MINING HISTORY OF THE SHETLANDS ISLANDS
by Tim Senften
Fading newspaper pages of the 1790 Caledonian Mercury highlight the Shetland Island’s early commercial mining attempts. This typesetting reveals… “The value of the Shetland Islands is only beginning to be known. There is now a number of miners sent … to work a copper and iron mine lately discovered…in the estates of Sumburgh and the iron in the estates of Quendale, both the most productive of this kind of any discovered in Britain.”
Naturally, this single report can raise eyebrows and give questions about the extent of Shetland’s mining history. The likelihood of a small North Atlantic group of islands being given such recognition is surprising in itself, but the story behind this fact contains elements of rivalry, power, ignorance and years of blind investments leaving scars of disappointment in its wake.
With support from The Swedish Steel Producers Historical Subcommittee, Södertörns University and Laplandica Education, the historical background and fieldwork with cataloging Shetland’s mining remains have been carried out during 2008-2009.
Shetland’s mining heritage began thousands of years ago with a felsite quarry on the northwestern slope of Ronas Hill, where primitive people painstakingly formed and polished needed tools such as the famous Shetland knife. Later, steatite quarries allowed people to chisel-out bowls, flat baking plates, lamps or other useful tools and needed utensils from this soapstone. The shadows from these quarries can still be seen today.
In 1789, copper mines were started at Quendale and Sandlodge in Shetland’s southern mainland. Often involving Cornish miners, earlier entrepreneurs invested large amounts of money with unreliable information, little mining experience and rapidly dwindling funds. From several independent mining attempts for more than a century, these mines eventually proved disappointing and led to bankruptcies. Though attempts to profitably mine Sandlodge continued up into the 1920’s, all buildings and machines were dismantled and the many mineshafts were permanently capped in 1931.
Shetland’s northern most island, Unst, chromate was discovered and exploited profitably during the early 19th century. To organize and coordinate efforts, the northern property owners formed a unique mining consortium. Although early chromate mining could be considered Shetland’s most lucrative mining industry, it has been plagued with disharmony amongst the landowners, long and costly court injunctions and a series of bankruptcies with unsuccessful reorganization. Eventually, chromate production almost came to a halt after WWI. Later, the mineral was privately mined in small scale up to and including the 1940’s. Today, powdery talk made from soapstone is still commercially produced on Unst.
A Legacy -
As work progresses in compiling research and fieldwork material on Shetland’s mining history, the following older mines have been rediscovered and catalogued: The Quendale Mine (copper), The Sandlodge Mine (copper and iron), The Fladdabister Mine (iron), The Scousburgh Mine (iron), The Levenwick Mine (iron), The Cunningsburgh Mine (iron), The Setter Mine (copper), The Clothister Mine (iron) and Unst Mining (chromate). At this writing, research is temporarily detained concerning The Fair Isle Mine (copper) and The Wick of Shunni Mine (copper).
With this new knowledge, Shetland’s older mines have left a legacy for Shetlanders and visitors to learn from and be proud of. What was for some only “scars of disappointment”, are today an important inheritance and a part of Shetland’s identity.
Just a small part of the ancient Catpund Quarry, where steatite was mined by primitive people. Signs of useful utensils having been made from soapstone by primitive people can still be seen at the Catpund Quarry on Shetland.
Now quarried for road metal or gravel, the Clothister Iron Mine as it looks today. Remnants of the Cunningsburgh Mine from the end of the 19th century.
Webansvarig: vakant. Uppdaterad 2010 03 16