A Shetland Chair Mystery – Solved?

by Giles Pearson for Storytelling Week 2020

The Story of A Shetland Chair

By Giles from Giles Pearson Antique Restoration

Giles is our resident Scottish vernacular furniture expert. Pop in and see him - he's always got a story to tell about his latest finds. Here's one of them, where he attempts to unravel the mystery of the design of a Shetland chair he now has in his possession...


A Particularly Interesting Chair

This chair is one design of many that those that have survived date back to the 18thC. This chair is made of three different woods, panels are Pine and the uprights are Oak and the arms are Birch, and has been built as a "Ladies Chair"  scale wise , quite small, but not a childs chair.

In Shetland itself the considered evolution is that folk in their crofts built their own chairs, ie Vernacular, which are very different to this one, more like a wooden high backed Orkney chair. The timber would have no doubt been collected from beaches and ship wrecks as not many trees grew on Shetland and still don't.
This particular chair has some interesting features, in that, apart from the underarm panels, it has a remarkable resemblance to an 17thC Wainscot Chair, with the pannelling and tongue and groove construction, however, the square front tapering legs, give it a more Georgian , ie late 18th, early 19thC feel.

How Did This Design Evolve in Shetland?

The question for me, is that how did that design evolve in Shetland?
Clearly, someone had seen, sat on, handled and been inspired to create his own design.This suggests someone who had been in England either travelling, or more likely seconded by the British Navy, as all the sailors were, in both WW1 and WW11, even as far back as the Napolionic Wars, ie early 18thC. Not only were the Shetlanders skilled seamen, but skilled woodworkers too as they all made boats, and had done for centuries ie certainly since the Vikings arrived in 700AD, and probably back as far as the Bronze Age, 3000 BC. The Sea was their Highway.
In 1822, a company was set up, Haye and Ogilvy, purely to import timber for the building of the Herring Fleet, which was made out of Larch. This was the first commercial timber import business. Before that, ancient relatives dating back to 1462 would have gone to Norway to see family and friends, the roots are very evident today, indicating trade and timber would have flowed on a regular basis, without any documentary evidence, In the Northern most island of Unst, it takes two, yes 2 hours by boat!

My Conclusion: 

Today in Shetland they would date this chair as 1860, because of "The Shetland Time-lag", based i'm sure on no documentary evidence existing to prove otherwise!!
I would say its early 19thC, circa 1810,  not only for its construction, but one particular feature, that is the arm support set back in the seat rail and with a "curved" profile, for the crinoline skirt!
Shetland Chair