Museum puts on special exhibition on emigration for Hamefarin

As part of the Hamefarin celebrations Shetland Museum is hosting a special summer exhibition, From Old Rock to New Life.

The exhibition looks at the story of emigration through biographies of selected settlers and also features items that they owned. Some stories will be familiar to Shetlanders, but most are not.

For over a century thousands of islanders left to seek better lives elsewhere, and the population dropped from 31,000 in 1850 to 19,000 in 1950.

There was not enough land to support the population and hardship, hunger and homelessness forced many to leave. However, other Shetlanders left by choice, because the Empire offered chances that Shetland couldn’t give to seek fortune abroad.

Many Shetlanders sent money back to their relations in poorer circumstances back home, and their letters encouraged more people to leave. Expatriates were proud of their heritage, and some founded Shetland societies.

Newspapers regularly carried advertisements for emigration, and colonial governments appealed for folk to go. Shetlanders were the ideal type: hard-working Protestants. Opportunities were unlimited: some joined the gold rushes, some went to work as servants and others were mariners.

The exhibition is broken into the main areas of emigration. Shetlanders were drawn to Canada by agriculture, especially to British Columbia, in the early 20th century. Huge numbers went to the 1850s gold rush in New South Wales and Victoria, and later the government appealed for people to settle in Australia.

In New Zealand, Shetlanders were drawn in the 1860s to the south-east, especially Dunedin in Otago, and Stewart Island. Many were gold prospectors and farm servants.

Africa attracted people to mine precious minerals in the Transvaal and Cape Colony, as other Shetlanders worked as missionaries or nurses throughout the continent.

Resettling in mainland Britain was no less an emigration as going abroad, and people commonly went south to work and ended up marrying; they were accidental migrants. Typically, women worked as servants, men as seamen. Most families had someone staying at South Shields or Leith.

Adventurous Shetlanders made new lives in more diverse places, on sugar plantations in the West Indies, in shipyards in the Americas, or in European enclaves in China.
Most Shetlanders went to places in the Empire, but the United States was also a strong influence during 1860-1930. It was seen as a land of promise, and the mid-west was a particular attraction; mariners settled at Chicago, while commerce drew many islanders to Monterey in California.

From Old Rock to New Life will be on show in Da Gadderie from 12th June until 25th July and entry is free.


Add Your Comment

Add Your Comment

Please note, it is the policy of The Shetland Times to publish comments and letters from named individuals only. Both forename and surname are required.

Comments are moderated. Contributors must observe normal standards of decency and tolerance for the opinions of others.

The views expressed are those of contributors and not of The Shetland Times.

The Shetland Times reserves the right to decline or remove any contribution without notice or stating reason.

Comments are limited to 200 words but please email longer articles or letters to for consideration and include a daytime telephone number and your address. If emailing information in confidence please put "Not for publication" in both the subject line and at the top of the main message.

200 words left

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.