Maritime Technologies, Industries and Innovations in Shetland

Growing up in Orkney and then moving to Shetland to work, I have always found myself drawn to the sea whether it was through my creative work painting, drawing or writing, to the books I chose to read or the research I do daily as part of my job. It always comes back to the sea.

Words of the Sea, Shetland, by Charlotte Slater. Date: 2016
This print was created by Charlotte Slater from a visualisation of a database of Shetland sea-words that she collected from recollections, traditional use and archives. Support for this project was provided in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and part funded by NAFC Marine Centre and Marine Scotland.
From the artist’s own collection

The objects I have picked for this virtual museum are linked together through the theme of maritime industry in Shetland and neatly create a timeline of boom industrial movements.

Time of merchants and lairds

The Luder Horn represents da haaf industry in the 1700-1800s, when men would row between 30-60 miles offshore, laying lines to catch haddock, cod and ling. This Shetland fishery operated at a time when the lives of many in Shetland were influenced by the few who had greater wealth, from Hanseatic merchants in the early 1700s to the oppressive lairds whose behaviours were addressed in the Crofting Act of 1886.

The luder horn depicted in the photograph below was owned by a man named Laurence Jamieson Christie who lived in a croft at Skibhoul in Cunningsburgh, in Shetland’s South Mainland. Laurence lived between 1873 and 1949. However, luder horns were sometimes passed down through families so it could be much older. Many men had to go to the fishing to fulfil their rent to the lairds. Luder horns were used by men out at the haaf fishing during foggy weather, when they would be blown to warn other sixerns about their position; just like a foghorn. They were made from Shetland cow horns but with the development of trade with mainland Scotland, other breeds of cattle horn were used. This example is made from an ox’s horn.

Luder Horn, Cunningsburgh. Date: possibly 19th century
Luder made from an ox horn, found in a cottage loft at Skibhoul, Cunningsburgh. It was originally owned by a man named Christie.
Shetland Museum and Archives FIS 7506

The horn depicted in photograph below has been handed down to members of the Ramsay family from Northmavine, and has the date 1795 inscribed onto it. The Ramsay family moved into Northmavine about 50 years before the date given on the horn and have been there ever since. It is not known what breed of cow the horn is taken from, but it is remembered by current family members for always being in the croft house.

Luder Horn, Collafirth, Northmavine.  Date: possibly 18th century
Luder horn inscribed with the date 1795.
From the Ramsay Family’s Private Collection

To hear a recording of the Collaforth Luder Horn being blown click here.


The pressgang was another pressure on families in Shetland, taking the younger and healthier men away to wars with no guarantee of return. It is estimated 1/10 of the Shetland population was pressed into service:

Pressing as such, probably started in the 17th century, became legalised at the beginning of the 18th century, and the earliest mentions of pressing we have seen in Shetland was through the 1750s which was at the start of the 7 years war. Quite a few men were pressed then but the most famous time nationally really was during the Napoleonic Wars which lasted about 23 years.

in the percentage of the population that was pressed, Shetland was very much favoured. Overall in terms of the British fleet, it was a very small percentage of total men serving and if anything Ireland was the actual part of Britain that was terribly hit. But the Shetland men were greatly favoured. They were natural seamen. They had been brought up on the sea, they were in fishing boats, they were going to the Greenland Whaling, they were serving in merchant ships. And therefore as soon as they were onboard the navy boat, they knew their way round. They weren’t seasick and they were very good sailors.

… The men who were taken would have been aged between about 12 and 40. A few seem to have volunteered to have been taken through their 40s, but the vast majority were men in their 20s. In other words they were the youngest and fittest. Boys were often taken. They were needed to be powder monkeys. That is that they ran with the ammunition between the ammunition store and the actual cannon. The pressgang itself in Shetland operated with about 6 or 7 men fulltime. Or when I say fulltime I mean there was a lieutenant, his midshipman was actually a local merchant who obviously by day served in his shop and evenings and weekends was out assisting the pressgang. Then there was another 5 presumably local men, who were themselves volunteered or pressed and who went around with the lieutenant and midshipman pressing other people.

Alan Beattie, Discovering Shetland’s Past.  BBC Radio Shetland, 25 November 1992. Shetland Archive BBCRS/1/17/11

Following the herring

The net needles shown below represent the herring industry, when Shetland was jam-packed with migrant workers during the herring season from May until August. Men and women would follow the vast shoals of herring down the east coast of the United Kingdom, finishing around Great Yarmouth at the end of the summer.  This industry gave women a level of independence unknown before.  To find out more about migrating maritime women in the Northern Isles, click here.

The herring industry in Shetland, during the late 19th century and early 20th century, was of vast importance. Indeed, the herring fishery was a big industry for the whole of the British Isles at the time. Shetland’s herring stations could be found from Baltasound in Unst, our most northerly isle, down to Boddam in Dunrossness, in the South Mainland of Shetland. The herring shoals would arrive around May followed by thousands of workers. The fish would be landed from drifters in baskets measured in crans. Women, working on the shore, would then gut and salt the fish before layering them in wooden barrels. Each barrel had to be checked for quality before getting shipped to the continent.

Net Needles, Shetland. Dates: late 19th and early 20th centuries
Two hand-made needles used in making and repairing herring nets.
Shetland Museum and Archives FIS 7821 & FIS 81119

The two needles depicted in the photograph were used to make and mend herring nets. FIS 7821, on the left, is made from the rib of a cow giving it a nice curved shape that sits comfortably in the hand. It was owned by a man named John R. Smith from Vale Cottage in Sandwick, Shetland. It is thought that he probably made the needle himself. FIS 81119 was made in the 1920s which was during a time men heading off to the whaling and is made from whale baleen. It is slightly smaller than a usual herring net needle.

Kist handle from a set of sailmaker’s tools, Yell. Date: 20th century
This kist handle may have been made by, and was certainly used at sea by Matthew James Robertson of Yell.  It appears to have been customised with the addition of a combination lock .
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 2012.110

Beeswax from a set of sailmaker’s tools, Yell. Date: 20th century
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 2012.110

Sailor’s palm from a selection of sailmaker’s tools, Yell. Date: 20th century
Used like a palm-sized thimblie, Matthew Robertson’s leather palm would have protected his hands when sewing and mending sails whilst at sea.
Shetland Museum and Archives SEA 2012.110

In the images above you can see some of items from a full set of sailmaker’s tools used at sea by Matthew James Robertson of Yell.  Like mariners in the past, and through to recent times, he would have gathered together a mixture of his own tools, including beautifully hand-crafted objects such as this rope and metal kist handle – possibly his own work; a make-piece to demonstrate his skills in knotwork, or an heirloom, handed down – practical aids such as the bees wax, and manufactured tools such as his sailmaker’s palm. The entire set is in the collections at Shetland Museum and Archives.

Moving from lines to nets

This historic photograph of the crew on board the ‘Seine netter’ LK 242 Snowdrop represents Shetland’s fishers move into Scottish seine net fishing and away from the older methods using hand lines. You can see more photographs of Snowdrop, and her crews, at Shetland Museum and Archive’s website by clicking here.

LK. 242 Snowdrop
Photograph of the fishing crew working on the seine netter LK. 242 Snowdrop, which worked out of Skerries.  The crew were, from Left to Right: Billy Smith (Yell), Marshall Smith (Yell), Johnnie Anderson (Wirlie, Skerries) and John Alexander Anderson (Skerries) who is in the wheelhouse. The photographer was James Barclay from Mid Yell, who was another crew member.
Shetland Museum and Archives 00227

Scottish seine netters were common during the 1960s. Going off with a crew of about five, each boat would shoot a rope, and then the net, and another rope all connected together as the boat moved in a horse shoe shape before hauling the net to catch demersal fish such as cod and haddock. This type of fishing is unique to Scotland and the crew had to be very skilled having an excellent knowledge of local tides, the sea bottom and the behaviour of the fish. As can be seen in the photograph above, the crew are gutting the fish on board before landing. This is a change from previous fisheries where the fish would be gutted on land.

Still Waters in Heavy Seas, by Jim Tait. Date: 1990
Ironically the movement in this painting shows that this seine net fishing boat had to ride out many storms to bring home her precious catch, a contrast to her name-wish that she would sail in quieter seas. Built from wood and steel in Buckie in 1986, her first skipper John Anderson of Scalloway fished in her for several years. She was sold to Swedish owners in 1996.
Shetland Museum and Archives ART 1990 247

To hear a wonderful poem about working on a seine netter, written and read in Shetland dialect, head to the Shetland Forwirds website click here.

Aquaculture: Further new techniques and technologies

Aquaculture has grown since the late 1970s to become of Shetland’s biggest industries with the islands contributing so much to new techniques and technology in farming salmon.

Fish Farm, woodcut print, Shetland, by Paul Bloomer. Date: 1990s
We see here a circular salmon cage and a fish farmer feeding salmon. Paul Bloomer, the artist, moved to Shetland in 1997/8.  This print was made shortly after he moved to Shetland following a period of working on a fish farm feeding salmon.
Shetland Museum and Archives ART 2007.15

Aquaculture is one of the biggest industries in Shetland with around 1/3 of all the Scottish Salmon produced around the isles and 74% of the mussels. Beginning in the late 1970s and growing exponentially over the past 4 decades, aquaculture came at a time when fishing was seeing a down turn due to low stocks and gave men a new employment opportunity in an environment they were used to, using skills they had learnt at the fishing. From having been distributed across around 60 local family companies, the salmon aquaculture industry is now run by three large companies in Shetland. To discover more about Shetland’s aquaculture industry check out the So Much to Sea website by clicking here.

Shetland-based artist Paul Bloomer

Meeting the artist: Tracking changes through time

The woodcut shown above was created by Paul Bloomer an artist who moved to Shetland in 1997. Paul creates his prints by first drawing with charcoal on MDF until he is happy with the composition. This process can take days, weeks or even months. Once happy with the arrangement, the cutting can take up to a day depending on the size of the piece. He has had his work exhibited all over Great Britain.

His first job here was feeding Sea Trout in Tresta Voe on the west side of Shetland’s Mainland. When he first arrived, Paul had no intentions of staying but 20 years later he is still living and working here as an artist and as a tutor at Shetland College. Paul felt an instant connection with Shetland, which, when we met, he could not describe other than saying it felt like home.

He had moved to Shetland from an urban environment and thought the opportunity for a job on the water was exciting; symbolising his new life. The woodcut shows a great sense of optimism with the large sun peaking between the hills of the voe in the background. Influenced by the work of Japanese printmakers, Paul has depicted the fish in simple swirls to give a sense of the movement in the cages.

The print also recalls an industry that has changed over the past 20 years. In ‘Fish Farm’, a man can be seen carrying a bucket of feed and throwing it by hand into the cage. Now feed is pushed down, with compressed air, through pipes connected to barges at each farm. It is controlled by computers and some farms are even controlled remotely from Norway.  In the print, the man does not wear any safety gear. Today everyone working around the cages and boats must wear lifejackets. These lifejackets are checked yearly to make sure they are in working order.

Paul’s view of the aquaculture industry has changed since his first job and following his research into this industry he does not think that it is very positive for the environment.

New maritime industries: Sharing the seas

LK62 “Research” berthed at Malløy, by Richard Paul Wemys. Date: 2007
An oil on canvas painting of the pelagic trawler once part of the fleet in Whalsay, Shetland and now based in the Faroe Islands.
Shetland Museum and Archives ART 2010.09

Sharing about this painting of the LK62 Research, kept in the collections at Shetland Museum and Archives, includes the modern pelagic industry within my theme. With huge boats of more than 70 metres long using up-to-date technology, it is a far cry from the sixerns that fishermen rowed out in until they could no longer see the land on the horizon.

This Research is a large pelagic trawler that was based in Whalsay, Shetland from 2003. In 2018, a new Research was designed in Ålesund, Norway and launched from the Vard Langsten shipyard, Norway costing an estimated £31 million. The previous vessel, shown in the painting, was sold to the Faroe Islands.

Pelagic fishing is a large industry for Shetland with more fin fish landed in Shetland than England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined during 2017. There are eight trawlers based here which are between 70 and 82 metres long. Working from around October to February for mackerel and during July and August for herring, these boats land in various ports around the North Sea including Norway, Denmark and the UK.

If you are interested in finding out more about the Research series and its development from a Zulu drifter built in the early 1900s, check out National Historic Ships UK website, by clicking here.

The coming of oil: An emerging heritage

Sullom Voe Oil Terminal is one of the largest terminals in Europe. It was built at the North End of Shetland’s Mainland between 1975 and 1981. Shetland saw an influx of over 6000 people during this construction period. It was a time of huge social change, including new employment opportunities for Shetlanders and exposure to different ways of life introduced by those who came into the isles.  To see Shetland Museum Photographic Archive’s collection of photographs documenting work at the terminal and the people who have worked there, click here.

Paper weight from the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal. Date: 1978
Containing a sample of North Sea oil. The cube-shaped weight was made to commemorate the first landing of oil on shore at the Sullom Voe terminal.
Shetland Museum and Archives ART 2013.179.a

Paper weights from the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal. Date: 1980
This paperweight, shaped like an oil barrel, commemorates the first ‘million man hours’ without a ‘lost time accident’.
Shetland Museum and Archives ART 2013.179.b

The two paper weights depicted above celebrate two milestones in Sullom Voe history. Each holds a sample of oil at their centre. The weight on the top is printed with the words “SULLOM VOE TERMINAL SHETLAND FIRST OIL ASHORE”.  It commemorates the arrival of the first North Sea oil brought ashore, into the terminal, on the 25th November 1978 at 18:40 through the Brent pipeline. The paperweight below has been printed with the inscription “SULLOM VOE OIL TERMINAL THE FIRST MILLION MAN HOURS WITHOUT A LOST TIME ACCIDENT- MARCH – NOVEMBER 1980”.

A circle of technologies

Rather than a linear timeline of events I think this journey through Shetland’s changing maritime environment is a circle. None of the technological advances being used today could have happened if it was not for earlier generations of people in Shetland and their determination.

Whilst co-curating this virtual museum we often discussed the theme of ‘heritage’.  In discussions of heritage, the future continually comes up in conversation.  In Shetland we have been proactive in managing marine industries economically, environmentally, and socially for a sustainable future through a marine spatial planning process. Shetland became the first marine regional planning partnership in Scotland in 2016. Part of the partnership’s responsibility is to create a Regional Marine Plan for Shetland, which can then be used as an example for other regions in Scotland. The partnership has an advisory group made up of representatives from a wide variety of expertise, ensuring people with diverse interests and investments get equal opportunity to engage with the process.

Losing our catch

The need to record maritime heritage, as we have been doing in “New Connections”, is of so much importance for the future. As technology continues to move faster, more modern history is getting forgotten before it is written down, creating holes in our heritage.  Much like a fishing net when it becomes torn, it is likely that we will lose our “catch”, which will have environmental, social and economic effects on future generations. If you are interested to see the research related to the marine environment that is carried out by North Atlantic Fisheries College Marine Centre, based in Scalloway, Shetland, please head over to our website, by clicking here.

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

Find out more

To see and hear the New Connections Across the Northern Isles co-curators speaking about maritime cultural changes over the centuries and why they think caring about maritime traditions, occupations, cultures and environments helps them to prepare for sustainable futures click here.

Visit the Shetland Museum and Archives website by clicking here.

To return to the home page, click here.