» Skip to content

www.SHETLAND.org
History
About Shetland
History

History

People have lived in Shetland for at least 5,000 years. For most of that time, they lived by farming and fishing. Many archaeological sites illustrate these prehistoric phases of occupation and Shetland's story is superbly told in the recently-opened Shetland Museum and Archives.

The Picts

Mousa Broch Mousa Broch: This stone tower, the most complete iron age broch anywhere, has stood guard over Mousa Sound for more than 2,000 years. A visit to it on a summer night, when Storm Petrels arrive with food for their nestlings, is an extraordinary experience.

Before the Norse invasion in the 9th century AD, Shetland – like northern Scotland – was occupied by Pictish peoples. They left no written history but there are many physical remains including houses, settlements and field systems, the astonishing towers called brochs, carved stones and beautiful silver objects.

Vikings

From about 800, however, the Pictish peoples were either displaced by - or absorbed into - waves of immigration from Scandinavia. This was part of a huge westward expansion that saw Vikings colonise the Hebrides and large parts of northern Scotland, many other parts of northern Europe, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and North America.

The Transfer To Scotland

Shetland remained under Norwegian control for around 600 years. In 1469, King Christian I of Norway mortgaged Shetland to the Scottish crown to raise part of the dowry for the marriage of his daughter Margaret to King James III of Scotland. He’d done the same with Orkney less than a year earlier. James went on to annex Shetland to the Scottish crown in 1472. Attempts by Denmark to take Shetland back didn’t succeed, nor did Denmark accept offers by Scotland, in the early 16th century, to return the islands in exchange for military support. The law, economy, architecture and religion of Shetland became Scottish. Language, too, changed; it became essentially Scots but with many borrowings from Old Norse. Scottish landowners moved in, too.

The Hanseatic League

While these developments were taking place, there was a great deal of contact with the countries of the Hanseatic League. For around three centuries, from about 1400, Shetlanders sold their goods through German merchantmen in Bergen, and later to merchants from Bremen, Lübeck and Hamburg. The Hansa would buy shiploads of salted cod and ling. In return, the island population obtained cash, grain, cloth, beer and other goods. The trade with the North German towns lasted until, in 1707, the Act of Union prohibited the German merchants from trading with Shetland.

This was a blow to the Shetland economy, which had, in any case, suffered through the poor management of estates by landlords who’d moved in from mainland Scotland. Later in the eighteenth century, Shetland-based merchant landowners gradually rebuilt some of the trade; in the process, they forced local fishermen into binding agreements from which they were only freed in the late 19th century. It remained a desperately fragile economy, though; the Shetland Bank collapsed in 1842. From the middle of the 19th century, landowners undertook ‘clearances’ in several parts of Shetland, anxious to replace people with more profitable sheep.

The Seafaring Tradition

Not surprisingly, many Shetland men worked far away from the islands, leaving women to take charge of life on the croft. There were perhaps 3,000 Shetlanders in the Royal Navy at the time of Trafalgar, though some of those had been rounded up by the Press Gang. Many also found their way into the merchant navy.

World War II And The "Shetland Bus"

Shetland’s links with Norway came into sharp focus during World War II, when a Norwegian naval unit nicknamed the Shetland Bus (or Shetland Gang) was set up by Britain’s Special Operations Executive. It was based first at Lunna and later in Scalloway. About 30 fishing vessels were pressed into war service and they sailed covertly between Shetland and western Norway, carrying intelligence agents, refugees, instructors for the resistance, and military supplies. It was a very risky operation and, in 80 trips, ten boats and 104 lives were lost. Towards the end of the war, after three US submarine chasers took over from the fishing boats, there were no further losses.

The Oil Era And Beyond

Deap Sea Colossus Pelagic Fishing Boats: Shetland’s fishing fleet is one of the most modern and well-equipped in Europe. Boats come in many sizes. These large vessels mainly pursue herring and mackerel.

After the Second World War, Shetland’s economy was not in good shape and the population gradually declined. However, the establishment of the Highlands and Islands Development Board in 1965 heralded a new phase in which Shetland entrepreneurs began to develop new businesses in fishing, textiles and tourism. A decade later, oil had arrived. Careful planning meant that its physical effects were remarkably limited and the deal struck between Shetland and the oil industry transformed prospects for the Shetland community. Population increased, new businesses flourished and community facilities were developed to an extraordinarily high standard. That prosperity remains in evidence today.

More in this section