Shetland's History

People have lived in Shetland for over 6,000 years. From Neolithic times to the present day, Shetlanders have been working the land and catching fish from the sea or in the lochs.

The earliest inhabitants left no written records, but archaeologists delight in the wealth of remains from prehistoric times; there are more than 6,000 known sites and more are discovered each year. They include ancient houses, burial chambers, standing stones, iron age brochs and early chapels.

The Vikings arrived in the early 800s AD and it seems that they overwhelmed or absorbed the Pictish people who then occupied Shetland. The islands became part of a vast Scandinavian empire. Norse rule lasted for six centuries, ending after Christian I of Norway mortgaged Shetland to Scotland in 1469; he’d been unable to raise a dowry for the marriage of his daughter Margaret to James III of Scotland. The event is commemorated in Lerwick Town Hall's stained glass windows. From then on, Scottish influence spread rapidly into Shetland through land ownership, the church, education, law and trade.

Shetland nevertheless retained other important overseas links and the islands’ maritime history is fascinating. Traders from the Hanseatic League exchanged goods with Shetlanders. Men from Shetland served all over the world in the Royal Navy, sometimes after being captured by the Press gang, and in the merchant navy. During the two world wars, Shetland was a vital base, with thousands of military personnel posted in the islands.

Shetland’s economy was fragile: a good period of fishing would be followed by harder years in which many islanders emigrated; sometimes they were forced off the land in clearances for sheep farming. 

However, the community was - and remains - an enterprising one and it successfully negotiated a good financial deal with the oil industry. As a result, the local Council was able to secure jobs and provide today’s outstanding public facilities.

Thanks to the emigration that took place, there is a network of Shetlanders around the world. For many of our visitors, studying genealogy is one of the reasons for making the journey.

What Next?

On This Site

  • Delve further into Shetland's history
  • Discover more about Shetland's culture

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