she finds him. On the side of the highway there is a standing stone with a face, supposedly marking where the white woman’s spirit appears. Vallhala Brewery, on the island of Unst, has taken this old legend and decided to make an exciting new beer out of it; the ‘White Wife’ is a light, golden ale, with a delightfully fruity after-taste.