Of the Women: A 19thC Visit to Shetland

An American Professor toured Orkney and Shetland in 1890 publishing his impressions of the islands in the local newspaper The Orkney Herald.

In this account he gives us his views on the women of Shetland.

‘The Shetland women, as I learned, perform all the farm work, besides carrying the peat and attending to their household duties. Their fingers, not infrequently, busily ply their knitting needles, the while shoulders and back are supporting the heavy creels of peat. The shawls and other products of spinning wheel and hand are very graceful in pattern and soft in texture, resembling often lacework in fineness and elaborateness of design. But here, again, I confess a preference for a busy needle, whose products have not yet obtained, so far as I am aware, equal recognition, namely The Faeroese.’

Shetland lace shawl, showing the complex pattern and the sheerness of the shawl

‘The prices demanded for Shetland shawls in the shops at Lerwick appeared to me quite out of proportion to their usefulness or beauty. I have seen Faroese shawls, light as of woven of down, and soft and warm as only wool can be, delicate in pattern and deft in workmanship, woven by clean hands in clean houses that were offered in Faroese hamlets at a price which was nothing in comparison with the Shetland product. ‘

‘But all honour to the Shetland crofter’s wife, who, with wonderful patience and fortitude, endures the bondage into which she is born, and performs far more than her share of the toil of the home.

The native sheep appear gaunt, wild and dwarfed in stature. Insufficient nourishment probably has, in the course of generations, produced this diminutive stature. Their wool is, however, of the finest.’

an array of jumpers, cardigans and waistcoats in highly patterned knitting
Fair Isle Knitting in Shetland Museum credit Julian-Paren

‘The Shetlander, unlike the Orcadian, still to a large extent grinds his own grain, and these little stone mills, with wheels placed horizontally to the water courses, are favourite themes for vagrant artists. On my return from Mousa I entered a mill where a crofter was sitting watching his grinding grain. A hopper was so arranged that the jarring of the building caused every instant a few kernels to fall from it into the inverted cone, drilled in the upper millstone. The crushed grain, the flour, as it appeared beneath the outer rim of the upper whirling stone, was of course mingled with the fragments of husk and with a certain amount of impunity. Those were to be roughly separated by shifting.

I believe the best course for the Shetlander crofters, the younger generation at least, is emigration. The moment my feet touched Scotland, and I saw the sturdiness of the vegetation, indicative of a rich soil, contrasting so strongly with the poverty of the soil of the Shetlands, I wondered indeed at the enduring patience of the islanders. Is it not rather ignorance of better conditions and a dumb bending of the neck to the inherited yoke?’

‘Quite in contrast with the Orcadian, the educated and intelligent Shetlander reverts with pleasure, and even pride, to the Norse period. If his name is demonstrably Norse, he is proud of his lineage and the native dialect, now practically extinct, was, I am assured, essentially identical with some idioms still living in Norway.

The Population of Shetland

“Historical population data for Shetland is available going back to the 1801 census.

It shows that the population of Shetland reached its highest point of 31,670 in 1861, before falling gradually in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. It reached its lowest point of 17,335 in 1971.

A surge in population brought the number of people living on Shetland to 22,053 in 1971, and since then the population has grown much more slowly. The 2011 census showed a population of 23,167.”

Shetland Islands Key Statistics compiled in 2019 for HIE shows the following:

  • Total population was 22,990 in 2018, a decrease of 1.1% from 2011.
  • Population density (16 people per sq. km) is higher than that for the Highlands and Islands (12 people per sq. km) but lower than the Scottish average (70 people per sq. km).
  • An age profile younger than the Highlands and Islands and in line with Scotland.
  • A higher Economic Activity rate (84.7%) than the Highlands and Islands (80.9%) and Scotland (77.9%).
  • A self-employed rate (8.2%) lower than the Highlands and Islands (11.0%) but in line with Scotland (8.7%).
  • A higher Employment rate (84.7%) than the Highlands and Islands (78.6%) and Scotland (74.7%).
  • An unemployment rate lower than the Highlands and Islands and Scotland. In September 2019, the rate was 1.5%, lower than the Highlands and Islands (2.3%) and Scotland (3.2%).
  • School leaver positive destinations rates (i.e. not into unemployment) above the Scottish average.

Click on this link: for more information on Shetland Lace Knitting

To find out what else our American Professor has to say about Orkney and Shetland , use the search button on The Orkney News website.

Categories: Uncategorized

Tagged as: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply