Native Families of the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

Contributed by Niven Sinclair based upon research by Nicholas Cram-Sinclair Drawing on the available historical research sources such as Craven, Peterkin’s Rentals, J Cloustan’s “Records of the Earldom of Orkney” and Roland William St. Clair’s “The St. Clairs of the Isles”, these native families of the Orkney and Shetland Islands (and to a lesser extent, Caithness) are the descendants of the initial Norse Viking colonists who consolidated and expanded the Northern Territories of the Orcadian “jarldom” under the leadership of the family of Jarl Rognvald ‘the Wise’ of Moeri and Rhomasdahl in Norway and more particularly, by his natural son, Jarl ‘Turf’ Einar - so called because he taught the people how to burn peat.

The majority of these families have taken their names from their main place of residence or land-ownership within the Northern Territories of either the Orkney or Shetland islands and I have, therefore, separated them into two main groups.

The first group is that of the senior native families whose ancestors were the significant landholding nobility of either the Orcadian or Shetlander ruling assemblies or councils (known as ‘lawthing’) and were regularly mentioned in the old records as either ‘gudmen’ (hereditary gentlemen odallers), ‘lawrightmen’ or ‘lawrikmen’ (regular parish district assizemen), ‘lendirmen’ (landed men) and ‘roitmen’ (hereditary odaller/council men).

These were Berstane, Cloustan, Cragy (Cragie), Cromarty, Corriegall, Flett, Heddle, Halcro, Ireland, Kirkness, Linklater, Ness (later Petereson, Petrie Tulloch), Paplay, Rendall, Scarth (formerly Harraldson / Bolt), Scalter and Yenstay.

The second group were made up of the lessernative families of putative Norse Viking origin whose profile became slightly more prominent after the 1470/71 cession of the islands to the Scottish Crown and the subsequent tyrannicaeriod under the Stewart Earls of Orkney.

This larger group were made up of the following families; Adie, Aikness, Aim, Aith, Annal, Baikie, Banks, Bigland, Breek, Brock, Brough, Burgar, Corsie, Girnigoe, Corston, Coubister, Cumlaquoy, Cursetter/Cursitter, Deerness, Delday, Dennison, Drever, Eunson (Jonsson) Fea, Firth, Flaw(s), Folster, Foubister, Garmistane, Garriock, Garsand/Garson, Gilbertson, Groat/Grote, Groundwater, Harcus, Harrald/Harrold, Harroldson, Harray, Hestwall, Hoseason, Hourston, Housgarth, Hunto (now Hunter), Hurie/Hurrey, Inksgair, Inkster/Inksgar, Instabillie, Keldie, Kirkbrek, Knarston, Langskaill, Larquoy, Laughton, Leask, Linay, Male, Marsetter, Marwick, Matches, Meason of Whytequoy, Meil, Midhouse, Moar, Norn, Norquoy, Nestegard, Newsgar, Oddie, Omand/Omond (Amundsen), Orkney, Peace, Redland, Ritch, Rousay (now Rosie, Rosey, Rossey), Rusland, Sabiston, Stanger, Stockan, Stove, Tait, Towrie/Tyrie, Turfeus/Turfus (Thorfinnnson/Torphisson), Twatt, Vedder, Velzian, Voy, Walls, Wick, Windwick, Yorson and Yule.

The list seems to be limitless because there are even less frequent Orcadian and Shetlander place-names which have been adopted as patronymics by local families and which have generally been adopted by Craven and others. The suggestion is that the above families would be entitled to wear the green Sinclair tartan as the Sinclairs (like the Donalds in the Western Isles) were the last hereditary recipients of the semi-regal title “Prince”. Therefore, the families could legitimately be considered as falling under the jurisdiction of the Clan Sinclair, and be officially recognised as regional ‘septs and dependants’ of Clan Sinclair.

Scalloway castle, Tingwall - erected for
Earl Patrick Stewart in 1600

Shetland - 1469 to Present day

Shetland was pledged to Scotland on 28th May, 1469, as part of King Christian's dowry in respect of his daughter. The intention was always to 'redeem' the islands, but this was never allowed to happen by the Scottish government.

The period between 1469 and 1707 was one of slow change in Shetland's culture. Nominally Scots, for a while the Norse law and language was still powerful. While communications with Scotland were poor, trade links with Scandinavia and Europe were very strong.

During the 16th century, however, Scots influence became stronger. Many Scots immigrants were drawn to Shetland in the search for land and power. The islands were controlled by the despotic Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney and Lord of Shetland, and his son Patrick, between 1568 - 1609.

After the Union of Parliaments in 1707, Shetland was ruled from London. The isles' prosperity for the previous 200 years or so had been based mainly on the trade carried out with the Hanseatic merchants of Germany, mostly in dried whitefish.

In 1712, in order to discourage this trade, and to encourage British involvement, the London parliament placed a high duty on imported salt. This in effect ended the Hanseatic trade, throwing Shetland's economy into crisis.

Many of the prominent local land-owning families went bankrupt, and their estates were bought up by the relatively new class of Shetland merchants. Intending to take up where the Hanseatic merchants had left off, they began to look to their tenants to provide manpower for the fishing trade. This was the origins of what is known as haf fishing, and the development of the fishing tenure system.

The population rose over the next 50 years or so, due, among other things, to the development of inoculation against smallpox, and the increased cultivation of the potato

An Arctic whaler in
Lerwick harbour

At the end of the 18th century, the Napoleonic Wars shook Europe. This was the period of the Press Gangs in Shetland, which paid a heavy price in men - possibly one third of the entire male population served, mostly in the Navy. The Wars closed many existing European markets for fish, which meant increased hardship. This was also a period of hard winters and poor harvests. The end of the Napoleonic Wars also herald a growth in the number of Shetland men taking part in Arctic whaling.

From the 1830's, overpopulation was becoming a problem. In 1846/47, there was a potato crop failure due to blight, and this, coupled with a series of setbacks in the fishing industry, led to the decade later known as the 'hungry Forties'. The meal roads are a result of this period.

By the 1870's, emigration was becoming a more and more attractive option. It is estimated that between 1861 and 1881, one quarter of the population left Shetland, mainly for North America, Australia and New Zealand.

The Truck Acts of the 1870's and the Crofter's Act of 1886 spelt the end of the truck system and put paid to fishing tenures. However, Shetland's population was still too large to be supported by crofting alone. A herring boom from the mid 1870's onwards, however, helped offset this, and at least the new economic system was free of the old landlords/tenant bondage. Many smaller local merchants and fish curers benefitted greatly, as did the community as a whole.

The herring fishery reached its peak at the turn of the century, but failed just before World War I and never really recovered.

During World Wars I and II, Shetland men were heavily involved, both at sea and on land. Shetland itself, strategically important, was the base for service units such as the Tenth Cruiser Squadron.

Between the Wars, Shetland's economy continued its slow decline, despite an improvement in sea links and communications in general, a legacy of World War I.

After World War II, Shetland was once again forced to return to the old standbys of fishing, crofting and knitting to support the population. Whaling in the South Atlantic also provided jobs for men till the 1960's.

In 1972, however, all this was to change, Oil was found in the East Shetland Basin, and by 1992 the main construction phase at Sullom Voe Oil Terminal was complete. The intervening decade had an enormous effect on Shetland economically, socially and culturally. The infrastructure had been massively upgraded and there was work for all who wanted it; however, the economic emphasis had moved away from fishing and crofting, and the rural way of life was changed for ever.

At the end of the 20th century, Shetland again faces a challenge, as the oil industry begins to wane. Her oldest industry, fishing is again under pressure.
what next for Shetland?

Further readings about Shetland people:
The last of the Shetland Aristocrats
Stories of the Past - Newspaper extracts from the past