Unst Population Changes

Unst Population Changes

I was recently asked how the population of the island of Unst has changed over time, and since I couldn’t find a place online which pulled together all the numbers, I thought I would write it myself.

Unst Population Graph

These numbers come from a variety of sources. Open the twisty below to see the data and the sources.

Unst Population numbers and Sources
Year Population
Total
Source
1755 1368 Webster’s Census (see page 113 of the PDF)
1780 1853 Statistical Accounts of Scotland, OSA, Vol V, 1793
1790 or 91 1988 Statistical Accounts of Scotland, OSA, Vol V, 1793 and NSA, Vol XV, 1845
1801 2259 1884-1885 – Ordnance gazetteer of Scotland > Volume 6
1831 2909 Statistical Accounts of Scotland, NSA, Vol XV, 1845, and 1884-1885 – Ordnance gazetteer of Scotland > Volume 6
1841 2828 Totals from 9 x Census Enumeration booklet summary pages
1851 2976 Totals from 9 x Census Enumeration booklet summary pages
1861 3060 Totals from individual census pages, as no summary pages, and 1884-1885 – Ordnance gazetteer of Scotland > Volume 6
1871 2780 Totals from individual census pages, as no summary pages, and 1884-1885 – Ordnance gazetteer of Scotland > Volume 6
1881 2181 Totals from 5 x Census Enumeration booklet summary pages, and 1884-1885 – Ordnance gazetteer of Scotland > Volume 6
1891 2014 (+ 225 people in Herring Fishing Stations) Totals from 5 x Census Enumeration booklet summary pages
1901 1867 Totals from 5 x Census Enumeration booklet summary pages
1911 1828 Totals from 5 x Census Enumeration booklet summary pages
1921 1568 Reduction from 1911 detailed in Preliminary Report of the thirteenth Census of Scotland 1921 [*]
1931 1341 A Vision of Britain through time [*]
1951 1112 A Vision of Britain through time [*]
1961 1148 or 1151 Gazetteer for Scotland and A Vision of Britain through time [*]
1971 1124 Gazetteer for Scotland
1981 1140 Gazetteer for Scotland
1991 1055 Scotland’s Census 1991 – National Records of Scotland via Scotland’s Census website
2001 720 Statistical Bulletin on 2011 Census
2011 632 Statistical Bulletin on 2011 Census


[*] This work is based on data provided through www.VisionofBritain.org.uk and uses historical material which is copyright of the Great Britain Historical GIS Project and the University of Portsmouth


The lower numbers in the early years in the graph are attributed, in the Statistical Accounts of 1845, to two bouts of small pox.

In 1729, and again in 1740, the small-pox appears in Zetland in such a virulent form, and made such havock, almost depopulating some districts, that they are yet spoken of under the name of the mortal pox. Accordingly, we find, that, subsequent to that time, the population was very low; for, in the year 1755, it consisted only of 1368 souls. From that period, the increase has been steady and rapid.

Vaccination, which has been resorted to ever since the year 1800, may be assigned as one cause of this great increase. Another cause may be found in the very favourable seasons this country has enjoyed during the last thirty years. There has been no failure of crops; the fishing has been successful; and trade has greatly improved.

and in the earlier Statistical Accounts of 1793, a similar comment is made against the population numbers.

If the numbers have increased, however, within these last 30 or 40 years, it is owing chiefly to the introduction of inoculation for the small pox. For more than 100 years past, this epidemical distemper used to visit the island nearly every 20 years, and to carry off, with the rage of a pestilence, great numbers of all ages. In 1770, inoculation became general here among all ranks. In 1783, a general inoculation was repeated through the parish with the most flattering success.

In the years 1740, 1766, and 1783, excessive scarcity was felt here. But even in those periods of famine, none are known to have absolutely died for want.

The steep decline seen after the 1861 census peak is as a result of large numbers leaving. This was due to a number of factors, but evictions of tenants from crofts to create larger sheep farms was one factor; also the pull of the new world, such as New Zealand, (a very large Shetland population went to New Zealand), Australia, Canada and the United States. This article, “Finding a place”, will be of interest to anyone curious about emigration patterns. My own great-great-grandmother was evicted from their croft at Clugan as I wrote about before.

The population of Unst received a boost from 1957 through to 2006 when the RAF Saxa Ford radar station was installed and manned. At the height of the Cold War, more than 300 personnel were based at Saxa Vord, with hundreds of knock-on jobs for islanders.

The next census will be taken in 2022. I wonder what the population count will be then. Will the Unst Space Station make a similar change to the population that the RAF base did in earlier decades?

Where’s the Genealogical History of the Non-Gentry?

I came across a resource on Ancestry today – “A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Colonial Gentry” which was a couple of volumes published in 1891-5 by Sir Bernard Burke, C.B., LL.D. [1] which detailed the lineage, marriage details, issue and a paragraph or two of their achievements and occupations, for each of the people considered to be gentry in the colonies. The search hit that took me there was a governor of Tasmania whose lineage went back to Shetland, and whose Uncle (by marriage) lived in Unst.

Polish Gentry

The gentry have plenty written about them
Photo Source: Jan Matejko [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This is a similar sort of document to “The County Families Of The Shetland Islands” published in 1893 by Francis J Grant. Mr Grant’s book majors more on the lineage with some facts about the people included in a more ad hoc manner.

Both books have one thing in common though. They only feature the well-to-do people, the landed gentry and the like. Ordinary people are not covered in these books at all.

It occurred to me that part of what I’m doing with my research is to produce, not a book, but an online equivalent, detailing the lineage of the ordinary people of Unst. Plenty has been written over the centuries about the gentry, but not so for the ordinary folk, so I am focusing on them.


[1] Sir Bernard Burke was also the author of “The Dictionary of the Peerage and Baronetage”, “The Landed Gentry”, “The History of the Extinct and Dormant Peerages”, “The General Armory”, “Vicissitudes of Families”, and “Reminiscences Ancestral and Anecdotal”.