A ruined house at Tingon, Northmavine.
The Highland clearances are known the world over for the cruelty and inhumane treatment shown to 19th-century tenant farmers who were thrown from their homes and land at the hands of their landlords – known locally as lairds. Blighting much of the Highlands and Islands during the 19th century, Shetland was no stranger to heartache at the hands of ruthless landlords and the men who did their bidding for them.
Shetland was certainly not immune to this period of cruel injustice. Although perhaps less affected than some parts of the Scottish Mainland, for the communities and families who were evicted from their homes, the pain was no less devastating. Communities across Shetland were ripped apart at the hands of landowners who cleared the tenant farmers, replacing them with Blackface and Cheviot sheep.
The clearances were a particularly dark period in Shetland’s history. One of cruel injustice, persecution and fear. Locally, we hear stories of houses being burnt to the ground, of babies being carried out in kishies [straw baskets] in the dark of a winter night and the destitute and homeless walking for miles, carrying their few possessions with them as they went.
Urie, Fetlar with the ruins of a fishing station. Fetlar was one of the first places to be cleared in Shetland.
The roots of Shetland’s clearances
Since 1469 (see this blog) Shetland became part of Scotland, and with that, we saw an influx of Scottish landowners who were on the ‘grab for land’. Many of these landowners, as we saw in the Stewart Earls, were unscrupulous and ruthless, seeing Shetland as a means to make more money, with little regard for the people who lived and worked the land already. Shetland’s way of crofting was viewed as outdated and the system of runrig, or rig-a-rendal, was seen as an ineffective type of land management. Runrig was a system where land was divided into small sections or strips with equal distribution between crofts; ensuring that each person had an equal share of the good – and bad – land to work. These strips of land were periodically reassigned amongst tenants so that no one individual had a monopoly on the best land.
Until the demise of Hanseatic merchants in the 17th century, tenant farmers had sold fish to these European traders who arrived every summer in search of fish. Following this, the lairds stepped in to fill the economic void left behind, marking the beginning of an age of persecution for tenant farmers. The lairds adapted their estate business models and branched into the lucrative fish trade, shifting their attentions out to sea. Lairds bought from their tenants for a pittance and, more often than not, changed tenancy agreements to state that they were now duty-bound to fish for them – and to sell – to them alone.
As fish became more profitable for the lairds, they encouraged people to marry young and add new crofts to their land – meaning that where one house once stood, there were now two, or more – adding additional men to fish for the landlord. This saw a steep rise in the population of the islands – between 1811 and 1861 the population grew by one third from 22,000 to 31,000 – the land, and all that it could produce to eat, couldn’t support that number of people. Going hungry was a real and ever-present threat in 19th century Shetland, where the wolf was never far from the door.
As more and more businesses sprang up buying and selling fish, many of the lairds began to think about diversifying again, and they looked to the Scottish Mainland to see what their contemporaries were doing – and it seemed the answer lay in large-scale sheep farming.
The introduction of larger breeds that would secure a higher price was a tempting initiative for the money-hungry lairds who held their tenants in an oppressive grip – akin to indentured servitude. These sheep would need more fields to graze, and unlike the Shetland sheep who lived in the hills and are said to be able to live on fresh air alone, these new breeds needed more grazing lands and more attention.
The problem standing in the way of the lairds and their sheep was the burgeoning population, in part caused by their own thirst for profit. But the solution to the population problem, unfortunately, like most aspects of economic life, lay in the lairds’ favour. The tenant farmers had no security of tenure – even if their families had farmed the land for generations, and they could be evicted from their homes, and their land, with only 40 days’ notice.
Another, perhaps more damaging feature than blanket evictions, was the work of factor John Walker who came to Shetland in 1862 and set about implementing his plan to create large-scale sheep farms, using the hill land – the scattald – for grazing them on. He instructed farmers that they could no longer run their livestock on the common grazing ground that they had used for generations, and although he didn’t always evict people, the action of banning them from the land was tantamount to the same outcome; forcing them from their crofts through starvation. For those who were allowed to stay, they were charged per head of sheep to run them on, often a much-reduced, area of land.
A ruined house at Urie, Fetlar which was cleared by laird Arthur Nicolson. Note the millstone in the foreground, an integral part of subsitence life on the croft.
The first and arguably most devastating clearance took place in the 1820s on the small island of Fetlar, the smallest of Shetland’s three North Isles. At its height, the island supported almost 900 people – today the population stands at about 70. Following the evictions of tenant farmers by Sir Arthur Nicolson in the 1820s, Fetlar’s population never fully recovered
The fertile limestone Valley of Weisdale was another to fall foul of 19th-century clearances that saw an entire community forcibly removed to make way for sheep.
The Valley was cleared over a 15 year period, and by 1861 with some 326 people had been evicted from their homes. The laird, David Dakers Black, consolidated the 250-acre valley into one estate and built his grand house of Flemington (now Kergord House) and the three-storey Weisdale Mill (now Bonhoga Gallery & Cafe). Black was a Scot by birth, and he held a large estate, also called Flemington, near Forfar on the Scottish Mainland.
Writer J.J Graham wrote a poignant book about the Weisdale evictions: The Shadowed Valley, I wrote about that here.
Flemington House (now Kergord House), built by David Dakers Black.
No area of Shetland was untouched by the clearances. Tingon in Northmavine was another to be wiped from the census by unscrupulous landlords. I wrote about their story here.
Eventually, an investigation into the plight of Shetland’s tenant farmers was undertaken. The Minutes of the Truck Commission gives a detailed and grim description of how much the people suffered during this time at the hands of the lairds, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act in 1886 that their lives began to change for the better. Visiting in 1872 The Commission visited tenant crofters, interviewed them and gathered evidence of mistreatment which was considered at a national level; this eventually led to them getting what they deserved – security of tenure. This act of parliament opened up a whole new chapter of hope in Shetland.
A roofless ruin at Tingon, Northmavine.
Ironically today, little over a century later, we are watching the same kind of large-scale devastation in the Weisdale Valley as developers move in to build a gigantuous windfarm – despite public opposition. As we move into another turbulent chapter in our history, it seems, to me, as if we have learnt nothing from the past that shaped us.
(You can read more about my thoughts on the windfarm here and here.)
That was a brief look at the history of the clearances in Shetland, which I hope you appreciated learning more about.
Until next time, stay safe and well,
“Visitors want to have the best experience; they want to see Shetland through the eyes of a local. They want to taste the salt on their faces, smell the sea and bear witness to the wind in their hair. They want to drink in the sights, the smells and the sounds of an island community. They want to be shown the places they would otherwise not discover. They want to piece together the fascinating jigsaw and truly discover Shetland; this is the trip they have dreamed of.”
A little about Laurie
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.