The origins of crofting - small scale farming, in Shetland are largely unknown, but available evidence would suggest that some form of agriculture, namely the production of a grain crop, has existed in the islands for as long as they have been inhabited by humans.
During the period up to 1468 while the islands were under rule from Norway, it would appear small groups of houses were established adjacent to a plot of arable land, which the inhabitants cultivated to provide food for themselves and their livestock. These, it could be said were the forerunners from which the later crofting townships evolved.
A period of change occurred with the arrival of the Scots, starting during the 16th Century a number of these individuals started to acquire the ownership of significant areas of land, often with pre-existing buildings and residents on them who became their tenants, this was the start of the Landlord - Crofting Tenant system, the remnants of which still exists today.
Initially most tenants possessed the right to an area of land which it is reasonable to suppose was of a relatively adequate amount and of a reasonable quality to provide for his needs. Cultivation at this stage, although probably mostly done by human effort, would most likely have been for grain crops only, as crops such as potatoes and turnips were only introduced in later centuries.
Output value from such units were low, and consequently the rental payable by crofter to landlord had to be set likewise. In an effort to increase their income, landlords began to concentrate on the fish that could be caught in the seas surrounding Shetland, and quickly realised that the profits achievable in this area far exceeded those from land renting.
Land renting now became a secondary consideration of the landlord, his first priority was to have as many able bodied men residing on his property as possible, and to tie these men to catch fish for only him, this was achieved by making fishing for only the landlord effectively a condition of most crofting tenancies.
In an effort to maximise the manpower, and thus the earning power available to him, landlords began to reduce the amount of land rented to each crofter, in some cases the allocation was halved, outsets - new crofts created on an area of previously communal grazing land, were established. Some of these crofts extended to no more than 4 or 5 acres, and some landlords were of the opinion at that time that there was no justification for a croft to be larger than could be manageable to cultivate by hand by the residents.
It would be fair to say that during the 19th Century population density was at saturation point, and arguably exceeded it much of the time in many areas of Shetland. Croft sizes had been reduced to a bare minimum in many cases, and the ground available for fresh outsets was of steadily poorer quality and of borderline viability. Few households of the day were able to survive on what their allocation of land could yield, and relied on the fish they could catch outwith their obligations to the landlord for survival. In such circumstances crofters had no choice but utilise every scrap of land they had to the maximum, every blade of grass was either mown for hay, or grazed by livestock, and even the smallest scrap of land capable of cultivation was used to produce a crop, albeit often of low yield and quality.
Yet despite all their hard work, the fate of a crofter and his family was, as it always had been, entirely at the whim of his landlord, who could, and often did, upon one whim or another evict a crofter whenever he liked. Mass evictions, known as clearances, where one or more entire townships were emptied and the area taken over for sheep farming by the landlord, also occurred at a few locations in Shetland, but they never achieved the popularity or scale of those in the Scottish Highlands.
The last two decades of the 19th Century brought a wind of change to crofting in Shetland which revolutionised the crofters' lot, and entirely rearranged the centuries old landlord - tenant relationship permanently. Firstly the U.K. national government began to take a closer interest in the affairs of this, the farthest flung point of it's domain, and set up Commissions of Enquiry in to Truck, the name by which the barter system used for trade between landlord and tenant was known, and in to the conditions of Crofters. Out of this came the Crofting Acts, which gave crofters security of tenancy of their holding, and regulated rents. Secondly, the Haaf Fishing for white fish from open boats, which the landlord had for so long controlled and profited from, was in steady decline. Larger decked sail, and later steam vessels, fishing for herring was the new boom industry, one the old guard of landlords had much less control over, and from which crofters could gain seasonal employment and be paid in cash.
The latter years of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century are probably the period when what is perceived as a stereotypical Shetland croft existed. The livestock kept was almost exclusively of the native 'Shetland' breeds which had existed in the islands for centuries and evolved to cope with the conditions, and which for the most part were descendants of old Scandinavian breeds. Only working horses were the main exception to this, slightly larger breeds, such as the Icelandic being favoured for most work. An average croft, depending on location, would have had perhaps one or two cows, one, perhaps two horses, a dozen or so sheep, a pig or two, and a few hens, geese and possibly ducks. Crops grown for the main part were of 'Shetland' varieties of oats, potatoes, cabbage etc, which like their livestock counterparts were centuries old, with seed saved from one year's crop to sow the next with. The unit was more or less self sufficient, little of what it produced was sold, perhaps a cow and knitted woolen goods, but very little required to be bought in. Usually what was sold was adequate to cover the rent, and a few "luxury" items the croft was unable to produce, such a tea, sugar etc. A certain amount of additional income came from the earnings of the menfolk, most of whom spent the summer season at the herring fishing, or signed on for trips in the merchant navy.
Although horses or oxen were used for work such as ploughing and carting as they had been for some time, much of the agricultural activity was still undertaken by humans with hand tools and extremely labour intensive. Change was slow in arriving in crofting, to begin with the only noticeable difference as the 19th Century closed and the 20th opened was a slow drift of people from the most marginal and least productive crofts, and without the landlord's drive to push new people in to them the trend of a neighbour or relative merging the vacated croft with their own to make more viable units came in to being. A trend also started to become established of growing somewhat more productive crops and rearing more productive livestock with the import of crop seeds or of a male animal of a larger breed from the UK Mainland to cross-breed with the local breed. Mechanisation was equally slow in arriving, a few horse-drawn reapers and binders along with basic sowing machines and weeders etc appeared between World War I and II but for the greater part the older methods remained in use.
It was only in the late 1940s with the coming of tractors such as the Ferguson and it's smaller two and three wheeled relatives such as the Iron Horse, Gunsmith and BMB that practical mechanisation finally became available. Such were their success that the era of working horses was effectively over well before the end of the 1950s. WWII had seen a nationwide drive to encourage land owners to produce as much food as possible from their land, and Shetland was encouraged as much as anywhere else. Post war this trend continued, and it was recognised that due to the geographical location, prevailing weather and soil types, that Shetland, along with much of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland were competing in the national market for their produce at a huge disadvantage. To redress this balance Government production based subsidies were paid to crofters to make good this shortfall, and a system of crofters grants and loans was established to assist with and encourage the improvement of croft land and the provision of fixtures and fittings which would make crofts more productive and viable.
With the injection of cash to assist with funding improvements to both land and facilities, coupled with the continuing amalgamation of crofts in to larger units, and the continuing importing of improved stock breeds and crop varieties, the 50s, 60s and in to the early 70s was the period when many crofters became farmers in the full sense of the word, competing successfully in the national marketplace, and could and did make successful livings from agriculture. Most units still carried on with the traditional cropping system of making hay, growing oats and turnips for stockfeed, and potatoes for human consumption, but there was a start, particularly among the larger enterprises towards building silos and making silage for stockfeed as an alternative. Stock held by the 60s and 70s was for the vast majority, cattle and sheep, the cattle almost exclusively of non-native breeds and sheep unless on the open hills, of at least a cross of the native breed with a much larger Mainland breed, usually a Cheviot. Some single crofts still remained, but few carried cattle any longer, only sheep, and perhaps a few small plots of crops, the crofter generally being part-time with a job elsewhere.
The 70s and the coming of the oil industry saw many crofters abandoning the land and taking jobs that became available, almost always it was much better paid for far fewer hours and much easier work. Some disposed of their land altogether, but most simply put their land entirely to grass and kept sheep to graze it, which could be easily operated on a part-time basis.
A number stayed with crofting, and were in many cases able to obtain additional land from those who had taken employment, thus making their own business more profitable. The trend of amalgamating crofts as they became available also continued, and the two combined gives many individuals today a single holding which barely a century ago was ten, twelve or more crofts. Mechanisation also continued apace, the 17hp petrol/paraffin Ferguson of the 1940's quickly became the 20+hp diesel of the 1950s and 60s. By 1970 30+hp - 50+hp tractors were commonplace, by the early 1980's the 30+hp was becoming obsolete and 60+hp - 80+hp was taking over, by the century's end 80+hp - 100+hp had become the main workhorses, and all accompanied by a range of machinery and implements equal to any farm anywhere.
The 80s, as they had exactly one century previously, brought a fresh wind of change to crofting, although much had been achieved to keep crofting agriculture in Shetland up to date and competitive with the rest of the UK through the crofting improvement grants, a few gaps in provision had become apparent over the years. To address this, and to develop Shetland agriculture further across the board, the SIC launched the 'Ten Year Plan for Agriculture' in the early 80s, it's main purposes to invest capital in the form or grants and low interest loans, from monies gained from the oil industry's involvement in Shetland, in all aspects of agriculture which were not catered for under the existing crofting grants. a significant amount of success was achieved with numerous land and infrastructure improvements being undertaken, and with, for the first time in a number of years, an increase in the number of cattle in the islands. A new, and unwelcome phenomena which could trace it's roots back to the UK's joining of the EU, or EEC as it was then, in 1973, also appeared in the 80's. While control of crofting improvement grants had largely remained with the UK Government since 1973, the compensation subsidies which ensured local crofters income remained on a similar level to a comparable enterprise anywhere in the UK had steadily drifted in to EEC controls, and the major decisions affecting agriculture were now being made on a EU wide basis, and the levels of comparable income calculated likewise. The first hint of trouble ahead was of stockpiles of food accumulating, beef and butter being notable ones, resulting in a depressed market, and consequently higher compensation levels having to be paid out as a result. As a nation, the UK had struggled to provide adequate home grown food for it's population, and production subsidies were justified to keep production at a maximum, however the European nation was clearly able to produce more than it's collective needs, and changes would need to be made.
The mid 80s also brought depressed markets for both cattle and sheep, the former as a result of public health scares surrounding so-called "Mad Cow Disease" and the latter amid fears of stock contamination following fall out from the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant accident in Russia. With hindsight both probably largely unfounded fears, but no one could predict that at the time, and with the the vast majority of crofting income coming from cattle and sheep crofters saw their incomes plummet, and not always be replaced by subsidies, as with both incidents the UK was far more severely affected than the majority of the rest of the EU, and subsidies by then were calculated using overall EU market averages, and payment rates set in ECUs, a little known and 'only on paper' forerunner of the Euro which only loosely took account of comparative values among the various currencies then operating in the EU.
It would be fair to say that these market conditions more or less negated the achievements of the previous few years brought about by the SIC investment, and while it may be arguable if anything occurred that wasn't going to anyway, the depressed market and low returns certainly hastened and brought forward for a number of crofters, particularly those with smaller and/or more marginal enterprises, the point at which they streamlined their activities, which usually meant disposing of cattle and laying land down to sheep grazing, or leaving crofting altogether, and taking up outside employment.
By the 90's the decision was taken in both Brussels and Westminster that production based subsidies and grants for improvements which would lead to increased production were on their way out, instead the emphasis was to shift towards support for diversification in to non-agriculture activities on crofts, and the care and enhancement of the environment and wildlife habitats. These new grants and subsidies began to be phased in as the new century began, and after a few years in operation appear to be fulfilling their intended role reasonably well, there has been no mass exodus of population from the countryside, but there has been one of livestock, particularly sheep. In the present day (2008) is is somewhat open to debate if indeed such a thing as a croft and a crofter actually exists, if they do, the definition of the word has changed greatly in a relatively short period of time. The larger enterprises of today, comprising of what was formerly ten, twelve of more crofts and carrying 40 - 100+ cattle and 500 - 1000+ sheep and cropping almost entirely grass for silage are farms for all intents and purposes. Large-Medium businesses, comprising around 6-8 former crofts, with 20+ cattle and 100 - 300 sheep, and Small-Medium ones around 4 - 6 former crofts and with under 20 cattle and up to 100 sheep, both of which would also be cropping almost exclusively grass for silage, are really small farms, and would probably constitute the majority of agriculture enterprises in Shetland today. Smaller sized businesses are, on the level of return achievable today too small to be full time, a few of these may still carry a cow or two, and crop either in the traditional manner or make silage, but the vast majority are laid down to grass for sheep grazing only. A few single crofts still exist, but for the most part these are run on a paying hobby basis, with the choice of livestock and any cropping following no particular trend unless that of the personal preferences of each individual occupier.