Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part I: Chapter 3


Social State of Shetland in former Times—The Old Udallers— Early Oppression, &c.—Udallers sell their Lands—Large Estates formed—Change from Udal to Feudal System— George Buchanan’s Description—Udallers after the Time of the Stewarts—Description of Robert Monteith—Language.

FEELING that the preceding chapter, like the history of better countries indited by abler pens, is too exclusively occupied with courts and camps, or the individual actions of certain leading personages, I shall attempt, in the following one, to give a brief account of the social state of Zetland in former times. Jt must necessarily be very imperfect and fragmentary, the sources of information at present available being exceedingly scanty.

When the islands were exclusively under Scandinavian sway, the leading udallers appear on the whole to have been very prosperous. Their dwellings were commodious erections of Norwegian timber, containing a large dining-hall, with fireplace in the middle, several sleeping apartments, a spacious cellar for storing away their good cheer, and sometimes a private chapel. It is not surprising that, in such residences, the hospitable udallers were able to entertain the old Norse earls in a manner befitting their exalted rank.

Yet oppression and misgovemment were early introduced, and produced their inevitable results. “The poor udallers were universally oppressed by the Governor or Fowd, and kept under, being forbidden all sorts of commerce with foreigners, as the subjects of that king are to this day in Faroe and Iceland; so there was no such thing as money amongst them ; and what they had of the country product, more than pa\d the crown rent, they were obliged to bring to the Governor, who gave them for it such necessaries as they could not be without, and at what prices he had a mind, wherewith they were obliged to rest content, having no way to be redressed. Kept under this slavery, they were miserably poor, careless, and indolent, and most of their young men, when grown up, finding the poor living their native country was likely to Afford them, went abroad and served in foreign countries for their bread, and seldom or never returned; so that these islands were but thinly inhabited.”1 The abodes of the poorer natives were then very similar to the cottages occupied by their descendants at the present day, only of a more rude description.

When the islands were made over to Scotland, it was expressly stipulated that all the Norse laws and taxes should remain intact. The long period of oppression and despoliation to which the islanders were subjected by Earls Robert and Patrick Stewart, and the scarcely less tyrannical farmers of the crown lands, who both preceded and came after them, so impoverished and dispirited the udallers that many of them readily sold their lands to wealthy Scotch settlers, who came over from time to time. In this way many separate properties were united together, so as to form the comparatively large estates into which the county is still divided. In thus changing owners, the lands generally passed from the udal to the feudal form of tenure; while their former possessors either left the islands altogether or became humble tenants.

George Buchanan, the great Scottish historian, writing about 1580, gives the following sketch of life in Shetland at that period: “The Shetlanders* manner of living is similar to that of the Orcadians, only in their household stuff they are rather more rude. They are clothed after the German fashion, and according to their abilities not inelegantly. Their incomes arise from a coarse thick cloth of a peculiar kind, which they sell to the Norwegians; from oil prepared from the intestines of fish, from butter, and from their fisheries. Their fishing-boats are two-oared skiffs, which they buy ready made from the Norwegians. Their fish are partly cured with salt, and partly dried by the wind From the sale of these articles they raise money to pay their rents, to provide houses and furniture, and even a considerable part of their food.”

Buchanan goes on to say, “In their domestic utensils those who aim at elegance sometimes use silver.” This remark evidently applies to the udallers. Many of those who still continued to hold their lands, after the ordeal to which they had been subjected by the Stewarts, were evidently men of considerable means, their farms being well stocked, and the houses in which they hospitably entertained strangers well furnished. Robert Monteith, proprietor of Egilshay, Orkney, writing in 1633, characterises the Shetland peasantry as “base and servile, but sober and peaceable and sharp in business.” Of the Shetland gentry Monteith says they are “civil and much given to hospitality, especially towards strangers; they are well furnished with all necessaries for the convenience and pleasure of life; and are well bred. Some of them apply themselves to navigation in the Hollands vessels, travel to both the Indies, to Guinea, and to Greenland, and often to France, Italy, and Spain; and breed their sons in such parts of the mathematics as are subservient to navigation.”

As regards language, after the impignoration that of Scotland was introduced by settlers from that country, while the old Norse tongue long continued to be spoken by the common people. Business with Continental visitors was transacted in Dutch. Thus early in the seventeenth century, we find three languages spoken in Shetland—Norse, Scotch, and Dutch, the former being that in which the clergy preached. The Norse, however, gradually died out, although the accent of the Shetlander at the present day, and many of his nouns, are derived from it. In 1774, some of "the people of Foula could repeat the Lord’s Prayer in Norse.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus