John R Tudor.

The Orkneys and Shetland; their past and present state online

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Till the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1845,
poor-rates as a legal burden on property appear to have been
unknown in the Orkneys or Shetland. In the southern group,
in fact, "the indigent poor" were entirely dependent "upon
the sympathy of their neighbours," and few beggars were
to be found " except one or two naturals, on the streets of

In Shetland, on the other hand, a regularly organised system
of relief seems to have existed for centuries, which appears to
have been identical with that existing in country parishes in
Norway at the present day. Each parish was divided into so
many districts, which were responsible for the maintenance of
the aged and infirm poor within their respective boundaries,
who had to be housed and fed by each householder in turn
for as many days and nights as he held merks of land. When
one rotation of a district was insufficient, a fresh one was

For the expenses of clothing and burying the paupers, the
weekly and sacramental collections at the kirk supplied the
funds, and if a family met with unexpected misfortune, the fact
was represented from the pulpit and a special collection made
on their behalf, to give them a fresh start. Where children
were bereft of their parents they were boarded out with some
family, recommended by the Kirk Session, who for looking
after them up to the age of ten years received from 20^-.
to 305-. yearly. After that age they were supposed to have be-
come an integral portion of the family in which they had
been brought up.'*

■■ ShirrefTs Orkney, pp. 45, 46, and 165.
^ Shirreft's ShcHaiiJ, pp. 34, 75.


Such was the state of things up to the year 1845, and pro-
bably the chief sufferers would be the naturals, or pauper
lunatics. No persons under such a system were likely to come
on the parochial roll, except such as were compelled to do so from
sheer inability to carry on the fight any longer, and 710 one had
a7iy mtcrest in increasing the number of paupers. With the intro-
duction of the system of outdoor relief everything was changed.
In the year 1845 the total expenditure on the poor throughout
the islands was ^""250. In 1869 it had become;^5,3i9. This
enormous increase appears to have been due to two causes.
The people themselves in time began to look upon the Poor
Law system as a huge benefit society, subscription to which for
a certain number of yrars entitled them to billet either them-
selves or their necessitous relatives (whom they were perfectly
capable of supporting) on the rates. This was one cause.

The other, according to Mr. Peterkin, General Inspector of
the pjoard of Supervision, lay in the fact that almost all those
who had to administer the Poor Law throughout the group were
more or less directly or indirectly connected with that fixed
parochial star round which everything revolves in Shetland, the
Shop ; and to this cause Mr. Peterkin had no doubt the poor
rates were to a great extent due. The number of pauper
lunatics again is over the average, being, in 1882, 79 in the
Orkneys and 82 in Shetland.' The amount raised for the
year ending Whitsuntide, 1882, was: in the Orkneys by
assessment ^4,556 13^. 4^. ; by collecdons in unassessed
parishes ;^5 1 9 4^'. i^. : in Shetland by assessment- ;^5, 879.
Many have advocated and still advocate in Shetland a
return to the old state of things. That, however, is im-
possible, and probably the true solution of the question lies
in the total abolition of outdoor relief, and the substitution
of the house. Under the present system many are billeted on
the rates who have no right there, and the real deserving cases
of the aged or infirm are not unfrequently left to struggle on
without half the care or attention their circumstances demand.

How burdened property in Shetland was in one way and
another, when the Education Act (Scotland), 1872, came in to

1 'Jhe average number of pauper lunatics for all Scotland per 100,000 of
popul ition is 230, for England and Wales 254 ; whilst the Orcadian
and Shetland returns give figures of 237 and 276 res])ectively.

- A combination poor-house for all the Orcadian jjarishes will be opened
at Whitsuntide, 1883. For rental and population tee a)Ue, pp. 201, 202,
and 412.


pile the agony on still more, can be judged from the following
extracts from Professor Ramsay's Report : —

" As is well known, the poor-rate in Shetland usually amounts to 3^-. 3(/.,
31. 6d., or 4f. in the pound ; in some cases to more ; the rate for roads is
mostly about \s., while county rates may come to dd. These burdens are
shared between proprietor and tenant ; in addition, there are the rates for
maintaining churches and manses, which fall on the proprietors only, and
w ith great severity. In the parish of Walls and Sandness, there is a rate of
5^. per mark land (equal to about ^s. in the pound) to be paid for fifteen
yeais for the build in;j of a new church and manse ; and, by the end of the
fifteen years, a fresh outlay for repairs will no doubt be required. The
minister's stipend comes to 2.s. more per mark of land ; while, in addition
to all these, there are feu-duties, which are sometimes extremely oppressive.
Thus, on a small patch of land consisting of three marks, the Earl of
Zetland claims 32J-. a year, being entitled to so many pounds of butter per
mark as feu-duty, while the price of butter has now so risen as actually to
swamp the whole value of the holding. It is obvious that, in such a case,
the land is burdened to an extent ^\•hich is altogether unreasonable.

" Leaving out the feu-duties, the rates in this parish, divisible between
landlord and tenant, amount already to 4f. \od. ; the proprietors have, in
addition, 7^-. in the pound to pay. On the top of the whole comes the
Education rate ; and the question we have now to ask is, how heavy is the
Education rate likely to be in the parishes of Shetland generally? and how
much margin of clear income will it leave to proprietors when added to the
other rates?

" To show how oppressive taxation is in particular cases, we may take a
chance instance from this parish, to which many others might be added.
Two-thirds of the island of Papa-Stour belong to Lady Nicolson. Ihe
gross rental is ;if 166 14^. The net rental she actually receives, after pay-
ment of all burdens, is not more than ^50." ^

Such being the state of things you would naturally have
thought the Shetland School Boards would have been content,
nay anxious, to keep down building expenditure, and to avail
themselves to the full of all concessions made by the Act, and
the Education Department under it. Hear Professor Ramsay
again : —

" But partly in consequence of having misunderstood the requirements
of the Code, partly from a desire to get as mucli Government money as pos-
sible, partly from that S"rt of recklessness which comes of thinking that it
is as well to be liung for stealing a sheep as a lamb, some of the Boards liave
been induced to put in building proposals which I cannot but regard as un-
necessary and extravagant." -

" It is remarkable that the Boards have seldom, if ever, taken advantage
of the relaxations made by the Department in the conditions as to teachers'
houses for poorer districts, as also in the matter of boundary walls, &c. "

^ Kaucation Report {Scotlatiu), 1877, pp. 73, 74.
' Ibid. p. 79.


" And yet, in dra^\•i^g out their plans, the Boards have not taken advantage
of these provisions in their favour. In many cases large, unusually large,
schoolmasters' houses have been designed, &c." *

" But according to the plans originally sent in and approved for the
parish of Mid and South Yell, with a rental of ;^I,300, there v\ ere to be
six handsome schools luilt, each of them to cost from ^"t,ooo to ^1,200,
according to the estimate of the Aberdeen architect, probably much more
if actually estimated for by a builder. Supposing their real cost to be
;^i,200 a piece, a total of £'j,200 would be sjient on buildings (equal to
between five and six times the entire rental), of which the parish would
have to contribute ;^2,400, the interest on which sum alone would require
a rate of is. loci. to is. lid. in the pomid. On such a scheme comments
are superfluous." ^

Professor Ramsay then goes on to say : —

" But such schemes as these meet with little real support among the
Boards of Shetland."

That they should have met with any at all seems somethmg

By the Act of 1872, special privileges in regard to building
grants in respect of schools situate in the counties of Inverness
Argyll, Ross> Orkney, and Shetland were made, and by the
Code of 1882 all such schools are exempted from a section
which, under certain conditions, keeps down the giants made to
managers in respect of attendance, &c.

At the present day there are in the Orkneys fifty-four schools
in receipt of annual grants, of which all are Board Schools but
three; and Mr. Stewart, in his report for 1876, speaking of
the obstacles to putting the compulsory clauses in force owing
to local causes, says : —

" As a rule, the natives of Orkney are keenly alive to the value of educa-
tion, and are not likely to let their children grow up ignorant and neglected
if they can help it." '^

In Shetland there are sixty-five schools in receipt of annual
grants, of which all but five are Board Schools.

Mr. Muir's report for 1876 enables one to form some idea of
the mental capacity of Shetland lads and lasses as compared
with that of the children of two of the eastern counties of the
mainland of Scotland : —

^ Education Report (Scotland), 1877, p. 80. - Ibid. p. 81.

•* Report on Education {Scotlatid), 1S76-77, p. 175.



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