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Bears on Shetland?


Guest Fetlar Writer

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Guest Fetlar Writer

Upon conducting research into the sequel to my debut novel, I came across what seemed to be the full story of Jan Tait and the Bear. 

 

'The Dialect and Place Names of Shetland: Two Lecutures' by Dr. Jakob Jakobsen - Doctor of Philosophy, University of Copenhagen (1897 published by T. and J. Manson in Lerwick)
 
"...To illustrate a little the spirit and customs which reigned during the Norse period of government in Shetland, and the close connection existing between Shetland and Norway, I may mention the story of Jan Tait and the Bear. It is the only historical tale which has come down to us from that period, and it is in the style and spirit of the old Icelandic tales or "sagas". The tale belongs to Fetlar. It is this. The king of Norway sent his chamberlain across to Shetland to collect the "skat" (tax) due to the Crown. The chamberlain came to Fetlar, where the skat was collected at Urie. 
 
To Urie the udallers came with the "teinds" or tithes they had to pay. They brought with the their "bismers." These bismers were, if I may be allowed the bull, ancient wooden steel-yards. The chamberlain of course had his own bismer, which as considered the standard weight, and on which he tested the udaller's bismers. An udaller by the name of Jan Tait, while paying his butter teind,  was accused by the chamberlain of having a false bismer.
 
This at once led to a quarrel, in which Tait denounced the chamberlain's bismer as false, and being threatened by the chamberlain, Jan finally raised his bismer and struck the king's representative dead on the spot. This was, of course, a great crime, for which he was summoned to appear before the king in Norway. Arrived there, Jan went in before the king bareheaded and barefooted, and carrying an axe in his hand. Jan was a strongly-built man, and had big knobs on the joints of his feet. So the king stared at his feet, until Jan suddenly asked him, why he was staring so fixedly. The king said, that he had never seen such strange feet before. Jan said, that if they gave him any offence, he would soon cure that, whereupon he took the axe and hewed off one of the knobs. The king said, that he did not at all wonder that Jan killed his chamberlain since he had so little regard for his own flesh and blood. 
 
But seeing his courage he would give him one more chance to save his life. There was a bear infesting a certain place, and constantly endangering the lives of the inhabitants. If he could catch it and bring it alive before the king, he should be pardoned. 
 
Tait then went to an old woman who lived near a spot the bear used to frequent, and asked her all about its ways and habits. She said to him:"By butter you have got into the present trouble, and by butter you shall get out of it." Then she advised him to take a full kit-full of butter and place it in an open spot in the forest, where the bear used to come, watch there till the bear appeared on the scene and licked the butter, and then, when it had lain down to sleep, seize the opportunity and bind it with ropes. 
 
Tait acted according to her advice. The bear, after having licked the butter, felt heavy, lay down and fell asleep, whereupon Tait, who had been watching, hastened to tie the animal with strong ropes. He managed to bring the bear alive before the king, but the king, wanting to get rid of him, ordered him out of his sight, bidding him to take the bear home with him to Shetland. Tait went back to Fetlar with the bear and transported it from there to the island of Yelli-Lunga (off the Yell coast) where there is a spot still called "the Bear's Bait," which name is known by very few people now. There is a green circle in the island said to have been made by the bear's walking around the pole to which it was tethered..."
Edited by Fetlar Writer
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