Native Breeds and Making Home in Shetland (Part 1)

“Most families wouldn’t have survived in old Shetland croft life without a pony to do the chores and work the land. So yes I suppose, it does give you a Shetland identity and a feeling of bringing you closer to nature, to Shetland, to the old way of life that we are all very proud of. True island type ponies were working ponies who required low maintenance – they carried, peat or whatever was needed. They were often used on the land and sometimes ploughed, pulled carts, were the family car, an endless list I’m sure and we too insist on breeding ponies capable of performing similar duties”.*

What is a breed? And what makes allows particular animals to be identified as a member of a breed? There are many answers to these questions, often involving particular physical characteristics, rules relating to genealogical decent and membership of a studbook.  Although so familiar to us today, the idea of species being split into distinct breeds in this way is actually fairly recent, dating back to eighteenth century where controlled inbreeding was used to shape animal bodies towards a particular ideal. This connected to prevalent discourses at the time of certain types of man having mastery over the natural world.  The fact that much of this early breed establishment was done by rich landowners was used to reinforce ideas of their superiority and to demonstrate their right to control human and animal lives on their land.[1]Today, many emphasise that the idea of breed may be based more on social construction than biological reality.  It is certainly the case that breed boundaries are porous and there can be greater diversity within a breed than there sometimes is between breeds[2]yet, I believe that breeds can play a very real, and important part in our experiences of place.

Shetland has a significant number of native breeds relative to its size. The transportation of livestock to and from Shetland has often been challenging, resulting in a population of domestic animals which was quite genetically isolated. These breeds adapted in relation to landscape, weather and as a result of domestication relationships.  Although ponies and sheep may be the most visible of these breeds, there are also Shetland native cattle, ducks, geese and hens.  Each breed is valued for different types of attributes but certain characteristics such as small size, intelligence and adaptability are regularly associated with all Shetland breeds. Changes to economic and agricultural practices have fundamentally altered land use and rendered obsolete many of the roles the breeds traditionally performed. Despite these changes, contemporary crofters and pony breeders still value the characteristics of strength, hardiness and independence which they believe made domestic animals such significant participants in Shetland’s crofting past. I believe that continuing to work with animals that embody these characteristics is a central way that some people experience a connection Shetland as a particular type of home and seek to maintain these relationships for future generations.

Shetland breeds and crofting history

As I spent time living in Shetland, crofting, both historic and contemporary was a very visible part of everyday life.  Crofting history is often spoken of with pride and most areas have museums and local history groups dedicated to preserving artefacts and stories from this time. These displays will generally tell the story of how Scottish lairds operated an exploitative system of debt bondage which forced the crofting population to give up almost everything they produced in exchange for a few, overpriced items. This usually precedes displays of fishing and crofting equipment with captions explaining the hard work and resourcefulness that was required to live under these conditions.  Shetland breeds are described as fitting perfectly into this culture of adaptability and each breed had a role to play within the crofting household.

Shetland cattle were a small and relatively hardy breed. I was often told about how each croft had a cow that was usually kept close to the house. These cows would be placed on the richest areas of grazing, get fed with leftover food from the croft and would be taken into the byre at night or during periods of rough weather. The rich creamy milk they produced allowed crofters to make butter and cheese that was essential for the family’s survival

Native sheep were also a lifeline for crofters at times of poverty. Their small stature, warm winter coats and minimal nutritional requirements meant that they were able to live out on the scattalds in large flocks without requiring any additional feed or shelter. They are regularly described as being sensible, hardy and intelligent. Their fleeces were spun, dyed and turned into the famous Shetland knitware which was a vital source of crofting income.  Sheep are valued and respected for the role they played during this time and many flocks have been within the same family for generations, resulting in deep attachments between family, flock and place.

There is less known about the history and role of Shetland poultry but it is likely that each croft would have had a number of birds that they would keep primarily for eggs but also sometimes for meat. Again, when these breeds are discussed, their relative independence and the benefits this brought to crofting households were frequently emphasised. Those who work with Shetland poultry today talk about them appearing at home in Shetlands landscape, regularly resisting being kept inside coops or sheds.

Shetland ponies are also celebrated for how little they needed to survive. A poor household could not afford to keep a horse that required costly feed or that would need to use limited room in the byre. Shetland ponies could survive out on rough grazing with little to no supplemental feeding. Despite their small size they were strong enough to pull heavy carts and were the primary method of transport on the croft. Before places in Shetland were connected by a network of roads, ponies were frequently used to transport people and goods long distances over long distances of rough terrain. They were commonly used for harrowing fields and occasionally for ploughing. One of the most iconic tasks that the pony did was flitting peats. Peat was the primary fuel source for crofting households. Peat banks were located in hilly areas, often some distance from the croft itself.  People would cut the peats in spring, carefully pile them for drying and bring them home in late summer. Shetland pony mares were harnessed up with special baskets called kishies that would get filled with dried peat. Their job was to go from hill to croft transporting heavy loads of peat. The image of the lines of ponies carrying peats down from the hill has become one of the most regularly used images of crofting in Shetland.

Within the history of Shetland breeds, there is a strong emphasis on the shared lives of people domestic animals.  Rather than the traditional narrative of humans controlling animal bodies, conversations focused on how people and animals lived, adapted and thrived under difficult circumstances. A central theme running through these stories of crofting life was that despite the poverty they suffered, Shetlanders found ways to survive. By understanding the land and the animals and adjusting to changing conditions, hardship and exploitation could be overcome. In direct contrast to breeds being used by the aristocracy to demonstrate dominance over human and animal populations, Shetland breeds are understood to be a way that crofters resisted Scottish laird’s control over their livelihoods.

Breed, place and identity

In Shetland, there are striking similarities between the ideal attributes of Shetland people.  Qualities of endurance, imagination and adaptability are often emphasised when people discuss the essential elements of a Shetland people’s identity.[3] Throughout fieldwork I noticed that people, would often draw explicit comparisons between the attributes of Shetland people and Shetland breeds. These observations were not only made by people working in crafting or pony breeding, but often came up in seemingly unrelated conversations that I had while shopping, walking or waiting for the ferry. Within these narratives, Shetland ponies and Shetland people belong in the world of the practical crofting household.  Characteristics of strength, intelligence and common sense are highlighted in contrast to description of other animal breeds, or other people, who have come to Shetland from elsewhere.

Within the literature on human-animal relationships, many of the explanations for similarities between breed characteristics and ideals of national identities commonly focus on the ways animals become symbolic markers for social ideals. Within these discourses the actions and behaviours of the animals themselves are of little concern as the similarity of attributes is thought to simply be a projection of human ideas onto animal lives. The rise in multi-species ethnography is part of a move away from anthropology that ignored everyday relationships between humans and animals. Although this shift in focus is welcome and timely, attention to embodied elements of relationships should not mean ignoring how symbolic representations of animals continue to form an important part of human-animal relationships.  In Shetland, popular stories about crofting history combine with everyday experiences with land and animals to form relationships that simultaneously embody and represent particular ideas and experiences of home in Shetland.

Changes to agriculture and the wider economy in Shetland have impacted on all Shetland native breeds. The most valuable animals for meat production are the ones with a large carcass size. The small size of Shetland native breeds means they have little value for meat and they will often sell for very low auction prices.  Shetland cattle and sheep are often cross bred with larger breeds to increase their meat yield. Within a few decades of cross –breeding there were very few native cattle left and the breed was classified as critically endangered by the Rare Breed Survival Trust. Numbers have increased steadily in recent years but they are still classified as being ‘at risk’. Native sheep remain a staple part of contemporary crofts. Sheep cross-breeding is often done over several generations where a Shetland ewe my go to a Cheviot ram, the offspring of which would then go back to another Cheviot ram and then that offspring finally going to one of the very high meat yielding breeds such as Suffolk.  These larger breeds are believed to be significantly less hardy than Shetland sheep and following this method is thought to maintain a level of hardiness in the larger sheep that would otherwise not be present. It also means that many crofts in Shetland continue to keep Shetland sheep.

When Mary and Tommy started their croft in Trondra and looked to buy a Shetland cow, they discovered that the breed was close to extinction.  They were shocked by this, and decided to work to increase number of these cattle in Shetland. They soon discovered that other parts of Shetland crofting tradition like poultry and grains were also at risk of disappearing. They developed their poultry flock by looking out for birds of the types that most resembled the old Shetland breeds. Although they work with rare breed societies and believe these organizations play an important role in the preservation of native breeds, they feel that at times the fixed breed classification can lead to somewhat arbitrary boundaries between what is and is not a member of a particular breed.  Mary and Tommy have done extensive research into what the poultry on old Shetland crofts were like. They have spoken to crofters all over Shetland to learn about the types of birds they remember. This knowledge forms a substantial part of their practice as they try to re-establish populations of these birds. Over time, they established breeding flocks of all three types of Shetland poultry breed. The ducks especially are becoming a familiar sight around Shetland as many crofters are choosing to have some native ducks in addition to their other animals.

Whenever I visited the croft I was welcomed with a cup of tea, homemade cakes and fascinating stories. Past, present and future flowed through conversations that were rich with details about crafting practice, the people, animals and place.   The large windows offered views across the croft, one side the rough hill ground and the other lush green grass stretched to pebbly beach where two boats bobbed in the voe.  Drawings and photographs of animals, ponies, cows and dogs filled the walls and many more lived in drawers and cabinets, often these were brought to the table to illustrate particular points or introduce characters in a story.  As we sat with tea or walked about the land, Mary and Tommy would often comment on the movements of birds and animals. When the sheep went to the shore to eat seaweed, the behaviour of crows in relation to crofting activities and where the ducks were trying to build nests. They told stories of the Shetland cattle they had, one who loved people and would gallop to the fence whenever a bus arrived, another that refused to be milked by humans but tried to give milk to any cow or even sheep that was in her field, each cow with its own unique personality. I learned about their hardy Sheep living out on an island, visited only for essential care and who thrive with this independent life and in contrast, their orphaned lambs that the visitors love to meet and feed with a bottle.

Throughout these stories, themes of the interconnected lives of people and animals were always present. Mary and Tommy believe that crofts should have a responsibility that stretches beyond their individual croft to include plants and animals in the surrounding landscape. They know the habits and preferences of myriad species and carefully consider how their actions may affect them. At times official recommendations and cash incentives may encourage actions that they know would be harmful in the Shetland context.  When this happens continue to practice what they know is best for the land and animals in the long term, even if this comes at a substantial financial loss.  They believe that maintaining healthy numbers of Shetland breeds is potentially important for the future viability of crofting but also that the presence of these breeds in Shetland is important.  Mary described her joy watching the ducks as they roam about the croft land.  “They belong here. The ducks and the place just fit together”.  She said she is very happy that the numbers are increasing in Shetland as it is right that they are part of the croft and part of Shetland.   Throughout my time on the croft, this idea that the place and breeds belonged together was a regular part of conversations.  Shetland breeds were described as perfectly adapted, physically and mentally, to Shetland landscapes and traditional crofting practices.  The animals are happy with this life, they thrive given the space and independence to live relatively naturally and crofters can produce healthy animals with less time or financial commitment than larger breeds require.  In this way, animals people and place can live, thrive and belong together.

This croft is specifically dedicated to the preservation of native breeds, but I found very similar sentiments as I worked with other crofters and pony breeders. The movements and behaviours of animals on contemporary crofts is part of everyday experience working with animals but also connected to stories of Shetland’s crofting past.   While I worked with crofters and pony breeders, days were punctuated with observations about the activities of sheep, cattle or geese. It was often noted how these animals continued to live out in Shetland’s landscapes, responding to changing weather in a similar way to what they would have done in the past.

The attributes and action of Shetland breeds are often contrasted with breeds from elsewhere.  “Sooth” sheep breeds like cheviot were described as being far more dependent on human care and intervention than the hardy Shetland breed. They require more assistance at lambing time and often need additional feed and shelter to cope with Shetlands poor grazing and harsh climate. This was not described only in terms of their physical requirements as a different type of breed but was also a commentary on the different type of personality that they were thought to have. Years of being bred with a focus on meat yield as the priority combined with generations of living in small fields and barns was thought to have resulted in animals that were far more domesticated than Shetland’s native sheep. They were considered so far removed from any form of natural life that required them to have such knowledge.  I was often told that in bad weather they would just stand without the sense to find good places to shelter and graze and that the ewes often did not make very good mothers as they just did not have the intelligence to meet their lambs needs or the knowledge to teach them anything.

In contrast, the pure bred Shetland sheep would regularly live on open areas of hill with little human intervention where, I was told they learn to think for themselves. When selecting animals to keep and breed from, crofters would pay attention to their physical condition, prioritizing those who displayed hardiness in addition to other qualities that they select for such as fleece type. Crofters often know where their Shetland sheep are likely to be based on current weather conditions and knowledge of the flocks regular habits. Several times, people would tell me stories about their confusion at finding their flock in the wrong place for the weather conditions only to discover the next day that the weather had changed substantially and the sheep had, in fact, been in the most sensible place. Agnes told me about how her flock had survived the worst snow she have ever known in the winter of 1947 by predicting the changing conditions and finding a place where they would be safe. Less dramatic but just as relevant, as I went about fieldwork people would often tell me about watching sheep out the window, seeing them walk in a determined line, only for bad weather to soon follow. Over time I found myself paying attention to the behaviour of the flock of Shetland sheep that lived next door to me. When the weather forecast predicted storms, if I saw the sheep huddled together under the peat banks I expected that the forecast was correct and bad weather was indeed on its way. In contrast when bad weather was predicted and the sheep were behaving as they normally would I would conclude that the weather coming might not be too bad or that there was likely to be some time before the storm hit. I found this to be a fairly accurate way of gauging whether I should make a ferry journey that day.

The resourcefulness and adaptability of Shetland breeds were also qualities admired in Shetland people and many take pride in maintaining these skills associated with crofting life.  Among crofters and pony breeds there is a strong emphasis on innovation and repair rather than purchasing new items. Many crofters will spend extraordinary amounts of time repairing old machinery rather than buying a replacement, even if they could easily afford the new item.  Household items like baths were regularly used about the croft as water troughs and old boiler suits become the ubiquitous Shetland scarecrow. Crofters and pony breeders would often show me items they had crafted from rope, wood or other materials found in their shed and any time I was stuck with any DIY or gardening task it seemed my crofter neighbour could fix it within a couple of minutes with a ball of twine and whatever he had in his pockets.  In the next blog post I will explore in more detail how the value placed on skills associated with Shetlands history, in both humans and animals, is part of everyday, embodied relationships with croft land and animals.  Although many of these skills may seem obsolete today, the continued cultivation of them are essential to ideas of self sufficiency that are an important part of everyday understandings of home and identity in Shetland.

There is much about the history of crofting in Shetland that can be considered symbolic.  Stories rarely deviate too far from particular familiar narratives of the industrious crofter managing to have a good life despite the exploitative practices of the ruling elite. This is not to say there is not a substantial degree of truth in these accounts, and many of the most powerful stories come from written accounts from the time and experiences passed down through families. This history is often deeply personal and continues to have an impact on how crofting activities and relationships with Shetland breeds are perceived today. This continuity between contemporary practice and crofting history was often mentioned. For many people, keeping the same animals that ensured the survival of previous generations under difficult circumstances was an important way that everyday activities were thought of as meaningful. Although the breeds may be suffering as a result of difficult market conditions, they were prepared to work to help the survival of these breeds in the same way as the breeds helped previous generations survive.  In this way, phenomenological, embodied engagements with the breed exist alongside multiple stories and representations which also form a part of everyday relationships. I consider both symbolic and phenomenological engagements be integral to ongoing domestication relationships in Shetland

* Quote from pony breeder who was the 3rd generation of pony breeder in her family.


[1] Quinn, M.S., 1993. “Corpulent Cattle and Milk Machines: Nature, Art and the Ideal Type” Society & Animals, 1(2), pp.145–157.


Hudson, H et al 2010 “A Genetic dissection of breed composition and performance enhancement in the Alaskan sled dog” BMC Genetics 11:71

Voith, V, et al.  2009. “Comparison of adoption agency breed identification and DNA breed identification of dogs.” Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 12.(3)253-262.

[3] Cluness, T. 1969. The Shetland Book Zetland Education Committee: Shetland.

Jack, C. 2003. Women in crofting in Shetland from the 1930s to the present day : a reciprocal relationship Ph.D Dissertation Open University.





5 thoughts on “Native Breeds and Making Home in Shetland (Part 1)

  1. Thanks for the article! Nice to read about ‘breed classification’ and ‘breed boundaries’!
    And about belonging. Not so much as a human, sentimental thought but… shared place and history and lifes of animals and people.

    Liked by 1 person

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