Tour Scotland
Home Page

Old Shetland

The Shetland Islands are upwards of a hundred in number, varying in size from the Mainland, which is about seventy miles in length and thirty at its greatest breadth, to small rocks not even affording pasturage to sheep. The outlines of all the islands, as shown on the accompanying map are very irregular, long bays or voes indenting them so deeply that no point is more than three
miles from the sea. The country is hilly, but none of the hills are very lofty. Twenty-eight of the islands are inhabited; some of the smaller islands containing only two, or in some cases only one family. The population in 1861 was 31,670, viz. 18,617 females, and 13,053 males. The population in 1871 was 31,605, viz. 18,525 females, and 13,080 males. The census is taken at a time of the year when many men who are sailors in the merchant
service are absent from their homes, which they visit once a year or oftener. At the last census there were 6,494 families, 5,740 inhabited houses, 220 vacant houses, and 10 houses building.

The Agricultural Returns for Great Britain for 1871 state the number of occupiers of land in Shetland, from whom returns have been obtained, at 3992, occupying on an average thirteen acres each. The total acreage under all kinds of crops, bare, fallow, and grass, is given as 50,454 acres in 1870, and 50,720 in 1871, of which, in the latter year, 11,626 acres were under corn crops, 3,493 under green crops (2,909 being potatoes), 522 under clover and grasses under rotation, and 33,227 permanent pasture, meadow, or grass not broken up in rotation, exclusive of heath or mountain land. The total number of horses returned to the Statistical Department, as on 25th June 1871, was 5,354; of cattle 21,735; of sheep, 86,834; and of pigs, 5,251.

Social State

The 'toons,' or townships, in which the peasantry of Shetland live, are generally situated along the margins of the voes, or far-stretching inland bays which intersect the country; and although in some districts they extend into the valleys running into the interior, they are almost always within a short distance from the sea. It is natural, therefore, that the Shetlander should be a fisherman or a sailor; and for two centuries it appears that he has
generally combined the occupations of farming and fishing. The following description of the rural polity of Shetland, taken from Dr. Arthur Edmonstone's View of the Ancient and Present State of the Zetland Islands (2 vols. 8vo, Edin. 1809), is for the most part applicable at the present day....

The enclosed land in Zetland is divided into what are called merks and ures. A merk, it is said, should contain 1600 square fathoms, and an ure is the eighth part of a merk; but the merks are everywhere of unequal dimensions, and scarcely two are of the same size. The oldest rentals state the number of merks to be about 13,500, and those of the present time make them no more. A considerable portion, however, of common has been enclosed and cultivated since the appearance of the first rentals, although not included in them. When a part of the common is enclosed and farmed, the enclosure is called an outset; but the outsets are never
included in the numeration of merks of rental land. From these circumstances it is very difficult to ascertain the actual quantity of cultivated ground in Zetland.

The enclosures are made, generally, in the eighbourhood of the sea, and contain from 4 to 70 merks, which are frequently the property of different heritors, and are always subdivided among several tenants. Such place is called a town or a room, and each has a particular name.

The uncultivated ground outside of the enclosure is called the scatthold, and is used for general pasture, and to furnish turf for firing. Every tenant may rear as many sheep, cattle, or horses, on the general scatthold attached to the town in which his farm lies as he can. There is no restriction on this head, whether he rent a
large or a small farm. If there be no moss in the scatthold
contiguous to his farm, the tenant must pay for the privilege to cut peat in some other common, and this payment is called hogalif. It seldom exceeds 3s. per annum.

The kelp shores and the pasture islands are seldom or never let to the tenant along with the land; these the landholder retains in his own hands. In some parts of Zetland, particularly in the island of Unst, the proprietor furnishes the tenant, gratis, with a house, barn, and stable, which he also keeps in a state of repair. In other
parts of the country this expense is divided between them, but the chief proportion of it always falls on the landholder.

The quantity of land farmed by a tenant varies from 3 to 12 merks, and sometimes more; but the average number to each may be taken at 5. In a few instances regular leases are granted, and some of them for a great number of years; but these are comparatively rare. In the great majority of cases, nothing more takes place than a verbal agreement on the part of the tenant to occupy a farm under certain conditions, for one year only, at the
expiration of which both he and the landholder consider
themselves at perfect liberty to enter on a new engagement ....

The rents are paid in cash and various articles of country produce, such as fish, butter, oil, etc.; and the amount of the rent varies, according as the tenant has the exclusive disposal of his labour or agrees to fish to his landholder. In the former case, the probable profits on the sale of fish and the other articles of produce are
estimated, and the lands are let at their full value. In the latter case, or where the tenant fishes to the landholder, he comes under an agreement to deliver to him his fish, butter, and oil, at a certain price, and then the lands are let at a considerably reduced rate. This system, where there is a reciprocity of profit between the landholder and the tenant, is by far the most general, and the
practice is immemorial in Zetland.

The merks are divided into different classes, such as
six-penny, nine-penny, and twelve-penny merks. These are arbitrary numbers, employed to designate certain differences in the rents of the merks, according to their size and produce. Thus nine-penny merks should be more valuable than six-penny merks, and twelve-penny more so than nine-penny. But these distinctions, although rounded, no doubt, originally on real differences, are at
present very inaccurate measures of the relative value of the different classes of merks; for sometimes happens that a six-penny merk is as large and productive as a twelve-penny one. . .

The lands in the different towns generally lie, intimately mingled together, which not only creates frequent disputes, but prevents the more industrious tenants from
making smaller enclosures...

The ground is divided into what is called outfield and
infield. The outfield is the land which has been last brought into a state of cultivation, and in most parts the soil is mossy. It is sown generally with oats. The infield, on the contrary, has been long in a state of culture, and it produces barley, called in Zetland bear, and potatoes. The outfield is seldom well drained, although it might be easily done without any additional trouble or expense.
Thus, when cutting peat for fuel, which is often done within the dyke, instead of doing this in parallel lines, leaving a considerable space between them to become a future corn-field, the people cut in every direction, disfigure the ground, and very often form reservoirs for water to accumulate in. The outfield is allowed to
remain fallow for one, and sometimes two years in succession, but the infield is generally turned over every year.

The enclosed lands were formerly runrig, i.e. held by the
inhabitants of the township in scattered allotments, at different places within the dyke or enclosing wall, the allotments being made, apparently, in such a manner as to give the tenants equal shares of the different qualities of land. In late years, however, much progress is said to have been made in dividing the farms and throwing the ground of each tenant into one lot.


The following description of the Shetland hut or cottage is written by Dr. Arthur Mitchell, now one of the Commissioners of Lunacy for Scotland, a very accurate and careful observer..

The Shetland cottage or hut is of the rudest description. It is usually built of undressed stone, with a cement of clay or turf. Over the rafters is laid a covering of pones, divots, or flaas, and above this again a thatch of straw, bound down with ropes of heather, weighted at the ends with stones, as a protection against the high winds which are so prevalent. Chimneys and windows are rarely to be seen. One or more holes in the roof permit the escape of the smoke, and at the same time admit light. Open
doors, the thatched roof, and loose joinings everywhere, insure a certain ventilation, without which the dwellings would often be more unhealthy than many in the lanes of our large cities. To this, there is no doubt, we must attribute the comparative absence of fever, the occasional presence of which, I think, is greatly due to
that violation of the plainest law of nature, the box-bed. This evil is often intensified in Shetland by having the beds arranged in tiers one above the other, in ship fashion, with the apertures of access reduced to the smallest possible size.

Drainage is wholly unattended to, and the dunghill is invariably found at the very door. As the house is entered, the visitor first comes upon that part allotted to the cattle, which in summer are out night and day, but in winter are chiefly within doors. Their dung is frequently allowed to accumulate about them; and I was told that this part of the house is sometimes used by the family in
winter as a privy. Passing through the byre, the human habitation is reached. The separation between it and the part for the cattle is ingeniously effected by an arrangement of the furniture, the bed chiefly serving for this purpose. The floor is of clay, and the fire is nearly always in the middle of it.

In some respects, however, the Zetland dwellings stand a favourable comparison with those of the Western Islands. There is a bareness and desolation about the misery of a Harris house that is tenfold more depressing. It is a poor house and an empty one, a decaying, mouldy shell, without the pretence of a kernel. Whereas in Zetland there is usually a certain fulness. There are bulky sea-chests, with smaller ones on the top of them; chairs, with generally an effort at an easy one; a wooden bench, a table, beds, spades, fishing-rods, baskets, and a score of other little things, which help, after all, to make it a domus. The very teapot, in Zetland always to be found at the fireside, speaks of home and woman, and reminds one of the sobriety of the people, that very important difference between them and the inhabitants of the
Hebridean islands. I think the Zetlanders, too, are more
intelligent, and more inclined to be industrious, and give greater
evidence of the tendency to accumulate or provide.

Instead of describing the house occupied by each patient, I have given this general account of the average Zetland dwelling, and then, in my individual reports, I have spoken of the special houses as of, above, or below the average.

Since 1860, the dwellings of the people have undergone
considerable improvement, especially in the more advanced districts, such as Unst; but the description given of them by Dr. Cowie, the latest writer on Shetland and himself a Shetlander, and my own observation so far as it went, enables me to state that Dr. Mitchell's description of the average cottage of the fisherman-farmer is still substantially correct. Cottages to which
the description exactly applies may be found within a mile of Lerwick. In Lerwick, the capital, the poorer dwellings are, to say the least, not better than those of the same class in other towns of its size.


It is necessary to distinguish the terms which are somewhat loosely used in speaking of the different kinds of fishing carried on in Shetland. The home or summer fishing, when that term is used in its widest sense, includes all the fishing for ling, cod, tusk, and seath prosecuted in open boats, whether of six oars, or of a smaller size such as are still used for the seath fishery
at Sumburgh. The haaf fishery is, in the greater part of Shetland, synonymous with the home or summer fishery, being distinguished from it only where, as at Sumburgh, seath fishing is prosecuted in summer in the smaller open boats. Haaf is the deep sea, the fishing of cod, ling, and tusk. This fishery is also generically known as the ling fishing, because, though, considerable quantities of tusk and cod are also caught at the haaf, ling is by far the most important part of its produce. The term cod fishing is sometimes applied to what is usually called the Faroe fishing, which is prosecuted in large smacks in the vicinity of the Faroe Islands, and in autumn as far north as Iceland. On the west coast of the mainland, the cod fishing or home cod fishing as it is called, to distinguish it from the Faroe fishing, is carried on, though now to a comparatively trifling extent, in smacks of a smaller size,
at banks to the south-west of Shetland. The winter fishing is prosecuted in small boats of four oars, which belong entirely to the men engaged in it, the fish being generally cured by themselves, or sold to any merchant they please for a price fixed and paid in money or goods at the time.

A boat is usually divided into six shares, each of the crew
having one share; the proceeds of the fish, after deducting the price or hire of the boat and other expenses incurred on account of the crew, for which the crew is responsible as a company, being also divided into six shares. In some rare cases the shares are fewer, and one or two of the men are hired.

It is an invariable rule that a boat's crew delivers all its fish taken during the summer to the same merchant. In a few cases this arises, as it formerly did almost universally, simply from the fact that the men are all tenants of a proprietor or middle-man, who makes it a condition of their holding their crofts that they shall
fish for him. In others, it is the subject of an express or tacit arrangement with a particular fish-curer.

When he delivers his fish, the fisherman does not receive
payment for it, nor does he know what price it will bring. The arrangement or understanding is, that the price is to be at the current rate at the end of the season. The season ends, so far as the fishing is concerned, at or about August 12; but the sales are not made until September and October, when the process of curing
is completed. The settlement of the price does not take place till November, December, or January; and in the case of one merchant, it appears to have been more than once delayed to a considerably later period. When a number of crews deliver their fish to the same merchant, especially if he has a number of stations at different parts of the islands, his settlements are considerably
protracted. Each crew, as I have said, has got supplies at the fishing station; it has also got fishing materials, and it may have to pay the hire, or instalments of the price, of its boat. These are all debited to the crew in a ledger account, kept in the name of the skipper and crew, thus John Simpson & Co., Stenness. The
sums due for these items being deducted from the total amount of the boat's fishing, the balance is divided into shares, which are carried to the private accounts of the several fishermen; for in almost every case the fisherman and his family obtain, during the year, supplies of goods from the shop of the fish-curer. In the great majority of cases there are no passbooks for such accounts. The private account is read over to the fisherman by the fishcurer, or by his shopkeeper, where he does not personally manage that department of his business; and the fisherman being satisfied as to its correctness, or, as it often happens, trusting to the honesty of the merchant, it is settled, any balance due to the fisherman being paid in cash, any balance against him being carried to his debit in a new account.

Tacksmen and Merchants.

Although the proprietors may originally have had some concern with all the fishing of the year, it is in the ling fishery that they till lately occupied, and in some instances still occupy, the position of the old Dutch traders. In this position they have now, for the most
part, been succeeded by merchants, who in some instances are tacksmen or tacksmasters, principal
lessees or middle-men, having sub-tenants, and in others are merely lessees of a fishing station, with its invariable appendage, a retail shop or store for goods of every kind. There is a regular season for the haaf fishing, lasting from about the 20th of May till the 12th of August. It is carried on chiefly from stations as near as possible to the haaf, where lodges or huts are erected for each boat's crew. The men return to their homes at the end of each
week. At each station where the fish are landed, whether that is a temporary station, such as Feideland, Whalsay Skerries, Stenness, Papa Stour, Spiggie, or Gloup, or a permanent curing establishment and shop, such as Reawick, Uyea Sound, Quendale, or Hillswick, factors are employed by the merchants to receive and weigh the fish, and enter the weight in a fish-book. These
factors at the temporary stations are entrusted with a small supply of meal, lines, hooks, and other articles likely to be wanted by the fishermen, which they sell to them in the same way as the merchants themselves or their servants do at the permanent shops.

Return To Shetland

Tour Scotland
Tour Edinburgh
Tour Island Of Skye

Rent A Self Catering Hoilday Cottage In Scotland

Share This Tour Scotland Web Page

Top Destinations
Tour Europe