One of the most striking features of J Laughton Johnston’s excellent new book on emigration from Shetland, A Kist of Emigrants, is the sheer number of people who left out of a need to make a living. Around 9,000 departed in the two decades from 1861.
The lure of places like New Zealand, Australia and Canada might seem attractive to today’s generation, if not employment building the “empire”, but it must have been a truly daunting prospect setting off into the relative unknown in the middle of the 19th century, severing family ties, often for good.
The contrast with our own times is marked. The discovery of oil and the recovery of the island’s population to a more sustainable 22,000 or so has made it possible for people to remain living and working here, although the future of what remains a fragile, tiny economy on the periphery of Europe does not look so rosy.
Islanders still leave, of course, for a variety of reasons, university education and professional development among them. What the leavers then and now have in common is the ability to make a significant contribution to the economic and social life of their destinations. The number of folk currently in Shetland for the Hamefarin who have flourished in a diverse range of professions and activities around the world is remarkable.
It is a great testament to the outward looking nature of most islanders, an attribute that is as vital today as it was 150 years ago.