Life in Shetland, 1790s

by Sir John Sinclair; published in the Statistical Account of Scotland for 1791-00
quoted by Graham Simpson (GMS)

“There are on the whole island only 2 day-labourers.   Every householder is an independent tenant and fisher.  A man is paid for farm work 30 shillings to 25 shillings of yearly wages.  Ordinary female servants from 10 shillings to 15 shillings a year.  Domestic female servants are hired in gentleman families at 40-45 shillings/year.  Peat is the only fuel.  The principle heritors (37) of whom 26 are resident.  In order of their property: Mr.Mouat of Garth, Mr. Sanderson of Buness, Mr. Scott of Greenwall and Sir Thomas Dundas of Kerse.  Within these two years, a considerable part of the lands in the island have been sold by the former proprietors and bought cheaply by gentlemen who were before resident heritors.

“The Landlords rather court the tenants.  Rents remain nominally the same as they were 200 years ago being paid in fish, in oil, in butter - landlords sell (Sic!) back goods, the stipend of the Minister is paid in butter.  The church stands at Balcasta.  Usually 25-30 poor dependent on alms.  In 1775 there were 300 houses with 1368 people.  In 1780, 1835 people.  In 1791, 1988 people.   Females are more common than the males.   Annual births at about 78.  14 marriages per year.  21 deaths per year.  The young men go on the Greenland ships which anchor every year in Balta sound [ie. Whalers, GMS].  Inoculation against smallpox in 1770 [Shetland was the first place in the world to have MASS inoculation against smallpox soon after the development by Jenner - GMS]  Convulsive fits common among the females.  Norse tongue.  People frank and open in their manners, bold, hardy and humane.  Music and dancing very favoured in winter.  Many common people play with skill on violin.  Gin is most commonly used.  Violations of chastity happen now and then.  No roads and no post-office.”  [Worth noting that the norse custom of boxing occurred, whereby young courting couples were allowed to sleep in the croft in one of the ‘cupboard beds’ common at that time, but there was  a vertical board in the middle to prevent them from ‘fornication and other sinful activities’. There was little shelter outside in the winter for young courting couples.  Some of the last persons burnt at the stake for witchcraft were in the Shetlands in the late 1600's indicating a credulous, simple, religious culture endemic in the Shetlands and Orkneys which persisted well into the later part of the 19th Century - GMS]