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.

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