Shetland farming

Working on my parents’ croft in Shetland by Mary Hay

Field strips at Nisthouse, Isbister, Whalsay, Shetland. Narrow field strips at Nisthouse, used to be rotated but now each croft owner keeps one.

Field strips at Nisthouse, Isbister, Whalsay, Shetland. Narrow field strips at Nisthouse, used to be rotated but now each croft owner keeps one.

“I was 14 when I left school and started full time work on my parents’ croft, Pinchdyke Croft at Brae (I don’t want to be above myself and call it a farm).  The year was 1936.  The farm used strip farming. I lived in Shetland with my parents and brothers and sisters – there were 14 of us, 9 boys and 5 girls.  Five of the boys joined the Merchant Navy.  I was the 7th child and looked after my younger siblings, which I loved.  I would have liked to have been a Children’s Nurse.

I worked on the croft until I was 21 and by that time the younger children had grown and I could find employment elsewhere. We only had 2 rooms in the croft and we all slept head to foot. We were never hungry and for the most part very happy.  I was up at 5 every morning helping with the animals. We had cattle, sheep, hens and one pig.  There were 6 other crofts down by the sea, and we all helped each other with harvesting and lambing.

Peat Cutting ShetlandWe went back for breakfast at 6 and back for all other meals except when we were cutting peat – no coal or wood on our fires – then we took our meals to the moors.  We had a small rowing boat and I would go out and catch haddock and mackerel.

Dutch OvenFish was the main part of our diet, along with mutton, turnip soup, which we cooked on a Dutch oven over the fire. I helped my mother bake the bread, which we did once a week. I helped her milk the cows and make crowdie from the milk. I remember my father being a bad tempered bu**er, but my mother was always very gentle, caring, and accepting of life’s hardships, despite losing a son in the war, a daughter to meningitis when she was 8, and a stillborn child. Children were born at home and I helped with the births and looking after the babies. 

I loved living in Shetland and looking after the young ones but then my sister found me a job in the Church of Scotland canteen when I was 21.  I cooked, cleaned and was a waitress. I met my husband there. He was from Elgin and came to check the canteen.  We married and I moved to Morayshire. We went back to Shetland many times. I never wanted to leave it, and never wanted to lose my accent and Shetland ways. We had a mixture of Norwegian and Scottish culture. Everything was different to me in Morayshire, even the cooking.”

Some additional information about Mary’s life in Shetland
Mary was 14 when she left school to help being a nanny to her 7 younger siblings in 1936. She lived on a croft on Shetland and was the 7th of 14 children. She worked every day – getting up at 5:30am and sometimes not going to bed until midnight. There were big family lunches. With help and advice from her mother she had to get up, wash, bathe and feed her 7 younger siblings then get them ready for bed every evening. There were no prams and other things to help you.

There was no official wage because she worked for her family but in her spare time she knitted garments like jumpers and gloves. She sold these and then – with the money – bought stockings and tights. Because she worked at home Mary had no fixed breaks but she could have a cuppa whenever she liked and had to help with the big family lunch each day. While Mary was growing up her father took the measles back from the navy and unfortunately one of Mary’s sisters then died from it. She was 8 years old.

Mary worked as a nanny for 3 years until her siblings grew up enough that her mother could manage on her own again. During the war Mary worked in a canteen full time and enjoyed meeting people from all the different forces with different languages. Mary’s most exciting experience has been to learn how to drive although she didn’t get her licence until she was 40 because you didn’t need a licence to drive on Shetland.

Additional Information

shetland photo archiveShetland Archive photo archive

This is a unique online archive of over 60,000 images of all aspects of Shetland heritage and culture.  The collections date from the 1880s to modern times.

More information on Shetland can be found here.

In World War 2 Shetland had a series of radar stations, one of which was called  “Chain Home” built on Noss Hill and it looked east towards the mainland.

Interior with box bed of the Highland Cottage at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore, ScotlandPictures of the tradtional box beds found in Shetland Crofts. Photo taken at the Highland Folk Museum Newtonmore.

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