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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
Part I: Chapter 8


Proportion of Births and Deaths to Population—Small Infantile Mortality—Remarkable Longevity—Vigour in Old Age.

TO bring together data for my observations on the health of the community, chiefly in relation to mortality and longevity, I had adopted what proved to be a very unsatisfactory method, viz., to issue schedules to be filled up by the various District Registrars throughout Shetland, when I was glad to find the Eighth detailed Annual Report of the Registrar-General, issued in February 1866, could supply all the information I required, fully authenticated, and in a collected form. The Report is founded on the registration returns for 1862. In making use of the Registrar-General's tables, or my own deductions from them, I shall generally compare Shetland with Scotland at large, and with the three great districts into which he very wisely divides it, viz., the Insular Districts, the Mainland Rural Districts, and the Town Districts.

The following is the number of births and deaths in these districts in 1862, and their per centage proportion to the population:—

Thus the per centage of deaths is shown to be lower than

ill any county in Scotland, save Sutherland, where it was 1*428, and Orkney, where it was 1*494 per cent. The per centage of mortality in Shetland was also considerably less than that of the Insular districts, and the Mainland Rural districts; very much less than that of Scotland as a whole, and little more than half that of the Town districts; while it was rather less than half that of Greenock, the most unhealthy town.

The comparative salubrity of Shetland and the three great districts may be better illustrated by the following table:—

With the facts presented by these tables before us, it appears unnecessary to adduce further evidence to prove that the mortality of Shetland in 1862 was much less than that of other districts, and that it, therefore, is more salubrious than they. Objections may be offered to that year being taken as typical, as it was characterised by unusually great mortality ; but as this remark applies about equally to all the districts, it is divested of its force.

Let us now take the mortality at the early and late periods of life.

Thus we have the infantile mortality in Shetland more than 6 per cent less than that of all Scotland; in this

respect, very nearly 6 per cent, below the Insular districts taken together, nearly 12 (11*7) percent less than the Mainland Rural districts, and 24*7 per cent, less than, or considerably below the half of, the death-rate amongst infants in the Town districts, and this in a year when the number of deaths amongst children in Shetland was unusually great—measles alone having carried off twenty-one of their number. Taking the per centage of deaths under five years of age, compared with the whole mortality in the three important parishes of Tingwall, Sandwick and Conningsburgh, and Dunrossness, for 1864, we have even a lower infantile death-rate.

Before giving the mortality in Shetland as compared with that of the country at large, and of the three great districts, it will be better to have before us the data from which to calculate the per centage.

Comparing the mortality at advanced ages during the year 1862, with the whole mortality in that period, we have—

As the longevity of a community is a criterion of its state of health, I have thought proper to exhibit the comparative mortality of the different districts in a tabulated form. From this it appears that rather more than a third of the Shetland people live beyond threescore years and ten, which, since the time of the inspired Psalmist, at least, has been held to sum up the measure of our days. But in Shetland, if we are to take 1862 as a typical year, 48*79 per cent, or nearly half, of the men and women who attain the age of twenty may calculate on surviving that of seventy. And, as 1862 was a year of greater mortality than usual, we may assume that fully half of those who reach manhood survive seventy. In the towns of Scotland, on the other hand, scarcely one-tenth (9*96 per cent) of the population survive seventy; and only between a fifth and a fourth (22*2 per cent.) of those who reach manhood and womanhood—assuming twenty as that age— live to seventy, or beyond it. Again, in the Shetland archipelago, nearly twice as many (15 per cent more), survive seventy, as in the whole country. In this respect it is 12 per cent, higher than the Mainland Rural districts, and 2 per cent, above the Insular districts, of which latter it forms, in point of population, a fifth. Advancing to higher ages, we have more striking results. Of those who died after the age of eighty—as compared with the whole mortality—we have, taking round numbers for our fractions, in Shetland, exactly one-fifth; in Scotland, one-thirteenth; in towns, between one-twenty-eighth and one-twenty-ninth; and in the Mainland Rural districts, rather more than a tenth. Five times as many persons lived in Shetland beyond ninety, proportionately, as in Scotland; fourteen times as many as in towns, and more than three times as many as in the Mainland. Shetland, while furnishing a ninety-sixth of the population of Scotland, supplied two out of its thirty centenarians, who died between the ages of one hundred and one hundred and five; while the towns, which contain considerably more than a third of the Scottish people, supplied five.

From the Registrar-General’s tables, at page 31 of the Report so often referred to, a decided tendency is shown by Shetlanders who survive seventy to live beyond eighty. Thus there were thirty-two deaths between the ages of seventy and seventy-five, but fqrty-two from eighty to eighty-five. This tendency is not shown by Scotland, or any of its districts, save the Insular. In Shetland the period of greatest mortality, after the age of ten, was from eighty to eighty-five; in Scotland from seventy to seventy-five; in Mainland districts, from seventy to seventy-five; in the Insular districts it was equally from seventy-five to eighty, and from eighty to eighty-five; but in towns it was sixty to sixty-five. This tendency for those in Shetland who liye beyond seventy to survive ten or more years longer, is shown by the pauper roll of the extensive central parish of Tingwall, Whiteness, and Weisdale, in that county, a copy of which, dated January 1865, lately examined. In this list are the names of a hundred and twenty individuals, forty-six (or 38*33 per cent.) of whom are beyond seventy years of age. The average age of those beyond seventy is 80*04, and of those beyond eighty it is 85*265 years. From the facts now before us, it appears to me impossible to come to any other conclusion than that the Shetland people attain a greater age than those of the country, and its three great statistical divisions generally. From glancing over the tables, I have no doubt longevity there could be proved greater than that of any individual county; but to go into that would unnecessarily prolong this paper.

The doctrine now proved, by a process as nearly as possible resembling mathematical demonstration, was long entertained by me as an opinion, and was formed in a totally different manner. I have frequently observed that Shetlanders retain the vigour and “fresh” appearance of. later manhood, or middle age, when far advanced in old age. Thus, I have seen a man of eighty-five row in a boat with two oars, with great agility and swiftness, amongst whose bushy locks incipient grey hairs could only be detected on close inspection, and who was supposed by an intelligent observer to be between fifty and sixty. Not unfrequently men upwards of eighty are found fully able for the extraordinary fatigue and exposure of the Shetland deep-sea fishing. I have also been frequently struck by patients at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary giving their age as fifty or forty-five, whom, if I had met them in the distant Shetlands, I would have believed from their appearance to be sixty or seventy.

On longevity in this archipelago, Dr Hibbert, the author of by far the best work on Shetland, makes the following remark—“ If, however, the reports of instances of great longevity are to be depended upon as they appear in Buchanan’s History, or in the statistical accounts of different parishes that have been published, several remarkable ages appear from ninety to one hundred and five, or even one hundred and twenty. A native of Walls, of the name of Lawrence, is said at the age of one hundred to have married a wife, and when one hundred and forty years old to have gone out to sea in his little boat. Brand, in commenting on the salubrity of the climate, refers to “ the many vigorous old people that abound on the Isles, whose health is, I think, more firm and sound than with us, neither are they liable to such frequent sickness; ” and mentions the case of "one, Tairvile, who lived one hundred and eighty years, and all his time never drank beer or ale,” and adds that “his son also, and grandchildren, lived to a good old age;” and that “it is said that Tairvile’s father lived longer than himself.” Although Mr Brand was evidently, from his little work, a man much distinguished for ability, learning, and piety, he appears to have been rather credulous, which weakness in his admirable character we will do well to remember before fully crediting what he received at second hand.

As illustrative of the longevity in Shetland, it is worthy of remark, that the oldest clerygman in the British Isles—the Rev. Dr Ingram, of the Free Church, Unst—resides in that county. This venerable and much respected patriarch has completed the ninety-eighth year of his age and the seventy-first of his ministry.

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