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Surname of the Month - Arcus

Published: 10th August 2015

Society member Jasmine Moncrieff, member no. Member 2229, reports on the recent event to celebrate Surname of the Month.

A new venue and a new story.  The Arcus Story.  Our ‘Surname of the Month’ continued with Arcus as our July project. We booked the Sumburgh Lighthouse Visitor Centre with its panoramic view ‘o da Ness.’ This was appropriate because the Arcus families’, probably four to five separate ones, originated from the South Mainland.

The forty folk who came to the Arcus Launch browsed amongst all the information we had researched, collated and displayed for them. Folders filled with links to generations past. The following is some of the information held in individual files at the society premises at Hillhead, Lerwick.

Born Died Origins Historical information
Andrew Arcus about 1620 Garth, Dunrossness Possible Royalist Officer with Montrose Factor for Sinclair of Quendale.
Alexander Arcus 1768 1862 Charlotte Lane, Lerwick Married Christine Coutts b. 1780 Edinburgh Shawls dresser, ships carpenter and shipwrigh.
Laurence Arcus 1802 1889     Dunrossness Methodist Preacher for over fifty years and crofter/fisherman in Rerwick.
James Arcus 1820 Exnaboe Convict Australia Bound by Rob Arcus, Coontin Kin No. 73
Janet Arcus 1820 1917 Fair Isle Four generations of Arcus Family.
Captain Sinclair Arcus 1829

1875 Liverpool

Noss, Dunrossness Descendants in Australia  - Andrew Roo Arcus - Country Singer and Liz Arcus Photographer.
Descendants of Andrew Arcus 1833 1916 Hillwell, Dunrossness Ancestors of Jackie Clark including five family trees/photos
Sinclair Arcus 1847 1921 Semblister, Dunrossness Married to Jane Williamson,  emigrated to Chicago where he had a building contractor business.
Alexander Arcus 1867 1933 Orkney and Lerwick Family home at Rockvilla Albany Street Lerwick. Shipwrights, journalist, musicians and carpenters.
Alexander 'Sandy' Arcus 1867 1933 Freefield, Lerwick Copy of Contract for an apprentice carpenter with Hay & Co.

Over light lunch there was time to catch up and gain information about each other’s families and exchange their memories.

Joyce Henderson welcomed everybody, and particularly Rob Arcus. The family hails from Dunbar in Berwickshire. His PowerPoint presentation was delivered with an ‘in aboot da eftirnoon’ ease - which everyone appreciated and enjoyed. This name has evolved from Harecars to Arcus from the twelfth century to the present time.

The Arcus’ like many other Shetlanders sailed away. In particular they went to Chicago Canada, Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, Peru and Glasgow.  They learned their trades, which ranged from Ship’s Captain, journalist musician. shipwright, carpenter, auditor, boat builder preacher, shop owners and gold diggers   We have been fortunate to obtain  a copy of the work contract in which Alexander ‘Sandy’ James Arcus entered into with Hay & Co., 3rd April 1882 from Arnie Arcus  (great grandson)

I Alexander Arcus with advice and consent of my Mother Annie Arcus, residing at Freefield, Lerwick have agreed and hereby agree with Hay & Co., Merchant there to enter into their service as an Apprentice Carpenter for a period of five years, commencing as at 3rd April 1882 notwithstanding the date hereof, during which time I promise to serve them faithfully, honestly and assiduously, and not to absent myself without special leave asked and obtained, and on the contrary for each day’s wilful absence. I shall serve two days at the termination of this agreement, and pay two pennies for each penny’s loss they may sustain through my carelessness or neglect.   On their part they undertake to teach me or cause me to be taught by the Foreman in charge of the Work, so far as I may be capable of understanding the whole parts and branches of the said trade as carried on by them at Freefield and they bind and oblige themselves to pay me wages at the rate of four shillings per week the first year.  Five shillings per week the second year.  Six shillings per week the third year, Seven shillings per week the fourth year and Eight shillings the fifth and last year of this agreement.        

Subscribed by me at Lerwick this seventeenth day of April, 1883 and confirmed by the signatures of my mother and of Hay & Co., at the same time in presence of Robert Goudie and Arthur Anderson both Clerks to the said Hay & Co residing at Lerwick

A Thomas Laurence Arcus had a very successful joinery business across from Browns Road (the Viking Cafe) and this business was known as TL Arcus long after he had emigrated to Australia in 1926.

Laurence Arcus b’.1802 d.1889 he ‘pioneered Methodism’ (Sons and Daughters of Shetland by Margaret Stuart Robertson) He was a preacher in Dunrossness and Sandwick.  In 1830 he built the Dunrossness Methodist Church at Durigarth helping to dig out the stones for the church.

In the mid nineteenth century Laurence Arcus b 1822 owned a very successful boat building business north of the Malakoff. He employed many men and built ‘sixerns, small boats, and sloops, among the latter of which I may mention the Vigilant, built for the late Dr Robertson’s father, Bailie Robertson, and the Maria, built as a packet boat for the Lerwick and Dunrossness trade’    (Lerwick During the Last Half Century) (1867-1917) Thomas Manson

Furthermore in A Kist of Immigrants written by J. Laughton Johnston, the author refers to ‘Laurence Arcus, his Grandson and the Hamefarin’.  His Grandson John Laurence better known as ‘JL’ wanted to see Shetland for himself.  He visited the ‘Old Rock’ in 1958 and showed so much enthusiasm for his heritage that he wrote to the then Zetland County Council on his return to New Zealand  suggesting a reunion of Shetlanders back ‘home’. He did not have to wait too long as the first Hamefarin was held two years later in 1960.  Mr Arcus returned to Shetland for the first Hamefarin with exiles from around the world but mainly from New Zealand to meet their Shetland cousins and to be entertained Shetland style.

It always gives us a sense of achievement when we bring families together in Shetland, with the Shetland Surname Project. It helps folk to enjoy the family connection - and that is a good thing.  Joan Robertson, Jean Gifford, Ruth Tulloch and I hope we bring Shetland family history meaning.  Thanks go to Joyce Henderson and Edith Williamson for their research, as well as to Elizabeth Angus and her granddaughter Cara for all the catering done at the Lighthouse and to the Staff at Sumburgh Lighthouse Visitor Centre - we couldn’t have done it without you.

Jasmine Moncrieff, Member 2229

Origin of Arcus

From the lands of Harcarse in Berwickshire, via Hercus then Arcus. The surname is found in Orkney from 1449 and Shetland from 1525.

Arcus in Shetland

The surname is associated with the parish of Dunrossness in the south of the Shetland Mainland.


In 1881 there were 71 people recorded in Shetland with the surname Arcus being 0.2% of the population.

Notable people with the surname Arcus

Laurence Arcus (1802-1889) A Methodist preacher in Dunrossness and Sandwick for over 50 years.

Laurence Arcus (1822-1905) A carpenter and boat builder in Lerwick. He emigrated to New Zealand where he celebrated his golden wedding.

Publications Available

Arcus Families of the World by Robert G. Arcus

A Kist of Emigrants by J. Laughton Johnson

Chips off the Auld Rock by Susan Butterworth

Sons and Daughters of Shetland by Margaret S. Robertson