Fish and Trade
Shetland’s economy has often seemed precarious, with good and bad times alternating down the years. Because of the climate, the products of the land were used largely for subsistence. The main export trade was in the one commodity the islands had in plenty, fish, though even that trade was unpredictable and buffeted by external influences.
After the eclipse of the Norse warlords came four centuries when Shetland sold its salted fish to the outside world through the Hanseatic League of merchants, based in Bergen, Bremen, Lubeck and Hamburg. Every summer, until the economic disasters of the late 17th century, German traders fitted out ships to buy salt cod and ling, bringing the islanders cash, corn, cloth, beer and other goods in exchange. The Hanseatic trade is commemorated in the restored trading booth at Symbister, in the island of Whalsay, reached by ferry from Laxo, 22 miles north of Lerwick.
Fishing was, at one time, largely in the hands of landlords, whose tenants were forced to fish to avoid eviction; they made dangerous voyages in small six-oared open boats. Later, herring fishing provided a mainstay of the Shetland economy. Vast fleets of sail-fishing vessels like the restored Swan, and the later steam drifters, landed their catch in the islands, from where it was exported, salted, in barrels. It was such prosperity that allowed the growth of Lerwick.