Turning left, we followed East Road around a large curve that shaped the edge of the loch on the left, and profiled the splashing waters of Uyea Sound on the right. We passed waterfront houses and arrived at the old Uyeasound Primary School located on an intersection. One road led ahead to the water and more houses; the other branched off left to, as the sign said, 'Muness.' This rising road narrowed as it skirted the galley shed and kept climbing towards the silhouette of the standing stone on the hill ahead. The stone was indeed carefully placed for prominence. Just what it was and why remains unknown. Does it align with, or can it be seen from, the larger stone on the road to Lund on the west of Unst, some five kilometers away? Were there any relationships with landscape features?
We stopped at the standing stone to look closer. The stone stood vertical with a 360 degrees exposure, surveying Uyea Sound, Uyea Isle, northern Yell, Fetlar and the hills of southern Unst. One could see why this stone had been described as a navigational marker. Was it? It stood casually a few metres inside a wire boundary fence without any recognition of its being there, let alone being special. It was like an old power pole, but more authoritative. Just stopping meant that we had to use the widening at the nearby grid to get out of the thoroughfare, as no space had been allocated for any viewing. The stone looked like a mere chance aside within the operation of the croft, even though it was nominated as one of the island's attractions.
The tall stone was an axial pillar shape, unlike the leaning leaf shape of the Lund stone. It marked a point. The Lund stone seemed to suggest that it was indicating a direction. This coarsely ribbed Uyeasound stone was covered with a long and old, pale lime lichen, clinging beard-like to its worn ridges. One could only stand awkwardly at the barbed fence and ponder some mystic purpose while admiring the ponies that seemed to like to congregate around this vertical axis. Was it their scratching post? The eye caught the large stone that was being used to terminate the adjacent dyke. Did this stone have a relationship with the standing stone? Was it a part of a set of surrounding markers? No others were evident, but the dyke detail was most unusual. It had never been seen elsewhere on the islands.
We moved on, and on; and on. The Muness Road kept on going; and going. It exhibited an impossibly extreme distance, and felt oddly remote, passing through an open sprawl like that of high, bleak moorlands, with a scale that seemed just too much for such a small and intimate island some five by twelve miles. A large, amorphous bulk of dark stone soon loomed up on the right against the sky. Was this the castle? It did not look too much like a castle should look - well, as one might expect one to look. There were no towers, crenellations or other features that storybooks use to illustrate these things. The pile of stones looked like an oversized croft left as a ruin.
Suddenly the narrow road that had occasional passing place aneurisms along its skinny length, turned sharply right at a fork in the road to squeeze between some old croft houses. There it was, right in front of us, almost on top of us - Muness castle; well, the remains of a building that now held more grandeur when seen so close and in the context of the neighbouring croft houses. Landscape and detail change both scale and perceptions.
The road narrowed further as it passed the ruin with a proximity that reminded one of tenement houses in an old town that have the tall street address of boundary facades. Here the walls were substantially those of a castle, massive, complete with formal, dressed stone detailing. The road paused at a grassed parking area before moving on to a broad turning area in front of some dwellings that enjoyed spectacular views north to the island of Balta, the nearby areas of Collister, mirrored by Hamar on the further side of Baltasound, with all of this layering framed by Saxaford, the high, northern extremity of the island that inspired Robert Louis Stephenson.
Walking through the gate on the path leading to the castle, the vista of the fields of southern Unst opened up. The prospect extended across water to the dramatic northern cliffs of Fetlar and on to the misty hills of Yell and Mainland. On turning right, one found oneself in the presence of the caste - its entrance; its front. Another gate, this one on the axis of entry, brought one face to face with the grandeur of this ruin that had a formal statement carved, but now fused, into an ancient stone plaque over the dressed-stone framed doorway. This entrance sat as the formal opening was arrayed with a random scattering of smaller window voids in the dry stone wall. Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamp came to mind - see
The door was open. Once the key, appropriately castle-large, used to have to be collected from the nearby croft; but times change and people pass on. Now the visitor has the anonymous greeting of an open door, albeit friendly, rather than the personal contact with local folk. It is a shame that this cultural contact has been lost. Shetanders are quiet and shy, but friendly. The necessity of collecting the key from the nearby croft gave visitors access to local residents, and vice versa, providing opportunities for conversations that might otherwise have not been available through normal tourist outlets.
The heavy door opened into dark - low dark. A damp stair materialised in a bright, stepped spiralled light to the right that cajoled access. As one turned left, a vaulted path opened up a dark vista with separate dim storage spaces to the right and shafts of light slanting in from the left. The corridor terminated in a vast open vaulted space with an enormous fireplace. It could have cooked a whole beast on a spit. Perhaps it once did? The sign appropriately said 'Kitchen.' In one dim corner a stone basin appeared, complete with drain. It was a surprise to see such organised service spaces. These were not rude and crude folk who knew only the hardship of croft work.
On the black return over the compacted earthen floor to the splash of light at the entry, the spiral access was ascended. Light, sky, opened up as the ceiling to the void of a grand hall, complete with flagged floor and yet another huge fireplace. There had been some restoration work here. The new lintel over the fireplace was a carefully cut piece of beautifully and carefully arched, dressed stone, giving the space a sense of habitation in the desert of this deserted ruin. That this new care and attention to interior detail should be a part of an external space was a surprise. There was evidence of there having been a wooden floor over this hall, an observation that allowed one to sense the real size of this place that had lost its roofs and upper walls. The drains in the walls showed that this place was being cared for. It had been subtly designed and detailed to be stabilized as a ruin. Heritage management had been here. Well, it was better than doing nothing, a strategy that leaves elements to wreck ad hoc havoc on history on an exponential scale.
The plan was intriguing. From what appeared to be simply an empty rock shell framing a large hall space void over some dark service areas, one kept on discovering not only smaller connected spaces, but also stairways linking these areas between the different levels. Some stone stairs led down into darkness, while others opened up into bright light, to the phantom spaces above. The place had a well considered and quietly sophisticated layout. Its modest functional necessity displayed an admirable logic. It showed a rational and thoughtful mind at work. Indeed, as one moved through what remained of the various rooms, one got the sense that the castle would be a marvellous place to live in even today. It felt like a large home rather than a grand retreat or refuge. The hall, with its deep and intimate window recesses, had adjacent smaller areas, bed rooms, study areas and other private places opening up from it; and these were variously connected to the service areas or to each other with stairs that were subtly incorporated into the layout. The cantilever circular rooms on opposite corners of the rectangular plan form were most pleasant places, providing what looked like 270 degrees vistas for either defence or delight. Today these locations offer wonderful vistas of a more peaceful and possibly less threatening landscape. The spaces would make a magnificent study or private retreat.
The more one wandered around inside these rough stone walls, the more the humanity of the place bloomed in the mind that layered tapestries and fabrics onto imagined plastered walls fitted with timber joinery, perhaps similar to the windows restored at Scalloway Castle. Envisioned rugs and skins spread over the floors, all with the warm glow of timber beams and flooring above, forming cosy spaces flickering with the mysteries of light from the flames in the hearth. It would be wonderful too resurrect this small castle, for it would make a surprisingly good home that could function well in an era some three hundred years after its design, all without undue pomposity - apart from the name and the fairy tale conical roofs.
The meandering took one back to the spiral stone stairs and the front door. Externally the stones looked grander than their distant massing suggested. The surprise was that some of the stones were beautiful pieces of pure white quartz. Looking up at the curved corner spaces, one could see the dressed stone cantilevers, the decorative corbelling, shaping and supporting these private spaces. The cantilevers occurred on a pair of corners, located higher at what would have been the second floor, now gone. The other corners had the circular towers. The shapes of the large gabled roof remained as a profile in the end walls, but there was no indication of the astonishing tall conical roofs that were apparently capping each circular corner space. The hypothesis is a surprise. The castle must have appeared amazing when it was first constructed. It was French Renaissance, modelled after one of the more flamboyant châteaux in the Loire region. There must have been good contact between Shetland and France. This decorative building would have stood in stark contrast to the local croft houses that were simple, rudimentary, rational structures - basic, both in form, size and materials. These buildings had no budget for decorations or flair. Neither did the locals who disliked the Stewarts dynasty that treated the local folk terribly. One has to put this history aside to enjoy the place.
Muness Castle was built by Laurence Bruce, the half brother of Robert Stewart, the Earl of Orkney. It was designed by Andrew Crawford and started in 1598.
The French connection with Shetland is interesting. Not only did France trade with Shetland, but their warships also would come and pressgang the Shetland men. The Shetlanders, being excellent mariners, were useful to the French navy in times of war. They also added simple manpower to the efforts of battle. There are many stories about these events, most of them telling how the men evaded the French and the British, who were doing the same thing; but, unlike the British, the French returned the men to Shetland once they had no further need for them. So Shetland had a portion of the population that had close contact with things French. Occasionally a word or two of French origin appears in the dialect. There is a place name at Baiasta in Unst called 'Gue.' While having a Norse meaning - fiddle - this reference is difficult to understand as a place name. The French meaning of 'gue' makes more sense - ford, a shallow crossing. The old cottage at Gue has a shallow burn directly in front of it that runs into the nearby Loch of Cliff and has to be crossed to approach the cottage. This is the gue of Gue.
French raiders burned Muness Castle in 1627.
The more one looked at Muness Castle, the more one noticed the finer detail. The external walls were patterned with dressed stone blocks that were perforated with openings carefully shaped, or so it seemed, for shooting. Just what was being shot is not known, but each hole was centred in a carved elliptical recess that seemed to allow for a broader scope of aim. Higher holes had space for the vertical maneuvering of a missile, be this lead or arrow. This man must have been hated to require such defences that look decorative to our eye today, but must have been more important in an earlier era because of the effort put into the making.
Muness Castle is impressive as a ruin. It must have been astounding to see it new. Did it intimidate? The building clearly shows that folk of that era were not the uneducated, crude crofters that the cliché presents them as. The crofters built this place, unwillingly, but it is their work. They reveal an intelligence and skill in Muness Castle that one repeatedly sees reflected in the modesty of the simple croft house - an inventiveness and awareness that sees solutions to the most ordinary and the most complex of circumstances. These remain on display in aspects of the Shetland Museum's crofthouse in Dunrossness. The islanders still today have an oft-repeated phrase that shows the abilities of the islanders: "He's good with his hands." Indeed, they were, and they are, good - with their minds too.
One rarely reflects on ruins without recalling Frank Lloyd Wright's comment on Taliesin West: that it will make a good ruin. Ruins have a unique quality as remnants of a larger being - its having been there. They are as skeletons of a past and provide us with hints of their previous, more complete existence. Wright could envisage this future out of his marvellous moulding and shaping of rock and concrete, as they would be left to the elements without the more transient associated parts of the whole. Muness has already lost these more ephemeral things, and holds its mystery in its remaining parts that leave suggestions to tease and intrigue us. It certainly does this. It is indeed a good ruin; and like all ruins, it is more than a mere relic. Muness Castle is a framework for a set of stories - a part of the crust of life.