SHETLAND, Scotland - History and Description, 1868


The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland - 1868

[Description(s) from The National Gazetteer (1868)]

"SHETLAND or ZETLAND ISLES, an island county of Scotland. A group of islands situated in the North Sea, between 59° 48' 30" and 60° 52' N. lat., and between 0° 52' and 10 57' W. long., from Greenwich, exclusive of the two detached islands of Foula and Fair Isle, the former being about 20 miles farther W. from the mainland of Shetland, and the latter 25 miles S. from the nearest headland. They form a joint county with the Orkneys, from which they are separated by a channel about 15 leagues broad, and are only 44 leagues W. of Bergen in Norway, the nearest point of continental Europe.

There are three principal islands in the group, namely, Mainland, Yell on the N., and Unst on the N.E., besides Fetlar, which is the largest of the inferior islands and about 90 islets, holms, and skerries, of which only 32 are inhabited. Weekly communication is maintained by the Queen steamboat, which starts from Lerwick in Mainland every Monday evening for Aberdeen and Edinburgh, via Kirkwall and Wick.

The history of Shetland is so closely involved in that of Orkney, as to render an extended notice superfluous. These islands are said to have been first inhabited by the Norwegians, who called them Hialtlandia, or Hetland, signifying "the highland", from whence arose their subsequent appellations Yeatland, or Zetland. In 875 Harold Harfagr claimed the sovereignty of these islands as vested in the Norwegian crown, and having subjugated them, committed the government to Count Sigurd, who was the first earl of Orkney, and from whom sprang the earls of Orkney and Shetland.

About 1380 the line of the Norwegian earls ceased to retain their authority, and a Scottish nobleman, Henry Sinclair, obtained the earldom of Orkney, which included Shetland in the grant, though not in the title, from the king of Denmark and Norway. In his family they continued till 1468, when a marriage being concerted between the Scottish monarch, James III., and the Princess Margaret of Denmark, they were pledged as security for her dowry, which never having been paid, the islands continued part of Scotland, and at the Union passed to the crown of Great Britain.

The crown lands were subsequently granted to the earls of Morton, who sold the estate to Sir Lawrence Dundas in 1766, on which family they confer the title of earls of Zetland. The Norwegian laws and usages continued in force until a comparatively recent period, and may still be traced in the "udal" possession of lands. By the old tenure the udallers, or proprietors, held by mere possession, without any grant or evidence, and when the land was sold care was taken to give the udal-born or kindred the first offer. The islands now pay their proportion of land-tax, and in every respect have become subject to British laws.

The new valuation rental is £26,042. The assessment in Shetland in 1860 was, for rogue money 7½d. per merkland, and for prisons and valuation expenses 3d. per pound. The population in 1851 was 31,078, and in 1861, 31,678. The Shetland Isles unite with the Orkneys, to which sheriffdom they belong, in the return of one member to the imperial parliament. The parliamentary constituency in 1860 was, Shetland 182, Orkney 429, together 611.

The county town is Kirkwall, the only royal burgh in the shire situated in Pomona, one of the Orkneys; but the chief town of Shetland is Lerwick, in Mainland, with a population of about 3,000; besides it there are only two considerable villages, Scalloway and Hillswick, both situated on the W. coast of the Mainland, which so far exceeds the other islands, that at least three-fourths of the whole area of the group, estimated at 880 square miles, belong to it.

Though rugged and wild, the islands are not remarkable for any great elevation, Roeness, or Mons Ronaldi, the highest hill in Mainland, being scarcely 1,500 feet in altitude, and Foula, celebrated for its five conical peaks, 1,400 feet above sea-level. The cultivated tracts of fertile land generally lie close upon the seaboard, and stretch away thence toward the moors. Each enclosure contains from 5 to 80 merks, and is almost always subdivided among several tenants, who combine the operations of agriculture with the more profitable pursuit of fishing, the latter being the chief industry of the inhabitants, who also make good sailors for the whalers and Hudson's Bay ships.

Though the interior lands are comparatively level, the coastline is rugged and bold, the cliffs often losing themselves in the clouds, and occasionally appearing above them. Along the western coast, which is highest and most rugged, are innumerable bays or voes, the shores of which are sometimes covered with vegetation, and other points overhung by precipices, having 30 to 150 fathoms water at their base. Some of these caverns are of great beauty. The most remarkable are at Papa Stour, Lyra Skerry, Doreholm, Magnussetter Voe, Burrafirth, and the Holse of Scraada, in the peninsula of Northmavine; these last are divided into several chambers, but communicate with the sea by tunnels.

Other noteworthy points along the coast are Sumburgh Head, with its lighthouse, of which is Fair Isle, about 22 miles to the S.W.; Fitful Head, and Skeldaness, between which lies Scalloway Bay, with its groups of islets and the ancient castle of Scalloway; Papa Sound, near Sandness; Eshaness, leading round to St. Magnus Bay; Ronas Voe, situated beneath the summit of Roeness, the highest point in the Shetlands; Papaness, in Yell Island; Outstack Rock, the most northerly point of Great Britain, shaped like a seal; Balta Sound, where the whalers touch; Lunaness, at the E. end of Yell Sound, with the Outer Skerries off it; the Noss, outside Lerwick Sound; and Sandwich Bay, with Mouse Island off it. The deep creeks and sounds which occur along the coast afford shelter to fleets of fishing boats during the season.

The fishings include herrings, cod, saithe, ling, and tusk, the last two having been for centuries staple articles of export. The other commodities are cod-liver oil, sperm oil, butter, cattle, and native ponies, or Shelties. Knitted hosiery is the only manufacture of the islands since kelp has ceased to be profitable. The live stock consists of horses, cattle, sheep, and swine, all of which are diminutive in size, and are of varieties almost peculiar to Shetland.

The principal crops are black oats, potatoes, and turnips. Wheat and barley seldom come to perfection owing to the humidity of the climate. Winter scarcely terminates before the end of April, and sets in about October, affording but a short period for the operations of the husbandman. In the high latitudes of Shetland the light of day at Midsummer never totally disappears, so that at midnight the smallest print may be easily read, but in winter the nights are proportionately long and dark, the sun being above the horizon not more than 5¼ hours.

Rabbits are numerous in most of the islands, and sea-fowl swarm along the cliffs, including cormorants, gulls, kittywakes, guillemots, with the sea eagle, or bonxie, and the great white owl. The capture of seals furnishes employment to a considerable number of persons. Occasionally shoals of the bottlenosed whale, known to naturalists as delphinus deductor, approach the shore in pursuit of herrings, and are captured in vast quantities, yielding excellent oil.

The minerals and metallic ores are of considerable variety, including chromate of iron, iron mica, found chiefly at Fitful Head, iron pyrites at Garthness, and in Unst and Fetlar, copper ore at Fair Island and Sandlooge, also porcelain clay, galena, asbestos, fluor spa, amianthus, soapstone, verd antique, petroleum, and garnets, but none of these in sufficient quantities to repay the expense of working, except the chromate of iron, which is largely exported in a crude state to be converted into a pigment dye or alloy.

The strata consists of a few secondary rocks of the Devonian, or Old Red sandstone formation, extending from Bressa to Sumburgh Head, and vast masses of gneiss and mica slate, occupying the centre and southern parts of the Mainland, the whole of Yell, and part of Unst, the remainder of Unst being chiefly composed of serpentine and diallaze rock. The more remote islands of Foula and Fair Isle chiefly consist of sandstone and trap, with clay and mica slate in parts.

The principal igneous rocks are sienite, serpentine, and granite, the last forming the great mass of Ronaness mountain, described above, and occupying part of the north-eastern shores of Foula Island. For ecclesiastical purposes Shetland is divided into twelve parishes, forming the synod of Shetland. The Free Church has seven chapels, the Independents six, the United Presbyterians two, and the Wesleyans three. Education is so generally diffused, that all can read, and most are tolerably proficient in writing and arithmetic."

[Description(s) from The National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland (1868)
Transcribed by Colin Hinson ©2003]

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