Welcome to this article exploring the modern history of the Shetland Islands and the fascinating museums and historical tourist attractions that showcase this period. Nestled in the North Atlantic, the Shetland Islands have a rich and diverse history shaped by trade, war, and the emergence of new industries.
In this article, we will delve into the key events and developments that have shaped the islands from the 18th century to the present day. We will uncover the impact of trade disruptions, such as the 1707 Act of Union and the decline of traditional industries, and how the resilient islanders adapted and thrived in the face of challenges.
Furthermore, we will highlight the remarkable museums and historical sites that provide a glimpse into Shetland’s modern history. From lighthouses that guided ships to safety, to exhibits that delve into the lives of the islanders during times of conflict and industrial transformation, there is much to explore and discover.
Join us as we embark on a journey through time, uncovering the stories and heritage of the Shetland Islands’ modern era and immersing ourselves in the captivating museums and historical attractions that bring this history to life.
If you want to read about the prehistory, medieval and pre-1707 history of the Shetland Islands together with the landmarks from that time, here is the article.
History of the Shetland islands – from the 1707 Act of Union to the 21st century
The 1707 Act of Union disrupted trade between Shetland and North German towns due to high salt duties, plunging Shetland into an economic depression. Local merchant-lairds stepped in, equipping their own ships to export fish to the Continent. Unfortunately, this had adverse effects on independent farmers who were now obligated to fish for these merchant-lairds.
The islands suffered from smallpox outbreaks, but health improved with the availability of vaccines after 1800. The devastating potato famine of 1846 hit Shetland hard, prompting the government to implement a Relief Plan led by Captain Robert Craigie of the Royal Navy, who also made significant road improvements during his tenure. The population reached its peak at 31,670 in 1861.
Under British rule, Shetlanders’ nautical skills were in demand by the Royal Navy, with around 3,000 serving during the Napoleonic wars. By the late 19th century, only 32 individuals owned 90% of Shetland, leading to a wave of emigration between 1861 and 1881. The Crofters’ Act of 1886, introduced by Prime Minister William Gladstone, emancipated crofters from landlord rule, enabling them to become owners of their own small farms.
The herring fishing industry, sparked by Dutch fishermen gathering off the coast, flourished from 1880 until the 1920s when fish stocks declined. The industry reached its peak in 1905, exporting over 708,000 barrels of herring.The Local Government (Scotland) Act of 1889 established Zetland County Council, centralizing county governance.
World War I saw significant involvement from Shetlanders, with many serving in the Gordon Highlanders, Merchant Navy, and local naval reserve. The 10th Cruiser Squadron operated from Swarbacks Minn, escorting more than 4,500 ships from Lerwick in a single year. Shetland suffered a higher proportion of casualties than any other part of Britain during the war, leading to additional waves of emigration in the 1920s and 1930s.
In World War II, the Special Operations Executive established the “Shetland Bus,” a Norwegian naval unit based in Shetland. Operating covertly, it made over 200 trips, carrying intelligence agents, refugees, instructors, and military supplies.
The discovery of oil reserves in the seas around Shetland in the later 20th century provided a much-needed alternative source of income. This, along with cultural ties to Norway, briefly fueled a Home Rule movement to redefine Shetland’s constitutional position.
Presently, agriculture, aquaculture, fishing, renewable energy, the petroleum industry, creative industries, and tourism are the main contributors to Shetland’s revenue.
The Lerwick Town Hall
The Lerwick Town Hall, situated in central Lerwick, is a significant municipal building and the headquarters of the Shetland Islands Council. This Category A listed structure serves as a venue for various functions such as weddings, concerts, coffee mornings, and evening events.
Originally, council meetings took place at the Parish Kirk in Queens Lane during the 19th century. However, due to Lerwick’s rapid population growth linked to the herring industry, civic leaders decided to construct a purpose-built town hall on the north Hillhead site. The foundation stone was laid by Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, on January 24, 1882, coinciding with the inaugural Up Helly Aa torchlight procession in Lerwick.
Architect Alexander Ross from Inverness designed the new building in the Scottish Baronial style, with John M. Aitken of Lerwick winning the tender competition for construction. The town hall was officially opened on July 30, 1883, by George Thoms, Sheriff of Caithness, Orkney, and Shetland. It featured a symmetrical frontage, an arched doorway, oriel windows, battlemented towers, and stained glass windows, including depictions of significant historical events.
Throughout the years, the town hall served as the headquarters for Lerwick Town Council until 1975 and the Shetland Islands Council until 2022. In 2008, the front steps were replaced, and in February 2015, the local registrar’s office moved to Lerwick Town Hall. Notable artworks housed within the building include a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II by Leonard Boden and a portrait of Charles Rampini, Sheriff of Dumfries and Galloway, by John Henry Lorimer.
With its historical significance and architectural charm, the Lerwick Town Hall stands as a proud symbol of Lerwick’s civic life and heritage.
The County Buildings in Lerwick
Located in King Erik Street, Lerwick, Shetland, the County Buildings serve as a municipal judicial complex. This Category B listed structure has a rich history. The initial judicial facility in Lerwick was a medieval tolbooth on Commercial Street, completed in the 17th century.
After its deterioration, it was replaced by a new tolbooth constructed by local masons Robert and James Forbes around 1770. This new facility served as a prison and sheriff courthouse, but its poor conditions led to a call for better facilities in the mid-19th century.
A new site on King Erik Street was chosen, and the County Buildings were designed by David Rhind in the Scottish baronial style. Completed in 1875, the building features an asymmetrical design with four bays facing King Erik Street, two of which project forward.
Notable elements include a doorway with a hood mould and stepped gables adorning the first-floor windows. The internal layout includes office space for the sheriff clerk, as well as blocks for the sheriff court, prison, and local police station.
With the establishment of the Zetland County Council in 1890, the County Buildings became its headquarters. The complex attracted international attention when a United States Congressional delegation visited in 1974 to explore the impact of North Sea oil on local development.
Following the dissolution of the Zetland County Council in 1975, the County Buildings continued to serve primarily as a judicial center, housing the procurator fiscal’s offices, courthouse, and police station.
The building gained further prominence as the workplace of Detective Inspector Jimmy Pérez in the television series “Shetland,” which premiered in 2013. In 2015, the local registrar’s office relocated to Lerwick Town Hall. Nonetheless, the County Buildings remain a significant historical landmark and play a crucial role in Lerwick’s legal affairs.
The Sumburgh Head Lighthouse
Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, situated at the southern tip of the Mainland of Shetland, is the oldest lighthouse on the island, built by Robert Stevenson in 1821. Until 1987, it also featured a functioning foghorn, which replaced a fog bell commemorating the Royal Victoria shipwreck in 1864. The fog bell now resides in Dunrossness’ parish church.
In 1991, the lighthouse was automated, and the former keepers’ houses were converted into holiday accommodations. The foghorn was restored in 2015 and is sounded on special occasions. The site also houses offices for the RSPB, responsible for the bird reserve surrounding the lighthouse.
The Northern Lighthouse Board oversees the lighthouse’s operation, while the Shetland Amenity Trust owns the site and restored its facilities. In 2014, a visitor center was established, offering a remarkable experience with access to previously inaccessible areas like the Smithy, Engine Rooms, and Radar Huts.
The Marine Life Centre, interpretive materials, and the newly constructed Education Centre with breathtaking cliff views enhance the site and provide excellent facilities for activities and private events during inclement weather. The lighthouse complex is a category A listed building, ensuring its protection.
The Sumburgh Head Lighthouse, Visitor Centre, and Nature Reserve offer an unforgettable experience to visitors. The Visitor Centre areas are open daily between May and August, inviting exploration and discovery of the rich heritage and natural wonders of the site.
St Magnus’ Episcopal Church and Rectory
Nestled in the heart of Lerwick, the St Magnus’ Episcopal Church and Rectory stand as iconic landmarks steeped in history. The church’s origins date back to 1861 when a mission was formed to bring Episcopalian clergy back to Shetland after a century-long absence.
The Foundation Stone of the present church was laid on April 16, 1863, the Feast of St. Magnus, and the construction was completed the following year. It was consecrated on June 27, 1864, with the distinctive tower added in 1891.
One of the notable features of St Magnus’ Church is its captivating stained glass windows, each carrying its own significance. Above the altar, the central light pays tribute to the Revd. John Hunter, the last Episcopalian priest in Shetland after the Reformation, who passed away in 1761. Another window in the north wall of the choir honors the Revd. Robert Walker, the first Episcopalian priest in Shetland after Hunter, and the Rector of St. Magnus from 1864 to 1896.
Designed in the Early English style by Alexander Ellis and built between 1862 and 1864, the church underwent further enhancements, including alterations to the chancel by Alexander Ross in 1899. The windows themselves are works of art, originally created by Sir Ninian Comper for the chapel of the former House of Charity and relocated to St Magnus’ Church in 1973.
Today, St Magnus’ Episcopal Church and Rectory remain not only as places of worship but also as symbols of resilience, heritage, and spiritual devotion. Their architectural beauty and historical significance continue to captivate visitors and inspire a sense of reverence for the past and the enduring faith it represents.
St Ringan’s Church
Located in Lower Hillhead, Lerwick, St Ringan’s Church has a rich history that reflects the evolution of religious affiliations and community services in the area. Originally opened in 1886 as a United Presbyterian Church, it later became a United Free Church after the union of the United Free Church and United Presbyterian Churches in 1900.
The church, constructed in 1885-86 by R.G. Sykes of Liverpool, is a remarkable B-listed Gothic grey sandstone building with a distinct squat crenellated central tower. Over the years, the church underwent renovations, including the addition of a mezzanine floor and rolling shelving, adapting to the changing needs of the congregation.
However, declining attendance in the 1980s led to the sale of the building by the United Free Church to the Shetland Isles Council for a nominal fee of £1. The church building found a new purpose as a public library, providing an essential hub for knowledge and community services.
After serving as a library since 2002, in December 2021, the library relocated back to its older location.
St Ringan’s Church stands as a testament to the transformation of spaces over time and the adaptive reuse of architectural treasures to meet the changing needs of the community. Its architectural charm and significance make it an important landmark in Lerwick’s cultural landscape.
The Haroldswick Methodist Church
Haroldswick Methodist Church holds the distinction of being the northernmost church in Britain, being located near Haroldswick, a small town on the island of Unst.
The church came into existence due to the damage inflicted upon its predecessor by strong winds. Its foundation stone was laid in 1990, and it was dedicated in May 1993. Designed by Shetland architect Frank A Robertson, the church draws inspiration from Norwegian wooden staved churches, evident in its simplified structure. Notably, a separate bell turret was built as a millennium project in 2001 to house a bell dating back to 1867.
While the plain exterior with small windows might deceive you, stepping inside reveals a delightful surprise. The main hall is awe-inspiring, adorned with Scandinavian red pine panelling that creates a warm, light, and airy ambiance even on dreary days.
The church features a communion table with a cross hanging above and a lectern that incorporates wood from the previous church’s pulpit. The lectern cloth design takes inspiration from an old Shetland stone cross.
The church’s laminated beams from Denmark, supported by large concrete blocks, aim to withstand strong winds better than its predecessor. The southern and eastern sides boast larger windows, offering breathtaking views of the sea and parts of Unst.
The church’s surroundings are thoughtfully designed, with the ground gently built up to conceal the stone field wall, enhancing the vistas. A visit to Haroldswick Methodist Church unveils a warm and beautiful place of worship with a delightful atmosphere, making it a worthwhile stop for anyone, not just those seeking the thrill of reaching “most northerlies.”
The Shetland Museum and Archives
Located in Lerwick, the Shetland Museum and Archives is a captivating museum that showcases the rich heritage and culture of the archipelago. The museum officially opened its doors on May 31, 2007, with the inauguration ceremony led by Queen Sonja of Norway and Charles and Camilla.
The impressive new building, costing approximately £11.6 million, replaced the smaller structures that had served as the museum since 1966. The new museum represents a significant advancement, offering five times the exhibit space compared to its predecessor, excluding the three-storey boat hall.
It also houses a state-of-the-art archive-storage facility, a search room, a 120-seat lecture hall, temporary display areas, and a café serving locally sourced produce.
The museum’s galleries are split across two floors. The ground floor, encompassing approximately 500 m2 of space, delves into Shetland’s history up until 1800. Exhibits cover various aspects, including environmental and geological factors, early settlers, agriculture, fishing, boats, and folklore.
The first-floor gallery, spanning 360 m2, brings the story of Shetland up to the present, highlighting cultural, political, population, and industrial changes. It explores the knitwear industry, Shetland’s connection to the sea through fishing, whaling, wartime service, and merchant shipping.
The museum’s exhibits range from historically significant items to those of great importance to Shetland’s identity. Delicate lace shawls, complete boats, and everything in between come together to weave a comprehensive narrative. Additionally, the Shetland Archives house records from the 15th to the 21st century, along with an extensive collection of local literature.
Situated on Hay’s Dock, the museum enjoys a setting that celebrates Shetland’s strong maritime heritage. The dock area, listed as category B, underwent authentic restoration during the museum’s construction.
Reclaimed and recycled materials, such as natural lime and granite sets, were utilized. The pier store, fully restored, now serves as a storage space for boat gear and occasionally hosts exhibitions and events open to the public.
Visitors to the museum can explore the renovated Boat Shed, witnessing the meticulous construction of vessels using traditional techniques passed down through generations. Completed examples are suspended from the ceiling in the three-storey Boat Hall.
The Heritage Hub provides further assistance for those interested in delving deeper into Shetland’s culture and past. Additional amenities include a café restaurant, an auditorium, study rooms, a temporary exhibition space, and a shop.
The Shetland Crofthouse Museum at Dunrossness
The Shetland Crofthouse Museum at Dunrossness is operated by the Shetland Museum and Archives. This charming museum invites you to step back in time into a traditional 19th-century thatched crofthouse. Restored to its original 1870s appearance, the crofthouse showcases the lifestyle of Shetlanders, with the living quarters, byre, and barn all conveniently housed under one roof.
Here you can engage your senses as you encounter the peat fire’s aroma in the kitchen and living area, known as the ‘but end,’ and discover handmade box beds and bunks in the bedroom, or ‘ben end.’ A delightful garden surrounds the crofthouse, with a pathway leading to a restored watermill.
This museum immerse you in the authentic lifestyle of mid-1800s Shetlanders as the crofthouse recreates the accommodation used by extended families of grandparents, parents, and children. The man of the family, often a fisherman, would be away fishing, whaling, or at sea, while the rest of the family tended to the crofting activities.
The museum comprises two parallel runs of thatched buildings, joined together side by side, where all the farming activities took place, except for the water mill, situated closer to the coast along the stream.
Upon entering through the lobby, you gain access to all areas of the steading. The family’s living quarters, occupying two-thirds of one side of the crofthouse, consist of two main rooms.
The “but end” welcomes you with its central peat fire, used for smoking fish, and features a large wooden box bed for added warmth and privacy. The main sleeping area, the “ben end,” houses a box bed, an additional bed, and cots. Notably, the scarcity of trees in Shetland led to the use of driftwood in crafting the furniture and constructing the crofthouse.
The front section of the building served as a byre for the family’s cattle, while the rear section was divided into a stable and a barn. At the barn’s far end, a corn drying kiln completes the immersive experience of the crofthouse, offering a glimpse into the past lives of Shetlanders.
The Böd of Gremista and the Shetland textile museum
The Böd of Gremista, an 18th-century Shetland fishing booth located in Lerwick, Scotland, is a notable historical site. Built in 1780 by Arthur Nicholson, the local landowner and manager of the Gremista fishing station, the Böd served as accommodation and a store for fishing and fish curing activities.
It holds significance as the birthplace of Arthur Anderson, co-founder of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company (P&O). Although the building fell into disrepair, it was restored with the help of grants from P&O and the UK Government in 1970. It opened as a museum in 1987 and became part of the Shetland Museums Service in 1991.
Today, the Böd of Gremista operates as a Shetland textile museum, exhibiting various textiles and artifacts from the 1800s to the present day. The museum’s collection includes Fair Isle and lace knitting, knitwear, taatit rugs, tweed, and works by contemporary Shetland makers.
The museum aims to preserve and showcase the rich history and techniques of knitting, offering access to the Shetland community and visitors from around the world. The collection is carefully curated, documented, and stored at the Böd of Gremista, with guidance from a specialist Textile Curator and support from Museum Galleries Scotland.
In addition to the textile collection, the museum houses an archive that consists of documents, papers, photographs, plans, and research files. These materials provide valuable insights into the history of Shetland textiles and the exhibitions held at the museum over the past 35 years.
The archive continues to grow, with recent donations including records from Louise Irvine’s knitwear business, offering a comprehensive record of Shetland knitwear from the 1980s to the 2000s.
The museum welcomes inquiries, encourages public interest and research, and provides access to the collection and archive through exhibitions, events, demonstrations, and personal appointments.
The Lerwick War Memorial
The Lerwick War Memorial stands as a solemn tribute to the brave residents of Shetland who made the ultimate sacrifice during the harrowing years of World War I and World War II. Situated at the junction of Hillhead and King Erik Street in the heart of Lerwick, directly opposite the Town Hall, this memorial is a poignant reminder of the toll war took on the community.
Designed by the renowned architect Sir Robert Lorimer and dedicated on 6th January 1924, the memorial is crafted from white granite. It features a slender staff adorned with shield and sword carvings on each face, crowned with a cross.
The monument rests on a cruciform base set into a sloping site on a rubble platform. Bronze plaques bearing the names of the fallen from World War I encircle the base, while additional plaques were added in 1970 to honor those who lost their lives in World War II.
The Lerwick War Memorial, with its listing as a B-listed structure in 1996, serves as a poignant reminder of the immense sacrifices made by the Shetland community. It commemorates the lives of 517 military personnel and 119 civilians who tragically lost their lives as a direct result of their involvement in World War I.
However, it is important to acknowledge that there may be names missing from the memorial, as the information collected at the time was not always comprehensive.
This memorial stands not only as a tribute to those who served and perished but also as a symbol of the resilience and unity of the Shetland community during times of great adversity. It honors the legacy of the thousands of men who answered the call to duty from these islands and returned to their families forever changed by the ravages of war.