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Shetland: Descriptive and Historical
By Robert Cowie (1874)

Shetland Islands during prehistory


It is with much diffidence, and a deep sense of its many imperfections, that I venture to offer tnis little work to the public. As the reader will observe, it consists of two distinct parts, written at widely different times, and for very different purposes. Part L was prepared, in Edinburgh, in the winter of 1865-66, and submitted to the Medical Faculty of that University, on my Graduation in the latter year, as M.D. This circumstance will, I trust, plead my apology for the apparent egotism, which I fear characterises some of the remarks, for the chief merit of a Thesis is held to consist in the original and personal observations it contains.

Two or three months before the Thesis was even in, the substance of Chapter VIII. (“On Small-pox,” &c.) was sent to the late Sir James Y. Simpson, Baronet, the illustrious Professor of Midwifery, who was pleased to manifest a great interest in the subject, and afterwards, at the ceremony of defending the Thesis, to speak in commendatory terms of that presented by me.

In 1867, I was induced to send the substance of Chapter VI., entitled “Health and Longevity,” to the International Medical Congress, which met at Paris, chiefly because that learned assemblage specially desired papers on the subject it treats from different parts of Europe. This paper was favourably received at the time, but I heard nothing more of it till in July 1870, when I received a letter from M. Adolph Berg, a Physician of Zealand, Denmark, stating that he had read an abstract of it in U Union Medicate (a Paris Medical Journal) for 1867, and requesting to be informed whether it had been published in English. This brought up the question of the publication of the Thesis.

On shewing it to the Publisher, whom I had occasion to see at the time, that gentleman was of opinion the essay , should be published, but suggested it would be more interesting to the general public were I to append some Topographical Notes. This I agreed to, and hence the origin of Part II., which has gradually extended to a length on which I certainly did not calculate when I commenced it. It has been written during the last winter, amid many interruptions, and under all the disadvantages inseparable from residence in Shetland. One of these was distance from the printer, from which cause several typographical errors have, unfortunately, crept into the text With the exception of one or two verbal alterations, the Thesis appears exactly as it was given in. Only one part has been re-written, viz., the latter portion of the Chapter on “Religious and Ecclesiastical History” and that because, in its original form, it appeared to be defective.

However much I may have failed, it has been my earnest endeavour to do impartial justice to all parties and all interests. If these pages are in the smallest degree the means of exciting a kindly interest in my native Islands, my labours in preparing them will be abundantly rewarded.

R. O.
Lerwick, May 1871.

Broch of Mousa is the finest preserved example of an Iron Age broch or round tower. It is in the small island of Mousa in Shetland, Scotland. It is the tallest broch still standing and amongst the best-preserved prehistoric buildings in Europe.

Trip from Sandwick, on the Mainland of Shetland, Scotland, to the island of Mousa, where our path then crosses from the West Ham to East Ham, following the E coastline south to where Mousa Lighthouse is visible, crossing to the W side by West Pool, where seals play, to Mousa Broch and back N to West Ham.

Visit the Mouse Web Site


No pains have been spared to make the second edition in every way a great improvement on the first Some medical details have been eliminated, the historical and topographical portions expanded, and six of the best illustrations of Mr J. T. Reid’s “Art Rambles* have been purchased and added to those formerly given in the work. The map has also been revised and corrected.


Although this is not the place for a lengthened account of the author of “Shetland and its Inhabitants,” this Edition should not go forth to the public without a small tribute of respect to the memory of one so esteemed, and so prematurely cut off at the outset of a promising career.

Dr Robert Cowie was born at Lerwick in February 1842, and spent the early years of his life there. His father, Dr John Cowie, practised in Lerwick, and was held in high esteem by the whole community among whom he laboured. Dr Isaac Cowie, uncle of the subject of this short Memoir, was also well known as a medical practitioner in Lerwick, and beloved for his many amiable qualities and kindness of heart.

Dr Cowie received his education partly at Aberdeen, where he took the degree of M.A., and partly at the University of Edinburgh, where he was a favourite student of the late Sir James Y. Simpson. After completing his studies he returned to Lerwick as assistant to his father, whom he shortly after succeeded, the latter having died in the prime of life. Taking up fresh from College life, at the early age of twenty-four years, his father’s arduous practice, he devoted himself assiduously to it for the remainder of his short life. Besides his private practice, he held the appointments of Admiralty Surgeon and Agent, Medical Officer to the Northern Lighthouses, the Prison Board, and to the Parochial Boards of Trngwall and Bressay. He was also vaccinator for almost the whole Islands. Enthusiastically attached to his native place, everything relating to its welfare had an intense interest in his eyes, and there is probably no man living who possesses a more intimate acquaintance with the history and topography of the Islands, and the habits, manners, and customs of the people. To him it was a labour of love to investigate every fact, and exhaust every source of information connected with them. These are preserved in a useful and lasting form in the present work, the fcareful revisal of which he finished only a few days before his death. He contributed several valuable papers to Medical Journals, and supplied some interesting additions to antiquarian literature.

Dr Cowie married, in 1869, the youngest daughter of Bailie Smith, Aberdeen, and at his death left a widow and two children to mourn his irreparable loss. Twin daughters were bom a month after his decease, the eldest of whom died on Sunday, the 12th July, aged six weeks.

With the exception of occasional attacks of dyspepsia, Dr Cowie was in his usual health until the night of April 29th, when he was suddenly seized with a very severe attack of peritonitis, which carried him off after twenty-six hours’ illness. His death cast a gloom over the whole town, and indeed over the whole Islands his loss is lamented. The poor found in him a follower of the Great Physician, ministering to the wants both of body and soul, and mourn the loss of one of their truest friends.

July 1874.

Iron age brochs Of Scotland
Iron age Brochs, stone Towers built during the Iron Age period in Scotland, an audio visual presentation showing aerial views of the broch remains in Scotland, including the best preserved "The Broch of Mousa".



Chapter I. - Introduction and General Account.
Situation-Natural History—Scenery—List of Parishes and Islands.

Chapter II. - History of Shetland
Is it the Ultima Thule of the Ancients?—Picts — Norsemen—Harold Harfager—Scandinavian Earls—Ronald I.—Sigurd I. —Sigurd II.—St Magnus —Ronald II.—Kirkwall Cathedral—Visits of Earls to Shetland—Swein of Gairsey—Shetland annexed to Crown of Norway—The St Clairs—Impignoration of Orkney and Shetland to Scotland—Lord Robert Stewart—Bothwell— Earl Patrick Stewart—His Character—His Castles—Misrule, &c.— Complaints—Imprisonment—Execution, &c.— Earl of Morton—Sir Lawrence Dundas, and Earls of Zetland—County deprived of Franchise till 1832.

Chapter III. - History continued
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.

Chapter IV. - History.continued
The Ancient Jurisdiction of Zetland—The Great Foude—District Foudes—Ranselmen, their Duties—Lawrightman — Stewartry erected — Steward-De-pute—Bailies—“Book of the Law” destroyed—“Country Acts”—The Ting.

Chapter V. - Religious and Ecclesiastical History
Culdees—Norse Paganism—Introduction of Christianity — Popery—Reformation—Episcopacy—Presbyterianism—State of Religion in the Eighteenth Century—Mr Haldane—Independents —Wesleyans—Seceders—Baptists —Free Church—Established Church—Re-introduction of Roman Catholicism—of Episcopacy—Revival of 1862-63—General Remarks.

Chapter VI. - Ethnology
Early Inhabitants—Piets—Scandinavian Race —Authorities cited—Influence of Scotch and Continental Peoples on Race—Difference of Race in different Islands— Modification of Races by climate, habits, &c.

Chapter VII. - Meteorology and Climate
Gulf Stream—Its beneficial influence—Meteorological tables—Mean temperatures, &c.—Arrangement of seasons—Range of temperature—Rainfall — Atmospheric moisture — Iodine, &c., in atmosphere — Winds — Botany corroborating results of Meteorology — Length of day, &c.—Aurora Borealis—Influence of Drainage on Climate.

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

Chapter IX. - Diseases
Phthisis Pulmonalis, etc.

Chapter X. - Small-Pox
Its Fearful Ravages during the Eighteenth Century— John Williamson’s Mode of Inoculation — Its Wonderful Success—Small-Pox in Present Century—Vaccination.

Chapter XI. - Rheumatism, etc
Its Increase during the last Thirty or Forty Years, owing to change of diet and clothing—Dyspepsia, its increase, owing to excessive use of tea—Its Treatment—Hypochondriasis.

Chapter XII. - Skin Diseases
Favus; Leprosy—Leper Houses—Causes of the Disease.

Chapter XIII. - Nervous Diseases.

Chapter XIV. - Dwellings, Food, and Pursuits of the People.
The Shetlander’s House and Croft—Fishing at the Haaf— at Greenland—at Faroe—Sailors in Southern Trade—Employments of the Women — Social Condition of People — Imaginary Family Group on a Winter Evening—Schools—Disparity in Age of Sexes at Marriage—Registrar-General’s Return as to Morality—Country Weddings—Conclusion of Thesis.


Chapter I. - Fair Isle
Naval Action—Shipwreck of an Admiral of Spanish Armada—His return to Spain, &c.—Fishings, &c.—Fair Isle skiffs—Beacons in ancient times—Earls Paul and Ronald—Parochial Statistics.

Chapter II. - Sumburgh Roost
Fitful Head—Quendale—Iron Mines— Quendale Bay— Fishing Stations— Fisheries— Sumburgh Lighthouse—Jarlshoff—The Hall—Lord Robert Stewart’s House—Battle on Sumburgh Links—Gruitness—Yoe—Accommodation.

Chapter III. - Dunrossness to Lerwick
Leven wick—The MouH-Chan-nerwick—Sandwick—Pictish Burgh or Castle of Mousa— Legend regarding Dame Margareta and Earl Erlend—Sand Lodge—Copper Mine—Coningsburgh—Its people —Scenery —Aith’s Voe — Helliness — Fladabister—Quarff—Brendis-ter—Gulberwick—Shipwreck of Earls Ronald and Harold, &c.— Bressay Lighthouse—The Knab — Paul Jones repulsed.

Chapter IV. - Lerwick
The Harbour—The Town—Its Situation—Arrangement of the Streets, &c.—Shops, &c. —Public Buildings —Docks—New Town—Villas, &c.—Loch of Clickhemin— Sound.

Chapter V. - Lerwick continued
Some of its Industries and Social Customs — Trade — Faroe Fishing—Markets for Fish, &c.—Fish Tithes to Minister of North Leith—Absence of Manufactures, and Scarcity of Employment — Society — Means of Communication with other places — Lerwick at different seasons — Winter—Royal Naval Reserve— Christmas Morning Amusements—Spring—Greenland Ships —Whale and Seal Fishery—Whalers “ frozen up ” in Arctic Regions all Winter, &c.

Chapter VI. - Lerwick continued
Summer Season—The Dutch Fishery on the Shetland Coast—Its Ancient Magnitude and Importance—The “Hollander’s Knowe”—The Dutchmen on Shore, and some of their Amusements—Their “Busses”— Boat-Sailing off Lerwick—Fishing of Herring on Lines— Mackerel Fishing in Autumn—History of Lerwick—Progress of its Population—Fort Charlotte—Rifle Corps—Anderson Institute — Widows* Asylum — Parish School — Episcopal School—Municipal Affairs—Water-Works—Over-crowding —Small Lodging-Houses—Fever Hospital—Courts, Civil and Ecclesiastical—Markets—Want of Public Places of Amusement—Scenery—Cemetery.

Chapter VII. - Means of Communication with other Places
Little Intercourse with Mainland of Scotland for a long period— Illustrations of this—Sloops running to Leith—Wreck of the Doris — Smuggling Trade with Holland — Schooners to Leith — Steamers—Introduction of Penny Postage— Great Increase of Letters, &c., since—Trade between West Side of Shetland and Leith—Between North Isles and Lerwick—Steamer—Story — Iceland Mail Steamer—Shetland Telegraph.

Chapter VIII. - Roads
None till End of Last Century—Those constructed by Highland Destitution Board—"Zetland Roads Act, 1864’’—-Good Results of Roads—Illustrative Stories.

Chapter IX. - Agriculture
Its Primitive Character—Grain derived at one time from Orkney—An Orkney Farmer’s Voyage to Shetland—Oats and Bere—Cabbage—Potatoes—Turnips— Rye-Grass—White Oats—Products of the Garden—Soil—The Shetlander’s Croft—Manure—Farm Implements—The Shetland Mill—Seedtime—Causes of Destitution—Cattle— Poultry—Pigs—Dogs.

Chapter X. - The Scatholds (or Commons) and their Inhabitants
 Products of the Commons-Game, &c.—The Shetland Pony —The Shetland Sheep—Their Wool—Native Dyes—Skins —Mutton—Method of Removing Wool—Their Food in Seasons of Scarcity—Diseases—Birds of Prey—Attention paid to the Rearing of Sheep in Ancient Times—Wadmel— Shetland “Tweeds”—Proposed Introduction of Grouse— Peat-Moss—Great Depth in many Places—Its Formation—The Cutting, Curing, and Transport of Peats—Might not Peat-Moss be further utilised?—Improvements in Shetland Farming, and its assimilation to that of the Mainland of Scotland—Fishing of greater importance there than Farming—Division of Commons—Shetland rather a Grazing than an Agricultural Country—Years of Destitution by Destruction of Crops—Trees.

Chapter XI. - Shetland Hosiery
That exported restricted to Coarse Stockings, &c., for a long period—Fine Shawl-knitting of Recent Introduction—Its Origin and Rise—Veils, &c.—Present to the Princess of Wales.

Chapter XII. - Bressay and Noss
East Coast of Bressay—Cave—Bard— “Giant’s Leg”—Holm and Noup of Noss—The Cradle—Dr Copland—Farm of Noss—Dangers of Noss Sound—Bressay again—Gardie—Maryfield—Parochial Statistics—Slate Quarries.

Chapter XIII. - Scalloway and Tingwall
The Journey—Magnificent view from Hill above Scalloway—The Castle—Earl Patrick Stewart—Gallow Hill—Garden of Westshore— Gibbleston Lodge — Blacksness — Harbour — Tingwall — The Ting— Church, Jdanse, &c.—Veens garth and Laxfirth Farms— Dale.

Chapter XIV. - From Lerwick northwards to Nesting and Whalsey
Remarks on Shetland Scenery in Autumn—North Entrance to Lerwick Harbour—Rova Head—“Luggie’s Knowe ”—Baa Green—Unicom Rock—Bothwell’s Shipwreck—Girlsta —Catfirth—Vassa—Isles of Gletness—Mull of Eswick— Maiden Stack—Hou Stack—Bay of Nesting—Brough, &c.— Dangerous Reefs—Neap—Hog Sound—Tragedy at Neap— Nesting Statistics—Wnalsey—Symbister—Manor House— Whalsey Sound—Its Islands—Manufacture of Kelp— Parpchial Statistics, &c.

Chapter XV. - The Skerries
Passage thither—Grief Skerry—East Linga —Seals—Cormorant—The Otter—Skerry Isles—Their Harbour—The Fishery—“The Skerry Fight”—Shipwreck of the Carmelan, and of a Russian Frigate—The Lighthouse —Lightkeeper’s Houses, &c.—Effects of the Sea—School— Shipwreck of the b.s. Pacific on East Linga, near Whalsey, in February 1871.

Chapter XVI. - The North Isles
Yell.—Its Extent—Character of the Soil —Harbours—Proposed Canal—Parochial Statistics—Manor Houses—Hascussey—Fishings, &c.—Peat-Moss.

Chapter XVII. - Fetlar
Its name—Fertility of the Soil—Geological Formation—Parochial Statistics—Antiquities—Brough Lodge— Fetlar Ponies—Shipwrecks—Supposed Submarine Volcano.

Chapter XVIII. - Unst
Hills — Lochs—Geological Formation — Harbours— History and Antiquities.

Chapter XIX. - Unst continued
Itinerary — Belmont — Uyea Sound — Muness Castle—Balta—Balta Sound—Buness—M. Biot— Some distinguished natives of Unst—Chromate Quarries— “Fenian Invasion*—Parochial Statistics—North Coast— Lighthouse.

Chapter XX. - Lunnasting
Doura Voe—West Sound of Whalsey—Vidlin Voe—Lunna—Parochial Statistics—Industries, &c.

Chapter XXI. - Yell Sound to Sulem Voe
Lunna Ness—Yell-Sound—Its Islands— Its Tideways— Coast of North Delting— Sulem Voe—Mavisgrind—The Road there.

Chapter XXII. - Sulem Voe to Feideland
Bardister—Ollaberry—North Roe—Fishing-station at Feideland.

Chapter XXIII. - The Haaf-fishing.

Chapter XXIV. - Sand Voe to Roeness Voe
Pirate's Visit, &c.—North-West Coast of Northmavine—Uyea—Roeness Voe—Action fonght there—Roeness Hill—Veiwfrom its Summit.

Chapter XXV. - Roeness Voe to Hamna Voe
Wonderful Effects of the Sea —Grind of the Navir—Villians of Ure—Holes of Scraada—The Cannon.

Chapter XXVI. - Eshaness
Cross Kirk—Stenness—Dore Holm—Tangwick —DrongB—Hills wick Ness—Heads of Grocken.

Chapter XXVII. - Hillswick.

Chapter XXVIII. - Swarback’s Mine
Muckle Roe—Busta — The Giffords of Busta.

Chapter XXIX. - Busta and Brae to Olnafirth.

Chapter XXX. - Olnafirth to Aith
Travelling along the land-locked Voes of Shetland.

Chapter XXXI. - Aithsting
Vemintry—The Old Laird of Fogrigarth.

Chapter XXXII. - Sandness
Melby House—Holm of Collaster.

Chapter XXXIII. - Papa Stour
The Ve Skerries. — Superstitions regarding Seals, &c.

Chapter XXXIV. - Foula
West Coast of Walls—Hivda-Grind Bocks—Five Hills of Foula—Lum of Liorafield—Skua Gull— Precipices— Myriads of Sea-fowl— Supposed Carbuncle.

Chapter XXXV. - Foula continued
The Cragsman — Highest Hill — The People—Churches and School—Traces of Norse Language— Scenery,—&c.

Chapter XXXVI. - Parish of Walls
Island of Vaila—Vaila Sound—Churches, &c.—Peculiar Names of Places—Ancient Burghs and Tumuli, &c.—Gruting Voe.

Chapter XXXVII. - Culswick
Skeld—Reawick—Selie Voe—Kirkholm—Sand—The Mitchells of Westshore.

Chapter XXXVIII. - A Whale-Hunt
Other Whales less frequently met with— Sharks.

Chapter XXXIX. - Bixter Voe
Some Parochial Statistics of Sandsting—Weisdale Voe—Islands in it—Sound—“Church of Our Lady'—Free Church—Estate of Kergord.

Chapter XL. - Whiteness
The Loch of Strom—Sinclairs of Strom, &c.— Parochial Statistics, &c.

Chapter XLI. - From Whiteness southwards
Isles in Bay of Scalloway— Trondra—Burra Isles—Disaster to Dutch fleet—House— Parochial Statistics—Ha vera—Ancient Affray between men of Burra and Coningsburgh—Bigton—St Ninian’s Isle — Spiggie—Parochial Statistics of Dunrossness, &c—Conclusion.

Chapter XLII. - The Poor Law.

I found another 2 volume publication "A View of the Ancient and Present State of the Zetland Islands" by Arthur Edmondston M.D. (1809) which you can download here...

Volume 1  |  Volume 2

Shetland Life

Water-beings in Shetlandic Folk-Lore, as remembered by Shetlanders in British Columbia By J. A. Tett.

The Diary of the Reverend John Mill
Minister of the Parishes of Dunrossness, Sandwick and Cumminsburgh in Shetland 1740-1803 with selections from Local Records and original documents relating to the District. Edited with Introduction and Notes by Gilbert Goudie, FSA Scot

A Description of the Shetland Islands
Comprising an account of their Geology, Scenery, Antiquities and Superstitions by Samuel Hibbert, M.D., F.R.S.E., &c. (1822) (pdf)

Lichens from The old Rock Poems
By Jessie M. Saxby, Unst, Shetland (1868) (pdf)

The Ancient local Grovernment of the Shetland Islands
By Gilbert Goudie, Esq., FSA Scot.

The Celtic and Scandinavian Antiquities of Shetland
By Gilbert Goudie (1904)

Art Rambles in Shetland
By John T. Reid (1869) (pdf)

Fair Isle: Living on the Edge

Ronald Morton, or the Fire-ships
By W. H. G. Kingston

Shetland and the Shetlanders
By Catherine Sinclair (1840) (pdf)

The General Grievances and Oppression of the Isles of Orkney and Shetland
By Mr. James MacKenzie (1836) (pdf)

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