From Island to Island

From Shetland to New Zealand – Part ONE


This series of posts examines the emigration of Robert Scollay, a merchant seaman, from Shetland to New Zealand by way of Australia in the mid-to-late 1800s. It will first look at the economic situation in Scotland and Shetland and will touch on assisted immigration to the southern hemisphere, the life of merchant seamen, emigration between Australia and New Zealand and the growth of the logging industry and society of Stewart Island, in the south of New Zealand.

Captain Robert Scollay [1]

Shetland Economics

Shetland is found just 400 miles south of the Arctic Circle and is as far north as St Petersburg, Russia or Anchorage, Alaska. Because of the climate, most of the products of the land were used for subsistence with the main export commodity being fish. [2]

Known as “haaf fishing”, between mid-May and mid-August, fishermen would head 40 miles out into the Far Haaf (open sea) in 6-oared boats (sixareens) to catch cod, ling, and saithe which would then be preserved and sent south. [3]

Each boat had to sell its complete catch to a single landlord, selling to someone else could lead to eviction, and as payment was not made until the catch had been cured and sold (and payment was often by way of goods, rather than cash) this led to a high level of poverty on the islands. [4]

Sixareens moored. Used with the permission of Shetland Museum and Archives [5]

Although Shetland is part of Scotland and the United Kingdom, its links with Scandinavia are still evident in the names of settlements and places throughout the islands. Customs that are found in Scandinavia can also be applied to Shetland genealogical research. For example, until the 19th century, patronymic naming convention was sometimes used and women often did not take their husband’s surname upon marriage. [6] As Shetland has been part of Scotland since the 1600s, a lot of general research can be done in the main Scottish and British resources. Not all Parish Registers are digitised, however, and are held at a local level in Lerwick or other places throughout the islands

Profession Options

Aside from fishing, whaling and farming were staples of Shetland rural life, however, due to the harsh climate, bad harvests ensured that poverty remained high. In the 19th century, the number of small, uneconomic crofts were replaced by landlords with larger, more efficient farms which resulted in a surplus population. [7] The lack of work, high levels of poverty and famine (including the potato blight that affected Ireland and the Highlands in the 1840s) resulted in thousands of people leaving the islands between the 1820s and 1870s. [8]

A Shetland Crofter [9]

Lerwick and Upper Sound crofts [10]

The options available were assisted or unassisted migration to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc.; military service as a merchant seaman or emigration to the Scottish mainland or England.

Records of assisted and unassisted migration can be found in most of the larger general genealogical research sites. Records of merchant seaman can also be found on these sites, as well as The National Archives.

Scottish Diaspora

Contrary to the “sentimentalised images of exile and destitution”, Scottish emigration was a complex issue, with most Scots who emigrated being from the Lowlands. [11]

Following the Battle of Culloden and the subsequent Clearances, emigration from Scotland to various lands of supposed opportunity was high. Although these Clearances didn’t affect Shetland as they affected the Highlands, in the 19th century Shetland experienced its own Clearances, when crofting land was sold and made way for more profitable sheep farming. [12]


Scottish immigration to Australia (particularly the colonies of Van Diemen’s Land and New South Wales) was small before 1820.[13] As the Scottish justice system resorted to transportation less frequently than was the case in England or Ireland, comparatively few Scots came to Australia as convicts. [14]

Assisted and unassisted immigration drew a higher percentage of Scots migrants, with estimates suggesting that between 1832 and 1950, 20 to 25 percent of unassisted migrants to eastern Australia were Scots and that between 1850 and 1900 160,000 to 180,000 Scots arrived in eastern Australia, which accounted for around 15 percent of total British migration to the area. [15] [16]

New Zealand

In the mid to late 1800s, the population of Scotland hovered around 10 percent of the population of the United Kingdom and Ireland (with England and Wales accounting for almost 75 percent of the combined total in 1881 and Ireland holding around 15% in that census) [17]. The balance is shifted, however, when one looks at migration to New Zealand. In 1878, England/Wales represented almost 54 percent of the British-isles born population, Ireland just over 22 percent and Scotland a bit more than 24 percent. [18] “New Zealand could thus be viewed as approximately 13.5 percent more ‘Scottish’ than the British archipelago itself.” [19]

Regional origins of Scots Migrants 1842 – 1915 [20]

Migrants from Scotland originated from a relatively balanced cross-section of regions, with a strong representation from the far north of Scotland and the off-shore islands. Shetland Islanders account for approximated 14% of Scots emigration to the West Coast for mining purposes and over 6% going to Otago for the same purpose. [21] This is likely following an article in the Shetland Advertiser in 1862 on the Otago gold discoveries. [22]

It is estimated that almost 4 percent of Shetland’s total 1861 population migrated to New Zealand in the 1870s. [23]

Map of New Zealand showing provinces [24]
People Born in UK living in NZ Provinces 1871 [25]

Coming next week, the story of the emigration of Robert Scollay from Vatsetter, Shetland to Stewart Island, New Zealand, by way of Australia.


[1] Image: Photograph. Captain Robert Scollay. Date unknown. Photographer: Robinson & Thompson. From the family collection of Anita McLean.

[2] History.

[3] A Brief History of Shetland. Saxa Vord.

[4] About Shetland. Fish and Trade.

Image: Photograph. Sixareens moored. Date 1890/92. Photographer: J.D. Rattar. Shetland Museum and Archives. Photo number: R00668.

[6] Research Tips. Shetland Family History Society.

[7] A Brief History of Shetland. Op. cit.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Image: Photograph. A Shetland Crofter. Date and photographer unknown.

[10] Image: Photograph. Lerwick and Upper Sound crofts. Date: 1888. Photographer unknown.

[11] Bueltmann, Tanja. (2011) Scottish ethnicity and the making of New Zealand society, 1850 to 1930. Scottish historical review monographs series Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press.

[12] A Brief History of Shetland. Op. cit.

[13] Lenihen, Rebecca A. (2010) From Alba to Aotearoa: Profiling New Zealand’s Scots Migrants, 1840-1920. Doctor of Philosophy thesis, Victoria University of Wellington. P. 5.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Hocken, Thomas Morland. (1898) Contributions to the Early History of New Zealand. London: Sampson Low, Marston, and Company.

[17] Lenihen, Rebecca A. (2010) Op. cit.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ministry of Culture and Heritage. Regional origins of Scottish immigrants.

[21] Phillips, Jock. (2014) Op. cit

[22] Ibid.

[23] Lenihen, Rebecca A. (2010) Op. cit.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

Family History or Time Travel?

When I was younger, and getting to know people (generally boys or girls I was attracted to and wanted to woo), I would give them a list of 20 questions and ask them to answer them all. It would either be done in person, on the phone, via a letter or more recently, via email/chat. These questions would be all about getting to know the other person better, find commonality and hopefully present myself as somewhat mysterious, enigmatic and far more intellectual than I am.

Which time period would you most like to live in and why?

Very important question I would ask people I fancy

My answer to that question would often depend on their answer (because, remember, I was trying to get them to fancy me, so I had to be as similar to them as possible. Yay, psychology!) and I’d say anything from “Ancient Egypt” to “200 years in the future”. I wasn’t really thinking about it. Sure, I was interested, but my answer was generally not genuine.

Being a genealogist, I get to look into the lives of so many different people, from different backgrounds, places and times. Whilst most of the research I do is in the British Isles, one county to the next can provide completely different customs, events and names. Add time to this and these lands present an immeasurable amount of genealogical and historical variety.

Looking at the rest of my family and where they’re from, we need to add Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Sweden, Norway, Germany and Eastern Europe into the mix.

Gold miner’s cottage at Hill End, NSW, Australia. Photograph: Bernard Holtermann

To pose that question to myself today means I need to really sit back and think. Sure, I could answer something glib like “Oooh, the roaring twenties” or “the middle ages” – but what does that really mean? When we think of those two eras, in particular, we probably think of Flappers and Knights/Damsels, respectively. But we know that to think of an era in such a simplistic manner is to completely gloss over what was really going on then and what life would be like were I to time travel and spend the rest of my days there.

Would I be able to ignore my modern way of thinking and take on board the beliefs and desires of people in the 19th century?

Would I want to live in Shetland in the 1800s, when my ancestor, Robert Scollay, was forced to leave and travel to New Zealand due to poor economic opportunity, land clearances, and agricultural failures? What would it be like experiencing poverty, uncertainty and fear? Would I want to get on a ship to travel to the other side of the world – not knowing what I would encounter, and knowing I would never see my family again?

Would I be a strong pioneer in New Zealand? Would I be able to build a life from nothing. Find land, build a home, scrounge together a living from whatever I could do or find?

Would I want to do the same with my ancestors in Australia? Could I force first peoples from their land in order to build colonies of New South Wales, Victoria or Van Diemen’s Land? Would I keep my head down and ignore what was going on around me? Would I be able to ignore my modern way of thinking and take on board the beliefs and desires of people in the 19th century?

Or perhaps I’d like to travel to Sweden in the 16th century? Live and learn about life and the seasons with my family in Västra Götaland and Skåne. Spend my days on the farm with the cows and sheep and work from dawn to dusk helping to maintain the household?

Robert the Bruce facial reconstruction

I could go to another time, the 13th century, back to Scotland, and the Bruce clan, with my ancestor Matilda and her brother, Robert, who would become known as Robert the Bruce. What would my life be like as the daughter of a Baron and Countess? Living in a land in turmoil, with in-fighting and threats from England? Knowing that my position and life could be used to determine the course of political and personal life for so many in the land?

These are questions I now often ask myself when I am doing research (for myself or clients) and it is why I find it so terribly important to put as much context into my research as possible. Looking at my tree while I write this article, I see so many names, so many dates with lifespans, marriages, and other events. They are all part of who I am and have created a legacy that will last, but who were they? Really?

Family history is time travel. We don’t need a magic spell or a set of standing stones to be able to go back through the years and discover what life was like. We can find so much information from our ancestors and incredible research done by so many genealogists and historians. Adding to this body of research is so important and will be invaluable to future generations. I am proud to be a part of it, and vow to do more.

From this point, when I go over previous research or do further research into my ancestors, I will not move on to another generation until I have exhausted all possible avenues and repositories of information for the people in the current generation being researched. I want to create the story of how my family became to be and that starts with the families that went before.

I will be reproducing some of that research here, and in the coming months will be publishing papers on my ancestors from Shetland, along with information about the people over the years who lived in one house in Sussex.

(A huge thank you to Janet Few for inspiring this article.)

Article – Getting Kids Into Genealogy

In 2016 I spoke at WDYTYA? Live on how to get kids into genealogy – exploring some tips and tricks and out-of-the-ordinary ways of sparking interest.

This talk formed the basis of an article I wrote for the February issue of Family Tree Magazine which is now on sale.

Not only am I happy to have an article published in such an amazing magazine, but even more so because it is my very first published article. Ever!