Shetland – the most northerly islands in the British Isles – has finite resources and when, in the 19th century, its population eventually exceeded the capacity of the land and sea to support them, many individuals and whole families had to leave.
Between 1860 and 1880, at least 8,000 Shetlanders, more than a quarter of the population, emigrated to destinations all over the world, but predominantly to mainland Britain, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and America. The exodus had begun some decades earlier and it continued right up to the 1960s before the advent of North Sea oil reversed the tide.
The majority of emigrants were homesteaders carrying with them native skills in boating, farming and fishing, spinning and knitting, and very often a strong faith and a determination of mind – nowhere they were going to could have less opportunities than faced them at home. They cleared land and raised livestock, became gold and silver miners, joined the Hudson’s Bay Company, sailed the world’s oceans as seamen, built homes, schools and chapels and raised their children to levels that could not have been possible in Shetland.
Shetland men and women were involved in adventures across the world. Several were entrepreneurs and became extremely successful. They were masters of ships from New Zealand to the Great Lakes, city mayors and a prime minister. One enterprising Shetlander owned half of Monterey in California and another built half of Denver in Colorado. In British Columbia, one emigrant became a renowned ethnographer and represented the First Nation People in their fight to retain their land and another taught them Fair Isle knitting. In the Pacific, one became the ‘King’ of the Cocos Islands, and another, born off Tasmania on his father’s ship, became a surgeon to Royalty.
A Kist of Emigrants
– commissioned by the Shetland Hamefarin Committee to coincide with the Hamefarin of 2010 – is illustrated with many photos, poems and letters and contains over 100 unique stories of 1,000 Shetland emigrants.
Click here to read a published book review.