Incredible stories in Laughton’s worthy book

Author J. Laughton Johnston gave an informative summary of his book A Kist of Emigrants at its launch at Clickimin on Monday evening.

It had been a confusing book to write, said Mr Johnston, who had been commissioned to produce it by the Hamefarin committee two years ago. He had appealed for infor-mation about emigration from Shetland in the peak time of the 19th century until 1960, and was rewarded with first a trickle, then a flood, of information coming in from all over the world.

He spoke of the “wonderful” stories of the emigrants from a small population, with 120 stories involving 1,000 people. Original photos, some formal, others of scenes at home and work, and copies of handwritten letters used throughout the book had been given “generously” by relatives, he said, and these “brought the book to life”. Many of these have now been gifted to Shetland Museum and Archives.

Emigrants, Mr Johnston said, often had “nothing to fear” as conditions elsewhere could not be worse than they were in Shetland. To get their own home and a decent education for their children in a new country was seen as an achievement – and women played as important part in this as men.

Some made their mark – one became a friend of the First Nations people in Vancouver Island and taught them Fair Isle knitting.

Fewer women than men emigrated and (according to several Hamefarers) there were shipboard romances on the long, hard voyages to the new life. Some, like Robert and Mamie Eunson from Dunrossness, were already married when they emigrated to USA in 1855. But tragedy struck when the couple both died of diptheria in 1868, leaving their oldest son, 12-year-old Robert junior, responsible for five younger siblings. Unable to make a living himself, Robert took the children from door to door in Wisconsin to find homes for them – they all survived the experience and somehow managed to keep in touch. Robert junior’s son Dale became a journalist and wrote about the events, which were later made into a 1956 film All Mine to Give.

Present at the book launch was the Rev Lisa Eunson from USA, great-granddaughter of the original emigrants, who now works in Aberdeen. Her family had kept letters from Shetland which have now been given to Shetland Archives.

Ms Eunson said: “I feel like I’ve got some very brave genes. When things get tough in my life I know I’ve got it in me to survive.”

There were other incredible stories too – and many Shetlanders did very well. Tom Work apparently owned half of Monterey, California; Magnus Flaws in Chicago ran a newspaper in the 1880s and 90s; John Mouat built half of Denver; while John Irvine in Dunedin earned a living as a portrait painter.

All the names, including a special section on mariners who formed a large proportion of the emigrants, are in the book’s invaluable spreadsheet and index (in which he was helped by Nicola Halcrow from the council’s development department).

Mr Johnston said he had “jumped into” the huge undertaking of the book without knowing if he would sink or swim. But he said of the result: “I owe it all to the contributors.”

But what did the emigrants leave behind? Shetland Museum and Archives curator of collections Ian Tait described the subsistence way of life of 19th century Shetland for the 30,000 plus population. This revolved round their smallholding, with the township (toon) for cultivation and the common grazing (scattald).

Many families had a cow and this would be their most important possession. They would also have sheep and poultry and work at fishing, with textile work in the winter.

However ,the lowest classes had no livestock and Shetland endured famine every couple of decades. The imperative for emigration, Dr Tait said, was “opportunism and destitution”.

Archivist Angus Johnson explained that emigration was well-established prior to the 19th century, however, with Shetlanders recorded in Rotterdam in the 1620s. It was not confined to poorer people – many of the middle classes could not find suitable work and were unwilling to work for low wages. Emigration, Mr Johnson concluded, was a “haunting” and “complex” issue.


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.