The Burgar/Burgess families in Shetland

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German Merchants (The Hanseatic League)

The Hanseatic League (or Hansa) was an economic alliance of trading cities that operated from the 14th to 17th centuries in Northern Europe.  The cities in the league were mainly in Germany,  but also in the Baltic states, and Scandinavia.   The League had warehouses in many cities in other countries in Northern Europe and Russia.  Such cities included London and many ports up the east coast of the UK including Yarmouth, Newcastle, Berwick, Aberdeen and Scalloway in Shetland. 

The Merchants would set up 'Booths' in Shetland and pay the Laird a rent for this privilege.  A Booth was effectively a shop/warehouse where Shetland goods were bought by the merchant and his provisions could be purchased by the Shetlanders. These imported goods included timber from Scandinavia, flat-pack rowing boats from Norway, fishing tackle and all manner of luxury goods (brandy and gin, tobacco) from the towns  in Germany and the surrounding countries.

See map showing the location of trading booths.

In 1685, Hugh Leigh 48  wrote:

The product of this Countrey is mainly Fish, Oyl, Butter, Wool, Feathers, Beef, Tallow, Hides, Stuff, Woolen Stockings and Woolen Gloves and Garters.

The merchants bought the above goods (cured fish and stockings were the most important exports) and paid the Shetlanders in cash, normally German, Dutch, Scot and English coinage.  These merchants were the backbone of the Shetland economy. 

However this eventually came to an end at the end of the 17th Century.  In 1671 the German Merchants had to pay import duty on salt that they brought to Shetland. This salt was used for curing the fish to be exported.  Some years later a new law forbad  the importation of salt carried in foreign ships.   This was followed up by legislation that said that salted fish could only be exported if foreign salt was used in the curing.  The problem was further compounded by the decline of fish stocks after 1680.

By 1700 virtually no German merchants visited the Shetlands and the Hanseatic League soon ceased to exist.  This was largely the result of European governments taking control of their own trade and thus preventing the private organisations (such as the League) from operating profitably.

One of the last merchants to have a base in Shetlands must have been Adolf Westermann, who is recorded in 1698:

Adolf Westermann, a Hamburg merchant, was registered as trading from the Booth of Hillswick, in Northmavine parish. 13

This booth was later (early 1700s) converted into a fishing station by Thomas Gifford, the Laird of Busta. 



Eventually, it  became a Pub "The Booth", and is now a cafe.


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