Brought by the sea

Orkney and Shetland, may be considered by some today to be on the periphery, at the outer edge of Britain, being governed by Edinburgh and London, but this has not always been the case. During the medieval period both island groups were at the heart of the sea road around the North Atlantic Rim. Trade between Scandinavia, The Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Scotland was booming and we were the crossroads to all routes.  Many items in Orkney’s and Shetland’s museums, heritage centres, and other collections reflect trade to and from the islands over many centuries.

These objects are a physical bond with the islands’ maritime heritage, which surrounds us. They are often a personal link to the past; a memento of a life lived on the sea. Journeys to the north, around the Baltic and the coast of Russia are recorded in many local seafarer’s discharge books as proof that these trading voyages were undertaken; certifying a journey made.

Seaman’s discharge book, Lerwick.  Date: 1872-1880
William Sinclair was a merchant mariner from Shetland, and these documents detail his time at sea. Each page logs a ship’s name and the voyage undertaken. His conduct is also noted. Discharge books were important for sailors.  They were their passports while at sea and a souvenir record of their travels when at home. Many have become heirlooms; a social record of their family history.
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 8040


The ships collected much needed timber – in Shetland and Orkney we have very few trees – and sailors often brought home souvenirs for their families, including a vast amount of Khokhloma ware, known in Shetland as Skovi kapps, and in Orkney as Baltic Ware.

Khokhloma ware, Stromness. Date: 1840s
This decorated bowl is one of a type of highly decorated wooden vessels that were known in Shetland as Skovi kapps (Skovi from Muscovy, Russia and kapp meaning container), and often referred to as Baltic ware in Orkney.  They were popular souvenirs brought back to Orkney and Shetland by seafarers who were collecting timber cargos from the Baltic region.
Orkney Museum 1998/11.8; 1995.3


Skovi Kapp. Lidded urn, Khokhloma Ware. Date: possibly early 20th century
From the family collection of Andrina Nisbet, Yell.

The sailors also brought wooden poker-work boxes or Norwa bösts from Norway, from where timber was also imported. These decorated wooden containers were used in many homes, a link to far-off shores that would have been familiar to many sailors.

The word böst is derived from an old Scots word for box. They were used to store personal items or food. This böst modeled below belonged to Theodore Johnson (1814-1883) who was a haaf fisherman, working from the Federland Station in North Roe, Shetland. He kept his food in it when out at sea fishing.

To see a Norwa Böst, Yell, dated to the 1780s, cared for in the Shetland Museum and indentified as Shetland Museum CON 8153, click here.

Mariners also made things whilst at sea, to bring home as a keepsake of their time away. Longer journeys to the Arctic whaling fisheries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and to the Antarctic whaling in the twentieth century would have meant many months away from home. Gibbie Clark from Yell overwintered at South Georgia, Antarctica and describes how they spent their time during the long dark winter hours.

To listen to a recording of Gibby Clarke, from Yell, Shetland, speaking about his time at the whaling in the South Atlantic click here.

Everyday items were used for craft hobbies. Nylon rope, used on the harpoon, was uncurled and dyed to make coloured threads for knot-work such as the table cloth pictured below.  It was made by Gilbert Hoseason, also from Yell. Shared experiences and family ties, so often found in small communities, link these men, as Gilbert’s son later married Gibbie’s daughter and the tablecloth became a treasured memento of their fathers’ time in the Antarctic.

Knot-work tablecloth, Yell.  Date: 1950-60s
Hand-made by Gilbert Hoseason from Yell in Shetland, while at the Antarctic whaling, this was crafted from nylon ‘foregoer’ rope from the whaling harpoon. The rope was unraveled and dyed by being boiled in a pot with differently coloured material scraps. Such items made a welcome homecoming gift.
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 2010.95

Seafarers also made and decorated their own tools of the trade. This highly decorated seam rubber, part of a sail maker’s tool kit, belonged to Laurence Humphray, who carved his name and the date ‘1830’ onto its shank. Did he carve this beautiful object to pass the long hours at sea?

Seam rubber, Shetland. Date: probably 1830
This sail seam rubber would have been used to flatten down the seam on a sail prior to sewing. It is made from a hardwood, possibly Lignum Vitae, or ‘ironwood’, a native species of the Americas.
Shetland Museum and Archives FPL 65739

To see and download a 3D model of Laurence Humphray’s seam rubber click here.

Our maritime heritages include things brought by the sea, necessary items we need to sustain our island’s economies. Surrounded with a richness of sea fisheries, Shetland has been concerned in the export of fish for centuries. The first mention of involvement with German merchants from the Hanseatic League dates back to the first decade of the fifteenth century. It was an alliance that was to play a vital role in Shetland’s economy for the next three hundred years. The Hanseatic League was a major force in the economies of Northern Europe, trading around the Baltic, Scandinavia, The Netherlands, as far south as London, and north to Iceland via The Northern Isles and Faroe. Shetland in particular seems to have embraced these trade links, especially with the German cities of Bremen, Hamburg and Lübeck. Visiting merchants from these Hanse centres were granted licences from the local foud or magistrate to set up booths in various locations around the islands, and it was from here they organised their business with the local population.

Pipkin, Whalsay. Date: 1400-1700
This cooking pot, imported from Northern Europe, was dredged up near to Kurt Steen, a rock that was once used for unloading goods, and named after a Hanseatic merchant once based close by in Symbister, Whalsay. Shetlanders traded with the German merchants of the Hanse, exchanging fish and knitwear, for commodities such as tar, rope, and earthenware like this peerie pipkin.
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 77207

When looking for evidence of Hanseatic heritage, a survey of place-names offer the first clues as to where incoming merchants were situated around the Shetland Isles. Sea charts and maps from the 17th and 18th centuries offer a fascinating study of these areas.

Chart. Date: 17th Century
From Jan Jansson’s atlas “Het Licht der Zeevaert”, published in Amsterdam from 1620 to 1629. It highlights ‘Hamburger Haven’ the site of Hanseatic activity near to Sumburgh Head in Shetland.
Shetland Museum and Archives CAR 1993.448

Orcadians and Shetlanders have looked to the sea to supply the imports they require to sustain local economies. This has included various commodities, from large industrial plant for oil related industry to small cork floats for fishing nets, brought in from Russia during the Cold war era to help sustain the herring fisheries.

Russian corks, Tingwall. Date: 1950-60s
These floats were factory made in the Soviet Union and used on drift nets during the Cold War era. Driftnet fishing was first introduced to Shetland by the Dutch before the 16th century and continued well into the 20th century. The nets were used to catch herring in the seas west of Shetland and the northern waters of the North Sea. The fishery was done during the night when the shoals of fish swam nearer the surface, getting caught in the driftnets suspended in the water.  Corks may seem an insignificant item, but they kept the herring fisheries afloat!
Shetland Museum and Archives FIS 2010.291

These items from The Orkney Museum’s and the Shetland Museum’s maritime heritage collections highlight our ocean-wide range of culture and industry. We curate and treasure items associated with and brought by the sea around us; often personal items and stories about life at sea, tangible links and shared memories so important for future generations to value and appreciate.   

To watch a film about Shetland and Orkney’s changing maritime cultures, including the co-curators sharing selected aspects of their island’s maritime heritages and how remembering them forward is helping them to imagine more sustainable futures for people and place, click here.

Please cite New Connections Across the Northern Isles (2019) when referencing materials from this virtual museum.

Find out more

See a photograph of a Shetland driftnet fishing crew mending their nets cared for in Shetland Museum and Archives by clicking here.

See Shetland’s maritime heritage on the other side of the world, in this photograph of Leith Harbour whaling station in South Georgia in the 1960s, cared for in Shetland Museum and Archives by clicking here.

Find out more about Khokhloma ware by clicking here.

Find out about Shetland Place Names by clicking here.

Visit the Shetland Museum and Archives website by clicking here.

Visit The Orkney Museum website by clicking here.

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