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A Brief History Of Shetland

Shetland first enters the historic record in the Norse Period when it appears in the Sagas, though it is also possible that the Roman, Tacitus, was referring to Shetland when he writes about the visit of Agricola’s navy to Ultima Thule. Whatever the case, both these periods are covered in the Archaeological Section and this History begins with the end of the Norse Period and the transfer of control to Scotland.   

Shetland In Scotland

During the 14th century Norway, Sweden and Denmark united, but even together they were not as wealthy or powerful as before and a marriage was proposed between the Danish and Scottish Royal Households to bring prosperity to both. The dowry was 60,000 florins and Shetland was put forward by the Danes as surety. The Danish princess died en route to her wedding in Scotland but Scotland still insisted on payment; the Danes could not pay and so, in 1468, Shetland was forfeited to Scotland.  However, little changed in the way people lived or were governed for at least the next 100 years.

During the 15th century Shetland was becoming increasingly significant to people out with the Scandinavian world – particularly to North Europeans keen to trade for the salted fish, livestock and skins that abounded in and around the Islands. The North German Hanseatic League came to dominate the economy, while Norse law continued to rule and people still looked east to Norway rather than south to Scotland for their cultural ties. Indeed Norse laws were not banned and replaced by Scots laws until 1611.

Robert Stewart's mansion at Jarlshof sits on earlier archaeologyScottish power only arrived in force in Shetland during the Reformation when, in 1564, Mary, Queen of Scots, granted the crown lands in Orkney and Shetland to her half brother, Robert Stewart. Robert built himself a grand house at Sumburgh (Jarlshof) and made his half-brother, Laurence Bruce, chief magistrate or sheriff. Laurence was corrupt and cruel and was imprisoned for misdemeanours. On his release he built himself a new castle at Muness on Unst in 1598 – the most northerly castle in Britain – but his ill-treatment of the locals is said to have continued.  

Throughout the 17th century Dutch traders were firmly established in Shetland, trading spirits, tobacco and other desirables for locally produced knitted goods, meat, butter and, of course, fish. Booths were built for these traders, an excellent example being Greenwell’s Booth at Uyeasound, built in 1700 by the Scott family. Relations between Shetlanders and the Dutch were extremely good but Britain was at war with Denmark and in 1665 the British built Fort Charlotte in Lerwick to safeguard their interests and keep the Dutch at bay. The fort was burnt down by the Dutch a few years later and the Dutch continued to trade.

However, the lives of the Shetlanders remained precarious in the extreme, with a decline in fish stocks, an increase in attacks by French pirates, bad harvest and smallpox outbreaks.

The Economic Trials And Tribulations Of British Rule

The Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1707 and the subsequent introduction of a heavy tax on imported salt brought an end to Dutch influence and control of the herring trade, and even greater economic hardship to the local populace. However, some landlords seized the opportunity to take over the trade and a new, ruthless, trading class was born.

Between mid-May and mid-August 6-oared boats (sixareens) would head 40 miles out into the Far Haaf (open sea) to catch ling, cod and saithe, which were then preserved and sent south to feed the towns and cities that were growing rapidly during the Industrial Revolution. This was the haaf fishing, which continued throughout the 19th century. Larger fishing smacks would also head north to the Faroe Islands and to Iceland for cod at the end of the summer.

Unst Boat Haven tells the story of fishing in Unst and Shetland Despite all their hard and productive work, Shetlanders found themselves in constant debt to landlords who controlled every aspect of the economy and of life in general: the land, crofts and houses, shops, boats and fishing equipment and even the fish catches themselves – nothing was beyond their grasp. 

Each sixareen had to sell its complete catch to a single landlord – there was no such thing as a free market and to sell to someone else would lead to eviction or the forced payment of “liberty money”. In addition, the men were not paid until the catch had been cured and sold, generally the autumn or early winter, and even then the “truck system” ensured that they were paid in goods from the fish-curer’s own store rather than cash.

The Boat Haven in Haroldswick, Unst has some superb boats on display and tells the story behind them.
While fishing underpinned the Shetland economy, farming continued as before, though with the addition of the potato in the 18th century – a godsend. The whaling industry grew in the second half of the 19th century and the kelp industry (seaweed burnt to make potash and soda for soap, glass and other products) was also introduced. The population was growing to record levels due to the introduction of the smallpox vaccine and Shetland should have been booming. However, the economy was still in the grip of the wealthy landlords and merchants who built themselves grand houses, or Haa’s, many 18th century examples of which dot the countryside to this day. For the ordinary Shetlanders, however, some bad harvest ensured that poverty remained rife. 

Shetland In The 19th Century

The 19th century started in misery for the people and ended in hopefully. The Napoleonic Wars at the start of the century saw large numbers of Shetlanders press-ganged into the navy, their skills as seamen being recognised and the growing population meaning that they could easily be replaced.

Rather than welcoming the increasing population, landlords, here as in the rest of the Highlands and Islands, realised that fishing was starting to decline and that their future wealth depended on agricultural production. To maximise production they had to greatly reduce the number of small, uneconomic crofts and replace them with larger, more efficient farms, and an inevitable by-product of this was a surplice population. So began the Shetland Clearances, when people were forced to make way for sheep.

The Shetland Clearances started in the 1820’s and occurred again in the 1870’s, when many thousands of people left the islands. However, not all the emigration was forced. During the 1840’s the potato blight (fungus) that hit Ireland and the Highlands also reached Shetland and the famine and poverty here was devastating. Money was sent north from Edinburgh as famine relief and was paid to people in return for work. This was the time of the first large-scale road building in Shetland.

Lerwick from the seaIndustrialisation continued – though on a small scale. Chromite was quarried on Unst and sent south. Knitwear and hosiery was manufactured by women in their own homes. Fishermen were now venturing further afield to the North Atlantic and were keeping more of the profits for themselves. Education also took off with the establishment of the Anderson Institute in Lerwick in 1862 and Shetland also got its first newspaper.      

The plight of the impoverished Shetlanders had been noted in the south and the Government at last acted, setting up Zetland County Council in 1889. Shetland was at last controlled democratically by Shetlanders.

Shetland In The 20th Century

The 20th century saw the most profound changes in Shetlands long history.

Over-fishing had almost killed off the long-established cod fishery which was replaced by herring which were landed, gutted and packed into barrels to be sent south to market. Baltasound in Unst was one centre in Shetland and was reputedly the second busiest herring port in Europe. In 1905 up to 10,000 people were based here for the herring season, living in rough shacks and all desperate to earn money to take home to their families when the season ended. 2,000 people were employed as gutters and coopers, and around 600 boats went out after the fish from the 46 herring stations around the shore of the Sound.  However, 1905 was the peak year and herring fishing had all but died out by 1939.

Both World Wars saw large numbers of Shetlanders fighting on land and sea and the numbers killed in both were higher proportionally than for any other area of Britain. Shetland’s strategic location meant that it was well fortified and the remains of First and Second War military installations can be seen around the coast – and particularly at the Lamba Ness on the north east tip of Unst. During the Second World War it was from Shetland that the famous “Shetland Bus” operated to Norway – small fishing vessels landing special agents and equipment in German-occupied Norway and bringing refugees and others back to freedom.

Between the Wars, attention was given to the agricultural sector and to breaking up some of the larger farms to enable returning ex-servicemen to get crofts of their own. Health also improved and the 20th century started to reach Shetland in the form of aeroplanes and the arrival of electricity in Lerwick. However, it is over the 60 years since the Second World War ended that Shetland has really come into its own. 

Shetland's modern fishing industry still requires hard graftThe road network was improved and large scale electricity generation took place for the first time. Shetland’s knitwear industry also went through a major revival and the fishing industry also developed, with Shetland skippers discarding their small-scale drifters and purchasing the larger, industrial-scale trawlers and nets necessary to compete with the Norwegians, Poles and Russians who were increasingly fishing off Shetland. At the same time, significant investment was made in the fish landing and handling facilities in Lerwick, which established itself as a fishing port of international significance.

Important though this new phase in the fishing industry was, it was the discovery of oil in the 1970’s that really created the Shetland of today. Shetlands Island Council was extraordinarily successful in its financial negotiations with the oil companies – so much so that even today the Council is visited by local government agencies from all over the world seeking to learn from their experience. Oil revenues made the Council very wealthy and enabled it to invest in a wide range of projects to improve the Islands’ infrastructure and the quality of life of Islanders. Schools, public transport (particularly inter-island ferries) and leisure centres are only some of the facilities to have benefited – perhaps justice at last for the descendents of the people that were so harshly treated in the past.

Fish farming – particularly salmon and shellfish – is now established throughout the islands, though it is subject to the vagaries of the market, and environmental concerns are also increasingly exercising the minds of planners and public alike, particularly concerning Shetland’s coastline and coastal waters.

Today And Tomorrow

Today Shetland’s population sits at around 22,000 and there are more young people here than in any other part of the Highlands and Islands or Scotland as a whole.

In 2001 all forms of fishing combined were worth £243.1 million to the economy, oil £57.7 million, agriculture £13.1 million, tourism £12.6 million and knitwear £2.5 million.

It is extraordinary to think that what was 100 years ago a remote, impoverished cluster of islands with no real hope for the future, today has the highest average gross weekly earnings in Britain! £540 for Shetland, £133.50 for Scotland and £121.50 for Great Britain as a whole in 2001.

Great efforts are being made to equip Shetland’s children for today’s – and tomorrow’s – worlds to ensure that both they, and Shetland, can compete. There are hopes for improved transport links, for the oil field developments west of Shetland and there is growing recognition that Shetland should do what it does best – produce top quality organic meat and fish that is more than a match for the mass-produced food of the south.

While Shetlanders are optimistic, forward thinking and industrious, the past and their cultural roots remain of the utmost importance to them. They give them their pride and their sense of place. Traditional music – especially fiddle – dance and knitting are all taught in schools and the interest in local heritage, in local heritage centres, and in Shetland’s new flagship museum in Lerwick show how much it matters.

Historical Attractions In Unst

Now that you know a little bit about Shetland's history, why not read about the historical attractions of Unst to find out what about the many places you can visit whilst staying at Saxa Vord.