Feature article: Finding a place

by Charlie Simpson

Bixter Road, New Zealand
Shetland names around the world - Bixter Road, New Zealand. Photo courtesy Kevin Tulloch

During the century between 1860 and 1960, it’s impossible to learn exactly how many native Shetlanders left these islands for a new life elsewhere. Leave they did, for sure; we know our population estimates show a decline from 31,860 to 17,812 over the same century. Why, and where, did 14,000 people go?

We know a thousand Shetlanders lost their lives in two wars, and population statisticians may tinker with age groups and birth rates and death rates and so on, but the bare fact remains that many thousands chose to leave for a new life, often on the opposite side of the globe, and endure the thought that there was little or no chance to return.

The rate of emigration wasn’t steady over this century. A steady trickle before 1900 turned into a rush before World War One, became a flood throughout the 1930s, and a steady post-war trickle again between 1945 and 1960. Only the coming of oil in the 1970s stemmed and reversed this seemingly inexorable decline in population.

It’s arguable that emigration has never ceased; today it’s still the accepted norm that most educated young Shetlanders will leave the islands – a practice fostered ever since secondary education was introduced and made accessible to all. After three decades of prosperity and opportunity, the decline of North Sea oil production is bound to accelerate the process once more.

It’s often averred that there are many times more people of Scots or Irish descent outside these countries than within; the same is abundantly true of Shetland, on a lesser scale. Many emigrant couples of the 1870s have produced more than 200 related descendents over four generations: most native Shetlanders have more cousins outside Shetland than within.

There was little or no emigration from Shetland before 1830. Thereafter, bad fishings and bad harvests were the main incentives to leave, although it’s true that pressure from landowners who wanted to create sheep farms around 1870 certainly led to significant emigration in places like Fetlar, Delting, Yell and Unst. While the herring fishery boomed for two decades after the mid-1880s there was still a significant exodus, particularly to America and the expanding British colonies.

By this period, between two and three thousand Shetlanders went seafaring in the merchant service. With this increased mobility, and possibly the security of croft tenures granted by the Crofters Acts, there was perhaps a greater sense of personal freedom and certainly an increasing knowledge of life – and opportunity – outwith the isles. As historian Hance Smith put it: “Emigration is evidence of the changing outlook of the population towards material betterment: it was the most direct and possibly the simplest means of opting out of the Shetland system of trade”.

Better postal services and shipping links, along with assisted passages, made it easier for people to learn about the lands of opportunity far away and to actually reach them. It was not easy to pull up one’s roots, burn one’s boats; every such metaphor had heavy implications of no return, and separation from family and friends – generally for life. The reward was material betterment, yet it always came at a price. For most of a century, for every ten that went probably only one came back, and when I was a boy in the 1950s, just about everybody I knew had family overseas or somewhere on the mainland of Britain.

My mother’s father was the only one, of seven adult Tulloch siblings, that didn’t emigrate to the other side of the world; only because his brothers advised him against it at the time he was proposing to join them in New Zealand. The oldest, half-brother James Tulloch, worked on Scottish farms in his youth before going to Canada in the 1890s, where he eventually acquired a farm in Saskatchewan and sent for his bride Adamina.

The practice of men going first – to ‘find a place’ before wife or fiancée followed on later – seemed to be common at the time, for the next brother to go was John Tulloch, who found Canada in depression when he arrived. While visiting Chicago cousins in the hope of better prospects there, he was run down and killed by a tramcar on Christmas Day, 1912. His widow Grace lived on – in Sandwick – for another 35 years.

Their sister Jemima married Laurence Johnson of Bremmer, and fairly soon after they set out for Wellington. Brother Peter went sailing in the merchant navy for a while then followed his sister to settle in Wellington in 1914. With a war on, it took two years for his wife Maggie to secure a passage out to join him. Post-war New Zealand was a better attraction than post-war Shetland, so in 1926 brother George and his fiancee Lizzie, sister Mary, her husband Robbie Halcrow and child Bobby set off for Wellington, taking their widowed mother along too.

Catherine Tulloch didn’t settle to life in New Zealand, and wrote sad letters of longing to her son Charlie in Shetland. Before her return home could be organised, she suffered a stroke and died soon after. My grandmother’s sister Minnie went in 1922 to Sydney, Australia, with her husband Adam Halcrow to join his brother already there; two years later the rest of his family – mother, brother and sister – arrived too.

This kind of family exodus was typical, a process repeated frequently all over Shetland. The end result was a lifetime of communication by letter, a massive intercontinental exchange of family photographs and a tally for my mother of Shetland first cousins – three, colonial first cousins – eleven.

The main movement in my father’s family – apart from a ship’s carpenter grand-uncle who jumped ship in San Francisco and never came home – was a gathering of his aunts – four of them – in Edinburgh because they went there to be domestic servants, married and stayed. Aunts Kitty and Charlotte married policemen, while Minnie and Baabie preferred shopkeepers. This movement of Shetland women to ‘service’ is generally forgotten in the emigration context, although it’s well known that hundreds of Shetland seafaring men found it more convenient to settle in mainland seaports such as Leith, Shields and Liverpool.

Of all the emigrants I’ve mentioned, hardly any of them – even those in Edinburgh – came back, even for a visit. When he finally gave up farming Uncle Jeemie did a world tour in 1950, at the age of 80, from his Saskatchewan home, first to his half-brothers and half-sisters in New Zealand, then to Shetland to visit my grandparents. Aged around three at the time, all I remember is his big brown hands and his big white walrus moustache. Auntie Minnie, granny’s sister, came home from Australia later in the 50s to see her two sisters. It had taken nearly forty years of hard work building up a fruit-farming business before there was either the money or the time to spare for a return. She came alone, for Adam Halcrow’s family were all in Australia and he said all his contemporaries in Cunningsburgh were either scattered worldwide, or no longer alive. Both of these visits home were by sea, of course, so travelling time ate up much of their absences from home; a month to return from Australia, a week to cross the Atlantic. It was a similar story with my father’s Edinburgh aunts; I can only remember one of them ever coming north for a holiday.

So, distance and time and travelling costs were, I’m sure, the main reasons why the emigrants didn’t often return. In a relative sense all of them prospered – eventually – and enjoyed a quality of life probably better than anybody back home in Shetland during their lifetimes, but there were no streets paved with gold; no riches.

Today, of course, my Canadian, Australian and New Zealand second cousins can jet around the world quickly and much more affordably than our grandsires, so their visits – confirming that blood is indeed thicker than water – are not quite the once-in-a-lifetime landmark event of my parents’ generation. By the same token, emigrants in noticeable numbers have returned in recent years – while more than a few of their offspring have chosen to settle in Shetland as well.

Emigration out of Shetland has never really stopped, for people still leave for employment just as the seafarers and domestic servants did in the past, and many find it easier to live away. It’s an irony that one of Shetland’s main exports over the past century or so has been educated people. In my schooldays, if you were ‘clever’ you were earmarked for higher education and inevitable export by the age of twelve; today the process may be less rushed, but the outcome is not much different.

My grandsires had identifiable lands of opportunity to strive for a century ago; today, with five times more people in the world the competition is fiercer and the opportunities less easy to identify. Where Shetlanders will return from in, say, fifty years’ time for another Hamefarin, is impossible to guess.

Suggested further reading: A Kist of Emigrants, J. Laughton Johnston.

From Shetland Visitor magazine 2010


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