I had a friend’s son staying in July, a student from England up for a last weekend of freedom before the summer job. He had never visited Shetland before so I enjoyed showing him some of my favourite places on, and off, the tourist trail. Driving past Wormadale, overlooking Whiteness Voe, he commented on the difference between this rural landscape and the industrial landscape of his home county. This harmless remark is one that started me thinking further about the tourist experience of Shetland.
On the surface Shetland is remote, peaceful, timeless and untouched. Look closer and deeper. This is an intensely worked coastal landscape, modelled by millenia of human activity, an industrial landscape, marked not by the “dark satanic mills” of Blake’s industrial revolution but by the much more ephemeral traces of farming, fishing and intensive local industries that characterised Shetland until very recently. The agricultural nature of the landscape and the location of much of its industry around the sea and shoreline means visible traces can be very slight and easily lost.
Looking down Whiteness voe, the first building to strike your eye is the böd of Nesbister sitting out on a rocky peninsular where it was used by the haaf fishermen during the 19th century. Around the edge of most Shetland voes lie the boat noosts that housed the small boats of daily life, the main form of transport until the advent of cars and metalled roads as well as a key source of both subsistence and income. As the old phrase goes...Orcadians are farmers who fish, Shetlanders are fishermen who farm...
My own connection with Shetland begins during the Second World War when my grandfather landed at Sumburgh by seaplane as a scientist looking at crashed planes and torpedoed U-Boats to assess the battery technology of the Axis forces. Despite his long standing joke that the most terrifying moment of his war was the taxi ride from Sumburgh to Lerwick in the blackout, he enjoyed Shetland so much he brought his family back here for holidays to Hillswick and Baltasound on the steam ship The Earl of Zetland during the 1950s.
The Shetland my mother remembers as a young child was characterised by flit boats, herring stations and gutter girls. This was a very different, smog-free, industry compared to those heavy industries she was familiar with as a child in Manchester. Nevertheless the herring industry was large and busy all the same. The böds, noosts, gutters huts and crofts are very different from the brick terraces and coal mines that I knew so well as a child growing up in North East of England, but these are also the remains of a tough life, a connected life, of resilient and enterprising communities. This was not a romantic life, but it was a very skilled existence and those everyday stories are among the most important and the most fragile.
Shetland has had a history of industrial boom and bust as well as smaller more local industries. It has seen the haaf fishing, the cod smacks, the herring fishing, the development of the modern pelagic fleet and fish processing, along with the development and expansion of aquaculture. During the late 1970s and 80s Shetland’s fortunes were transformed by the oil industry which resulted in the construction of Sullom Voe, improvements to the road infrastructure, the building of many leisure centres, public halls, and marinas. The woollen industry (both knitting and weaving), copper, iron, chromite and talc mining, a long history of peat extraction, quarrying, seaweed processing just to name a few ... Many of these industries leave very few traces in the landscape because they were short lived and/or small scale or because of their very nature. Situated on the coast edge the structures of Shetland’s fishing industry were often constructed in a very temporary and ephemeral way and the multiplicity of wooden boats and barrels that serviced this industry have mostly long gone.
At the peak of the herring industry in 1905 more than half the entire Scottish herring catch was landed in Shetland by a fleet of 1,783 vessels with 12,500 crew, processed and packed into 1,024,044 barrels... (Nicolson 1972: 135)
Our archaeological work with Moder Dy is focussed on some of the most ephemeral remains of this maritime way of life - the everyday and the mundane - the archaeology of the small boat that was used to fish, to flit across the voe with peats or livestock or nip to the shop. We have also been exploring and surveying the traces of the fishing stations that served the haaf fishing - a key part of Shetland’s often overlooked industrial heritage.
Nicolson, J. (1972) Shetland. David & Charles