John Johnson, Chicago and Shetland, American Expeditionary Force, Siberia, 1918. Shetand Museum.
Shetlanders left home for the European settlements in the British Empire

Shetland’s population increased during much of the nineteenth century, peaking at just over 31,000 in 1861. It fell thereafter, down to just less than 18,000 in 1961, a precipitate drop over a century. Most of Scotland had been strongly affected by migration, but Shetland was an extreme case. The 1911 census showed 27,711 people in the isles, revealing a process under way.

The other statistical source is Thomas Manson’s painstaking work on the Shetland Roll of Honour and Roll of Service. It is statistically flawed since it depended heavily on reporting, but it does show much. Shetland’s war is overwhelmingly conducted by sailors. The Australian military has 35 entries, the Canadians 30, and New Zealand, which had become a favoured destination, 72. The UK army recruitment is heavily biased towards north of Scotland, then Edinburgh regiments. Other British regiments are not significant. How did this pattern evolve?

The latter part of the nineteenth century had seen rapid improvements in communications, the telegraph, efficient postal systems, and powered shipping running to a schedule. Shetland itself benefitted from these developments, and saw the instituting of two newspapers, the Shetland Times (1872) and the Shetland News (1885). During this time Shetlanders left home for the European settlements in the British Empire, and the USA. Within the British Isles they favoured areas with strong maritime economies, North-East England, Merseyside, and Leith. Edinburgh recruited Shetlanders to a variety of occupations. This is what the Roll of Honour reflects. And it seems that in England the potential Shetland servicemen were serving in the Merchant Navy.

Improving communications made it was easier to maintain contact with the unprecedented numbers of Shetlanders leaving, and to disseminate information about them. Many of these small clusters of islanders strove to maintain contact with home and its microculture. Orkney and Shetland societies sprang up. For a time (1887-1895) a group in Chicago ran a small newspaper, The Orkney and Shetland American. Local papers reported what happened to those islanders, deaths and marriages, accidents and achievements. People were proud of how those abroad contributed to their new communities.

The war seems to have brought a renewed focus to these links and feelings. Shared suffering may have caused people to enquire about relatives and share information. As the Empire gathered its forces people made renewed contact. Servicemen’s letters refer to chance encounters, familiar voices, accents and names heard.

Shetlanders were anxious to know of the fate of Shetlanders abroad and their families. It wasn’t possible to keep track of everyone, and a body of migrants certainly remained unconcerned with links to Shetland. They had left to join different societies after all. Even so,  the local newspapers and more informal communications did much to inform Shetland.