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Society Premises and Research Tips

Society Premises

The premises, situated within the Amenity Trust building at Garthspool, are presently closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. During normal circumstances opening hours will be published here, You can find us buy using the What3Words app  here.

What can we do to help you?

It is perhaps little known but the Shetland Family History Society offer a research service from its base at Garthspool, Lerwick.

Because we recognise that those Shetland descendants tracing their roots and living outwith the Isles can’t easily access many local resources, including our own extensive and growing archive, the Society has a small, dedicated group of volunteers who offer to undertake research. This work is done free as part of annual Society membership.

For queries from non-members, depending on the volume of information available, a small fee will be charged to cover research expenses.

Our contact details are here.

Research Tips

The following are some tips and hints for doing your research into Shetland ancestors.

Where Do I Start?

As with all research write down what you do know, show this to your oldest surviving relatives and see what gaps they can fill in. This will give you a head start.

What Next?

Decide which branch of the family you are going to trace first - trying to do them all at once leads to confusion especially when there is a common surname between different branches.

I Have Established A Shetland Connection

Do come and visit if you can and make sure you have plenty of time. In the meantime join the Society

Seriously, try to get hold of the birth, marriage and death certificates of the relative for whom you have the earliest information. This will give you the names of that person's parents and take you one generation further back.

Where Do I Find Records?

Statutory registration of births, marriages and deaths started in Scotland in 1855 and all records are held by the Registrar General in Edinburgh. Shetland records are also held by the local Registrars in Shetland. Note that Scottish Death Certificates usually give the names of both parents.

Prior to statutory registration, registers of births, marriages and deaths were kept by the Established Church of Scotland i.e. the Old Parish Registers (OPRs). These are far from complete but the originals are held in Edinburgh with micro-film copies held by the society here in Shetland.

Another source for pre-1855 records is the International Genealogical Index (IGI) compiled by the Mormons from various records. This is not complete but it is a good place to start.

Microfiches of the parts of the Index relating to Shetland and to some other parts of the United Kingdom are held by the Society.

What Other Records Are Of Use?

The National Census Record is an excellent source of information - as long as you know approximately where your family were living. The records for 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881 1891 and 1901 are open to the public and microfilm copies of the Shetland Censuses are held by the Society.

Anything Else?

Within Shetland there are other miscellaneous records surviving such as rentals, private census records, newspapers (see below) and Presbytery Minutes from which snippets of information might be gleaned. In addition to which the many of the collective gleanings of members have been collated by the Society into their own Shetland database. This can be very useful to members trying to fill in gaps in their information.

Caveats When Researching Shetland Ancestors

  • Until the 19th Century the use of patronyms was still widespread in Shetland. Be prepared for the family surname to change with each generation as you go back.  eg. "Laurence Garthson b. abt 1695 had a son Gairth Laurenson b. abt 1715, who had a son Theodore Garthson b. abt 1851 in Yell d. October 1821 in Norwick, Unst, who had a son William Magnus Theodoreson b. 29 April 1798 in Unst." - You can see how things soon become complicated!
  • The I.G.I does not take account of patronyms so Gairth Robertson the son on Robert Gairthson, baptised 19th August 1738 in Mid and South Yell, Shetland is shown on the I.G.I as Gairth Gairthson.
  • Until this century a woman rarely changed her surname on marriage. Her death may therefore have been recorded under her maiden name. i.e. Ursula Murray who died in Norwick, Unst on 18th December 1854 was the wife of Theodore Garthson (and, to continue the first point above, some of their children used the patronym Theodoreson and others the surname Garthson!). 
  • Parish groupings changed over time so your ancestors may not have moved even though records seem to indicate that they have. i.e. the island of Burra was at one time part of the United Parish of Bressay, Burra and Quarff. Some indexes such as the IGI may show a birth or baptism record for Bressay when the birth or baptism actually took place in Burra - see the Parish Map for the relative positions of these three places! i.e. John Inskster b. Houll, Burra on 27th October 1828 is shown on the I.G.I. as being born in Bressay, Shetland, Scotland.