Isolated and enigmatic on the edge of the Voe of Cullingsburgh (pronouced “Culliesbroch” locally) stands the abandoned village of Cullingsburgh, an intriguing place where several gravestones in the former churchyard postdate the decline of the settlement.
Despite its isolated location, the presence of the ruined St Mary’s church indicates a once thriving crofting community. Located on Bressay, an island of 400 inhabitants connected to mainland Shetland by Bressay Sound, Cullingsburgh was abandoned by the late 18th Century when Catherine Manson, its last resident, left the village.
In 1852, a labourer digging near the site discovered the Bressay Stone (an impressive example of Pictish art, similar to the Clach a’ Charridh near Shandwick). By then the church was in ruins, having been closed in 1722. A Pictish broch to the north of the churchyard attests to Cullingsburgh’s Iron Age heritage.
Many of the gravestones are better preserved than the devastated church and surrounding cottages, reflecting how those with family ties to the village could be buried there until the churchyard was finally closed several years ago.
The inhabitants of many island communities have been forced to relocate to less barren places over the years, due to factors including inclement weather, starvation and disease. This was apparently the case with Cullingsburgh, as inhabitants who were unable to remain there in life chose to return after death.