Shetland’s Mining History

Skimming through pages of the Caledonian Mercury, Sept. 1790, the newspaper highlights Shetland’s early commercial mining attempts. “…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.”


    Photo: From 1790, the Quendale Copper Mine as it looks today

Naturally, this single report can raise eyebrows and give questions about Shetland’s mining history. The unlikelihood of a small North Atlantic group of islands being given such recognition is surprising, but the story behind this fact contains elements of rivalry, power, ignorance and years of blind investments leaving scars of disappointment in its wake.

It is difficult to point out exactly when Shetland’s mining history began. As early inhabitants crossed the hills and walked the shores of Shetland, they learned about rocks and stones, where these could be found and how these could be useful. One of Shetland’s earliest mining remain is a small quarry of fine-grained volcanic rock called felsite, at the Beorgs of Uyea on the northern end of Ronas Hill, and was used by early Shetlanders needing material for making the unique Shetland knife.

Found just south of Cunningsburgh, the Catpund Quarry is an ancient soapstone or steatite quarry. This area can be dated from Neolithic times (5000 B.C.) and irregularly quarried up into post-medieval times. Signs of people having chiseled-out bowls, flat baking plates, lamps or other useful tools and implements can still be found in this easily carved rock along the burn and hillsides.

The Sandlodge Mine
In the summer of 1789, Alexander Crighton apparently visited Shetland and searched for copper and iron deposits, being the first to commercially start exploiting these. Returning to London that coming winter, he entered into mining leases with Arthur Nicolsen Esq. of Cunningsburgh, Quendale owner Andrew Grieson and the first John Bruce Esq. of Sumburgh, laird of Dunrossness and owner of the Sandlodge mansion.

Having little experience in mining, Crighton contracted Welsh miners from the Anglesey Mining Co. sending them to Shetland. Between 1790 and 1799, they sporadically worked the copper/ iron mines at Fladdabister, Quendale and Sandlodge.

For Crighton, the Fladdabister workings proved disappointing. Apparently having lost financial backing and breaching his contract with John Bruce, Crighton was forced to relinquish his Sandlodge mining lease at the end of the 18th century. Thereafter, he stubbornly, but unprofitably, continued working the Quendale mine. Misfortune followed and he eventually disappeared from Shetland.

Passing by Crighton’s Quendale Mine in 1822, Samuel Hibbert wrote, “This mass was unsuccessfully wrought a few years ago by a mining company, for the purpose of finding copper ore, whilst many hundred tons of iron-pyrites were thrown into the sea.”

Also from London, Robert Redman, focused his mining interests to Sandlodge, in 1800. As owner of the Shetland Mining Company, Redman fought against rising water filling the shafts, unskilled labor, poor quality ore and financial difficulties. For operational purposes, the company leased the Grieves House, the East Wing and parts of the West Wing of Sandlodge manse. To better oversee the work, Redman temporarily lived there with his wife and daughters.


    Photo: Sandlodge Mansion as it looks today

But, the problems that arose and the intensity of the project drove Redman into a personal and financial crisis. In an undated letter to John Bruce, Redman wrote painfully, “Uncomfortable and useless as I now am…it will answer very little purpose…returning to the scene of my distress.”

March 8, 1804, with a revitalized effort, new shareholders and £3000 of fresh capital, The “New” Shetland Mining Co. was formed. With this reconstruction, additional investments in machinery were made, new shafts were sunk but previous problems prevailed. At or before 1808, liquidation was again paramount.

Interest in the Sandlodge mines was bleak thereafter. In 1828, Michael Linning of the Scottish National Mining Co. rekindled some interest in the mines, but nothing ever became of this. The abandoned mineshafts lay water filled until early 1870’s, when John Walker made his entry.

According to accounts with John Bruce Jr., John Walker started shipping Sandlodge ore in 1873. He had reopened the shafts making heavy investments in new machinery, buildings and employing men. Compared to earlier mining attempts, Walker drove a stubborn and determined mining operation, delivering some 10,000 tons of crushed and washed ore to the mainland. Many of these shipments were not of copper, but of iron, or hematite.

Walker’s Sumburgh Mining Company Ltd. was also plagued with problems. Poor quality ore, shipwrecks, unskilled local workers, accidents, labor protests and questionable accounting practices eventually drove the company into liquidation. Walker’s own personal bankruptcy came in 1882.
Perhaps hoping that the mine would someday continue with renewed interests, John Bruce Jr. purchased the remaining machinery left after Walker’s bankruptcy.

This machinery was obviously obsolete when The Shetland Exploration Syndicate negotiated with Bruce to re-open the mines in 1907, though this venture didn’t amount to any committed work until a subordinate company, called The Sand Lodge Mine Ltd., was formed approximately 1921.

Up and running again! Working the old shafts again commenced but, because of problems in raising adequate capital from shareholders and an unexpectedly negative and unbiased geological report, mining operations at Sandlodge ceased abruptly. At its closing in 1929, the East Mineshaft at Sandlodge was 275 ft. (84 mt.) deep and the mine itself was sealed with a thick cap of cement in 1931.

The Levenwick Mine
Found along the shores near Levenwick, much is still unknown about this iron mine. What is known is that, in 1803, Robert Bruce of Symbister was eager to get into the mining business and borrowed workers from the Sandlodge mine. Along the shores near Levenwick, the miners dug an adit, a horizontal mine shaft, that followed a vein of iron and used boats to bring supplies and take away any ore. But, with two hundred years of abandonment, the risk of cave-ins prevents any further studies at this time.


    Photo: Now water-filled, first mineshaft of Setter from 1890

The Setter Mine
Between 1890-1892, a group of Shetland men started to mine copper at Setter, about a mile north of Sandlodge. Having apparent experience from mining in America, these men first dug a shaft very close to the shoreline. As incoming water became a constant problem, a new shaft was driven some 50 yards away on higher ground. A winching tower and a small building was constructed. The men dug an 80 ft. shaft, planning to connect an adit with the first shaft, but for some reason the work stopped and the mine was abandoned.

As a note, these men were possibly responsible for the iron/copper trial works that can be found in the vicinity of the ancient Catpund quarry in Cunningsburgh and which was worked near the end of the 19th century.

The Fair Isle Copper Mine
Interest for a copper vein on Fair Isle came as early as 1806, when a John Goldsworthy wrote, “It is a copper load…one of the most flattering that ever I heard of.” After his report, the extent of working this copper vein is uncertain, but renewed interest in Fair Isle copper came much later.

On June 8, 1912, The Shetland Times reports that Dr. Guy O. Conning, The Royal School of Mines in London, had “…14 experienced miners at work…15 tons in 3 days,” but three weeks later writes, ”Reports exaggerated…(the supervisor) nearer the Klondike of America…far away from the Klondike of the Shetlands.” However, copper was mined at North Naaversgill at the end of WW I. As time passed, the works became too dangerous to continue and the Fair Isle copper mine was abandoned.


    Photo: Remains of chromate crusher at Hagdale Horse Mill, Baltasound

The Chromate Quarries
To be sure, Unst and Fetlar’s mineral deposits are not to be forgotten. Already with George Low’s travels in 1772, these island’s soapstone, known as “claber” or “klebber” in the Shetland dialect, and iron deposits were first mentioned, although no commercial mining of these developed until the first half of the 19th century.

“Hiterto, I have only diverted myself sawing and polishing some letter presses..,” as George Leask described his very small business adventure using the soapstone found on Unst, July 1861. Since then, Leask’s timid enterprise eventually developed into considerable quarrying of chromate, first used to set dyes in fabrics and, later during WWI, a vital component in the production of a new product called…stainless steel.

A Legacy
As work progresses in rediscovering Shetland’s mining history, other mining areas that are of historical interest are at Scousburgh (iron), Hoswick (iron), Hillswick (ancient steatite), Clothister (iron), Wick of Shunni (copper) and perhaps others that have been forgotten.

Today, 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.

Note: This article was first published in The New Shetlander/ Summer 09. Tim Senften ©
Work continues! All references from the Shetland Archives. Pay them a rewarding visit. Thanks archive people!

2 thoughts on “Shetland’s Mining History

  1. Have you ever come across mentions of horses being used in mines in Shetland?

  2. Hello Albina-
    Good question! If you’re thinking of the traditional use of horses in mine adits, pulling ore wagons etc. there is no solid evidence with this. The Sandlodge Mine was a shaft system and ore was winched upwards. However, they did have a small railway system with caverns and adits. I should think workers were used. At Sandlodge in 1790’s, they used horses to run the pumps which emptied the water in the mine. In Unst at the Chromate quarries, they used horses to power an ore crusher. In general, horses probably have been used even for transportation reasons, but there is no documentation on this. By horses, we can assume the Shetland pony. Thanks for the question! TIM

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