Historical description of Shetland, Scotland

SHETLAND, or ZETLAND, ISLANDS, forming, with Orkney, a maritime county, in the northern extremity of Scotland; bounded on the north by the North Sea, on the east by the German Ocean, and on the west by the Atlantic. They lie between 59° 51' and 60° 52' (N. Lat.) and 52' and 1° 57' (W. Long.), and extend for about seventy miles from north to south, and fifty-four miles from east to west; comprising an area of about 855 square miles, or 547,200 acres; 5530 houses, of which 5388 are inhabited; and containing a population of 30,558, of whom 13,176 are males and 17,382 females. These islands, like those of Orkney, with which in their history they are closely identified, appear to have been visited by the Romans, though they effected no permanent settlement in either. They were at a very early period inhabited by the Picts, of Scandinavian origin, who, long after their defeat by Kenneth II., and the consequent union of the two kingdoms of the Scots and the Picts, continued, under his successors, to maintain in these distant territories a kind of independent sovereignty. As closely connected with the Orkneys, the islands were governed by a succession of petty kings till they were subdued by Harold Harfager, who attached them as appendages to the crown of Norway, and placed them under the government of a succession of Norwegian earls. On the marriage of James III., however, with the Princess Margaret of Norway, they became, and they have ever since remained, part of the kingdom of Scotland. They give the title of Earl of Zetland to the Dundas family.

Previously to the abolition of episcopacy, Shetland formed part of the diocese of Orkney; at present it constitutes the synod of Shetland, and comprises the presbyteries of Lerwick, Burravoc, and Olnafirth, and twelve parishes, the ministers of which are appointed by the Earl of Zetland exclusively. There are also two parliamentary incumbencies, in the gift of the Crown. For civil purposes the islands are united with those of Orkney, forming one county under the jurisdiction of a sheriff-depute, who appoints two sheriffs-substitute, one for each of the districts. By the provisions of the act of the 2nd of William IV., Shetland is also associated with Orkney in returning a member to the imperial parliament. The only town is Lerwick, besides which there are merely the village of Scalloway and some small hamlets, on the coasts. Lerwick was erected into a royal burgh of barony in 1818.

SHETLAND comprises a cluster or ninety islands, of which twenty-five are inhabited, and the remainder small holms principally appropriated to pasture. They are nearly contiguous to each other, being separated only by narrow sounds or firths; with the exception of Foula and Fair Isle, of which the former is about twenty-five miles to the west, and the latter twenty miles; to the south, of Mainland, and except also the Out Skerries, which lie about six miles north-eastward of Whalsay. Of the inhabited islands the principal is Mainland, above fifty-five miles in length and twenty-five miles in breadth. To the north of Mainland, from which it is separated by Yell Sound, is the island of Yell; twenty miles long and seven miles in average breadth; to the north of which, again, is the island of Unst, about twelve miles in length and from three to four in breadth. These three are the most important of the group. Of the other islands the largest is Fetlar, to the east of Yell, about four miles and a half in length and three and a half in breadth; and to the south of this, and opposite to Lerwick, is the island of Bressay, about four miles long and two miles in breadth. Of the two distant islands, Foula, supposed to be the Ultima Thule of the ancients, is three miles in length and a mile and a half in breadth; while Fair Isle is about the same in length and two miles broad. Among the remaining inhabited islands are Whalsay, Burra, Trondray, and the Out Skerries; and in addition to these are numerous small isles, holms affording pasturage to cattle, skerries covered by the tide at high water, and rocky islets, which it would be tedious to enumerate.

The general SURFACE is diversified with hills, of which Rona, the highest, has an elevation of 1476 feet above the level of the sea. Between the hills are valleys of pleasing appearance, of which those near the coasts have a wildly romantic character; but the great scarcity of trees detracts much from the beauty of the scenery. There are numerous springs of good water, and some of these send forth streams of moderate extent, none of which, however, can claim the appellation of rivers. The surface is also enlivened with lakes, many of them of picturesque character, and some of considerable size; most of the lakes abound with trout, and in several are small islands on which are the remains of Pictish castles. On an island in Loch Strom are the ruins of a castle once inhabited by a son of one of the Earls of Orkney.

Of the large number of acres, not more than 25,000 are in cultivation: more than 500,000 are hilly moorland pasture, water, and waste; there are also several fertile meadows, and wide tracts of moss affording an abundant supply of fuel. In general the soil is a light sand intermixed with clay and gravel, but in some parts a clayey loam; the most fertile lands are those near the coasts. The chief crops are oats, bear, potatoes, and turnips. Husbandry is in a comparatively low state; but from the institution of agricultural associations, which award premiums for the breaking up of waste lands and for other improvements, there is every prospect of its advancing. The principal manure is sea-weed, of which great abundance is found upon the coasts, with dung, ashes of peat, and mould mixed together. Spade husbandry is still much in vogue, owing principally to the smallness of the farms and the ruggedness of the surface: little has been done in the draining and inclosure of lands; and the want of good roads is a great obstacle to improvement. The cattle and sheep are both of the native breeds, strong and hardy, but small in stature; of the former about 45,000, and of the latter about 80,000, are generally fed on the different pastures. Poultry are largely kept on the several farms, and swine are fed in great numbers. The horses, of which about 20,000 are pastured on the hills, are of the native breed, small, hardy, and sure-footed, they are well known as Shetland ponies or shelties, and not a few are reared for the supply of the southern markets. Limestone is quarried for use as mortar, for which purpose it is burnt with peat, but it is not employed for agricultural purposes; sandstone-slate is also found, and quarried for roofing. The prevailing rocks are of granite, gneiss, mica and clay slate, limestone, sandstone, and serpentine. Copper and iron ores are found, and great quantities of chromate of iron have been quarried from the serpentine rocks in Unst: chromate is also to be obtained in Fetlar, Northmavine, and Innersand of Sandsting. From the remains of ancient trees found in the mosses, there is every reason to conclude that the islands formerly abounded with wood, though at present, except in one or two gardens, in which are a few sycamores, scarcely a tree of any kind is to be seen. The residences or the proprietors of land are Delmont, Buness, Hammer, Lund, Uyeasouud, and Uyca, in Unst; Brough Lodge, and Smithfield, in Fetlar, Gloup, Midbrake, Green bank, Reafirth, West Sandwick, and Burravoe, in Yell; Symbister, in Whalsay; Gardie House, in Bressay, Ollaberry, Busta, Mossbank, Lunna, Melbie, Reawick, Scalloway, Sand Lodge, and Quendale, in Mainland; and others.

The chief manufactures are, the knitting of wool into stockings, gloves, shawls, and mits, and the weaving of coarse woollen-cloth; the fleece of the Shetland sheep is remarkably soft, and has been wrought into stockings of so fine a quality as to sell for forty shillings per pair. Kelp, for which the coasts do not afford so ample a supply of material, is not manufactured here to the same extent as in the Orkneys. The main dependence of the population is the cod, ling, and herring fisheries, for which convenient stations have been established on the coasts, at Unst, Yell, Fetlar, Delting, Bressay, Scalloway, Northmavine, Papa-Stour, and other places. Among the fish taken are tusk, haddock, skate, halibut, flounders, and oysters of very large size; the shores also team with saith, or coal-fish, which form a considerable part or the food of the labouring people, and, according to their size, are called sillocks and piltocks. The trade embraces the exportation of dried fish, herrings, oil, butter and eggs, beef, cattle and sheep, Shetland ponies, hosiery, gloves, and worsted shawls; and the importation of almost every requisite for the use of the fisheries, clothing, manufactured goods of all kinds, groceries, and numerous other articles for the supply of the inhabitants. The port is Lerwick, where is the custom-house; and exclusively of the sloops employed in the fisheries, the number of vessels registered as belonging to the place is seventy, of the aggregate burthen of above 2000 tons. Vessels on their voyage to the Greenland whale-fisheries and to those of the Davis Straits, touch at this port, where they take in a considerable number of men, who are much esteemed for their skill and intrepidity. On Sumburgh Head, the southern extremity of Mainland, is a substantial lighthouse, erected at a cost of £40,000, displaying a fixed light visible at a distance of twenty-two nautical miles. The annual value of real property in the Shetland isles, as assessed to the income-tax, is £19,929. The remains of antiquity are, Pictish castles, which are to be seen in profusion, in many instances on islands in the lakes; tumuli, which were found to contain human bones inclosed with square stones; the ruins of churches and religious houses, among which are those of St. Hilary's kirk, Druidical pillars; old forts, one of which consists of two concentric circular mounds of earth and stone; numerous barrows; and various other relics, which are noticed under the heads of the islands and parishes where they occur.

Transcribed from Samuel Lewis' A Topographical Dictionary of Scotland, 1851