County Lives: Z – Zetland (Shetland)

The end of our County Lives A-Z tour of Special Collections: we’ve visited nearly 100 counties, islands and Irish provinces described in more than 400 books from more than 30 different collections, ranging in date from 1486 to 1992. And there’s plenty more to explore!

map of Shetland showing historic county area

John Speed’s map of Scotland does not include Zetland (a term used interchangeably with Shetland through the 18th century) in the far north of Britain; debates continue as to whether Zetland (or Shetland) is the ‘Thule’ visited by ancient Greek geographer Pytheas of Massalia, but German traveller Alexander Ziegler (1822-1887) (or his publisher) appears to be certain that it was.

The first complete survey of the coasts of Britain, including Shetland, took Greenvile Collins (-1694) seven years: Great Britain’s coasting pilot was published in 1693 in two parts, covering the Thames westward from the Scilly Isles to Carlisle, and from the Thames northward to Shetland. It may have been available to John Brand (1668?-1738), whose 1701 A brief description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland-Firth & Caithness describes making the hazardous 50 mile journey from Orkney:

The whole passage betwixt Orkney and Zetland is but one continued roust, or strong and impetuous tide … I have heard Mariners ofte declare that there is more hazard in these seas, than in going to the Eastern or Western Indies

The importance of fishing to the Shetland economy led Brand to include a separate chapter on the Fish-Trade, and 50 years later John Campbell wrote a whole book on the subject.

The economic importance of the approximately 100,000 Shetland sheep “so remarkable for their fine wool” occasioned a report to the Highland Society by Sir John Sinclair (who continued his improving thoughts in the General view and the Statistical account of Scotland series). Shetland wool, he opines,

is certainly preferable to any other for stockings … there can be no doubt of its answering for hats, a manufacture that ought to be encouraged in the Highlands, and which even the women in that part of the country might wear, with advantage to their louks and appearance”.

In his Appendix to the Report, Dr James Anderson proposed a plan for a Patriotic Association for the Improvement of British Wool (the report includes many dark references to inferior Spanish sheep).

The prolific children’s author Joanna Cannan (1896–1961) and her three daughters (the Pullein-Thompson sisters Josephine, Diana, and Christine) would most likely be found wearing riding hats, as they were all known for their pony books (about 200 in all), including Hamish. The story of a Shetland pony.

Special Collections classmarks of items cited:

  • Alexander Ziegler (1822-1887), Die Reise des Pytheas nach Thule (Shetland-Inseln). (1861): SPEC Fraser 1363
  • Greenvile Collins, Great Britain’s coasting pilot. The first part. Being a new and exact survey of the sea-coast of England, from the … Thames to the westward, with the islands of Scilly, and from thence to Carlile… The second part. Being a … survey of the sea-coast of England and Scotland, from the … Thames to the northwards, with the islands of Orkney and Shetland (1693): SPEC Q2.13/oversize
  • John Brand (1688?-1738), A brief description of Orkney, Zetland, Pightland-Firth & Caithness, wherein, After a short journal of the Author’s voyage thither, These Northern Places are first more Generally Described, Then a Particular View is given of the several Isles thereto belonging; Together with an Account of what is most Rare and Remarkable therein: with the Author’s Observes thereupon (1701): SPEC Fraser 1699
  • John Campbell, An exact and authentic account of the greatest white-herring-fishery in Scotland, carried on yearly in the island of Zetland, by the Dutch only; To which is prefixed, A description of the island (W. Brown, 1885. Reprinted from the edition of 1750): SPEC Fraser 1700
  • John Sinclair (1754-1835), General view of the agriculture of the northern counties and islands of Scotland; including the counties of Cromarty, Ross, Sutherland, and Caithness, and the islands of Orkney and Shetland. With observations on the means of their improvement (1795): SPEC Y79.3.287(3)
  • John Sinclair (1754-1835), The new statistical account of Scotland / by ministers of the respective parishes, under the superintendence of a committee of the Society for the Benefit of the Sons and Daughters of the Clergy v. 15. Sutherland. Caithness. Orkney. Shetland. Index (1845): SPEC Y84.3.611
  • Highland Society of Scotland, Report of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland, to whom the subject of Shetland wool was referred. With an appendix, containing some papers, drawn up by Sir John Sinclair and Dr Anderson, in reference to the said report (Printed for the use of the Society, 1790): SPEC Y79.3.222(9)
  • Joanna Cannan (1898-), Hamish. The story of a Shetland pony. Illustrated by Anne Bullen (Penguin, 1944): Oldham 297