Shetland Museum

Shetland Museum

Shetland Museum - megalithic stones

Shetland Museum - megalithic stones


Shetland Museum and Archives - the Five Star, award winning Museum and Archives is a multifunctional visitor attraction in the heart of Shetland's capital town of Lerwick. Begin your journey through the history of their beautiful islands here, with an enjoyable and interactive visitor experience discovering their world renowned collections. The display galleries are split between two floors. The ground floor, with approximately 500 square metres of gallery space, concentrates on the history of Shetland up till 1800, from environmental, geological, and geographical factors, early settlers in the islands, through early agriculture, fishing, early boats, and the rich folklore of Shetland. The 360 square metres of first floor gallery space brings the story of Shetland right up to date with exhibits from the last 200 years. These detail the changes in culture, politics, population, and industry, including the development of the knitwear industry and Shetland's association with the sea through fishing, whaling, wartime service, and merchant shipping. The exhibits in the museum range from items of great historical importance, to items, which although not old, are of great significance to Shetland. From items which tell a story on their own, to items which help form part of a larger picture. And from items as delicate as lace shawls, to complete boats. The Shetland Archives contains records from the fifteenth to the 21st century, and a big library of local literature. The building sits on the shore of the biggest exhibit, the Category B listed Hay's Dock, which was built in 1815 by a company called Hay & Ogilvy. As part of the project the dock area has seen major refurbishment works including the restoration of the pier house, and dredging of the dock itself, which will be home to the Museum's floating exhibits.


Shetland’s archaeology is relatively recent – discoveries span from Neolithic (4000 B.C.) through Iron Age and Viking into Medieval. (A.D. 1500). The collection consists of site excavations and stray finds. It takes in all elements, from domestic, farming, fishing and religion. Most are routine everyday objects, showing that Shetland was never a centre of power and wealth. Early excavation finds are outwith Shetland, but we hold everything excavated since the 1960s. Finds from sites including the Neolithic houses at the Scord of Brouster, Iron Age brochs and village at Clickimin and Old Scatness, and the 16th century tithe barn at Kebister are held in their collection. Excavation assemblages mostly comprise duplicates of other material, such as pottery, hammerstones, ploughshares, loomweights and spinning whorls. However, most digs encompass objects seldom found otherwise in Shetland. These include Roman glass (Clickimin), Celtic altars (Papil), painted pebbles (Upper Scalloway) and a Norse millstone (Underhoull). They have many stray finds, found by chance, either through cultivation or house excavation works, and most aren’t from site contexts. Some of their best finds have been discovered in this way, such as polished Neolithic knives and even Pictish symbol stones. Chance finds are usually found by non-archaeologists with a keen eye, for example, a Stone Age burial urn found by schoolchildren. Many stray finds are hard to precisely date, because objects continued in use for thousands of years; a loomweight may be 2000 or 200 years old. The archaeology collection also covers assemblages from marine sites, primarily 17th and 18th century Dutch and Scandinavian vessels. Artefacts include coins, trade items, weaponry and fragments of ships’ timbers.


The Folklife collection spans the period between Medieval and modern times (broadly 1500 to 1800) and encompasses all aspects of subsistence living including fishing, farming and domestic. Artefacts in this collection exemplify the era when Shetland was a place distinct from anywhere else and include ‘classic’ Shetland items such as the kishie (basket), tushkar (peat spade), fourareen (four-oared boat) and hap (shawl). The artefacts show that Shetlanders were self-supporting people, making everything they used from their own resources. They have been able to amass a strong collection of these unique artefacts because equipment was locally-made. Shetlanders lived on the land, and grew their crops themselves. They have implements for tillage, making hay and peat production. Grain cultivation involved many processes and tools; harvest, threshing, winnowing and grinding meal. Families also kept their own livestock. Animals were used for hauling ploughs, harrows and for transporting peats by pack-saddle. They have examples of all these tools, as well as items used in milk processing, such as churning and butter-making. Other aspects covered in theirr collection include slaughtering and keeping poultry. The sea was part of everyone’s life. The typical diet included fish, shellfish, seafowl and their eggs. The Folklife collection includes gear to catch these using lines or net, and fishing from boat or shore. There are numerous types of hand-lines, as well as specialised baskets. They have full-sized boats and models of traditional craft, as well as equipment used in boat handling. The Floating Collection includes many different traditional boats. The earliest commercial fishing used traditional gear and they have examples of this equipment. Also included are artefacts concerning subsistence whaling and collecting driftwood. Items from the home include furniture, cooking, weaving and knitting. There are chairs made from driftwood, brand irons (griddles), taatit (tufted) rugs, and joopies (knitted undershirts). Traditional folklore often concerned everyday objects but they also have some specific artefacts such as a straw masquerade costume


The Social History collection includes artefacts from the post-traditional era, in which Shetland society became similar to lifestyles elsewhere in Britain. In this period, islanders abandoned locally-made tools, furnishings and clothing, and relied on imports. This happened roughly from 1800 onwards, getting more marked as time went on. Artefacts in this collection include cultural, religious, governmental, warfare and communications objects. Because islanders now used items made in factories, their home and working environments came to look just like anywhere else; a lamp, pocket-watch, or gramophone used here was no different to elsewhere. The collection is broad. There are domestic items for cooking or cleaning. There is cultural memorabilia including sports trophies, paintings and costumes from the Up-Helly-Aa festival. There are also many objects from churches and government services, primarily medical equipment and school paraphernalia. A more serious side of life - warfare - is shown by the broad range of naval and military apparatus, uniforms, and personal effects from many battlefronts. Shetland's strong links with mainland Britain is proven by the large range of ship’s equipment from the steamer service, and an impressive selection of model ships. There are objects that show advancing changes to urban living, such as electrical appliances, and telecommunications that connected us with the outside world. Items such as station fittings and officers’ equipment from the police force and justice service are also included in this collection.


Industry. This part of the collection demonstrates the change to Shetland society as islanders moved to commercial farming, and people started buying services and goods from professional trades rather than making things themselves. A new kind of farming, called crofting, came from the 1890s. The collection shows all the aspects of change, including mass-produced implements for farmers, like scythes, lanterns or traps. Many specialised in sectors such as poultry or dairy farming, and products marketed for sale. There were new innovations in techniques, like sheep-dipping, as well as labour-saving machines such as grain threshers. They have good collections of trades’ equipment, especially from the 19th century. These equate with tools used in the rest of Britain. There are heavier trades like carpenter, blacksmith, shipwright and stonemason, as well as lighter ones like cobbler, dressmaker and watchmaker. The tool range is huge, from crease iron (shipwright) or fudge wheel (cobbler), to flincher (cooper) or jumper (mason).


In the 19th century textiles became a commercial force in Shetland, enabling women to support family incomes. Islanders developed new products and adopted imported tools, while maintaining a focus on traditional hand production and finishing. Their collection encompasses changes in style from the early 19th century through the 20th century, with a focus on the cottage industry of hand-making fabrics and garments. In 2013, the Textile collection cared for by Shetland Museum and Archives was deemed a Recognised Collection of National Significance in Scotland. Knitwear was the most common product made of wool in Shetland. Plain knitting used to make stockings, caps, underwear, haps (thick shawls), gloves and scarves was the mainstay of the industry. Fair Isle knitwear is the most famous product of these islands. It was worn by fishermen and sold to tourists. Their collection has examples from pre-commercial garments circa 1850 to high fashion items of the 20th century. Fine lace was a prestigious product that made Shetland’s handspinners and knitters renowned. The Museum’s shawls and stoles are perhaps the most intricate garments you will ever see. Wealthy buyers, including the aristocracy and royalty, valued these in the 19th century. Commercial weaving developed in Shetland by 1900. Shetland tweed was exported world-wide. The collection holds important sample books spanning a century of tweed manufacture. Besides clothing, they hold traditional textile tools, many of which were hand-made in the islands. The collection contains spinning wheels, hand-cards and woolcombs, knitting sheaths and belts, garments boards for finishing, and looms.


The fisheries collection tracks the ever-changing industry, from sail to motor, from lines to nets, and from quadrant to radar. Shetlanders abandoned indigenous technologies in the 19th century and adopted new fishing and navigation methods, and new types of boats. Traditionally, whitefish was dominant. They hold many objects from the exciting era of deep-sea cod fishing which include boats’ fixtures, navigational instruments and fish processing tools. No less important to Shetlanders at this time were smuggled kegs of “Faroe brandy”. Islanders caught haddocks in the home white fishery of 1850-1950. The Museum holds examples of all the equipment – lines, buoys, sinkers, lanterns and line-haulers. This became defunct when the industry moved to motor boats and catching by net from the 1940s. They have objects that were instrumental in making this a success, such as telecommunications equipment, and models of different vessels. The pelagic sector has seen prosperity. It started with the Dutch fleet, and they have reminders of these welcome visitors, like boat paintings and souvenirs of Lerwick. They hold many objects from Shetlanders’ own herring fishery, not just gear for catching, but also processing and barrel-making. Local commercial whaling was important in the 20th century, and they have various items from the stations operating around 1900-1920. Later, islanders followed the industry to the South Atlantic, and their collection holds pieces of apparatus and whalers’ crafts. The larger items include a harpoon gun, down to the smallest such as painted penguins’ eggs.


Britain’s merchant fleet was once the world’s largest, and for 150 years it was vital to Shetland’s economy because seamen supported their families with wages from the sea. The Museum collection encompasses islanders’ worldwide voyaging, with tools of their trade and souvenirs taken home. The collection is strongest from the classic era of sailing ships in the 19th century that were both romantic and dangerous. Most objects are mariners’ own tools, such as sailmaking equipment. Many Shetlanders became ship masters and the museum has sextants, telescopes and charts that they would have used every day. One of the largest maritime sectors around 1820-90 was the Arctic whaling, and they have harpoons and other apparatus used for whaling and sealing. Long sea passages allowed men time to create beautiful craft items by carving and ropework, and there are several examples in the collection. Often, seamen obtained souvenirs from people in foreign lands, and they have things taken back from the Arctic, the Orient and South America. Maritime services in Shetland have allowed safe navigation, and saved lives where shipwrecks occurred. They have machinery from lighthouses, and coastguard apparatus which was used to hoist people from ship to shore. A diverse range of debris is found on beaches after wrecks, including nameboards, figureheads, lifebelts and furniture, and they have examples of all of these.


The boating tradition is more than a museum piece, and besides artefacts, they have a selection of classic Shetland craft in working order which you can often see in use during the summer months. These are kept at Hay’s Dock, outside the Museum and Archives. The yoal takes its name from the English word yawl, and was the shape of vessel preferred in southern Shetland, with its slender hull adapted for use in strong tides. There are six oars, but usually four men rowed, by taking oars singly or in pairs. Their one, the Zeal, is of the form used in Fair Isle. Similar to her is the Laura Kay. This boat type was popular north of Lerwick, and was used in the commercial haddock fishery of the 19th century. The construction is basically the same as the yoal, but with a broader hull, to hold lines and the catch. Both of these are replica boats, built using traditional techniques, specifically for their collection. Larger again is the Vaila Mae. She is a sixareen, the biggest of the native boat types. She is rigged with oars and sail, as all sixareens were, in the traditional sail shape that inspired the Boat Hall walls. When under sail she carries extra ballast to keep her stable, and when she travels to local regattas even the non-boating enthusiast stops to watch her. They also have an original motor boat, the Pilot Us. Motor boats replaced manpower in the fishing industry, and here you can see how small some mid 20th century commercial boats were. With a crew of two, the Pilot Us was a whitefish boat based at Scalloway.


The galleries are laid out in an easy to follow trail which takes you through our history from the geological beginnings and early people, through social, domestic and industrial changes and into the more contemporary oil era developments. Use the building layout maps ( Ground Floor and Upper Floor) to take a virtual tour of the building before you arrive. The museum is fully wheelchair accessible with a lift allowing access to the upper floor. There are many objects to handle for the visually impaired. There are toilet facilities onsite and an excellent food outlet, the Hay's Dock Cafe Restaurant. Assistance dogs are welcome, no other dogs allowed.


Location : Shetland Museum and Archives, Hay's Dock, Lerwick, ZE1 0WP

Transport: Aberdeen (National Rail) then ferry to Lerwick. Bus Routes : 1, 4, 6, 9 and 12 stop outside.

Opening Times : Daily, 10:00 to 16:00; Sunday 12:00 to 17:00

Tickets : Free

Tel. : 01595 695057