History of Shetland

Shetland's earliest mention may be in a Latin text about Agricola's circumnavigation of the British Isles, which reads: 'Dispecta est et Thule' ('and even Thule was sighted').  But scholars still argue about whether Thule was Fair Isle or Foula, or Faroe or Iceland, so the first written records of Shetland are really the Norse sagas.

Prehistoric peoples

Shetland was certainly inhabited by Neolithic farmers by 3000BC, and possibly earlier.  However, if there were people in Shetland very much before then, the evidence hasn’t yet been found.  

Despite many archaeological remains, we have only a patchy understanding of those who lived in Shetland before the Viking invasions of around 800AD.  Immediately before the Vikings arrived, though, it’s clear that Shetland – like much of Scotland - was part of the Pictish culture.  By the time of the Viking invasion, possibly two or three hundred years earlier, Christianity had reached the islands.  

The Norse

The Viking invasions began around 800AD.  It’s not clear what happened to the Pictish peoples, though a few place-names suggest that they may have been forced onto some of the poorer land.  As the Norse settlers consolidated their position, Shetland became the northern third of the great earldom that was based in Orkney during the Viking golden age.  The Orkneyinga Saga tells tales of that period and contains numerous references to Shetland.  

Norse control at one point extended to much of the Scottish west coast and the Hebrides, but within three years of the battle at Largs in 1263, it was confined to Orkney and Shetland.  Before the battle, King Harald of Norway's fleet gathered at 'Breideyarsund'; this was probably Bressay Sound, the 'broad islands' in the place-name being Bressay and Noss, then joined by a shallow beach at low tide. 

The Norse held sway in Shetland for another 200 years.  Their rule ended as the result of a marriage treaty in 1468 between James III of Scotland and Margaret, a Danish princess.  The Danish struggled to raise the funds for Margaret’s dowry, so that first Orkney and then Shetland were mortgaged to Scotland.  Shetland was annexed to Scotland in 1471 and, although the Danish repeatedly tried to have the islands returned to them, the Privy Council in Edinburgh didn’t agree to their requests.

Scandinavian Heritage

Aspects of Norse culture and practice survived long after the period of Norse rule.  On land now occupied by the BP oil terminal at Sullom Voe, a 15th century

 dispute about grazing and foreshore rights left us a record in Old Norse, describing land management customs which survived well into the 18th century.

No visitor to Shetland can be in any doubt of the strong Norse thread in the islands’ heritage.  The place-names are almost exclusively Norse.  In Lerwick, many street names celebrate Norse figures such as King Harald.  Dozens of Norse archaeological sites testify to Viking power and influence, including more than 30 house sites in the northern island of Unst alone.  There is the genetic evidence, too: around 60% of Shetland men stem from a western Norwegian lineage.

Another other obvious clue to the strength of the relationship include the dialect spoken by Shetlanders, which contains many Old Norse words.  The houses that people build in Shetland are often in a Scandinavian style and indeed are sometimes supplied from Norway.  Norwegian flags are also commonly seen, particularly on Norwegian National Day.

Fish and Trade

Shetland’s economy has often seemed precarious, with good and bad times alternating down the years.  Because of the climate, the products of the land were used largely for subsistence.  The main export trade was in the one commodity the islands had in plenty, fish, though even that trade was unpredictable and buffeted by external influences.

After the eclipse of the Norse warlords came four centuries when Shetland sold its salted fish to the outside world through the Hanseatic League of merchants, based in Bergen, Bremen, Lubeck and Hamburg.  Every summer, until the economic disasters of the late 17th century, German traders fitted out ships to buy salt cod and ling, bringing the islanders cash, corn, cloth, beer and other goods in exchange.  The Hanseatic trade is commemorated in the restored trading booth at Symbister, in the island of Whalsay, reached by ferry from Laxo, 22 miles north of Lerwick.

Fishing was, at one time, largely in the hands of landlords, whose tenants were forced to fish to avoid eviction; they made dangerous voyages in small six-oared open boats.  Later, herring fishing provided a mainstay of the Shetland economy.  Vast fleets of sail-fishing vessels like the restored Swan, and the later steam drifters, landed their catch in the islands, from where it was exported, salted, in barrels.  It was such prosperity that allowed the growth of Lerwick.

Politics

Shetland became Scottish only very slowly.  Power gradually transferred to Scottish landlords, some of whom, like the Stewarts, became notorious for the way in which they treated their tenants.  The roofless Scalloway Castle (last occupied by Government troops at the time of William of Orange's 'Glorious Revolution' in 1689) houses an informative display on this turbulent period. 

After the 1707 Treaty of Union the new British government ousted the Hansa, causing an economic slump because Scots and local merchants were less skilled in the salt fish trade. During the 18th century, local merchant-lairds reduced Shetland's independent small, tenant farmers to near-serfdom while they themselves built relatively lavish mansions (known as Haa houses) in every part of Shetland. 

More recently, and with the exception of a period of Conservative stewardship from 1935 to 1950, Shetland’s parliamentary representatives have mostly been Whigs, Liberals or, today, Liberal Democrats.  Jo Grimond, a noted Liberal leader, was MP for Orkney and Shetland from 1950 until 1983.

Military Conflicts

About 3,000 Shetland men served in the Royal Navy at one time or another during the Napoleonic wars.  The lairds were loyal agents of the Crown, supplying their quota of seamen to the fleet which defeated Napoleon.  

The Press Gang was also very active and folklore and historical documents record its barbarity around the Shetland coast.  One young man who narrowly escaped them, by promising to volunteer when he was old enough, was Arthur Anderson, a Shetland boy who went on to become a co-founder of the P&O shipping line.  His birthplace at the Böd of Gremista, on the outskirts of Lerwick, is preserved as a museum.

The First World War

The First World War destroyed the markets for the extraordinary boom in the herring fisheries which, at the turn of the century, had lifted many islanders out of subsistence poverty.  Emigration increased during the 1920s and 30s, to the extent that there are now many more people with Shetland connections living in Canada, Australia and New Zealand than there are on 'The Auld Rock' itself. 

The Second World War

The Second World War brought a temporary economic boom, amid all the disruption, destruction and grief.  This was also a period in which the bonds with Norway were greatly strengthened, because Shetland was the base for a secret - and dangerous - operation that saw small Norwegian fishing boats pressed into service to support the Norwegian resistance against Nazi occupation.  The story of the operation, known as the ‘Shetland Bus’, is told in the museum in Scalloway, one of the two harbours that were used.  

From the 1940s to the Present Day 

After the end of the war, the thousands of troops that had been stationed in Shetland quickly left.  Despite state-sponsored programmes of house-building and subsidies for agriculture and fishing, many Shetlanders could not make a living and emigration resumed, continuing through the 1950s and 1960s; by 1971, the population had dropped to just 17,325.  In 1861, it had been 31,670.

However, prospects did begin to improve during the 1960s.  A home-grown revival was under way, based on fishing, agriculture, knitwear and tourism.  Aided by the new Highlands and Islands Development Board, Shetland's economy grew so strongly that, when oil and gas were discovered offshore in the early 1970s, the Council was able to claim that the oil industry needed Shetland much more than Shetland needed oil.  As a result, it was able to strike a remarkable deal that gave Shetland a share of oil revenues. 

The huge oil terminal at Sullom Voe was built and, since 1978, has shipped out billions of barrels of oil in tankers, while pumping millions of pounds into the local economy. Thanks to careful planning and rigorous monitoring, serious, long-term pollution damage was avoided.  The community used the oil funds to improve social care, conserve the environment and promote the arts, sport and economic development.  The population saw a sustained increase for the first time in more than a century and it now stands at around 22,000. 

What Next?

On This Site

  • Read more about the resources available for researching genealogy in Shetland
  • Find out more about Jarlshof, Old Scatness Broch and the other archaeological treasures to be found in Shetland

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