The last of the native Shetland Aristocrats. By Brian Smith

This article was originally presented to the Shetland Family History Society as a lecture by Brian Smith, who is the Shetland County Archivist.

I don't need to labour the point, speaking to the Shetland Family History Society, that it isn't easy to reconstruct the history of any Shetland family from the period before, say, 1750. We are green with envy when we contemplate communities in England with virtually unbroken series of baptismal registers from the sixteen century right up to the present, and thousands of other documents from an even earlier period. I calculate that in Shetland we have fewer than a hundred significant documents from the whole period from 1200 to 1560.

After 1560 things get better, and by the 1580s as those of you who have already bought 'Shetland Documents 1580 - 1611' will know there are hundreds of documents available per decade. It is at least possible to work out the basic genealogies of Shetland's so-called 'County Families': people like the Umphrays of Sand and Asta, the Bruces and the dozens od Sinclair families, to take only a few examples. At all stages of our history since the mid-sixteenth century there is at least a sporting chance of our being able to piece together the history of a family which owned land. This is true even in the case of relatively humble families. To give one example: Alan Beattie has painstakingly pieced together, over a long period, the genealogy of a family which owned a few scraps of land at Collafirth, Delting.

But before 1560 things are very difficult indeed. The rate of disappearance of documents, or the incidence of survival of them, ensure that most of the vital family links are missing between named individuals. I have always been intrigued and frustrated by our lack of knowledge of the people who appear in our earliest documents. What were the relationships, if any, bewteen Thorvald Henderson of Brough, Magnus Bolt and Richard Leask, tree important Shetlanders who plundered a ship with 3,500 fish here in 1512? Was Magnus Bolt the same as Magnus Bolt of Gruting in Sandsting, who witnessed a document in 1530? We don't know, and we probably never will. And who was Ola Magnusson, who gave a lot of land at Underhoull in Unst to Sir David Sinclair of Sumburgh in 1491? We know that Ola of Veester in Sandwick, who flourished in the 1520s, had a son, Thomas Olason, but we don't know who their ancestors were, or if they had or indeed have any decendants.

Some of these people were without doubt native aristocrats of Shetland. I don't mean that they lived in stately homes and went fox-hunting. I mean that they were the people who owned Shetland, and the people who, as officials, exerted power in Shetland's courts and parliaments. They are the people who, the historians tell us, were hoodwinked out of their lands and replaced in their offices by greedy incoming Scotsmen.