Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The traditional economy was based on fishing as a commercial activity and subsistence agriculture for household needs. The rich local fishing banks were first exploited in the fourteenth century, and the dried cod and herring were marketed through the Hanseatic League. In later times, Lerwick became an increasingly important gathering place for North Sea fishermen. In the twentieth century, refrigeration, fish filleting, and large trawlers have contributed to the present serious depletion of many fishing grounds. The main fishing season for herring, cod, pollock, and halibut is from May through August; the season for haddock is October to March. Recently, lobster fishing has also become important.
The small family farm or croft is the basic rural unit. These average between two and four hectares in size and Usually include pasturage and peat-cutting (for fuel) rights on the common lands. The traditional crops were barley, cabbage or kale, black oats, turnips, rutabagas or swedes, and potatoes. A five-year cycle of crop rotation and fallowing was practiced. Spade cultivation was practiced until the late eighteenth century when simple scratch plows ( ards ) became more common. In the past, small breeds of sheep and cattle, the Shetland pony, pigs, and geese were the main livestock. Sheep and wool production have increased in importance since 1870, whereas cattle have declined. Today, larger breeds of cattle and sheep have replaced the older breeds.
Industrial Arts. Because the islands are treeless and lack metallic ores, industrial growth is inhibited. Those crafts present include fishing-boat construction with timber from Norway, cooperage (fish barrels), and blacksmithing. Many fishing boats were built in Norway.
Trade. Trade in frozen and processed fish links Lerwick with the major Scottish, English, Dutch, German, and Scandinavian ports. Traditional shops (bakeries, printers, clothing stores, food markets, hardware shops, etc.) are concentrated in Lerwick, the only town of any importance.
Division of Labor. On the crofts, women tended the milk cows, pigs, and poultry; baited the lines of fishing hooks; cured the hay; helped cultivate the vegetable gardens; dried and transported peat; and knitted sweaters and stockings. Men fished, built boats, spaded the gardens, and plowed the fields. Neighborhood cooperative labor exchanges were important for house building, haying, peat cutting, harvesting, and fishing crews.
Land Tenure. A croft by both law and tradition cannot be subdivided. One child will be chosen to inherit it. However, the other siblings usually have access to the croft's produce, can work on the croft, and even build their houses on it.