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The Lairds


By 1745 life on Fair Isle had changed, for education was available.  The Hanseatic merchants had rented a booth at South Haven until the late 1600s, trading with the people, exchanging salt, meat cloth and beer, for fish and knitting and any other goods that could be sold. Finally these German merchants were dissuaded by the British government from trading in Shetland, so by 1700, the islanders’ relationship with their lairds altered.  Through their trade with the German merchants they had received cash, as well as goods, for any additional materials they had for exchange.  When times were good, this enabled them to purchase extra grain from Orkney, where there was often a surfeit.  


So when the German traders were forced to leave, lairds took over their merchant role and so developed the system of truck, which meant that families seldom saw coin of the realm and became hostage to the laird and his merchandising. Lairds charged rents that were often difficult to pay and bought goods from the islanders cheaply, while overcharging their tenants for anything they sold to them.  Rent arrears became common on Fair Isle, as elsewhere in Shetland.  The 1600s and 1700s saw years of prosperity, but also terrible years when the crops failed, the fishing was poor and smallpox wiped away populations.  Occasionally, the British government was forced to send grain north, to prevent disaster.  After a series of good years, when the population flourished, young people were forced to move to find enough land to live.  It was impossible for most people to do very much more than survive.  Press gangs from Royal Navy ships also took men from areas like Fair Isle, where they knew there were accomplished sailors.  The government used impressment until 1815, as a way of augmenting crews, particularly during times of war.


By 1824 when the Reverend John Lewis visited Fair Isle, he described a journey from Sumburgh in a small open boat that carried: potatoes, oatmeal, five horses and a foal, 23 adults and a child.  Who were these adults and what was their business? Clearly, some people travelled to and from the island on a regular basis.  Lewis goes on to tell us that at this time there were 364 residents and that some houses had four married couples in them.  He said that most of the meal came from Orkney and the people were often without anything but fish to eat.  Clearly, 364 people was close to breaking point for Fair Isle.  Did Lewis get his sums right?  Why not?  He stayed with Mr Strong (the tacksman) who would have known exactly how many people lived on the island.  There was then emigration to Stronsay and Westray, where the laird had land that required people, so by the time of the 1841 Census the population was down to 232.  It is also true that individual families would periodically leach away to Shetland and elsewhere.  Emigration on Fair Isle was a necessity, if people were not to starve.


During the second half of the 19th century, Fair Isle experienced both success and failure.  Housing, farming and education improved, while the Crofting Commission introduced the concept of protection for tenants.  But other factors caused great pressure on the population.  The island’s economy failed, just when the economy of Shetland was flourishing and improvements in communication brought tempting news of opportunities from places much further away.  Some people could not imagine living somewhere else, but for others, who were really struggling, these opportunities seemed attractive.  People did not always move far, but they seldom returned.


By 1901 Shetland had 141 herring stations, where thousands of fishermen, gutters, coopers, labourers and curers made a good living. Local people would be aware of this booming economy, so very close to their homes.  However, the herring trade would peak in 1905 and by the First World War the industry came to a halt.  Although fishing would resume after the war, it was a different economy that emerged and many of the people who survived now left Shetland.  


By the end of the 1800s, all around Britain towns were flourishing, as the factories that had been engendered by the industrial revolution kept growing and developing.  Britain was still a country that could import materials from its many colonies cheaply and export a wide range of products all around the world. The possibility of jobs that paid a reliable wage was attractive to many Shetlanders, but they were not alone. Millions of Scots emigrated between 1850 and 1950, tempted by the dream.  Emigration was an issue for the entire country.


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