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 Shetlands’ War

In 1911, the last census before the Great War, Shetland had 27,238 people. By 1914 the total was probably less. Emigration was taking an increasing hold on the community, and the kind of problems that were to bedevil the island economy into the 1960s were just beginning to be apparent.

The two decades before 1914 had been progressive ones though. The crofting community had got security of tenure. There had been good years and bad years in the herring fishery which had brought development to the town and other parts of the country.

In Lerwick there had been much new building. It had got a Town Hall, and a beautiful new fishmarket, and fine new villas for those who had done well. There were some tentative attempts to provide decent dwellings for a poorly housed working class. Construction had got under way on the first of the hostels for country pupils at the Lerwick schools – the Bruce Memorial Hostel for girls. Politics in Shetland were gaining vigour, with the new beliefs about female suffrage and socialism gaining adherents and enlivening debate.

Shetlanders took the advent of war calmly, and perhaps resignedly. The Shetland Times spoke of "calmness and fortitude". It was never a place for great public demonstrations. After a couple of weeks the paper remarked that "A European war means a great deal more than most people seem to estimate".

The war had a destructive affect on people through death and disablement of various kinds. For others it provided opportunities, a way of realising what they could do, and what they could become. Shetland had some remarkable people in this era, and some found that they were remarkable.


Pre-war herring drifters in Lerwick.

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