Native Breeds and Making Home in Shetland (part 2) Crofting and Nostalgia


“If you want to know about crofting ponies you should speak to old Garry*, He remembers working with the hill ponies when he was a boy”.  Eager to learn more about direct experiences with these crofting ponies that I had heard so much about, I quickly arranged to meet Garry. While he made me a cup of tea, I cast my eyes around the room.  The walls, dressers and tables were filled with pictures, photographs and ornaments, neatly arranged without a speck of dust on them.  Amongst the ornaments stood several large models of rural scenes featuring work horses. These ornaments are a familiar sight to me and to be honest, I have never liked them. They seem twee and false, belonging to a world of chocolate box images, celebrating and representing an imagined rural ideal.

Garry spoke to me about growing up in Shetland, of crofters, peat banks and long summer days spent with the hill ponies. These stories were alive with detail; memories of watching horses as they made their way across the hill; of crouching low to the ground, cautiously approaching mares with foals, gradually getting closer, until finally they allowed him to touch them.  He described the feel of the rope in his hands as he struggled to hold on while foals unfamiliar with the halter, twisted, pulled and tried to bolt. He and his friend spent hours outside with the horses, enjoying spending time with them, rarely with any adult instruction or interference. After a life time of working with animals, he said he now understands these interactions with the ponies were an important way of building trust with the foals and getting them used to human contact before they went out to the hill or sale.

When he was older, Garry moved away from Shetland and spent many years working in farms in Scotland. He stood up and took a model horse down from the shelf, he ran his hands over the ornament, highlighting certain features as he described the farm horses and how they differed from the ponies from his youth. Later, when describing a pair of horses he used for ploughing he pointed to another model. He said they look so exactly like the horses he knew that it is remarkable, like having a photograph of them. He smiled as he spoke about the horses, telling me about their personalities and the work they did. Bringing the statue closer he pointed out details on the plough and how the harnesses fitted to the horses and explained in detail about days spent on the farm

As I drove home my thoughts returned to the horse ornaments. Although on the surface they had appeared to me generic images of a rural ideal, that afternoon they came alive through Garry’s stories.  Their presence in his living room an ongoing reminder of relationships with horses he knew and loved.

Although the continuation of crofting and the presence of native breeds are an important part of ideas of home and identity in Shetland, there is no doubt that these agricultural activities have changed significantly.

As the traditional roles for Shetland breeds are largely obsolete, the future of agricultural subsidies looks uncertain and some breed numbers remain worryingly low, there is significant concern about the future viability of crofting practice.  The very low numbers of Shetland cattle or the large number of Shetland ponies that are considered pets rather than working animals could call into question the connection between today’s Shetland breeds and those from Shetland crofting history. Within this context the continued linking to the past and prioritization of historic characteristics may seem little more than nostalgia. However, as I will explore for the remainder of this chapter, the links between past and present, people and animals are far more complicated in practice as themes of change and loss mingle with ideas of hope and adaptation.

Shetland’s interest in local history appears to resemble similar concerns across the UK.  Britain has been described as having a national obsession with heritage. Pastoral scenes, depicting the past as wholesome, simple and desirable have become commonplace in art, literature and television. By routinely glossing over the poverty and inequality these narratives are thought to offer some relief from the difficulties of modern life. The widespread loss of UK industries and the resulting changes to lives and landscapes has caused many to fear that the essence of both local and national identities are at risk. Preserving elements of past lives in museums and heritage centres can be seen as a way of maintaining a connection to past lives while also generating income through tourism. This sort of heritage is often thought to bear little resemblance to the realities it claims to represent and thus is often thought to be a form of false nostalgia. The intense interest in Shetland heritage is often understood in this way.

Identification with historic Norse rule is perhaps the most visible element of a distinct identity and much scholarly attention has been directed towards the ways this Norse imagery affects social life on the islands. Widespread celebration of Viking heritage in Shetland is a relatively recent phenomenon, largely traceable to a group of intellectuals in the late nineteenth century. The modern origins of festivals such as Up Helly Aa have caused many to question their authenticity. “ In many respects, the contemporary interpretation of the festival can be seen as a repetitive performance of an inauthentic representation of the past, which has Shetland men identifying more with questionable Norse ancestry than Scottish nationality”[1]

Ideas of Norse heritage influence popular crofting narratives with crofters thought to be closely related, genetically and culturally, to Norse farmers who arrived in Shetland centuries ago.  Much of the hardiness and resourcefulness associated with Shetland crofting identity is attributed to this history and the experience of exploitation by Scottish lairds. These ideas about the challenging but ultimately happy “way of life” of the crofter has become a dominant cultural narrative and it has been noted that there can be strong resistance to other versions of this history.[2]Although there is little doubt that crofting was essential to the survival of Shetland families, many scholars have concluded that popular crofting identity narratives are fundamentally inauthentic and overly romanticised.

In his analysis of Shetland’s Haimfarin event, Jonathan Church claims that:[3]

“People are so frequently pointing out their differences, and there seems to be such a self conscious regard of being Shetland, on Shetland. Yet, in this cultural self consciousness, which is always locating particular tokens, tags and representations and suggesting somehow the  essence of community, of belonging, of identity is not only contained in them but springs from them, there is an odd disjointed feature. The difficulty is, if it is these tokens, tags and representations that construct community, then it is these tokens which point out those who are seemingly genuine community members. The putative members of the community have become displaced, seeming to be of a lesser reality than the representations which, now, locate them”

The central role of symbols from the past in asserting Shetland identities caused Adam Grydehoj to conclude that “the prevailing local identity concept is anti-modern, self consciously informed by Norse romanticism” that he elsewhere describes as a “backward looking philosophy”[4]

Although acknowledging that there are varying understandings of history within Shetland’s communities, these, like many other works examining heritage, assume that people are longing for a past that exists only in idealised representations, and in doing so potentially distract from their current circumstances and future choices. I would argue, however, that these interpretations are based on a rather static understanding of the role of past in contemporary social life.

I found the work of Jane Nadel Klein[5] and Catherine Degnan to be far more relevant to understanding the complex interplay between history and identity. Both authors examine the role of heritage within communities that have seen the decline of their major economic activities.  Ferryden residents still describe themselves and their village in terms of the fishing industry that has long ceased to be a part of everyday working life in the village.  Although fishing may seem to belong to the past, especially since new oil developments cut off access to the water, fishing and boats remain an important part of contemporary life in the village. Stories about the sea , rich with details of boat names, skippers and fishing grounds,  formed part of everyday conversations in the village.  Although in many ways these narratives about fishing were romanticised, they were also a very real element of social life. Far from a static representation of the past, these stories were an active, adaptable part of social life which affected contemporary experiences.

In a similar way, Catherine Degnan[6] describes how by recounting memories of village life, the residents of Dodsworth merge past and present as part of an ongoing, adaptive dialogue. This “memory talk” was not done in a formal way, at events or places normally associated with heritage but rather, was an integral part of everyday interactions between people.  The continued presence of the past affected contemporary engagements as  “ this way of remembering and reciting details about the villagescape made the  physical geography of the village come alive with both the social relations of the people who lived there and the local histories of events that had transpired there.

This attention towards the interactive ways that history becomes part of lived experience of place is essential to understand the connections between Shetland’s crofting past and contemporary relationships with land and animals. Although today crofting and pony breeding is most commonly an activity undertaken in addition to other paid employment rather than as the primary source of household income, it continues to play a significant role in the lives of many Shetlanders.  When the Sullom Voe oil terminal was being planned and Shetlanders expected to experience rapid change to their social and economic lives, agricultural practices were defined as one of the core components of a Shetland ‘way of life’ that should be protected.  The conscious association between a certain activity and identity, combined with its declining economic relevance, can lead to assumptions that crofting is primarily nostalgic activity.

While on fieldwork I lived on the island of Whalsay. Anthony Cohen noted in his 1987 ethnography[7], that continuation of crofting on Whalsay was an important part of how island residents understood their own identities. Even the wealthy fishermen would work the croft land that their family had kept for generations and would take a keen interest in the fate of the croft while they were away at sea. There have been significant changes to Whalsay between when he was living there and the time that I was, most notably the introduction of a regular ferry service between the island and the mainland in place of the thrice weekly visits from the MV Earl of Zetland.

Despite these changes and the time elapsed between his fieldwork and my own I found much of what he said about the importance of crofting to be relevant today.  I learned of several fishermen who would call home regularly for updates on the croft and one who had a webcam recording in his barn so he could be aware of what was happening at lambing time even if he was hundreds of miles away at sea.  A large number of people engaged in crofting activities in addition to other work, and conversations about weather, growing seasons and animal health could be heard throughout the year. In summer, whenever there were dry days, it seemed as though the whole island was outside working in the sun. Peats were cut and stacked, potatoes planted or harvested, fences built and repaired. As I walked on the hills I would chat to people as they worked on their peat banks. They would often say that it is important to keep doing these activities even though it is no longer economically necessary. These banks have been worked for generations and it is a joy to continue this work outside with the larks singing and the sea all around.

As people work today they are maintaining this tradition of working outside in all weathers, improving the land and tending livestock. When I spent time with people on the island or took part in community activities, talk often turned to the ways land had been used in the past and stories about particularly memorable people, places or animals.

A man who sewed make-shift shoes for his cattle to keep their feet from being harmed when he had to herd them long distances by road to find fresh grazing.

A couple who did not have enough grazing for their sheep so took them to an uninhabited island which then involved a day’s walking and rowing every time they needed to tend for them.

Two sisters who walked with their cattle from Burra to Scalloway. A trip that involved rowing a small boat with the cattle, attached by rope, swimming behind.

Then of course, tails of hapless outsiders who failed to properly implement the helpful advice of their neighbours, like the priest who dressed his cow in layers of woolly jumpers after being told the solution to her milk yield reduction was to get her covered.

Along with these historic anecdotes were more recent tales: The winter storm that blew the shed away and nobody could catch it; the day the neighbour got stuck in the henny hoose or the wife fae sooth who ended up with a hundred goats.

These conversations did not only happen when I was specifically conducting research with crofters or pony breeder but was also a fairly regular feature of conversations that happened as I went about living in Shetland. Often observations of this kind were sparked by attention towards a particular building, hill or weather condition. Again, the central theme often running through these narratives of was the resourcefulness and imagination required in crofting life. Although hardship and exploitation was a feature of these stories, they were given as the reason people had to go to extreme lengths to make a living, it was the independence, adaptability and sociability of the crofting folk that stories focused on. I was often told about how neighbours helped each other out on the croft by working together to bring home the peats, plough or harvest usually to be rewarded with a meal and the promise of assistance when they had croft work needing done. It is these attributes of independence, common sense and adaptability that I argue are key to how people in Shetland perceive their identity as distinct from other peoples. Although people tend to work on their own crofts and there is less communal labour, crofting remains a very social activity. Talk of land, weather and livestock prices permeated many social gatherings and there are a number of croft related events such as sales and meetings that crofters attend.

I believe that the valuing of historic characteristics in contemporary animals is not a static process or a way of trying to recreate the past.  Many of the ideals of crofting and pony breeding may be based on ideas of the history of breeds but animal husbandry in Shetland is also about everyday day relationships. Although the past is an essential part of these relationships, crofting is also about everyday embodied experiences with animals, concerns about subsidies, auction prices and the competing demands of croft work and paid employment. In my previous blog post I mentioned the characteristics ponies were thought to have got from a life in the scattalds: surefootedness, flowing action and intelligence.  These attributes are not treated as relics of the past but, these qualities are also thought to be essential for the present and future welleing of the breed.  These qualities are emphasised in relation to contemporary roles that the breed may play, such as a riding or driving pony.

As I spent time with crofters in Shetland, I found an active awareness of their personal role in continuing historic activities and maintaining their relevance into the future, to be a recurring theme. Although shop bought food is always available and all Shetlanders have access to wage labour, pension or benefits which allow them to access these goods, there is great pride taken in maintaining a productive croft. Much of the croft land has been cultivated for generations with each taking steps to try to improve the quality of the land by removing stones, spreading muck or reseeding.  Continuing the practice of working on and improving croft land was described as an important way of having something to pass on to future generations. Although this was often understood to be motivated by a love for land and animals, it was also often understood as a way of maintaining a degree of self sufficiency which is lacking in much of the UK.

Narratives of independence and practicality were central to understandings of both historic and contemporary crofts . I was often told that even if Tesco runs out completely they will always have meat and vegetables from the croft in the freezer and know how to produce more. Forward planning for bad weather and the resulting delays in food deliveries was seen as a characteristic that people from Shetland have but that outsiders often lacked. I heard many descriptions of panicked newcomers rushing around, panic buying everything as soon as a storm cancels the ferries. Local people, in contrast, expect bad weather and ferry cancelations in winter and will have well stocked deep freeze and cupboards.  This contrast between Shetland people who were prepared for extreme weather and incomers who were less able to withstand difficult winter conditions have strong parallels with descriptions of Shetland breeds thriving in winter conditions while breeds from sooth struggle as soon as bad weather hits.

Shetlanders commonly described crofting in practical matter of fact terms and were often very dismissive of people who described it in naive or romantic terms.  Early in my fieldwork I had been visiting a participant to chat about horses, on a previous visit I had been delighted to feed her caddy lamb so when her neighbour came by and handed me a lamb and a bottle I was only too happy to take him. When I was asked to take him home I gave a few reasons why it would be impossible or impractical for me to do this.  For each of my objections they had a ready answer and I could not think of a way of refusing so off I drove, with the lamb in the car, slightly confused about how this had happened. I soon learned that during spring everybody who ends up with a male caddy lamb is desperate to get rid of them to whoever will take them. Over the next few weeks, it seemed I heard many stories similar to the “wife fae sooth who ended up with a hundred goats”. All these tales involved a naive person with little crofting experience getting animals that they did not know how to work with.  They would often treat farm animals like pets, or ignore them and let them go wild but would invariably need their sensible crofting neighbours to get them out of whatever trouble they had gotten into. Taking heed of these stories, I worked very hard to integrate Yoda the caddy lamb into a flock of sheep. Although very proud of this achievement, I suspect my clumsy and unorthodox sheep rearing methods may have become a popular anecdote on the island that summer. This suspicion was reinforced when people that I had never spoken to about Yoda enquired about the lamb’s wellbeing.

Another time when I casually mentioned seeing the appeal of casting your own peats for your winter fuel. I was reprimanded.  Yes that is all fine and nice to think about – until it rains for weeks solid and those peats you have spent months cutting and stacking are soaked through and you don’t know if there will be enough summer to get them all dried out in time for your winter fuel. This occurred during a conversation with a pony breeder that would often speak of the harm that outsiders, full of book learning and no practical ideas, could bring to Shetland when they thought they knew better than the local population. Although over time I grew to know her as somebody filled with gentleness and humour, initially I was nervous about how she would assess me as a PhD student from ‘Sooth’ moved up to study ponies.  As we talked she would often ask me questions about my personal opinions about how I thought animals should be cared for, animal rights and killing animals for food. I always answered honestly and over time she seemed to regard me as someone with some common sense and I was delighted when one day she referred to myself and my husband as ‘good folk’.

This conversation about peat banks occurred several months after this and what struck me was how immediately I was understood as somebody ‘Sooth’ with romantic ideas about casting peats and little knowledge of the realties. Although today, for most people, the success or failure of their peat drying methods would not mean the difference between staying warm in winter or suffering the cold, it seemed it should not be discussed as if it is just a hobby or pastime.  As soon as I, as an outsider discussed it as a pleasurable activity I was sharply reminded about its role as an essential element of survival for Shetland crofting families. When she spoke of the hardships of peat cutting she did not make a distinction between the practice of peat cutting as it was in the past and the way it is done today.

I believe that for her and many other Shetlanders the contemporary practices surrounding crofting and working with Shetland breeds, are directly linked to experiencing, connecting to and continuing ways of living within Shetland’s landscapes that are integral to a sense of identity and home. When people without sufficient understanding or respect for the history of the practices try to get involved as a hobby, they are routinely spoken of in a dismissive way as being here after ‘the good life’ and that they will likely last only one or two winters.

The importance of a continued presence of Shetland breeds was also often understood as a practical way of ensuring a level of independence and self sufficiency. Shetland may currently have an income through the oil industry but this is expected to decline significantly in the decades ahead.  The future of farming subsidies which are an essential component of contemporary crofting income are also uncertain. The recent decision to leave the EU has further increased questions about the future of external support.  Throughout history Shetland has experienced times of economic wealth and shortage and many in Shetland want to achieve a degree of independence from the shifting fortunes of national and international markets.

Many people feared that the widespread reduction in native breeds across the UK and worldwide could result in a harmful monoculture of domestic animals. Losing breeds which have developed to suit various regional niches was thought to put farming in geographically peripheral areas such as Shetland at risk. As I mentioned previously, imported sheep and cattle breeds often require additional shelter and feed, meaning they are costly to keep.  If the price of feed were to become  too high, or the transport costs of getting this feed to Shetland increase, then keeping breeds such as this is Shetland could quickly become unsustainable. If the native breeds with the ability to thrive in Shetland were to die out, then crofters may not be able to afford to continue farming.

This is one of the primary reasons that historic qualities are valued despite their possibly seeming irrelevant to contemporary agricultural or social practices. A recurrent theme throughout this thesis is that particular qualities of strength and usefulness and central to understanding Shetland breeds but also that historic qualities are thought to be potentially vulnerable. Should the living conditions of breeds alter too much then they may lose their hardiness and intelligence.  In this way, the Shetland Sheepdog is no longer considered to be a useful working animal and breed enthusiasts are keen to prevent this from happening to other breeds.

It is not only the animals that people fear may become ‘overly domesticated’ and unable to survive should conditions change. There is concern that as less people work with animals and the land, the skills to croft in Shetland may become lost.  Although there have been changes to agriculture for centuries, in Shetland the sudden wealth, population boom and job creation following the discovery of oil in the 1970s marked a very sudden shift to the economy and everyday life. Many worried that these changes would lead to a break from past tradition and lead to life in Shetland losing it’s unique feel and becoming more similar to the rest of the UK.  One of the ways that this possibility is resisted is through the continued importance of crofting and native breeds in everyday life.  Through spending time on the croft, working with native breeds, combining knowledge from the past with current technologies, crofters and pony breeders maintain a connection to the past, while embracing some new practices. By maintaining a productive croft, many Shetlanders feel they are continuing work started by  ancestors while working to ensure they have something to pass on to future generations. Often, crofters will teach their children and grandchildren the skills that they learned as children. It is hoped that the knowledge of how to farm in this difficult climate will continue, ensuring people in Shetland always have a means of surviving or supplementing their household income. The importance placed on crofters ability to improvise their own solutions, rather than becoming too dependent on items crafted elsewhere, was central to their understanding of themselves as practical, relatively self sufficient people. Domestication is widely seen as a way that humans attempt to increasingly remove themselves from the world of nature, but I argue that in Shetland, cultivating a particular type of relationship with domestic animals is a way that people connect with the landscapes, animals and stories which are meaningful to them.


It is clear that despite challenging market conditions, Shetland breeds remain an important part of Shetland lives and landscapes. People take pride in breeding the types of animals that have lived here for centuries and work hard to maintain historic characteristics of intelligence and hardiness.

The past is ever present in the stories and experiences of contemporary crofters and pony breeders in Shetland.  Through these narratives and everyday practical activities a sense of continuity emerges amongst the continual change of social life and shifting agricultural priorities.  Although ideals of past ponies continue to influence the work of contemporary pony breeders, I consider this to be part of ongoing domestication relationships rather than an attempt to recreate the past or fix breeds to a particular point in time. My central thesis is that pony domestication in Shetland is an ongoing and changing relationship through which particular ideas of home are created and maintained.  I believe the past is alive in relationships between people, animals and place and that change, although at times understood in terms of nostalgia and loss, is an inevitable and often creative part, of these relationships.

People want to live and work with Shetland breeds that have a strong resemblance to those that were such a valued part of Shetland’s crofting history.  Thought these interactions people experience and maintain a connection to the archipelago’s history that directly affects contemporary relationships with place. In practice this means working with ponies and other breeds in ways that encourages them to be strong, intelligent and relatively independent. This stands in direct contrast to traditional narratives of breed and domestication which emphasise human control over animals. The focus is on the shared lives of humans and domestic animals throughout history. Both people and animals were believed to have endured great hardship together, the survival of each depending on the other.

Although much has changed in agriculture and social life, through maintaining a croft and working with animals in this way, people seek to continue a degree of self sufficiency. Ideas of adaptability and self sufficiency were essential to perceptions of a Shetland identity for both humans and animals and the continuation of crofting is one of the main ways this was thought to be achieved in practice. People in Shetland are keen to keep a connection to this time and maintain the traits, both human and animal, that allowed them to thrive together. Stories and memories of crofting history are integral to a sense of home and identity in Shetland today. Working to maintain populations of Shetland native breeds is an important way in which people actively participate in a continuation of this way of life and work to maintain a home on Shetland for both humans and animals.


*Name has been changed

[1] P8. Finkel, R.2010. “‘Dancing around the ring of fire’: Social capital, tourism resistance and gender dichotomies at Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, Shetland” Event Management 14 (4)

[2] Abrams, L. 2005. Myth and Materiality in a Woman’s World: Shetland 1800-2000 Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[3] P36. Church, J.1990. “Confabulations of Community: The Hamefarins and Political Discourse on Shetland” Anthropological Quarterly 63 (1) 31-42.

[4]    P.131 Grydehøj, Adam (2011) ‘‘It’s a funny thing that they were all bad men’: cultural conflict and integrated tourism policy in Shetland, UK’, Int. J. Tourism Anthropology, Vol. 1, No. 2, 125–140,

P.183 Grydehoj, A. 2008. “Branding from Above: Generic Cultural Branding in Shetland and other Islands” Island Studies Journal 3 (2) 175-198.

[5] Nadel-Klein, J. 2003. Fishing for Heritage: Modernity and Loss Along the Scottish Coast  Berg: Oxford.

[6] Degnen C. Relationality, place, and absence: a three-dimensional perspective on social memoryThe Sociological Review 2005, 53(4), 729–744. Quote from p 733

[7] Cohen, A. 1987. Whalsay; Symbol, Segment and Boundary in a Shetland Island Community Machester University Press: Manchester.


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