Past Life: The first Quaker in Shetland

From Shetland Life, December 1983, No. 38

by M. Bowden

This year I had the privilege of meeting a Quaker lady from London who was re-tracing, as far as possible, the steps of her ancestor, Sarah Squire, the first Quaker to set foot in these islands. That was in the summer of the year 1835 and her descendant’s intention was to follow out this journey at the same time of year, visiting all the places mentioned in Sarah’s careful journal of her experiences.

Reading the account of this early Quaker certainly makes one realise that ‘women’s lib’ is no prerogative of recent years. At the time of her Shetland journey Sarah was 53 years old and the mother of eight children. Leaving her husband and family behind she set out on a two month tour of Shetland to be followed by a further month in Orkney. In those days this was an undertaking which we can hardly picture today.

This simple document of facts is a revelation. The sea voyage from Leith to Lerwick on a sailing ship called the Norna took six whole days, often in most unfavourable conditions. Although the month was June, when we expect better things, the year 1835 happened to be an exceptionally poor summer. The rough weather and the state of the country would have daunted any but the most determined, but they did not deter Sarah whose mission it was to carry her message through these islands.

Riding side-saddle in her voluminous skirts this middle-aged lady climbed hills “steep as the side of a house” as she says in her diary. There were no roads in Shetland then apart from a short stretch in Lerwick itself. The country was a maze of bog and marshland, the tracks round the coastline often precipitous. The best hope of progress was to rely on the ponies with their instinctive knowledge of where it was safe to tread.

Nothing discouraged this remarkable woman from making her way to the most remote places. Accompanied by a female companion and two guides she traversed the islands as far north as Unst. The more clement parts south of Cunningsburgh she left for others, perhaps less venturesome, to negotiate.

She visited the island of Papa Stour where she stayed with Gideon Henderson in the house where Lindsay, the prisoner of Papa Stour, was held captive for 26 years. At the time of Sarah’s visit, this unfortunate man was shortly to be released. That is a story in itself, only mentioned casually here.

Wherever they went Sarah and her party stayed with the best-known families who obviously provided them with ponies and boats. Everywhere she lodged Sarah praises the hospitality of her hosts and the welcome with which they were greeted. Occasionally, as in Sandness, she writes that decent accommodation could not be found, the sanitary arrangements not being up to her standard. One cannot help wondering what sort of sanitation there was anywhere in Shetland in 1835.

Wherever they lodged Sarah made that her centre for holding meetings and it is amazing how many people gathered together. In Fetlar for instance where the present population is less than 100 Sarah reports a congregation of 300 people at her meeting. From Reawick, where she stayed with the merchant James Garriock, Sarah crossed the voe to Leans, a tiny place with few houses and no church, where she addressed a gathering of 100 eager listeners. She also held meetings in far more isolated places, going as far north as Fethaland, where a small colony of fishermen lived during the summer months.

As there was no suitable saddle available for her, Sarah was obliged to walk the three miles of very rough going from Isbister to this most northerly point of the Shetland mainland, but that again proved no obstacle to her carrying the message to those fishermen. In that solitary spot she indeed spoke to a substantial gathering of some 100 souls. Nowadays few people, and then mainly bird-watchers, make their way to those derelict dwellings. There the chance visitor may stop to rest on the old house walls and wonder who could have lived there. In Sarah’s day there was real life in Fethaland.

There are not many buildings left standing where she is known to have spoken. In Hillswick and Ollaberry the old churches have long been replaced, but in North Roe, where the church built in 1828 is still intact, Sarah did actually hold a meeting. She also visited Lunna and Busta House which she must have found quite luxurious compared with some of her accommodation.

The account of the whole incredible journey has been preserved in Sarah’s own journal which she must have written up day by day in her fine neat handwriting. It is hoped that this will be published in book form with the necessary elucidations and comments by her descendant who has interested herself in the pilgrimage. If there is anybody in Shetland who has any further knowledge of this first Quaker mission it would be of interest in compiling the story of Sarah Squire’s tour.

How many Quakers there are at present in Shetland I do not know. They are scattered and have little opportunity of assembling together. In any case the account of Sarah’s journey will be of considerable interest not only to them but to many others concerned with Shetland history in the early nineteenth century.


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