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History of the County of Shetland - Scotland

Historic County of Scotland

The purpose of this project is to give a Historic background to the Shetland Islands, to provide information about those individuals of Historic importance linked to the county and to add links to any profiles of significant people linked to Shetland who have profiles on GENi.

See also Shetland Main Page

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History - overview

The county name is derived from the Scandinavian Hjaltland-or ' high-land '-whence Hjatland, Zetland. and Shetland.

The Shetland dialect is an amalgam of Norse, Lowland Scots and English, each element reflecting a period in the islands' history dominated by those respective nations.

It is believed that the first people to settle on the Shetland Islands arrived about 6000 years ago. The Picts were residing there at the time of the Roman occupation of Britain, and are likely responsible for the building of the many brochs (stone tower - castles) dotted across the islands. Although the first Norse settlers may have arrived as early as AD 600, it was the era of the Viking expansion in the 800s, which saw waves of settlers arrive primarily from the western coast of Norway.

Extract from Shetland - Descriptive and Historical By Robert Cowie (1874) at electricscotland

"The early inhabitants of these islands were evidently the Picts, who are now admitted by the most accomplished archaeologists and ethnologists to have been a Celtic race. This people spread over Scotland and the Hebrides before the birth of Christ, and thence must have migrated to Orkney and Shetland. We have no means of knowing even approximately when the Picts entered Shetland, but they appear to have remained in undisputed possession until the beginning of the ninth, century, when the nautical daring, boundless energy, and desire for foreign enterprise, not to speak of plunder, had become so much developed in the Norsemen, that the barren shores of their native Scandinavia could no longer afford scope for their exploits. At first they appear to have visited Shetland in comparatively small numbers; and they probably first became acquainted with the islands by some unfortunate fishing-yawl being driven op. their shores by a long-continued easterly gale."

Vikings then made the islands the headquarters of pirate expeditions against Norway and the coasts of mainland Scotland. The Norwegian King Harald Hårfagre ("Harald Fair Hair") responded by annexing the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland) in 875. [Some scholars believe that this story, which appears in the Orkneyinga Saga is apocryphal and based on the later voyages of Magnus Barelegs]. Rognvald Eysteinsson received Orkney and Shetland from Harald as an earldom, compensation for the death of his son in battle in Scotland. He passed the earldom on to his brother Sigurd the Mighty.

Christianity reached the islands were in the late 10th century. King Olav Tryggvasson summoned the jarl Sigurd the Stout during a visit to Orkney and ordered the Shetlanders to be baptised. He threatened to have them killed if they refused. Sigurd agreed and the islands became Christian. From around 1100 onwards the Norse jarls owed allegiance both to Norway and to the Scottish crown through their holdings as Earls of Caithness.

In 1194, when Harald Maddadsson was Earl of Orkney and Shetland, there was a rebellion against King Sverre Sigurdsson of Norway. The Øyskjeggs ("Island Beardies") sailed for Norway but were beaten in the Battle of Florvåg near Bergen. After his victory King Sverre placed Shetland under direct Norwegian rule which continued for nearly two centuries.

Gods in Norway and Shetland, before and after Scotish takeover of Shetland.

’The lords of Norroway’ are mentioned in several Shetland sources from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These ‘lords’, aristocratic families based in (Western) Norway, were inheritors of the vast estate that a lady of Shetland origins, Herdis Thorvaldsdatter, had amassed until her death in 1363. The present paper takes a closer look at this estate.


200BC -200 AD

Warrior Celts arrived and built massive brochs at Mousa, Jarlshof and Old Scatness. Stanydale Temple may have been the hall of one of their leaders.

700 AD

Christianity was introduced by Irish or Pictish missionaries

800 AD

Shetland was colonised during the late 8th and 9th centuries. What happened to the existing indigenous population is not known. Shetland remained in Norse control for the next 600 years. Shetlanders celebrate their Viking roots at the annual fire festival of Up Helly Aa


The king of Norway created an Earl of the Orkneys and ruled the Shetlands.

A.D. 876

Extract from Shetland - Descriptive and Historical By Robert Cowie (1874) at electricscotland

"Harold Harfager having usurped kingly authority over all the other princes of Norway, a large number of malcontents took refuge in the Terrae Incognitse of Iceland, Faroe, Shetland, Orkney, and .several districts on the Scotch coasts. Enraged at this revolt, Harold speedily equipped a fleet to subdue the rebels, and landing at Haroldswick in Unst, which bears his name to this day, quickly subdued the Shetland and Orkney Islands, which, along with the Hebrides, he added to his domains. The two first-mentioned groups of islands he formed into one earldom, and invested one of the most powerful of his nobles, Ronald, Count of Merca, with the government. Ronald made over the earldom to his brother Sigurd, who became the first of the famous Norse jarls of Orkney and Zetland. Immediately after his accession to this dignity, Sigurd formed an alliance with Thorstein, King of Dublin; and, invading the northern provinces of Scotland, subdued them as far as Morayshire. In his case death speedily followed victory, but in a very unusual way. Having slain Maelbrigd, a Scottish chief, Sigurd tied his head to his saddle-bow. The tooth, says the Saga, which was very prominent, inflicted a wound on his leg, and the wound inflaming, caused the death of the earl."


When Harald Maddadsson was Earl of Orkney and Shetland, there was a rebellion against King Sverre Sigurdsson of Norway. The Øyskjeggs ("Island Beardies") sailed for Norway but were beaten in the Battle of Florvåg near Bergen. After his victory King Sverre placed Shetland under direct Norwegian rule.


Alexander II Scottish King, started trying to take control of the islands surrounding the mainland. The campaign was continued by his successor Alexander III. This led to an invasion by Haakon Haakonsson, King of Norway. His fleet assembled in Bressay Sound before sailing for Scotland. After the stalemate of the Battle of Largs, Haakon retreated to Orkney, where he died in December 1263.


The death of Haakon Haakonsson, King of Norway ended further Norwegian expansion in Scotland.


Reference - Scotland - the Story of a Nation By Magnus Magnusson p 260

"When Alexander III signed the Treaty of Perth in 1266, by which Norway ceded the Western Isles to Scotland for a yearly payment of one hundred merks in perpetuity (the 'annual of Norway', as it was called), the status of Orkney and Shetland as possessions of the Norwegian crown was secured."


Hanseatic merchants from north Germany arrived to trade with local fishermen


Norse rule came to an end as a result of a marriage treaty betweenJames III and Margaret of Denmark. To raise the funds for her dowry, both Shetland and Orkney were mortgaged to Scotland. On 8 September 1468 the islands were mortgaged to Scotland for 8,000 florins as part of the marriage agreement between the future James III and Princess Margrethe of Denmark.


Reference - Scotland - the Story of a Nation By Magnus Magnusson p 260

On 10 July 1469 King James III of Scotland married Margrethe, Princes of Norway/Denmark, at a ceremony in Holyrood Abbey; the groom was eighteen years old, the bride only ten. ...
... with that marriage the kingdom of Scotland finally gained the last territories which make up Scotland today - the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland."


Shetland and Orkney were annexed to the Scottish crown


The infamous Earl Robert Stewart, half-brother of Mary Queen of Scots, arrived. He ignored the Shetlanders’ laws and institutions, increased taxation and building the Lairds House at Jarlshof


700 Shetlanders gathered at the old parliament site at Tingwall to complain to Royal commissioners in Edinburgh about the conduct of the Earl’s equally tyrannical successor Laurence Bruce of Cultmalindie.


The Earl’s son Patrick Stewart 2nd Earl of Orkney, Shetland, took over. He restored the old Norwegian law, appointed Shetlanders as officials and returned the islands to relative stability and prosperity


Patrick fell foul of power hungry landlords and was guillotined at Edinburgh for treason


Fort Charlotte was built by Charles II during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. It successfully fended off an enemy fleet in 1667


Landlords made it a condition of their tenants’ tenure to fish for them. Islanders sold their catch to their merchant-lairds in return for essential goods - this arrangement is known as the truck system which transformed Shetland into a cashless society.


The lordship of Shetland became separated from that of Orkney as a result of the rebellion of Jarl Harald against Sverrir, King of Norway, and the two were not united till the grant by King Hakon to Henry St Clair in 1379.


Norway gave control of the Shetland Islands to Scotland, and soon Scottish ministers, lairds, and merchants went to the island shores to settle and eventually blend with the Norse population which comprised mainly fishermen and crofters on small runs of land.

Today the people of the Shetlands, despite the long connection to Scotland, do not tend to see themselves as Scottish (even those with Scottish names have Norse heritage in other lines). There is still a pride in their Norse heritage.


In the 17th century the Crown granted the islands of Orkney and Shetland to the earls of Morton, subject to a right of redemption, which was abolished by a private Act of Parliament in 1742. All the Members of Parliament returned were related to the earls of Morton, the hereditary stewards. The only contest occurred in 1722, when the 11th Earl’s grandson, James Moodie, who had been returned unopposed in 1715, was defeated by the 13th Earl’s brother, George Douglas, petitioning unsuccessfully on the ground that the deputy steward had admitted a number of Douglas’s friends, who were not entitled to vote. When the grant was made absolute in 1742, the local lairds launched a campaign against the Morton ‘tyranny’, unsuccessfully challenging it in the courts.


During the Napoleonic Wars many Shetland men were coerced into joining the Royal Navy by being ‘press ganged’ or kidnapped by naval officers. By the end of this period the Shetlanders’ native Norn language effectively became extinct with most Shetlanders speaking Scots.


An estimated 2,000 Shetlanders left the islands. Many emigratied to North America and Australia


The herring fishing boom arrived. Landowners leased their lands to businessmen who established new fisheries and purchased catches from local fishermen in return for money. An increasing number of Shetlanders abandoned the old ‘truck’ system that had existed between landlords and their tenants in favour of earning cash.


The British government enacted crafting legislation which made it impossible for landlords to evict their tenants and greatly reduced rents.

Members of Parliament - Orkney and Shetland

For Biographical articles go to -

  • 15 June 1708 Sir Alexander Douglas
  • 8 Nov. 1710 Sir Alexander Douglas
  • 23 Oct. 1713 Hon. George Douglas 9 votes
  • James Moodie 5 Votes
  • 2 Mar. 1715 James Moodie
  • 24 Apr. 1722 George Douglas
  • James Moodie
  • 10 Sept. 1727 George Douglas
  • 7 May 1730 Robert Douglas vice George Douglas, called to the Upper House
  • 23 May 1734 Robert Douglas
  • 11 June 1741 Robert Douglas
  • 19 Feb. 1747 James Halyburton vice Douglas, deceased
  • 27 July 1747 James Halyburton
  • 15 May 1754 Robert Douglas
  • 30 Apr. 1761 Sir Robert Douglas
  • 6 May 1768 Thomas Dundas of Fingask
  • 31 Jan. 1771 Thomas Dundas (1750-1794) younger of Fingask vice Thomas Dundas of Fingask, appointed to office
  • 4 Nov. 1774 Thomas Dundas younger of Fingask
  • 10 Oct. 1780 Robert Baikie 11 Votes
  • Charles Dundas 5 Votes
  • Dundas vice Baikie, on petition, 23 Feb. 1781
  • 4 May 1784 Thomas Dundas younger of Fingask 12 Votes
  • Robert Baikie 7 Votes
  • 28 July 1790 John Balfour 19 Votes
  • Thomas Dundas 13 Votes
  • 29 June 1796 Robert Honyman I
  • 26 July 1802 Robert Honyman I
  • 1 Dec. 1806 Robert Honyman II
  • 9 June 1807 Lalcolm Laing
  • 6 Nov. 1812 Richard Bempde Johnstone Honyman 9 Votes
  • William Balfour 5 Votes
  • Richard Bempde Johnstone Honyman 12 Votes
  • Richard Bempde Johnstone Honyman 14 Votes
  • 12 July 1826 George Heneage Laurence Dundas
  • 1 Sept. 1830 George Traill
  • 1 June 1831 George Traill

Lord Lieutenants of Shetland.

  • Sir Arthur Nicolson 8 April 1948 – 25 April 1952
  • Sir Basil Hamilton Hebden Neven-Spence 21 July 1952 – 1963
  • Robert Hunter Wingate Bruce 5 July 1963 – 1982
  • Magnus Macdonald Shearer 6 October 1982 – 1994
  • John Hamilton Scott 21 April 1994 – present

High Sheriff of Shetlands

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