Hanseatic Booth, The
Grid reference: HU 539623 (02)
Date: Late 18th century?
The pierhouse at Symbister is sometimes referred to as a 'Hanseatic Booth'. This overlooks the fact that the building must postdate the building of the pier. The pier, however, was almost certainly built long after Hanseatic merchants stopped coming to Shetland. The pierhouse is much more likely to be a creation of a merchant-laird in Whalsay during the period when local fisheries were flourishing, perhaps in the late 18th century.
However, records show that merchants from Bremen were very active at Symbister in the 16th and 17th centuries. The antiquarian R.S. Bruce noted in the early 1940s that the Bremen merchants' booth was part of a building at the head of the pier. The Hanseatic merchants who visited Shetland did not have the wherewithal to build elaborate piers: they seem to have rented property from local landowners.
The pierhouse provides the infrastructure (crane or "windlass mechanism") to load and unload ships. It is a two-storey building, set at the end of its own jetty to one side of its own small stone-lined harbour. Set gable-end to the sea the two storeys have each a separate entrance trough the landward gable. The upper floor has three windows and a fireplace. The access to the windlass mechanism was there.
The ground-floor was used as storeroom to which the goods were hoisted from the boat below and brought into the store through a double wooden door.
The walls are almost a metre thick and originally built of rubble. The windows and the upper doorway show some good freestone dressings. The upper parts of both gables, built of some neat blocks, are of an even later date.
The floorplan shown here is not to scale. It is based on the original drawings prepared for the latest conservation work, a bit "simplified".
The wider context
The booth at Symbister/Whalsay, (located were the house on the picture to the left is now), was part of a network of trading posts established by Hanseatic merchants, (from what is today North Germany], in Shetland. That trade flourished from c.1450, and was vital for the Shetland economy until about 1707. The merchants involved came to Shetland every spring with their relatively small ships, bringing goods to barter with the Shetlanders for fish (who were in effect in debt to them for future transactions). Their trade was similar to the contemporary Icelandic trade, albeit on a smaller scale. Some individuals traded in Shetland for fifty years (returning home at the end of each season for the winter): the Detken family seems to have been active in Unst from about 1520 until the 1670s.