Shetland History

Shetland: A Brief Historical Overview.

The Shetland Islands form an archipelago of over 100 islands occupying 556 square miles (1420 sq km), and with a coastline of some 1,679 miles (2,702km). The first evidence of human habitation is late Mesolithic (4,200BC). Neolithic farmers arrived about 4,000BC. The Iron Age in Shetland (600BC-300AD) is most dramatically represented by the many remains of brochs, the largest of which is on the island of Mousa. Indeed, this is the best preserved broch in Scotland.

Perhaps the most significant event in Shetland's history was the arrival of the Vikings from Norway in 800AD. Direct Norse rule continued until 1469, when Shetland became part of Scotland. This came about when James III of Scotland married Margaret, daughter of Christian I of Denmark. The Danish king had insufficient cash for the dowry and so pawned the Orkney and Shetland islands to make up the shortfall! However, Norse customs, laws, institutions and language continued up 1611. Over 90% of the place names in Shetland today are Norse in origin.

Shetland and the sea go hand-in-hand and so, not surprisingly, fishing has been the mainstay of the Shetland economy over many centuries. Indeed, fishing and aquaculture are still the biggest net contributors to the Shetland economy. From the 1400s until the very early 1700s, Hanseatic (German) traders visited Shetland annually. In the 1600s the Dutch herring fishery was established and continued for over 200 years. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most of Shetland was under the control of a few landlords (lairds). These lairds rented out the crofts to their tenants and also controlled much of the fishing industry at that time. In the nineteenth century, Shetland experienced 'the clearances' in which hundreds of people were evicted from their crofts to make way for sheep. This, along with potato blight and famine, resulted in many Shetlanders leaving the islands to set up a new life down on mainland Scotland or overseas, especially in Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. In 1886, the British government passed the 'Crofters Act' by which crofters gained security of tenure and emancipation from the landlords.

Until the 1600s, Scalloway, on the Atlantic seaboard, had been the capital of Shetland but with the coming of the Dutch fishermen, Lerwick gradually assumed this mantle. In the late 1800's there was a herring boom which brought a great deal of prosperity and further growth to Lerwick so helping to cement its position as the hub of the isles.

In April 1940, Shetland once again re-established a strong link with Norway following the invasion of Norway by Nazi Germany. Many Norwegians escaped to Shetland in fishing boats and other vessels. A resistance movement to the Nazi occupation was set up in Shetland and the movement became known as 'The Shetland Bus.'  A most excellent and graphic account/display is to be found in the new Scalloway Museum and is well worth a visit.

In the mid 1970's oil started to flow into Shetland bringing a degree of wealth and prosperity to the isles which has impacted upon almost every area of life. Shetland continues to be a vibrant community with a stable population (approx 22,000) and a relatively low unemployment. Most people in the islands enjoy a good quality of life.

For centuries, Shetland has been an international community welcoming people from many different countries. That welcome continues today and is extended to you. Have a great visit!