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
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?

How can I help?

One of my aims with my work to create a complete Unst Family Tree is to be able to help out anyone stuck with their own Unst related ancestry. By being visible online (through this blog among other things) I have already had contact from, and helped out, a number of people who have traced their relations back to Unst folk.

I can’t claim to be being completely self-less in these endeavours because in each case both parties learn something. I can provide details about their Unst relations, and they can provide me details of where an Unst born person who moved away from the island ended up. I’d love to learn where all the Unst people ended up in the world. I know many went to Canada, U.S.A., Australia and New Zealand, but also in the U.K. many moved to Edinburgh, Leith, and Toxteth Park (undoubtedly related to the sea going industries from those places which would attract men with previous sea-going experience as Fisherman).

Here is a newspaper report published in the Zetland Times on 14th September 1874 about emigrating Unst people.

EMIGRATION.—Emigration from the islands to New Zealand is still being carried on, and almost every month a good many people leave to try their fortunes in this new field of industry. In the present state of matters in Shetland it is best that the labouring classes should leave the islands altogether than that being turned out of their crofts to make room for sheep farms, they should settle on wild moorland waster or on projecting points, and lead a life of—at the very best—semi-starvation, for the benefit of a few selfish lairds, whose short sighted policy will ultimately ruin themselves and the islands. On Thursday last about 100 emigrants left here for New Zealand by the “St Clair,” eighty of whom were from Unst. We understand that more are to follow shortly.

I’ve written a few blog posts as a result of these contacts:-

So if you’ve found a relation in your family tree from Unst, Shetland and would like some help, please get in touch. Eventually I will have all my research on a webpage but in the mean time I’m happy to help out in an ad hoc manner.

A Gray day in Bristol

Captain John Gray

Captain John Gray of the S.S. Great Britain

Today I finally made it to Bristol to see the S.S. Great Britain, Brunel’s revolutionary passenger ship which made many trips from the U.K. to Australia in the mid 1800s. The longest serving captain of the S.S. Great Britain was John Gray, an Unst man, and a relative of mine.

The museum takes you back through the ships history from when she was salvaged from the Falklands where she was scuttled after becoming damaged beyond repair after a fire on board; through her life as a passenger ship for emigrants to Australia; back to being built in the same dock where she now rests. The ship is also part of the museum, and you can roam around her freely, over all three decks. Much of the ship is presented to show how it would have been as a passenger on the ship, either in Steerage or First Class, and it is very well laid out.

Gray family tree

A portion of the Gray family tree showing my linkage to Captain John Gray

Part of my interest of course, was due to Captain John Gray. Having been born in Unst, he is part of my Complete Unst Family Tree, but there is more to it than that, because he is also a relation of mine. I’m a direct descendant of his grandfather, my 5th Great Grandfather, making the Captain my 1st cousin 5 x removed.

When we were buying our tickets to the museum I jokingly asked whether you got a discount for being related to the Captain. You didn’t (of course) but they did phone the curator of the archives to come through to say hello to me and we got to go in the archives and see the portrait of him which is in there.

Morag with a portrait of Captain John Gray

Morag meets Captain John Gray

The story of Captain John Gray is more than just a Shetland man becoming the most well liked Captain; being the most well travelled on the best and fastest passenger ship of that time; it also has a tragic and somewhat mysterious ending. On the way back to the U.K. from Australia in 1872, on a journey he had by now, made many times, Captain John Gray went missing from the ship and a storm port was found open that had previously been closed by a steward making his rounds. No one who knew the Captain would ever have believed he could have taken his life, and yet he did prepare his affairs before going missing, so it seems he knew he was going to leave the ship. There are some stories that suggest that he had a mistress in Australia and that he left the ship to return to her. It’s a mystery that will likely never be solved.

Brunel's S.S. Great Britain

Brunel’s S.S. Great Britain in Bristol

Lots of research has already been done by many others on Captain John Gray, so I’m not going to specifically focus on him, rather I’ll be concentrating on the ordinary folk of Unst. However, it was wonderful to see the ship and the museum and read about him.

You can read more about the S.S. Great Britain at the museum website, and on Wikipedia.

You can also read more about Captain John Gray at the museum website.