Of Toiling Women: A 19thC Visit to Shetland

An American Professor toured Orkney and Shetland in 1890. His impressions of the islands were published in the local newspaper, The Orkney Herald. In this account he reflects on the landscape of Shetland.

‘ The topography of the Shetland Islands, conditions of soil, &c., are entirely diverse from those of the more southern archipelago. They should, and, as far as my information reaches, they do develop widely distinct types of humanity. In general, it may be said that the Shetland islands consist of ranges of hills, whose general direction is parallel with that of the lower axis. The ridges are rather sharply defined, and the lateral slopes descend rapidly to the sea. Where the islands are broad, irregularly parallel ranges of a similar type occur, with intervening valleys. The north-western coastline is said to be very picturesque, resembling Norway, though on a much smaller scale.

The sea precipices have been worn by the beating of the waves into bold and fantastic forms, such as pillars, caves, &c., The upper slopes of Shetland hills are covered with a thin soil, sometimes bare of vegetation, sometimes brown with heather. The lower slopes where they bend to the valleys, are filled with deep peat bogs. Only a narrow strip along the sea board appears capable of culture.’

a large voe of water in Shetland
Dales Voe Shetland by Colin Smith

‘ Nothing can be wilder, more dismal, or desolate of habitable regions than a Shetland landscape seen through the veil of mist and rain. The hillsides show great rents and tatters in their covering, where even the heather and grass turf have been torn away for fuel. The lower slopes are black and cut with deep trenches at whose sides are piles of steaming peat.

Women with great baskets filled with peat go bowing homeward, or, with empty baskets, tramp towards the bogs. In the spongy meadows and ploughed land other women are toiling with shovel and mattock. The crofters houses are wretched stone huts, rudely thatched. Peat bricks, thatch, at times the remnants of a creel, or even a hole in the thatch, form the chimneys. Utterly hopeless seems the outlook from the land side, save in especially savoured localities.’

a boat in the Shetland museum

‘ The sea is the Shetlander’s mine, and he is thus perforce a fisherman with a small farm, that the women care for, while the Orcadian is a farmer, who does a bit of fishing at leisure moments. The system of rack rents formerly obtained in the hamlets, and also that of factors under the control of the proprietors (or of the proprietors themselves) who kept the stores and paid the crofter in kind, and at their own valuation, for the products of fishing, farm and loom, holding him always in arrears of payment. This system, only recently abolished, contributed of course its part to render the situation of the tenant desperate.

But scenically, under favouring conditions, with the air clear and bracing, a Shetland landscape is a beautiful sight – to the tourist.

After visiting Shetland, the Orkneys, not even excepting Hoy, seem tame and uninteresting.’

the rugged coastline at Virkie Shetland with the lighthouse in the distance

In his next instalment, our American Professor tells us of Scalloway, knitting and ponies. To find out what else he has recounted use the search button on The Orkney News website.

Fiona Grahame

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