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Surname of the Month - Abernethy

Published: 29th November 2015


Staatsarchiv Bremen.  At the Kirk of Weik in Unst Kirk 31st August 1661 John Abernethie Clerk to the Kirk Session writes a testimonial for Harman Dethine and Gert Dethine, his brother.   Merchants of Breman, Burgesses of Bremen -the first known Archives record of an Abernethy in Shetland.   Abernethys’ stayed in Cliff, North Dale, Pettister Balliasta and Burrafirth in Unst.

The second recording was of a letter written 15th October 1765 by Sir John Mitchell of West shore to Arthur Nicolson agent for Thomas Abernethy.   Thomas had been fishing but instead of selling his catch to Me Henry in Papa, he disobeyed by trading with William Hay instead.   The outcome of this defiance was that Thomas’ father and the family were told to leave their home and croft at Clusta.

A ship called ‘The Bachelor’ was sailing to America from Thurso with several hundred emigrants including children.   Unfortunately, it was damaged in bad weather and had to shelter in Vaila Sound in October 1773.   The ship was repaired but bad weather kept her in Vaila all winter.   The passengers were destitute and the local people gave what they could.   E.S. Reid Tait states that there was a ‘definite connection’ with the original Abernethy's as this family was in Shetland in the 1600s.

Women in Shetland not only had their domestic roles but they had agricultural work to do as well. The Kirk Session was the ruling body who controlled the people who overstepped the mark. Mary Abernethy was fined for flitting a cow on a Sunday as Lynn Abrams suggests how the Kirk’s authority was in place to  ‘impose discipline’  to manage all situations.

Shetland families sailed away to experience life’ challenges.   Longing for home but ‘moving on,’ feeling dislocated from their loved ones.   Life could not have been easy one hundred and seventy five years ago, either for those who were sixty degrees north, or away in the Antipodes.   Yet Shetlanders showed time and time how resourceful they were home and abroad.

Mitchell Abernethy b. 1752 d. Unknown. Married Jàne Robertson.  They had three children.   They were: Mitchell b 1802 d. 1886. Breiwick Aith. Then Barbara b. 1803 d. 1867 (NSW) and the youngest was James b.1808 d. 1897 (NSW) - one of Shetland’s first emigrants

Mitchell m. Elizabeth Dalziel they initially lived at Clousta.   Their eight children were born at Clousta, Breiwick and Stiva.He was a farmer, merchant and a sheriff officer. (Zetland Directory 1861). He was a grandfather to Suffragette Mary Jessie Abernethy. ‘Lang Jessie’ who became the School Attendance Officer for the westside of Shetland.   Thomas too was a grandchild of Mitchell and Elizabeth.  Thomas became a tea dealer in Tresta (Zetland Directory, 1861).  Mitchell’s son James was lost from an open boat off Linga.

Mitchell and Jane’s daughter Barbara m. Thomas Brown.   They emigrated to Sydney Australia fifteen years after bringing up a family of eight children in Shetland.   Most of their children followed them to aus/nz.   They acquired land and this remains in the family.

James b. 1808. The youngest family member Barbara Nicolson of Noonsbrough. They were one of the first ever emigrants from Shetland to Australia arriving on the ‘Jessie’ on 19th February 1839.  This was twenty years previous to J. Laughton Johnston’s estimation of ‘ 3,557 are said to have emigrated between 1861 and 1871 and perhaps a further 4,567 between 1871 and 1881.  So in two decades 1861-1881 one in four Shetlanders departed home!’ A Kist of Emigrants.

Shetland Family History Society was shown a letter, written on 10th April 1894 in Australia by forty five year old William Abernethy (son of James b. 1808 and Barbara )  William writes that he has received a ‘wilcom letter’. However, he goes on to say about the ‘lack of news from the old country’. He is asking if anyone of the family knows how old his parents are and also querying about his own birth month as ‘perhaps you will know better than I do’. William died ten years later in 1904.

Christopher Abernethy is one of the eight children of Mitchell and Elizabeth Abernethy nee Dalziel. He was born at Stiva - he too emigrated.   Christopher was a minister of the Methodist Church. He married a New Zealand lady and they had four children.   Sadly, they lost two sons in France in WW1 which must have been hard to come to terms with.  Christopher’s family were: Jessie Olive Abernethy b. 1885 d unknown. Married Thomas Mitchell Aubrey Haslett in New Zealand Thomas Mitchell Abernethy b. 1890 killed in action 1918 at Pas de Calais France.   He was a cycle agent

Rex Clifford Abernethy b. 1891 d. 1965 m Kathleen Agnes Axcourt in 1928.  Rex served in NZ rifle brigade for 1st Battalion and was awarded Military Cross.

Kenneth Shoreland Abernethy b. 1895 d.1917.   He became a journalist and was second lieutenant in the NZ Rifle Brigade.  He was wounded and died in France/Belgium.

The family name of Abernethy is another surname to add to our project list of good hard working folk. There were some who had become merchants in Culswick and Clousta.  In particular, the first Post Office and Telegraphic Office was at the Whiteness shop. This was opened by Archibald who hailed from Reawick. He was a keen fisherman and gave evidence to the Truck Commission.

James Abernethy from Lerwick b. 1837 d. 1919 (father born in Weisdale) became a joiner/contractor.  His workshop was at Carlton Place then moving to Tait’s Close.   He carried out the joinery work for Johnson and Dalziel Cottages - also for Montfield House. ‘Lerwick during the Last Half Century’ p310

Shetland News. 23rd January 1919.

The ‘Abernethys of Brouster’ were a well-known family for ‘the overwhelming interest that the scale of the contents of the house at Brouster’ attracted when the last Abernethy, James a ‘Brouster', a well-known motor cycle enthusiast died at Brouster’ in 1998.’  Gwen Williamson New Shetlander.

James’ uncles had the photography business in Lerwick. Arthur was the photographer at their shop in Harbour Street whilst Andrew developed the negatives.   The Up-Helly-Aa Committee benefited from his talent as he painted Collecting Sheets and the Up-Helly-Aa Bill heads.  He was also a portrait painter and sketched the drawings for ‘'Humours of a Peat Commission’

You cannot forget the good times!  Thomas Charles Abernethy. b. 1893 late of Flitts Tresta was always in demand. ‘Tammie’ played the fiddle at weddings and at ‘box socials’.  Sandison C ‘Slyde in the Right Direction p 217 - a much needed skill to lift the soul!

Thank you to the Shetland Archives and the Museum Staff for all the support for the  ‘Sharing Shetland Surnames’ Project.

Compiled by Jasmine Moncrieff. SFHS. Member 2229.   Email:  jasminemoncrieff@gmail.com

Project team: Jean Gifford, Florence Grains nee Abernethy,  Jasmine Moncrieff, Joan Robertson and Ruth Tulloch


Abrams Lynn. ‘Myth and Materiality in a women’s world’. Shetland 1800-2000. SFHS. 820 307

Archives. Shetland Museum. Brian Smith

Archives Shetland Museum D/24/45/8 Allan Beattie

E.S. Reid Tait Papers. Archives Shetland

Gwen Williamson. Ertie Abernethy New Shetlander

Johnston J. Laughton. A Kist of Emigrants  830 391

Manson T. Lerwick during the last Half Century p 310

Sandison C  Slyde in the Right Direction p217

The Shetland News, 23rd January 1919

Zetland Directory. 1861.  Archives Shetland