1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Shetland
SHETLAND, or Zetland, a group of islands constituting a county of Scotland, and the most northerly British possession in Europe. It consists of an archipelago of islands and islets, over 100 in number, situated to the north-east of Orkney, between 59° 50′ and 60° 52′ N. and 0° 55′ and 2° 14′ W., and bounded on the W. by the Atlantic and on the E. by the North Sea. The distance from Dennis Head in North Ronaldshay of the Orkneys to Sumburgh Head in Shetland is 50 m., but Fair Isle, which belongs to Shetland, lies midway between the groups. The islands occupy an area of 352,889 acres or 551·4 sq. m. Besides Mainland, the principal member of the group, the more important are Yell, Unst and Fetlar in the north, Whalsay and Bressay in the east, Trondra, East and West Burra, Papa Stour, Muckle Roe and Foula in the west, and Fair Isle in the south. The islands present an irregular surface, frequently rising into hills of considerable elevation (an extreme of 1475 ft. is found in the north-west of Mainland). Most of the inland scenery is bleak and dreary, consisting of treeless and barren tracts of peat and boulders. The coast scenery, especially on the west, is always picturesque and often grand, the cliffs, sheer precipices of brilliant colouring, reaching a height of over 1000 ft. at some places. The shores are so extensively indented with voes, or firths—the result partly of denudation and partly caused by glaciers—that no spot in Shetland is more than 3 m. from the sea. There are sheets of fresh water in the larger islands, the most important being Strom Loch (2 m. long), Girlsta (112 m. long) and Spiggie (112 m.) in Mainland, and Loch of Cliff (2 m.) in Unst, and numerous short streams. The principal capes are Sumburgh Head, the most southerly point of Mainland, a bold promontory 300 ft. high; Fitful Head, on the south-west of the same island, a magnificent headland, 2 m. in length and nearly 1000 ft. high, where Norna, the prophetess of Sir Walter Scott's Pirate, was supposed to have her abode and which the Norsemen called the White Mountain, in allusion to the colour of the clay slate composing it; and the Noup and Herma Ness, two of the most northerly points in Unst.
Geology.—The geological characters of this group of islands resemble those of the northern part of Scotland. Old Red Sandstone, red grits, sandstones and marls and conglomerate occur in a narrow belt on the east side of Mainland from Sumburgh Head to Rova Head, north of Lerwick; they also form the island of Bressay. In the western portion of Mainland, in Northmavine, there is a considerable tract of rocks of this age which are formed largely of intrusive diabase-porphyrite; similar volcanic rocks occur in Papa Stour. These are penetrated by intrusions of granitic and felsitic character; one of these masses in Papa Stour is a handsome pink felsite. Practically all the remaining area in these islands is occupied by metamorphic schists and gneisses which occur in great variety and with which are associated numerous dikes and masses of intrusive igneous rock. The southern part of Mainland, from Laxfirth Voe to Fitful Head a series of dark schists and slates, is found with subordinate limestones. The metamorphic rocks of the rest of Mainland are principally coarse gneisses, micaceous and chloritic schists, quartzites, &c.; in these rocks at Tingwall and Wiesdale considerable beds of limestone occur, which may be followed across the island in a northerly direction to Yell Sound, and to Dales Voe in Delting. Gabbro occurs in the peninsula of Fethland; diorite in Northmavine between Rinas Voe and Mavis Grind; and epidote-syenite in Dunrossness. Yell is formed of coarse gneiss and) granitic rocks. In Unst the high ground on the west coast consists of gneiss, which is followed eastward by schists of various kinds, then by a belt of serpentine, 2 m. to a quarter of a mile in breadth, which crosses the island from S.W. to N.E.; this is succeeded by a belt of gabbro, and finally the eastern border is again occupied by micaceous and chloritic schists. Similar rocks occur in Fetlar. Whalsay is built of coarse gneisses and schists. During the height of the glacial period the ice must have crossed the islands from E. to W., for many of the rocks belonging to the eastern side are found as boulders scattered over the western districts. Important formations of chromite are found at Hagdale and the Heog Hills; steatite occurs at Kleber Geo, and many interesting minerals have been recorded from these islands.
Climate and Fauna.—The average annual rainfall amounts to 46 in., and the mean temperature for the year is 45°·3 F., for March 39° F. and for August 54° F. The winter, which is very stormy, lasts from November to March; spring begins in April, but it is the middle of June before warmth becomes general, and by the end of August summer is gone. The summer is almost nightless, print being legible at midnight, but in winter the days are only six hours long, though the nights are frequently illuminated with brilliant displays of the aurora borealis. The well-known Shetland breed of shaggy ponies are in steady demand for underground work in collieries. The native cattle, also diminutive in size, with small horns and short legs, furnish beef of remarkable tenderness and flavour; while the cows, when well fed, yield a plentiful supply of rich milk. The native sheep possess many of the characteristics of goats. Ewes as well as rams generally have short horns, and the wool is long and very fine. White, black, speckled grey and a peculiar russet brown, called moorat, are the prevailing colours. It is customary to pluck the wool by hand rather than shear it, as this is believed to ensure a finer second crop. Black-faced and Cheviots are also found in some places. Large numbers of geese and poultry are kept. The lochs and tarns are well stocked with brown trout, and the voes and gios, or narrow inlets of the sea with steep rocks on both sides, abound with sea trout. Hares, for a long period extinct, were reintroduced about 1830, rabbits are very numerous, and the northern limit of the hedgehog is drawn at Lerwick. Whales of various species are frequently captured in the bays and sounds; the grampus, dolphin and porpoise haunt the coasts, and seals occasionally bask on the more outlying islets. Besides the commoner kinds of fishes, sharks, the torsk, opah and sunfish occur. There is an immense variety of water-fowl, including the phalarope, fulmar petrel, kittiwake, Manx shearwater, black guillemot, whimbrel, pufiin and white-tailed eagle.
Industries.—There has been no agricultural advance corresponding to that which has taken place in Orkney, mainly owing to the poverty and insufficiency of the soil. Although there are some good arable farms in favoured districts, the vast majority of holdings are small crofts occupied mostly by peasants who combine fishing with farming. Crofting agriculture is conducted on primitive methods, spade tillage being almost universal, and seaweed the principal manure. The cottages are generally grouped in small hamlets called “touns.” The size of the crofts varies greatly. There are several hundreds under 5 acres, but the average holding runs from 5 to 20 acres. At one time the land was held on the “runrig” system—that is, different tenants held alternate ridges—but now as a rule each holding is separate. About one-sixth of the total area is under cultivation, oats and barley being the chief grain, and potatoes (introduced in 1730) and turnips (1807) the chief green crops. Cabbage, said to have been introduced by a detachment of Cromwellian soldiers, is also raised, and among fruits black and red currants ripen in sheltered situations. In spite of somewhat adverse climatic conditions, live stock is reared with a fair amount of success.
The distinctive manufacture is knitted goods. The finest work is said to come from Unst, though each parish has its own speciality. The making of gloves was introduced about 1800, of shawls about 1840 and of veils about 1850. So delicate is the workmanship that stockings have been knitted that could pass through a finger-ring. Women do most of the farm work and spend their spare time in knitting. Fishing is the occupation of the men, and the real mainstay of the inhabitants. Formerly the fishery was in the hands of the Dutch, whose supremacy was destroyed, however, by the imposition of the salt tax in 1712. So complete was their control that they are estimated to have derived from it more than 200 millions sterling while it lasted. Then the fishery was neglected by the natives, who were content to use the “sixerns,” or six-oared fishing boats, till the last quarter of the 19th century, when boats of modern type were introduced. Since 1890 the herring fishery has advanced rapidly, and the Shetland fishery district is the most important north of Aberdeenshire. The haaf or deep-sea catch principally consists of cod, ling, torsk and saithe. Communication with the islands is maintained by steamers from Leith and Aberdeen to Lerwick, the capital (twice a week), and to Scalloway, the former capital, and other points (once a week).
Population.—In 1891 the population amounted to 28,711 and in 1901 it was 28,166 or 51 persons to the sq. m. The females numbered 15,753, or 127 to every 100 males, considerably the largest proportion to any county in Scotland. In 1901 there were 55 persons speaking Gaelic and English, none who spoke Gaelic only, and 92 foreigners (almost all Scandinavians). Only twenty-seven islands of the group are inhabited, but in the case of some of them the population consists solely of a few lighthouse attendants, shepherds and keepers.
The Inhabited Isles.—The following is a list of the inhabited isles, proceeding from south to north; but it will be understood that they do not lie in a direct line, that several are practically on the same latitude, that the bulk are situated off the east and west coast of Mainland, and that two of them are distinctly outlying members of the group. The figures within brackets indicated the population in 1901. Fair Isle (147) lies 24 m. S.W. of Sumburgh Head, and is 3 m. long by about 2 m. broad. The name is derived from the Norse faar, a sheep (a derivation better seen in the Faroe Isles). It is a hilly island, with rocky cliffs; North Haven, on the east coast, being almost the only place where landing can be safely effected. From the survivors of a vessel of the Spanish Armada that went ashore in 1588 the natives are said to have acquired the art of knitting the coloured hosiery for which they are noted. The shipwrecked sailors taught the people how to prepare dyes from the plants and lichens, and many of the patterns still show signs of Moorish origin. Mainland (19,676), the largest and principal island, measures 54 m. from N. to S., and 21 m. from E. to W., though the shores are indented to an extraordinary degree and the bulk of the island is much narrower than the extreme width would indicate. The parish of Walls, in the west, is said to contain more voes, whence its name (an erroneous rendering of the Norse waas), than all the rest of Shetland; while the neck of land at Mavis Grind (Norse, maev, narrow; eid, isthmus; grind, gate), forming the boundary between the parishes of Northmavine and Delting, is only 60 yds. wide and about 20 ft. above the sea, almost converting the north-western area' of Mainland into an island. In the promontory of Eshaness may be seen some wonderful examples of sea sculpture. The Grind of the Navir (“Gate of the Giants”) is a staircase carved by the waves out of the porphyry cliffs. In the rock of Dore Holm is a natural archway, 70 ft. wide, through which the tide constantly surges, and to the south-east of it are the Drougs, stacks of quaint shapes, suggesting a ship in full sail, a ruin, a cowled monk and so forth. Besides Lerwick (q.v.) the county town, one of the most interesting places in the island is Scalloway (857), the ancient capital. According to Dr Jakob Jakobsen, the name means the voe (waa) of the skollas, or booths, occupied by the men who came to attend the meeting of the ting, or open-air law court, which assembled in former days on an island in the Loch of Tingwall (hence its name), about 3 m. farther north. Scalloway stands at the head of a bay and has piers, quays, warehouses and cooperages in connexion with the fishing industry. The ruins of the castle built in 1600 by Patrick Stewart, earl of Orkney, stand at the east end of the bay and are in good preservation. An iron ring on one of the chimneys is said to be that on which he hung the victims of his oppression. On the opposite side of the bay is Gallow Hill, the old place of execution of witches and criminals. Off the south-eastern coast of Mainland, separated by a sound 1 m. broad and usually visited from Sandwick, lies the uninhabited island of Mousa (correctly spelled Moosa, the moory isle, from the Norse mó-r, moor), famous for the most perfect specimen of a Pictish broch, or tower of defence, in the British Isles. The broch, which stands on a rocky promontory at the south-west of the isle, now measures about 45 ft. in height, but as some of the top courses of masonry have fallen down it is supposed to have been 50 ft. high originally. It was entire in 1154, and was partially restored in 1861. It has a diameter at the foot of 50 ft., and at the top of 38 ft. The interior court, open to the sky, is 30 ft. in diameter, the enclosing wall having a thickness, at the base, of 1512 ft. There are three separate beehive-shaped rooms on the ground floor, which were entered from the court, from which also there was an entrance to the stair leading to the galleries, which were lighted by windows facing the court. Hevera (25) lies off the west coast of Mainland, south of the two Burras. East Burra (203), about 4 m. long by 1 m. broad, is separated from Mainland by Clift Sound, a narrow arm of the sea, 8 m. long. West Burra (612), 6 m. long by 1 m. broad, with a very irregular coast-line, lies alongside of East Burra and contains a church. It is said to be the Burgh Westra of Sir Walter Scott's Pirate. Burra is a contraction of Borgar-öy, meaning “Broch island.” Trondra (151), “Trond's island,” Trond being an old Norse personal name, in the mouth of Scalloway Bay. Oxna (36) lies about 4 m. S.W. of Scalloway, and Papa (priest's isle, 16), to the E. of Oxna. Bressay (679) lies 1 m. E. of Lerwick, from which it is separated by the Sound of Bressay, in which Haakon V., king of Norway, anchored his galleys on the expedition that ended so disastrously for him at Largs (1263). The island is 6 m. long by 3 m. broad and has several notable natural features. Ward Hill (742 ft.) is the sailors landmark for Lerwick harbour. Bard Head (264 ft.), the most southerly point, is a haunt of eagles, at the foot of which is an archway called the Giant's Leg. On the west side of the Bard is the Orkney Man's Cave—a great cavern with fine stalactites and a remarkable echo. Noss (7), to the E. of Bressay, from which it is separated by a channel 220 yds. wide. On the east coast the rocks form a headland (592 ft.) called the Noup of Noss (“the peak of the nose”), once the source from which falcons were obtained for the royal mews. Off the south-east shore lies the Holm (160 ft.), with which communication used to be maintained by means of the Cradle of Noss swing or ropes. Both Noss and Bressay are utilized in connexion with the rearing of Shetland ponies. Holm of Papal, “isle of the priest” (2), belonging to Bressay parish, and Linga, “heather isle” (8), to the parish of Tingwall, lie S.E. of Hildasay. Foula, pronounced Foola (Norse, fugl-öy, “bird island”) (230), lies 27 m. W; of Scalloway, and 16 m. W. of the nearest point of Mainland. It measures 312 m. long by 212 m. broad. The cliffs on the west coast attain in the Sneug (Norse, Snjoog, “hill top”) a height of 1272 ft. They are the home of myriads of sea-birds and one of the nesting-places of the bonxie, or great skua (Lestris cataractes), which used to be fostered by the islanders to keep down the eagles, and the eggs of which are still strictly preserved. The natives are daring cragsmen. The only landing-place is the village of Ham, on the east coast. Vaila (21), in the mouth of the Bay of Walls, affords good pasturage. Linga (4) lies immediately to the north of Vaila. Papa Stour (272), properly spelt Stoor, “the big [Norse stor] island of the priests,” lies in the south-west of the great bay of St Magnus. It measures 2 m. in length by about 3 m. in breadth and has a coast-line of 20 m. Christie's Hole and Francie's Hole, two of the caves for which it is noted, are reputed to be among the finest in the United Kingdom. The sword dance described in the Pirate may still be seen occasionally. Four miles N.W. are the islets known as the Ve Skerries, where seals are sometimes found. Whalsay, “whale island” (975), measuring 5 m. from N.E. to S.W. by 212 m. wide, is an important fishing station. Muckle Roe, “great red island” (202), roughly circular in shape and about 3 m. in diameter, lies in the E. of St Magnus Bay. Gruay, “green isle” (10), Housay (68), Bruray (44), Bound (2) are members of the group of Out Skerries, about 4 m. N.E. of Whalsay. There is a lighthouse on Bound, and the rest are fishing stations. Yell (2483), separated from the north-east coast of Mainland by Yell Sound, is the second largest island of the group, having a length of 17 m., and an extreme width of 612 m., though towards the middle the voes of Mid Yell and Whale Firth almost divide it into two. It contains several brochs and ruined chapels and is an important fishing station. Fetlar (347) lies off the east coast of Yell, from which it is divided by Colgrave Sound and the isle of Hascosay and is 5 m. long by 612 m. broad. It ranks with the most picturesque and most fertile members of the group and contains a breed of ponies, a cross between the native pony and the horse. Uyea, “the isle,” from the Old Norse öy (3), to the south of Unst, from which it is divided by the narrow sounds of Uyea and Skuda, yields a beautiful green serpentine. Unst (1940), to the N.E. of Yell and separated from it by Bluemull Sound, is 12 m. long and 6 m. wide. It has been called the “garden of Shetland,” and offers inducements to sportsmen in its trout and game. The male inhabitants are mostly employed in the fisheries and the women are the most expert knitters of hosiery in the islands. Unst contains several places of historic interest. Near the south-eastern promontory stands Muness Castle, now in ruins, built in 1598—according to an inscription on a tablet above the door—by Laurence Bruce, natural brother to Lord Robert Stewart, 1st earl of Orkney. Buness, near Balta Sound, was the house of Dr Laurence Edmonston (1795–1879), the naturalist. Near Balliasta are the remains of three stone circles. It is supposed the Ting, or old Assembly, met at this spot before it removed to Tingwall. Farther north, at the head of a small bay, lies Haroldswick, where Harold Haarfager is believed to have landed in 872, when he annexed the Orkney and Shetland Islands to Norway. Burra Firth, in the north of Unst, is flanked on both sides by magnificent cliffs, including the Noup of Unst, the hill of Saxavord (934 ft.), the Gord and Herma Ness. Muckle Flugga (3), about 1 m. N. of Unst, is the most northerly point of Shetland, and the site of a lighthouse.
Administration.—Shetland unites with Orkney to return a member to parliament. The island is divided into Mainland district (comprising the parishes of Northmavine, Delting, Nesting, Sandsting, Walls, Tingwall, Bressay, Lerwick and Dunrossness) and North Isles district (the parishes of Unst, Fetlar and Yell). It forms a sheriffdom with Orkney and Caithness, and there is a resident sheriff-substitute at Lerwick, the county town. There are parish poorhouses in Dunrossness and 'Unst, besides the Shetland combination poorhouse at Lerwick. The county is under school board jurisdiction and Lerwick has a secondary school, and a few of the other schools earn grants for higher education. The “residue” grant is expended on navigation and swimming classes.
History and Antiquities.—The word Shetland is supposed to be simply a modernized rendering of the Old Norse Hjaltland, of which the meaning is variously given as “high land,” “Hjalti's land”—after Hjalti, a man whose name occurs in ancient Norse literature, but of whom little else is known—and “hilt land,” in allusion to an imagined, though not too obvious, resemblance in the configuration of the archipelago to the hilt of a sword. Of the original Pictish inhabitants remains exist in the form of stone circles (three in Unst and two in Fetlar) and brochs (of which 75 examples survive). The islanders were converted to Christianity in the 6th and 7th centuries by Irish missionaries, in commemoration of whose zeal several isles bear the name of Papa or “priest.” Four stones with Ogam inscriptions have been found at different places. About the end of the 8th century both the Shetlands and Orkneys suffered from the depredations of Norse vikings, or pirates, until Harold Haarfager annexed the islands to Norway in 875. Henceforward the history of Shetland is scarcely separable from that of Orkney (q.v.). The people, more remote and less accessible to external influences, retained their Scandinavian characteristics longer than the Orcadians. The Norse language and customs survived in Foula till the end of the 18th century, and words and phrases of Norse origin still colour their speech. George Low (1747–1795), the naturalist and historian of Orkney, who made a tour through Shetland in 1774, described a Runic monument which he saw in the churchyard of Crosskirk, in Northmavine parish (Mainland), and several fragments of Norse swords, shield bosses and brooches have been dug up from time to time.
See George Low, Tour through the Islands of Orkney and Shetland in 1774 (published in 1879); A. Edmondston, Zetland Islands (1809); Samuel Hibbert-Ware, Description of the Shetland Isles (1822); C. Rampini, Shetland and the Islanders (1884); C. Sinclair, Shetland and the Shetlanders (1840); R. S. Cowie, Shetland (1896); Dr Jakob Jakobsen, The Dialect and Place Names of Shetland (1897).