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Statistical Accounts of Scotland

Old and New Statistical Accounts

Bressay, Burra & Quarff Vol.10, p.194 Northmaving V.12, p.346
Delting V.1,p. 385 Sandsting and Aithsting V.7, p.580
Dunrossness V.7, p.391 Tingwall, Whiteness and Weesdale V.20, p.277
Fetlar and North Yell V.13, p.278 Unst V.5, p.182
Lerwick V.3, p.414 Walls V.20, p. 97
Nesting V.17, p.498 Yell, Mid and South V.2, p.565
General Observations on the County of Shetland

UnstFetlat & North YellMid & South YellNorthmavingDeltingNestingWallsSandsting & AithstingTingwallLerwickBressay, Burra & QuarffDunrossness









The opportunity afforded by Google Books to quote extracts from books on their site has been taken here, so that the text below is that of the actual accounts rather than a summary. The NSA accounts can be accessed on Google Books here; the volumes in which the OSA accounts appear are given above under each parish and can be accessed here.

Additional information about parishes can be found on the Vision of Britain site and on Scotland's Places.

In dealing with the Shetlands (and Orkneys) it is useful to remember just how large and how remote they are. If superimposed further south on the map of Scotland the Shetlands would stretch in length from Carlisle to Edinburgh and in breadth from Biggar to Galashiels. The Orkneys would stretch from Dumfries to Hamilton in length and Glasgow to Edinburgh in breadth. It is almost as far from Edinburgh to the far north of Scotland as it is from there to the north of Shetland. In fact Edinburgh is closer to London than to the north of Shetland.

Unlike other counties there is not the usual contrast between the old and new statistical accounts where roads had greatly improved. It is quite clear that there were no made roads at all at the time of the OSA and that little had improved when the NSA came to be written. There would however have been a network of local tracks at the time of the OSA particularly for gathering peat. There must have been a substantial track from Quarff (about 4 miles south of Lerwick) over to the west coast two miles away as mentioned in the Bressay account. Transport was primitive with manure carried on people's backs and horses carrying peat in creels. There were very few carts.

Travel between islands was easy as people were quite happy to ferry travellers over for free or a small fee. Although there were no inns this was not a problem as people were very hospitable.

Lerwick was the market town and long journeys had to be undertaken with cattle, fish, butter, oil etc which were then taken to Leith or the continent. As the cattle had to be ferried between islands this could be dangerous. Many items like wines, spirits, tea, coffee, sugar, tobacco, linen, hooks, lines etc. were brought in from Leith and Hamburg. The only post office was Lerwick and long delays in receiving post can be assumed.

Despite their remoteness, there was significant contact with the continent with several hundred boats from Holland, Denmark, Prussia etc. engaged in herring fishing.

By the time of the NSA there had been little improvement. There were more carts and a government "penny-post" had been established in 1841 which put an end to the need to forward the mail privately from the post-office at Lerwick at considerable expense. The gathering of peat was still very inconvenient in some parishes, although coal was starting to become available. There is mention of a steamer which it was hoped would be a great advantage.

There are some mentions of burying grounds in fairly remote locations so there might have been "coffin roads" to these places, although there is no mention of these in the accounts.

With regard to roads, the only mention is in Tingwall parish in the vicinity of, and north of Laxfirth (4 miles N. of Lerwick) though the parishes to the north, Nesting and Delting, do not mention roads; the Minister for Sandsting says that he made half a mile of road near the glebe towards the kirk though the people declined to use it because "it wears the rivelins ("a laced shoe made out of the untanned hide of an animal, with the hair outermost and moulded when still pliant to the shape of the foot" - see DSL) too fast, and because a road would imply a restriction to a particular path; whereas the Shetlander's delight is to range uncontrolled, and "to wander as free as the wind on his mountains"".

Other Sources
The Beauties of Scotland, Vol.5, Robert Forsyth, Edinburgh 1808
Short reference to the lack of made roads on the Islands.
Sketches and Tales of the Shetland Islands, Eliza Edmonston, 1856
Short reference about road building after potato famine of 1848.
Travels in Scotland, James Hall & William Thomson, 1807
Short reference to first made road leading west from Lerwick for 6 miles. It is not clear if this is the same as the one in Tingwall parish mentioned above.

Roads in 1859
This links to the 1859 Report of the Commissioners for Inquiring into Matters relating to Public Roads in Scotland and gives an overview of roads in Shetland at that time. There were a total of 98 miles of road on the mainland and 20 on Yell. With the exception of 14 or 15 miles near Lerwick that had already been built, these were built after 1847 from the funds of the Highland Relief Board.
Shetland roads c.1870 - Shetlopedia - The Shetland Encyclopedia
Photos of roads - Shetland Museum and Archives Photo Library.

Bressay, Burra & Quarff

The islands (of east and west Burra) are situated on the W. side of the main land, and separated from it by a narrow sound. They lie so near to one another, that there is a communication between them by a bridge (25" map). Almost all the inhabitants of Lerwick are supplied with peats from the hills of Bressay, and almost the whole people of Shetland with slates from its excellent quarries.The people of Quarff are frequently employed in transporting goods from the one side of the country to the other, which brings them in considerable sums.

(The islands of East and West Burra) approach so near to each other, as to be joined by a bridge composed of some loose timbers resting on two rude piles of stones (the writer says this has now improved).
An event of great importance to the minister and people lately took place, in the erection of a Government church in Quarff (in 1830). Before this erection, the charge of these parishes was one of the most difficult kind, the Bressa and Burra churches being about twelve miles distant from each other; and it behoved the minister to go in a very small boat to Quarff, then to walk two miles, and lastly, to embark with his Quarff parishioners for the kirk of Burra, situated at five miles distance. His Sabbath days' journies thus occupied eight hours, before his return home. The arrangement of places so distant under one charge, rendered it impossible for one man to go through the duties of a minuter in them, with any regularity or satisfaction.
In Noss, a small burying-ground is used, lying round the fragments of what appears to have been a Popish chapel.

There are three burying-grounds in Bressay. The most ancient appears to have been at Gunista, on the north part of it........The ruins of a church appear also at Culbinsgarth, on the northeast, where there is another burying-ground.....
Quarries.Stone quarries for the purpose of building may be here found almost in any place. Slate and flag is shipped from the quarries in Bressay, for the different parts of this country, and on some occasions is carried to the southern coasts.
Fuel.The fuel in general use is peat, although coal may be obtained by trading vessels.

There are no bridges, nor so much as the form of a road, through the island, the traveller goes on his way with caution, through the hills and deep mosses; and, by turning sometimes to the one hand, and sometimes to the other, endeavours, in the best manner he can, to get clear of the mires and ditches, and peat-banks, that fall in his way. No such thing as statute-labour is exacted, which appears a great defect in the police; for, though regular roads could not perhaps be made yet, by very little attention every year, a much more comfortable communication might be opened between the different parts of the country.


A few years ago, there were only two carts in the parish. Now there are thirteen. No mention of roads.

.....few of (the fish caught) are sold in Zetland, either fresh or dry salted , they are sent to Hamburgh or Leith, or where the best markets can be found. For the use of the inhabitants, the fishers take abundance of turbot, skate, small cod, haddocks, whitings, herrings, mackarels, flounders, &cc. particularly in the spring season. The fish, butter, and oil, sent to the Hamburgh market, yield a return to Zetland of wines, spirits, tea, coffee, sugar, tobacco, linen, hooks, lines, etc.

One of the principal means of improvement to this country would be good roads, as, at present, no cart or carriage whatever can be used for the transport of goods on the soft surface of the country, particularly to the northward. Two roads are especially needed, viz. from Lerwick to Scalloway, the two principal towns of Zetland, the distance is only 4 miles; and from Lerwick through Tingwall parish to the parish of Delton, and thence to Yell sound, through the very heart of the country, which is not above 12 miles ; but, in some places, the peat moss is so deep as to be impassable on horseback.

—No large tracks of moss are here. Had that been the case, peats would not have needed to be transported from a great distance to the southern extremity of the parish, a distance of four or five miles, upon small ponies, by which great expense is incurred.

The parish includes Fair Isle with a population of 232.

Fetlar and North Yell

No mention.

At Mowick, the people of the east part of the island bring down their peats from the hill of Lambhoga, to be transported home by sea.
Our breed of cattle and ponies is small but hardy. A good number of both is sold every year; fat cattle, from L.2 to L.3; ponies, from L.1, 10s. to L.5. The prices of both have been considerably raised since the steamer commenced.
Under Antiquities the writer mentions a Roman camp at Snawburgh (now considered a broch).
There are three herring-curing stations in Fetlar, viz. Urie, Strand, and Aithbanks, and two in North Yell, Cullivoe, and Bayanne.....
Market-Towns.The nearest market-town is Lerwick, the capital of Shetland, distant from thirty to forty miles by sea, of a dangerous navigation; boats are frequently lost in the passage.

Means of Communication.There is no post-office in Fetlar. Our letters often lie weeks on the way. In North Yell, there is a country post-office, which has communication with Lerwick twice a-week. We have no turnpike roads—no roads of any kind—not even sheep tracks, but must guide our way by meaths from hill to hill, and from toon to toon. No public carriages, no railroads or bridges; no canals, no harbours, but some open roadsteads,........

Public-Houses.There are two houses in Fetlar licensed to sell spirits, and as many in North Yell.


There is a very considerable herring fishery on the coast, carried on wholly by foreigners; 200 busses from Holland, 50 from Denmark, 40 from Prussia, 20 from Dunkirk, and about the same number from the Austrian Netherlands, are employed every summer in this fishery.


No mention of roads.


Roads and Bridges.—The roads, bridges, &c. are in the same state here as in every other part of Shetland ; that is to say, there are none.

No mention of roads.
No mention.

Another impediment (to improvement) is the want of good enclosures and good roads...

Fairs.In this parish, there are three fairs or markets held every year, at which cattle and horses are bought and sold. In the month of May, there is a sale of milk cows, young cattle, and horses; and again, in the month of November, for fat cattle and horses. These sales are attended by a great number of people, and by some from a very great distance.

Fuel.Peat is the fuel that is used by all in the parish, and the cutting, curing, and flitting home, are, in some cases, attended with considerable expense. In two or three genteel families, Scotch or English coal is occasionally used.

Sandsting and Aithsting

The dung is carried on people's backs, though sometimes horses are employed to carry it in creels. There are only two carts in the parish. One of them has put out as much in a day as nine people would have carried on their backs. The only exports sent directly by sea are kelp, herrings, butter, and a very small quantity of oil. Black cattle, horses, and stockings, are generally sold to the Lerwick merchants. No town or village. No inns; perhaps 30 or 40 gin and tea shops, to the great ruin of the morals, health, and circumstances of the inhabitants. No road in the parish ; and, in many places, it is not possible to make them, the hills are so rugged, and the moss so deep.

As the parish is everywhere intersected by long voes, the traveller has often occasion to cross ferries. There are, however, no stated ferry boats; but the people are very ready to assist and forward their neighbours, often for nothing, and at best for a very small hire.

Cattle.The number of horses cannot be ascertained; (they exceed 800) , they are very small, but generally handsome, and of high mettle; - are employed in the parish in carrying peats and turf, and in riding to church. A great number are sold annually to the farmers in Dunrossness, to Orkneymen, and to the merchants in Lerwick, who send them to Leith, London, Hull, Holland, &c. They fetch from 12L. to 36L. Scotch, i.e. from 1L. to 3L. Sterling.

The parishes abound in moss, which, in many places, is very deep, and which affords abundance of excellent fuel for the people.....
There are five burying places in the parish, viz. at Sand, West Skeld and Gruting in Sandsting, and at Twatt and Aith in Aithsting.

A considerable number of (Shetland ponies) are yearly exported to Scotland and England. Formerly, Orkney men were wont to come over and barter linen for ponies; but none of them have been in the practice of doing so for many years. Between Orkney and Shetland there is less communication now, than there is between Shetland and any other part of Great Britain.

Parochial Economy. There is no market-town nearer than Lerwick, which is distant about sixteen miles, with two arms of the sea intervening. No post-office; and when a letter is to be sent or received, a person must be sent expressly for the purpose to Lerwick, the post-town, to whom is paid from 1s. 6d. to 2s. Sterling, according to the state of the weather.

There is nothing resembling a road in the parish, unless a piece which I made some years ago, through the glebe, and carried on about half a mile towards the kirk. But there is a decided disinclination to walk on the road, because it wears the rivelins too fast, and because a road would imply a restriction to a particular path; whereas the Shetlander's delight is to range uncontrolled, and "to wander as free as the wind on his mountains".

FairsThat the people may obtain a more ready sale for their extra stock of cow and horses, I have sometimes advertised and superintended a sale at Whitsunday and Martinmas, which is the only resemblance to a fair ever held. At both these seasons, a number of persons, from the neighbouring parishes, attend, especially from the parish of Tingwall.

Ale HousesThere are two ale-bouses,—one in Sandsting, and the other in Aithsting; but no bad effects are apparent from them.

FuelPeats are the only fuel used in the parish; and they are abundant.

Tingwall, Whiteness and Weesdale

Inns. —There is no public-house in the whole parish where any person of distinction can have either entertainment or lodging. But the want is abundantly made up by the hospitality of the inhabitants.

Roads are now so good in some places, that carts can drive on them. But they are yet in their infancy; and the want of them is a great bar to all improvements. There are excellent roads about Laxfirth and to the northward, but the middle of the parish has been sadly neglected. The soil being open, and carts and horses constantly traversing them, the roads that are, are so broken up during winter, that people cannot go to church with any comfort. These observations refer to Tingwall only; for in Whiteness and Weesdale, there can scarcely be said to be any made roads.

Prices of Provisions
.—There are no regular markets for provisions in this island. .....The price of cattle has risen considerably within these last 15 years. In consequence of the increased value of the hides chiefly, of which considerable quantities are every year exported from Shetland to Leith, the value of a cow or ox has risen, in this space of time, from 15 s.or 20 s. to 30 s. and 40 s. and sometimes even considerably more. Flour, barley, biscuits, peas, sugar, wines, teas, spirituous liquor, &c. are all imported, and chiefly from Leith.

Fuel.Peats are almost the only article of fuel used here. Some small quantities of Scotch and English coals are used by the more opulent inhabitants. But the expence of the freight, and the exorbitant duty which has very unreasonably been laid upon Scotch coals, exported beyond the Red-Head of Angus, render this article of fuel by much too dear for general use, through the Shetland isles. Even peats cost no little labour and expence; for although all the hills appear to have been originally covered over, in a great measure, with peat earth; yet, upon the whole east side of the island, except only in the south east corner of Muness, this natural fund of fuel has been, by degrees, entirely exhausted. The hills of Vallafield and Saxaforth are, at present, the principal resources. But many of the inhabitants are at a very inconvenient distance from these. Some find it more commodious to import their peats from the neighbouring island of Yell. Others, especially the gentry resident about Balta Sound, are obliged to employ from 10 to 20 horses, for the space of six weeks, every year, to carry home their annual provision of peats.
Miscellaneous Observations.—No roads have yet been made through this island, either by statute labour or otherwise. Only a very few carts are used in it, and no carriages for pleasure.There is no post-office in this island. The only post-house, indeed, in Shetland, is at Lerwick, which is 40 miles distant from this.

Antiquities.Around the island, and so situated, that the one can bo seen from the next in order, is a continued line of ruinous buildings, called Pict's houses, or castles, or burghs,—round towers, open in the top, with massy walls, built of large stones. Some of them stand in the midst of small lochs; some on projecting headlands on the margin of the sea; and others on level ground, and surrounded by two or three ditches or moats. According to tradition, they were used as watch-towers, for the purpose of communicating, by means of smoke, intelligence of the approach of an enemy; and this could be speedily done over all Zetland.
There are six burying-places in the parish, around the ruins of so many old kirks, viz. at Norwick, Haroldswick, Balliasta, Sandwick, Wick, and Uyea.
Parochial Economy. The only market-town in Zetland is Lerwick, at least forty miles distant from this parish by sea. Cattle are driven by land to be sold there, at very considerable expense, and with great toil, through bleak swampy mossy hills, without any trace of a road or bridge, and they have also to be transported in boats, over two sounds or arms of the sea, where the tide runs with extreme rapidity, and renders the passage uncertain and dangerous. When the inhabitants are disposed to sell any other part of their produce at Lerwick, they carry it thither in their own boats, and bring back with them such necessaries as their families stand in need of, and they can afford to purchase. Until about the year 1820, this was the only mode of communication betwixt Unst and Lerwick, where the general post-office is established, and all letters and newspapers coming from the southward had to remain there, to wait any opportunity that might occur, unless when it was found expedient to dispatch an express, at a considerable expense. To remedy this inconvenience experienced by all, some gentlemen residing in Lerwick, in the year 1820, entered into an agreement to engage a man to travel as post betwixt Lerwick and this place, and to call at several intermediate stations, and to carry all such letters and papers as might be committed to his charge. People residing in the country parishes have some agent, or friend in Lerwick, who receives their letters from the general post-office, and puts them into the hands of the person who is appointed to make up the mail for the landward districts, where there are receiving-houses conveniently situated. This plan has been found to answer extremely well. The post travels twice a-week, and greatly adds to the comfort of this remote parish and other parts of the country (there is now a Government penny post, established in place of this private arrangement—1841).

Public-Houses, Etc.There is no house in this parish which can be properly called an inn; but the kindness and hospitality of the people are such, that a stranger can never be at a loss, and there are two houses in the neighbourhood of Uyea Sound, kept by shop-keepers, where wayfaring men will find very comfortable lodgings.

Fuel.Peats from the hills of Valleyfield and Saxa Vord, are the only article of fuel used by the tenantry, and are procured by many at no small labour and expense, especially on the east side of the island, where peat moss is completely exhausted. Besides the labour of cutting and drying them, the people are obliged to employ from eight to ten horses, for the space of five or six weeks, every summer, to carry them home, and these must be attended by a person to put on the loads, and one or two boys to drive the horses. Most of the gentry use a considerable quantity of English coal.

Imports and Exports
.—Household-stores, for those of better stations, are imported from Leith and Hamburgh : and salt, deals, boats, fishing lines, hooks and meal, are imported for the use of the seamen. The exports are the same as in other parts of the country, such as ling, cod, tusk, oil, herrings herrings, butter, beef and hides: all of which, except the ling, are sent to Leith. Formerly Dutch and Hamburgh merchants traded to this country, and carried off the products, bringing such necessaries as the people needed. In the spring, fowls and eggs advance a little in value, as many are carried to Lerwick, where they fetch a higher price from the Greenlandmen who put in there.

Fuel.Peats are the fuel used by the inhabitants. They are easily procured, and are excellent of their kind, except in the island of Papa, where they are sandy.

No mention of roads.

Yell, Mid and South
No mention of roads


....it is hoped that the now regularly established communication weekly, by steam, between Shetland and the coast of Scotland, will tend to open up a ready market for the various kinds of stock, excite attention to the selecting and improving the native Shetland breeds, whether of black-cattle, sheep, or horses, and in the end greatly improve the circumstances both of landlord and tenant.

General Observations on the County of Shetland (NSA, page 162)

Carts are little used,—the absence of regular roads, the facility of water carriage, and the inconsiderable quantity of produce requiring transport, render their want the less felt. Ponies with pack saddles are the chief substitute. The subject of road-making has deservedly attracted attention. In a country so indented by the sea, the employment of small steam-boats, using peats for fuel, might, for some time to come, be suggested as a substitute.

The mail-steamer running all the year through would also be a signal boon, as bringing Shetland completely within the vortex of the British market, and no satisfactory reason has yet been given why this advantage, often solicited, has been withheld. The Isles of Man and of the channel enjoy many peculiar and important privileges; distant colonies are pampered; and it might not be unreasonable to expect some fostering patronage and commercial indulgence to be extended to the long neglected Shetland Islands.