Cataloguing the past

At the Shetland Archives, an immense number of fascinating and remarkable documents, covering all aspects of these islands’ history, are available for visitors to access. To learn more about what can be found in the archives, Marsali Taylor joins Angus Johnson for a tour.

The search room of the Shetland Archives is upstairs in the new museum building, and as you’d expect it has many books about Shetland on the shelves, as well as access to photographs on public computers, and census and genealogy records on microfilm. However, the archive is also the storage place of all the islands’ written records. Last month, to make more people aware of its treasury of detailed information about life across Shetland in past centuries, the archives had an open day.

I was there as they were setting up, and watched with interest as unbleached cotton cushions and padded rests were spread along the tables, ready for the display. When I came back the next day, an amazing variety of items from the collection was arranged on view, including an account book of Thomas Gifford of Busta; memorandum books of Father Heddell, Lerwick, Jan 1823 – May 1831; Gulberwick School and Anderson Educational Institute admission registers; the samples book of T & J Manson, publisher, bright with coloured tickets for every occasion; the register of sheep and cattle marks of parishes of Sandwick and Cunningsburgh, 1813-94; one of a large number of newspaper cuttings books kept by E S Tait between 1842 and 1956; a general register of poor from the parish of Dunrossness, 1865-’70; and the daybook of Ulsta Shop, with names, items bought and cost.

The archives’ oldest item was also on display, now safely encased in clear, stiffened plastic, so that you could even pick it up. It’s an A5, yellowed parchment with crabbed writing in browned ink, a conveyance of land by John of Chawmir, an Orcadian, to John Rollok, archdeacon of Shetland, dated 20th January, 1490.

The big treat, though, was getting beyond the closed door at the end of the room, past “Angus’s room”, where he works on digitising old recordings, up the stairs, round the corner, and through the heavy, metal door into the repository.
The archives’ repository is the most secure place in the whole building. It’s accessed by a key-pad; behind the heavy door, you walk into a space-age world. A white corridor, with what looks like a series of huge safe-boxes along the left hand side. Square metal pipes run through the ceiling, and red snouts indicate the fire-extinguishing system. The air is chilly and dry. There are no books visible, and no light switch – the lights are operated by a key outside.

“The biggest enemies of books are fire and water,” Angus explained, “and switches are a fire hazard. This store is fireproof for up to four hours. The roof sprinkler system contains gas, not water, and the humidity’s been removed from the air – that can be difficult, but this system’s working well.”

What I’d taken for safes are actually the ends of huge, sliding bookshelves. There was only one entrance open; Angus touched a button and one whole “safe” hissed and moved away from us, to reveal an aisle between two white metal shelving units filled with cardboard document boxes. A huge amount of shelving: the six-metre corridor seemed to stretch into the distance, and the top shelf was well above my head height.

“We have one of Shetland’s few railways up here, but the shelves can be moved by hand too,” Angus explained. “They do move on rails – not very far, though. The inner shelves are metal, to be inert – gases are leaked by varnish or glue. Even the paint is specified.”

Some archives south have multiple sites, meaning documents have to be ordered a day in advance. But Shetland researchers are lucky; all our documents are here, under this one roof, and if you ask the archivist on duty for a particular volume, it’ll be at your table almost straight away. It’s a dense storage space, with a huge amount of items packed into tough cardboard boxes, and even some space for more.

“Folk tend to donate more once they know you have space, but even so, it’ll do us for a good number of years,” Angus said.

He took down one of the cardboard boxes, tapped it to show its strength.

“They’re made in Milford Keynes – our cardboard box capital of the world.” He opened a box and brought out a large, red book, keeping it firmly closed. “This is four months worth of documents from one council committee – it’s restricted, so you can’t look into it without permission.” He grinned. “Fifty years ago, this would have been a year’s worth of minutes from the whole council.”

Another set of boxes. “What happened in the past was that you only appeared in the records if you committed a crime or had property. We get sent items that are of Shetland interest by the National Archives, and these are wills and inventories – passing on property. The early books hold 10 to 20 years’ worth; the later ones are a year each.”

The next aisle holds a series of unique records: police information, the initial information about a crime written in a letter to the procurator fiscal. Then the fiscal took evidence in the case, if he thought the circumstances warranted it. All the papers survive, from about 1850 to 1930.

“They’re a mine of information” said Angus, “with witnesses’ ages, where they lived, relationship to each other – particularly interesting to genealogists. They’re well used, a real window into the past. They survived because they were put up in the loft of the county buildings, covered with a layer of soot – neglect can be wonderful for preserving things.”

After that came the sheriff court criminal proceedings: boxes with a pile of folded white papers, each bound with white ribbon.

“This material begins in the 1700s.These are records of the Sheriff Court process. If your ancestor has ever been in court, this is a wonderful way to find out about it. For example, here’s a woman taking action against someone calling her a witch, and here’s a petition against being fined for refusing to give a day’s labour to the minister.

He moved on to another collection. “Here are the papers of Peter Jamieson, a socialist, writer and first editor of the New Shetlander. We’ve also just been assigned the copyright of Vagaland’s writing – that’s very unusual; normally the family give papers but retain the copyright of the work.”

He opened another shelving aisle, filled with dark red volumes, all different shapes and sizes, each labelled in gold: Store Ledger – Wet Copy Letter Book – Town – Petty Ledger – Ledger – Invoice Book – Cash Book – Clean Cash Book: the ledgers of Hay and Co from 1844 on.

“This is one of our largest bodies of records. Hay and Co ran the agency recruiting for the Greenland trading, and they sold men going to the whaling their equipment, on account, and they also sold to their families. If your ancestor went to the whaling, you can find out what he paid for his worset drawers. It’s a really good run of material, with names and ages.”

He opened one book and read us the list: Gilbert Pearson, of Swinning: a canvas chest with a lock, a flannel shirt, two frocks, a sou’wester, oilskin breeks, two pairs drawers, breeches, a mess tin, soap, soda, a cap, a nightcap, tea, coffee, sugar. The total cost was £11/ 10/6-, of which he paid £1/18/6- in cash.

Wet copy letter book?

“The Victorian equivalent of carbon paper, a bit like tracing paper. The paper is see-through, but the copy was made by laying the paper on the letter while the ink was still wet, Hence the smudging that occurs sometimes.

“Hay and Co also ran a big fish-curing business – at one time they virtually ran the economy of Shetland. Again, with their Whalsay and Burra records, you can find individual fishermen and boats; you can trace the ups and downs of a particular family. These records end just after the war.”

Angus moved on to another aisle, the “outsize storage area.” Here, instead of shelves, there were wide drawers. He opened the first one and took out an A3 poster, heavily printed in black, about “Scavengers” collecting “Fish Offal – Waste Paper – Ash”. “These are town council notices. We’re lucky to have very well kept town records. The scavengers, or ‘scaffies’, collected the refuse of the town.”

In the last bay, the lower half of the shelving was shallow drawers, the upper half was rolls of maps and carry-boxes.
“The map collection. Shetland’s not a well-mapped society. Maps are very expensive to produce, and most of them don’t survive, they’re worn out through use.” The one he brought out was hand-drawn, with carefully ruled shading and each street clear, yet distant, like something seen through the wrong end of a spyglass. “Here’s the plan for Lerwick Harbour, 1877.” He pulled out another. “Lerwick in 1856, with the streets and lanes, and grazing land where the Anderson High is.” The third map was huge. “This map’s by Roderick Coyne, from 1869, showing the lines of the proposed sewers. There was no piped water then, people used wells.

“We have maps of the country areas too. This is Walls and Sandness common grazings, and here is Whiteness and Weisdale – this one is linked to the Weisdale clearances. It’s been conserved by experts, backed on cloth, and the crinkles and crumples have been removed.”

Facing the maps was the newspaper collection, huge bound volumes of the Zetland / Shetland Times, Shetland Advertiser and Shetland News. “They’re the publishers’ own copies. We don’t produce these for readers any more, except in special circumstances: every issue is on microfilm. Newspaper is very fragile; light and sunlight are death to it. Try it for yourself – leave something on top of a Shetland Times in a window for an afternoon, and you’ll see how it leaves a ‘shadow’. Newspaper varies in quality, too – late World War II paper was particularly bad.”

What about modern records, and the archives of the future?

Angus shook his head. “I don’t think our ancestors will have anything like this information about us. We have different ideas of privacy, manners and legality – in the past there were notions about paternalism, and the authorities knowing best, which we don’t accept now. Records retained in the past often reveal rather bald judgements. Even public records – newspapers, for instance – state ‘suicide’ rather clearly, and sometimes a tag like ‘weak mind’. Victorian Poor Law Boards printed lists of who was receiving money – you can’t imagine the social services doing that now.

“In general, we have an amazing amount of material, and almost everything we have is available to the public. We’re always happy to help folk find out more about the past here in Shetland.”


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