By Laurie GoodladMarch 5th 2021
Laurie Goodlad

To mark International Women's Day on 8th March, Laurie Goodlad shares the stories of some of Shetland's fascinating females.

“In the Shetlands, women are the best men.”

These words were written by an American journalist visiting Shetland in 1927. Like many visiting writers, he found a place where the women worked tirelessly, often in the absence of men.

To mark International Women's Day, this blog will explore some of the incredible Shetland women who have shaped our past and influenced our present. It will show how Shetland women were stepping into men's shoes long before the term 'feminism' was ever coined.

Demographically, women throughout Shetland's history have outnumbered men, yet, as is the world over, their contributions are often overlooked or absent from the narratives presented to us in history books. Our statues, memorials and place names commemorate and remember men, but where are the women?

Women of history are often unfairly portrayed as being unremarkable; they are home-makers, mothers, and caregivers. They pick up the slack while the men are away at sea, and they wistfully await their return by the fireside. This gender stereotype downplays and ignores the vital role that women have and continue to play in our society.

The misconception that women's stories don't feature in our history because they are unremarkable is unfounded, as the list below will prove.

In many ways, women's position in Shetland is very different from those of other women in history, and until the 1960s, women outnumbered men in the isles. Women in Shetland, historically, very much dominated the home and family life. They had to take on multiple roles with men away at the fishing or whaling for prolonged periods, including those traditionally associated with men. Lynn Abrams, a professor of gender history, goes as far as to call Shetland a ‘Woman's island’.

Women from Shetland's past are usually portrayed as strong, sometimes stern, and often stoic characters who endure hardship and toil on the croft and at home are quiet and uncomplaining.

The voyage of Betty Mouat

None portray this stereotype more so than Betty Mouat, an ageing spinster who was thrust into a remarkable voyage across the raging North Sea.

Betty lived at Scatness in Shetland's South Mainland, and in 1886, when embarking on a routine trip to Lerwick, was drawn into an unbelievable drama. Boarding the Columbine, Betty hoped to get to Lerwick early to carry out a few errands. She had to see the doctor about her bad leg, and she had several knitted shawls to sell for a little extra money to boost the household income. She had both shawls that she had knitted and those that she was selling for her neighbours too.

Once onboard, the Columbine left the jetty at Grutness with Betty and three crew on board. As they left the shore, a violent squall blew in, washing the skipper from the boat. The remaining two crewmen launched a small rowing boat to rescue their stricken skipper. Once safely hauled into the little launch, the crew could only watch on as the Columbine, with only Betty on board, made steady progress out to sea.

Rescue attempts were futile, and no vessel was able to catch the Columbine. It was with heavy hearts that they called of the search. It was presumed that the boat and Betty were lost.

Incredibly, and after an arduous nine days at sea, the Columbine ran aground on the small island of Lepsøy, off the Norwegian coast. Betty's remarkable survival became a nationwide story, and, overnight, she became a press sensation.

She had survived on only a small jar of milk and a few dry biscuits, tucked away below decks, in the cold and dark as the wind whistled through the rigging above.

Our heroine was much revered in the press, and when she was returned to Edinburgh and later Shetland, people queued to catch a glimpse of this remarkable and brave woman. Queen Victoria even wrote a letter congratulating Betty on surviving the ordeal.

Yet, Betty was by no means extraordinary; she was an everyday Shetland woman who eked out a meagre living on her croft in the South Mainland.

Today, Betty Mouat's house is available for overnight glamping stays as part of Shetland's network of camping bøds.

Lifesaving women

Several 19th-century women who, in separate instances, rescued men from their storm-wrecked boats were both awarded Humane Society medals for their bravery.

Grace Tait and Ellen Petrie were awarded this medal for a brave rescue in 1856, where they saved two men's lives at Bluemull Sound. They took a boat and rowed to the aid of the men in need, saving their lives.

Marjory, known as May Moar (nee Hectorson), went to the aid of a floundering fourareen (four-oared boat) in 1858 at Burraness, Yell. She abseiled down the cliffs on the end of a rope, with two other women holding the line, to secure her rescue. For this, she was awarded the Humane Society medal and another from the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

May was no stranger to the dangers of the sea. As a child, her father was lost at sea, and in 1881, she lost her husband in the Gloup Disaster that saw the sea take the lives of 58 men from 10 boats, creating 34 widows and 85 orphans in one community on the island of Yell.

Labelled a witch

Barbara Tulloch and her daughter Ellen King were the last witches burned on Scalloway's Gallow Hill around 1700. I'm highlighting these women because many women (and men) were tried and executed for witchcraft for a large part of the 17th century.

These women were not sorcerers or ‘in bed with the devil’; they were more-often-than-not ordinary women who were perhaps wise or familiar with alternative medicines. Perhaps believed to have loose morals, therefore a witch, who should be punished for their crimes. The 17th and 18th centuries were a cruel time for women, fuelled by King James VI's obsession with morality and a fear of witches. More than 4,000 Scottish women (and a few men) were tried for witchcraft, with the overwhelming majority sentenced to death.

In Scalloway, Barbara and Ellen were burned on Gallow Hill after being strangled or drowned like many more before them. Their bodies were burnt because it was a widely held belief that the devil may inhabit their bodies after death and cause them to rise again.

Without graves, these women are mostly forgotten in history, and today, on International Women's Day, we should pause and remember them once more.

Exceptional service

Lerwick nurse Nellie Gilbertson was a sister in the Territorial Force Nursing Service during the First World War. Stationed at the 5th Northern General Hospital in Leicester, she cared for the sick and wounded throughout the war.

In 1917, King George awarded her the Royal Red Cross medal for her service to the nation and exceptional military nursing service.

Following the war, Nellie returned to Shetland, where she worked as a matron at the Gilbert Bain Hospital until 1926.

A successful writer

Another one of Shetland's remarkable women was Jessie Saxby (nee Edmonston) from Unst. Jessie became one of Shetland's most prolific female writers. Writing in the 19th century, Saxby was very much inhabiting a male-dominated profession where female writers were very often overlooked and ignored. First published at the age of 17, Jessie enjoyed a long and successful career, publishing over 40 books and hundreds of articles in newspapers, journals and magazines.

Jessie wrote a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. With many of her books aimed at young boys and inspired by Shetland's Viking heritage, she is arguably Shetland's first children's author. One of her most significant works is Shetland Traditional Lore which gives a fantastic insight into Shetland's folklore.