Borrowed Time

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Debt, social mobility and the Fetlar Clearances: the Nicolsons of Brough Lodge.

Looking inland from a small beach on the northwest coast of the island of Fetlar in Shetland you will see a long facade of Gothic buildings sprawling across the landscape.Behind them is a curious oval-shaped tower on a hill, jutting out above the rest. The buildings, known as Brough Lodge, were built by Sir Arthur Nicolson in the early 19th century. They have a chequered history, and few houses in Shetland can have generated such diverse personalities or conflicting feelings. It is a labyrinth of secrets, transgressions and reparations, matching the lives of the people who lived there through the 19th and 20th centuries. How did they acquire their wealth and status, and why, by the late-20th century, was Brough Lodge lying more or less in ruins?

Jane Coutts


422 pages

Book review from The New Shetlander, No. 289, Hairst Issue, 2019. By Gordon Johnston. Copyright © The New Shetlander. Reproduced by kind permission.

Sometime in the 1890s my great-grandfather, Laurence Johnson, acquired the tenancy of one of the fifteen crofts at Aith and Greenmow in North Cunningsburgh. The 54 merks of land at Aith belonged to the Nicolsons of Fetlar. In addition, I’d read about the Fetlar clearances in, for instance, Brian Smith’s Toons and Tenants, and in an article by the late Robert L. Johnson on ‘The deserted homesteads of Fetlar’, Shetland Life, November 1981. I had also visited Fetlar, though on each occasion my interest was focused on the island’s broch sites. One of the brochs is at Brough Lodge, on the west coast of the island, the rambling, derelict, Gothic-looking ruins of the Nicolson family. While standing on the broch mound, I couldn’t help thinking about the family who occupied the Lodge in years past. I was naturally curious to read more about them – their origins, how they acquired their estates in Fetlar and elsewhere, how they treated their tenants, what role they played in Fetlar in the 19th and twentieth centuries, and what became of them.

I must say at the outset that my curiosity has been well satisfied by this 400 or so page study. The author, Jane Coutts, a linguist, sociologist and anthropologist – now residing in Spain – was for 15 years the curator of the Fetlar Interpretative Centre. So she came to know Fetlar, its history, its geography and its people, ‘inside oot’. Prior to her latest production, she had written a history of Fetlar’s other famous son, entitled Fetlar Man: the life of Sir William Watson Cheyne, which was shortlisted for Scottish Research Book of the Year at the Saltire Awards in 2015.

The word research leads me, indeed, to make my first positive comment on her latest work. Despite her modest assertion that she ‘cannot claim to have exhausted the archival material’ she has clearly put an amazing amount of time and effort into finding out about her subjects. She has 30 pages of references. Estate papers, court cases, newspaper reports, diaries – in particular those kept by Lady Annie Nicolson (d. 1936) who married the third Sir Arthur, and who came to occupy Brough Lodge with her husband in 1891 – interviews, correspondence, island folklore and personal anecdotes, you name it - the author has dug the earth thoroughly, raked it over painstakingly, and out of this has emerged a comprehensive and fascinating account of the Nicolsons of Brough Lodge.

The book is in two parts. Fifteen chapters make up Part One, where the central focus is on the origin of the Nicolson merchant-lairds in the 18th century (based partly on William Sandison’s wonderful book A Shetland Merchant’s Day Book in 1762, written in 1934), followed by a detailed account of the life and times of the main protagonist, the first Sir Arthur Nicolson, grandson of ‘Lochend’. Part Two - chapters 16 to 20 – deals with the Nicolsons and their wives and relatives who inherited the estate following the death, first of Sir Arthur (in 1863), and much later, of his wife, Eliza Jane. Lady Eliza was given a liferent of the house and estate by her husband, so, in effect, it wasn’t until her death (in 1891) that the next occupants really took over. The building of the Nicolson’s country residence at Brough gets a chapter to itself, though the actual early chronology of its beginnings is a little uncertain – building work probably started about 1818 or 1819.

Part One describes the central feature of Shetland’s socio-economic life in the 18th and 19th centuries – the fishing-tenure system. Following the collapse of the Shetland economy in the second half of the 17th century, many lairds were forced to sell their lands to a rising merchant class. It was mostly these so-called ‘new men’, merchant-lairds like Nicolson of Bullister and Lochend, who began to lock their tenants into fishing for them. Rents were paid with the proceeds, but debt was endemic, and rarely did a tenant escape from the precarious existence.

The first Sir Arthur, however, after much theorising about the system (dealt with at length by the author), decided to ‘improve’ his estate by enclosing the common grazings or scattald for sheep, evicting or moving many of his tenants in the process. He began with the Lambhoga peninsula about 1816, and then on a much greater scale elsewhere in Fetlar from the later 1830s to the 1850s. Fetlar has never recovered. Today the population hovers around a mere 70 inhabitants. The devastating effects of the successive enclosures on Nicolson’s tenants were predictable. In 1836 the population of Fetlar stood at 859. By 1841 this had fallen to 715, and by 1851 to 658. Together with a failure of the crops in the 1840s, along with the potato blight in 1846, the only word to describe the dire situation of famine and removals is destitution.

How did the tenants react to Sir Arthur’s project of ‘improvement’ and ‘experiments’? Of course, until the 1880s, when (male) crofting tenants were enfranchised, and when security of tenure resulted from the Crofters Act of 1886, opposition to enclosure could only be very limited. Jane Coutts suggests that there was some ‘proxy’ resistance, for example from ministers such as the Rev. James Campbell (he was the only person from Fetlar who was courageous enough to testify about crofter-laird relationships before the 1883 Napier Commission). Also, she states, ‘Men took jobs on Greenland whaling ships and complicated the (laird’s) neat economic plans by clandestinely selling their fish to other merchants for higher rates and for cash’. And a few, it has to be admitted, played the system by getting jobs as the laird’s overseers or ground officers or tacksmen and factors.

One thing that puzzles me – as it does the author - is why there were only limited demands by the Nicolson tenants to have the scattald or common grazings restored to them, even after the passing of the Crofters Act in June 1886. She mentions that 36 of Nicolson’s tenants sent a request to the dowager lady Nicolson shortly afterwards for a reduction in rents – again through the Rev. Campbell - but Lady Nicolson refused point blank.

The same tenants applied to the Crofters Commission – set up under the 1886 Act - for the fixing of fair rents. The Commission first came to Shetland in 1889, but such was the volume of applications it had to return in 1892 to complete its work. The author doesn’t mention this, but a check in the two local weekly newspapers confirms that the Commission arrived in Fetlar on 17 August 1892. For a few memorable days Commissioner Hossack and his assistants took evidence in the Free Kirk, not just from the Nicolson tenants, but from those of the Earl of Zetland. In November they issued their decisions. The 36 applicants from the Brough estate had their rents reduced by an average of 23%. Not only that, but the Commission cancelled most – 71% - of their arrears of rent as well. The Day of Judgment had finally arrived. But, as I say, only six or seven of Nicolson’s tenants appear to have applied for the return of some of the confiscated common grazings. Nor did any Fetlar tenant appear before the Deer Forest Commission, which came to Shetland in 1894 to look at the whole question of enlargement of holdings – many men, in partial explanation, were probably at the summer fishing at the time – but in other places (such as in South Cunningsburgh, where the crofters had had their scattald enclosed by Bruce of Sumburgh in 1875), there was detailed testimony.

This is only a very superficial description of the contents of a substantial book. Jane Coutts is at pains to explain that one of her aims was to bring out the three-dimensional nature of the various Nicolson family successive lairds – they weren’t all ‘baddies’ in her opinion, although socially they were usually poles apart from their tenants. I have said very little about Part Two of her monumental study, and it is here that she brings out in much detail the personalities of the post-1891 owners – often absentee ones – of Brough Lodge and the Nicolson’s Shetland estates. Family historians and genealogists will find much to consider and enjoy here. There are numerous incidental stories of interest from Shetland, the rest of the UK, and from as far afield as Australia. The book is an essential reference work, not just about one of the most important landed families in the isles, but about the history of Shetland in the last two centuries or so.