Tales of more than 100 leavers is simply an ‘aacht ta hae’ book

A Kist of Emigrants, J Laughton Johnston. Published by The Shetland Times Ltd, £29.

Did you know that novelist John Steinbeck name-checks a Shetland man in his classic Cannery Row or that the fashion event World of Wearable Art in Nelson, New Zealand, has its roots in the Shetland knitting tradition? Were you aware that Captain Sharp of the ill-fated Lancastria, which saw the biggest loss of life in British maritime history, was a Shetlander?

These are among the snippets of information new to me that I’ve picked up from A Kist of Emigrants by J Laughton Johnston. This book was commissioned by the Hamefarin committee two years ago, with pub­lication to coincide with Shetland Hamefarin 2010. At the end of what must have been an intense research and writing effort, we now have this beauti­fully presented and illustrated volume with over 100 stories between its covers.

It felt appropriate that I started to read the book as I sailed south on the NorthLink ferry, watching Shetland slip away, as tales of emigrants claim­ed my attention. I sat in com­fort, fellow-travellers chatting and napping around me. The stories came from a different time and place. My trip was a peerie holiday, a short break from work and daily routine, my return booked. In stark contrast, the people I was learning about had no return tickets, their luggage was packed with all their worldly goods and their destination wasn’t so much a new place as a new life. They left the familiar behind to face the unknown.

The scale of their going is hard to comprehend. As this book tells us, when emigration was at its peak in the nineteenth century, in the 20 years from 1861 to 1881, it’s estim­ated that one in four, a quarter of the population, left.

The stories

While the research into the emigrant experience – seeking out published and unpublished material, journals and diaries, letters and official documentation –  must have been fascinating, deciding how to whittle down the material yet retain the flavour of the stories had to be a daunting task.

I don’t suppose many people will approach this book as I did in order to review it. I read it from beginning to end but I predict that most folk will dip into it, read a story here and there where a kent name crops up or an adventure they’ve heard about. Laughton Johnston has made it easy to choose by giving each story a headline-grabbing title at  the start of the book. Examples that appealed to me were “Jeremiah Smith and the Butcher’s Dog”, “The Many Uses of a Motor Bike” and “From Sixareens to Landowning”.

While I was reading the book someone asked me “… but is there enough variety and difference in the emigrants’ experience to make a book?” The answer is a re­sounding “yes”. What the emigrants did share seemed to be a determination to knuckle down to hard work. Their new lives might have been chal­lenging but Laughton Johnston comments that the living conditions they’d left behind in Shetland meant “they were inured to hard­ship, a quality that made them ideal trail­breakers and settlers”. We glean from letters sent from Shetland the poverty of those left behind.
The writing is often poignant and pleading, almost always with news of poor harvests on land and sea, offering us a glimpse of why so many decided to go.

There is a vast amount of inform­ation in the book but I enjoyed it most when there was time to tell a story in more depth. I knew a little about Sir Watson Cheyne but noth­ing of his father who emerges from these pages as a fairly fearsome individual operating in the South Seas. I had never heard of aviation pioneer Jack Moncrieff or come across the Tait family who played a signifi­cant role in Aus­tralia’s 20th century entertainment industry, from fireworks to cinema. Then there’s the horse called Norseman who found gold. These person­alities all merit a few pages each.

There are tales of tragedy as well as success, of heartbreak and loss. One of the saddest is found in Canada where the son of a Shet­land man who’d married a First Nations woman was “hanged for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. The execution of this ‘Scottish Indian’ was justified as a deterrent to his fellow ‘Indians’”.

Among the less savoury char­acters are Peter Dowell and Anthony Jamieson who were known on the west-side as “grippers of blacks” who were active in the slave trade. In complete contrast to their cruel exploits, another Shet­land man, Charles Robertson, was a journalist writing for the anti-slavery New York Tribune.

Then there’s George, two years old when he set sail in 1878, who “was a great favourite of the seamen who taught him to swear, a habit he never lost”.


I’m sure that Laughton Johnston must have enjoyed researching the illustrations which are integral to the stories they match.

The photographs alone are worth study. I found myself absorbed in looking at them, searching for clues about the lives people were living. There are studio photographs of formal family groups in their best clothes but there are more relaxed pictures too. They’ve been taken at re-unions and picnics, at work and at play. There are pictures of shops, farms and factories, impressive houses, horses, motorbikes and planes, ships, many symbolising what the emigrants had achieved since leaving Shetland.

As well as photographs, there are some fascinating drawings. Isaac Cowie sketched Fort Qu’Appelle when he was working there for the Hudson Bay Com­pany in 1867. There are drawings from Andrew Cheyne’s journals of the Isle of Pines, which includes a map, a war canoe and a “council” house. Malcolm Mouat made a wool embroidery of ships from his voyage of 1874. There’s clever use of Mike MacDonnell’s “Diaspora” – his take on emigration which hangs on the wall in the Shetland Archives, a slice of emigrant ship life.

I also like the copies of letters which are included throughout the book. Seeing the hand-writing seems to bring the writers and their news to life.

I would, however, have appre­ciated a map to help me at times, particularly when I was keeping up with the fortunes of the sandalwood trade and following the emigrants across Canada and the USA. Keep an atlas handy as you go along.


The index has been compiled in a very thoughtful way. From Aber­nethy to Young, everyone in the book has an entry and it refers to more than just a page number. The dates of birth and death are recorded, as well as a note of the Shetland parish they left and where they went. Looking down the list, the reader can pinpoint how places earned the title of “Little Shetland”. It’s appar­ent that Shetlanders formed their own communities, and when one individual or family had settled, others followed. A glance down the index shows frequent references to British Columbia
in Canada, Well­ing­ton in New Zealand, Chicago and Monterey in the USA, and others.

A Kist of Emigrants was never intended to be a definitive history of emigration from Shetland but it may spur others to embark on some ser­ious original research. On a personal level, it may encourage folk to tackle family history puzzles but it could prove a springboard for some much needed academic study and analysis. I can also imagine it becoming a handy tool for creative writers looking for inspiration. It might even lead to developing 21st century links. For one, why shouldn’t Shet­land College with its growing reputation for textiles not be seeking an antipodean oppor­tunity by ex­ploring the Shetland link with New Zealand’s World of Wearable Art ?

I do hope that the education ser­vice is planning to stock the shelves of Shetland’s school libraries and classrooms with copies of this book so that young­sters can gain an in­sight into emigration and understand the courage and enterprise of the men and women whose lives are remembered and celebrated in these pages.

Finally, was there ever a typical Shetland emigrant among the people who fill this book? I recommend reading A Kist of Emigrants so that you can make up your own minds. It really is “an aacht ta hae”.

Mary Blance


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