Shetland Timeline

DSC07533When thinking about where to begin with this three year research project I decided to put together a timeline in order to put the Shetland boat into an historical context. This contextualisation is important, as it will provide a structure in which to place the development of the Shetland boat in terms of its use as a mode of transport, fishing and recreation.

Click on this link to download the Shetland Timeline

Shetlands location straddling both the North Atlantic and the North Sea has played an important part in the shaping of its history (Fenton, 1978, Osler 1983).

Osler (1983) asserts that the hull form of boats can change even within a district or a parish because the sea conditions the boats operate in often varies as does the topographic access these boats have to the sea.  This contextualising of the Shetland Islands is discussed by Fenton (1978) who believes that most people, particularly those in the South of the United Kingdom, regard the Shetland Islands as being remote.

This remoteness is geographically true, but because of where Shetland is located also means that these Islands have been a trading hub for many centuries (Fenton 1978).

Culturally, Shetlands allegiance is probably closer to Norway than it is to the United Kingdom and this can be demonstrated by the fact that 99 percent of its place names are Scandinavian in origin (Fenton 1978). This Norse cultural allegiance  is identified by Watt (2012) who defines this as a ‘Norseman’s bias.’ Through her research, Watt identifies close cultural ties to Norway which is in opposition to the fact that Shetland has been under Scottish rule since 1472 and then under British rule since 1707.

This timeline currently ends with the Crofters Act (1886). This date is significant as it changed the relationship between the Laird and the crofter who until then was in effect in servitude (Simpson 2011).

This timeline will continue to be amended throughout the research project. At the moment I am not sure at what date the timeline will end as boats are still being built (although in very small numbers) and yesterday I read in the Shetland Times that Shetland Amenity Trust have just received a £121,880 grant from the European Regional Development Fund. This money will support the Trust’s efforts in creating a boat building apprenticeship scheme. The purpose of this scheme is to ensure the Shetland Isles’ seafaring heritage is passed down to future generations.


Fenton, A. (1978) The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. John Donalson Publishing, Edinburgh.

Osler, A, G. (1983) The Shetland Boat South Mainland and Fair Isle. Maritime Monographs and Reports No 58. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Simpson, S. (2011) Shetland’s Heritage of Sail. Shetland Times Ltd. Lerwick, Shetland.

Watt, A. (2012) The Implications of Cultural Interchange in Scalloway, Shetland, with reference to a perceived Nordic-based Heritage. Unpublished thesis. University of Aberdeen.


6 thoughts on “Shetland Timeline

  1. Hello!

    John from Iona here. I’ll be interested to see what you get up to way up there in the north! Hope your having a better day than we’re having here.

    Not terribly convinced about Osler’s comment about hull shape changing between district or parish and my hunch is it’s a bit of a cultural myth. Sure, there are differences and particular boat builders would have their design signatures that were no doubt in response to local conditions. However, to a large extent a boat is a boat is… and sea conditions around a place like Shetland don’t change that much from place to place. Once you’ve got a good rowing / sailing hull, decent shoulders, volume, something a few folk can drag up a beach (light with a strong keel) then that’s about it. Think of any trade nowadays. You get the few highly skilled and inovative folk, followed by the middling sort of copiers, followed by the not-very-interested dullards who’d rather be down the pub. The idea of any old boatbuilder of keen eye tweaking a hull design to deal with a particularly nasty bit of chop off some local headland is, I fear, a myth.

    Also, if you are doing something a hell of a scary like going out into the North Atlantic in an open rowing boat you’d very much want to believe (and convince the wife) that your boat was particularly designed to optimize safety!

    And another also -men tend to be geeks and can spend happy hours
    ( I know, I do it) sucking their gums and discussing arcane points of boat design -real or imaginary, deliberate or accidental. Island folk tend to be thrawn and competitive and will argue black is white that their boat, dyking, sheep or whatever is superior or somehow different to their neighbours.

    Just my thoughts -and more fun than answering emails!


    1. Hi John,

      Thank you for your comment which is interesting and I have logged your points of view. I think there is some truth in what you say and it is an counter argument worth pursuing.

      Speaking from a boat building point of view there are going to be differences in hull form and construction within localities which maybe only slight and as you suggest are down to a builders own preference from years of experience or as a result of training when being an apprentice.

      In terms of operating conditions, as I understand at the moment, there are variations around the coast of Shetland and these are most pronounced in the South and the North of the Islands, where North sea and Atlantic meet.

      So, thank you once again for your comment and please keep reading and commenting as I value your thoughts and opinions.


    1. Hi Nick,
      Thanks for your helpful comment. I had been after a copy of this book for ages and happily I managed to track down a reasonably priced copy this summer. It is a seminal work which will be important to the research.

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