For the uninitiated Shetland is the furthest north you can go in the UK, a group of islands between Scotland and Norway. Its where I’m from and growing up in Shetland I had the fun of discovering lots of old abandoned croft houses, the likes of which are scattered across the whole island. These tumble-down dwellings are remnants of the traditional crofting way of life. A croft was a unit of agricultural land which crofters rented from landowners, often areas included several croft houses and shared grazing land, these croft communities formed townships or ‘toons’. The crofting practice has not ceased, there are still many crofts in the highlands and islands of Scotland today (over 17,000 say Shelter Scotland).
The traditional croft house (as pictured above) had a thatched roof and consisted of a ‘butt’ and ‘ben’ end. The butt end being where residents cooked and lived, and the ben end where visitors would be taken, more of a sitting room. Many people in Shetland still refer to this in the geography of their house. My Dad talks about going ‘through by to the ben end’ (through to the sitting room). Beds were box beds; cupboard like in appearance these had been popular throughout the medieval and early modern period but had started to decline by the nineteenth century. My Dad remembers visiting an elderly lady in his youth (1960s) who still slept in a box bed wearing a bonnet, he says the house was black inside, from the soot of the open fire.
Dr. Arthur Mitchell’s description of Shetland crofts in 1860 describes the conditions many crofters in Shetland lived in:
‘Drainage is wholly unattended to, and the dunghill is invariably
found at the very door. As the house is entered, the visitor first
comes upon that part allotted to the cattle, which in summer are
out night and day, but in winter are chiefly within doors. Their
dung is frequently allowed to accumulate about them; and I was
told that this part of the house is sometimes used by the family in
winter as a privy. Passing through the byre, the human habitation
is reached. The separation between it and the part for the cattle is
ingeniously effected by an arrangement of the furniture, the bed
chiefly serving for this purpose. The floor is of clay, and the fire is
nearly always in the middle of it..’
‘It is usually built of undressed stone, with a cement of clay or turf.
Over the rafters is laid a covering of pones, divots, or flaas, and
above this again a thatch of straw, bound down with ropes of
heather, weighted at the ends with stones, as a protection against
the high winds which are so prevalent. Chimneys and windows
are rarely to be seen. One or more holes in the roof permit the
escape of the smoke, and at the same time admit light. Open
doors, the thatched roof, and loose joinings everywhere, insure a
certain ventilation, without which the dwellings would often be
more unhealthy than many in the lanes of our large cities.’
Although he paints a cosy picture, in comparison with houses of the western Isles at least:
‘…in Zetland there is usually a certain fulness.
There are bulky sea-chests, with smaller ones on the top of them;
chairs, with generally an effort at an easy one; a wooden bench, a
table, beds, spades, fishing-rods, baskets, and a score of other little
things, which help, after all, to make it a domus. The very teapot,
in Zetland always to be found at the fireside, speaks of home and
woman, and reminds one of the sobriety of the people – that very
important difference between them and the inhabitants of the
Hebridean islands. I think the Zetlanders, too, are more
intelligent, and more inclined to be industrious, and give greater
evidence of the tendency to accumulate or provide.’
The crofters made their living through working the land and fishing, while the males of the community were generally the ones off fishing it lay to women to work on the croft and knit. Leading to what Abrams describes as the biggest gender imbalance anywhere in Europe during the nineteenth century.
From the 15th-17th century Shetlanders had been able to trade salted cod, ling and herrings with German merchants. However, the 1707 Act of Union increased the cost of importing salt which outpriced the German merchants. This gave rise to the ‘Truck system’ which was investigated during the nineteenth century due to the unfairness of the practice. From the 1730s the change in market meant that some lairds were able to step in and make money selling fish. They purchased boats and equipment and used their tenants to do the dangerous work of going off to catch the fish. Crofters were not paid for this work and were given low prices (or even credit notes) for the fish they caught by the lairds who monopolised the market. Failure to comply could lead to them losing their homes. As one crofter William Stewart stated in 1872 ‘we just had to content ourselves with it, or leave the place.’The Crofter’s Act of 1886 put an end to the system.
In the nineteenth century crofters started to leave their homes, for other parts of the UK and for other countries. The lairds who owned the land they rented forced them out in favour of grazing sheep. Where this had happened during the 18th century in mainland Scotland, the clearances in Shetland were not until much later. The novel ‘Shadowed Valley’ gives a fictionalised account of this period, if you are interested in hearing part of this and the Shetland accent you can listen here.
On one beautiful summer’s day in 2019 we were swimming at Sandsound beach, and I decided to brave the nettles and document two ruins by the beach. It’s likely that the last time these were occupied was in the nineteenth century, though there is a better-preserved croft just up the hill which was lived in as recent as the 1950s, perhaps even 60s.
Watch my video here:
Where is Sandsound?
It is just next to Tresta on the mainland of Shetland. You follow the Sandsound road to its end and just down the hill is a pebbly beach and there you will find the old crofts:
 Mitchell, A, Appendix to the Second Report of the General Board of Commissioners in Lunacy for Scotland, 1860.
 Abrams, Lynn, Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland 1800-2000, (Manchester UP: Manchester, 2005).
 ‘Haaf Fishing in Shetland’ from https://www.northlinkferries.co.uk/shetland-blog/haaf-fishing-in-shetland/ [accessed 16/02/2020].
 Richards, Eric, The Highland Clearances (Birlin: Edinburgh, 2012).
Photographs from The Thatching [accessed 16/02/2020].