top of page
  • Writer's pictureStephen Jennings

In Depth - Pauper Huts/Crofts and Outsets

Burwick Pauper Croft

Still evident throughout the crofting landscape can be found subsets of the typical croft and crofthouse, namely that of the pauper hut or croft and the sometimes similar in appearance outset. Inhabiting marginal lands and most often outside the toon, they tended to be humble in their construction and more so in their occupation. What they frequently share, however, is marked less by the differing segments of the population who filled them.

Outsets were, by the necessity of their construction, typically built outside the township to bring uncultivated land into production. Though this was not always the case – sometimes toon land would be divided, subdivided and subdivided again which in turn made each croft less productive and valuable - they tended to be small, no more than 3-4 acres. Similar in appearance to a more traditional croft, the buildings themselves were modest, regularly constructed from the rubble of other non-domestic structures, and outbuildings less numerous. A couple of reasons outsets begin to appear in the middle of the 18th century is the growing population and the urgency to provide it the most basic of subsistence living and the drive for agricultural improvements. Another, and perhaps the overriding concern, was to keep people tied to a laird’s land at a level of want that would keep them fishing. For this type of domicile, the typical persons occupying an outset were young and recently wed, perhaps with a child and maybe another on the way, and almost certainly from the district and likely the sons and daughters of crofter fishermen.

Whilst many outsets could be argued as perpetuating or, in some cases, creating poverty, the pauper huts and crofts could be seen as the inevitable conclusion. Most simply, the hut was a dwelling one would find within or without the toons that was meant as a most simple shelter. Very small, perhaps no more than 2 x 3 metres, and hastily constructed of available rubble and turf with a clay floor, the scant furnishings were of a ruinous kind regularly provided with no more a bed than some hay in the corner. Though giving some measure of protection from the weather, they were nonetheless damp and cold with ofttimes a leaky roof and walls as they were built to fit an essential single need. The inhabitants were typically people incapable of work – the elderly, severely injured and the mentally ill – and required the direct intervention of the community at large to provide food and fuel if they were to have any hope of survival.

The pauper croft, on the other hand, served people who still had a modicum of independence. Though they nonetheless required no small amount of attention from the community, they could raise a little food on their own with a small kale yard, a cow, some chickens and maybe a pig. An excellent example of a pauper croft with a single window can be seen at Hogapund in Northmavine (NGR HU 30792 71856) which housed an elderly woman and her cow. She had a small byre, krub and an enclosure with ready access to fresh water and was set well outside the toon on marginal land. Another example would be Burwick (NGR HU 39083 41396) where we have a windowless crofthouse that is roughly 2.5 x 3.5 metres with a small kale yard in front and either a krub or exceptionally small byre appended to the rear. Perhaps not even an acre in size, it appears as a roofed structure on the 1900 OS 25 inch map having been built sometime between 1882 and then. Who the occupants were or the reasons behind the need for the pauper croft is no longer within living memory, but it was close to the other crofts in Burwick so some personal connection with families there is probable.

It is through some of the demographics and stories of the paupers that we get a fuller picture of the site remains on the ground and the conditions under which they were living at the time. To begin, the preponderance were women in general and widows specifically, frequently made so by the very fisheries that continued the endemic poverty in Shetland. Their personal conditions might be exacerbated by having dependent children, an infirmity or, in one case, having lost all savings to a bank failure in Lerwick. Moreover, she was elderly and as likely to have no relations or none nearby, occasionally having also lost male children to the fishing, or was housed with another sibling, in many cases a sister, in the same straits. She may never have married at all, which is sometimes the case of elderly male paupers who suffered much the same fate, or her husband had run off.

Another demographic trend is one of couples or families who earlier made their way to Lerwick, home of a lot of pauper rooms and huts during the mid 19th century. Whether their outset couldn’t produce, they battled with the landlord or were cleared from the land, they made their way here because no other place in Shetland offered an opportunity, meagre as it was, to make a living without a tenancy. Yet most were entering what today we refer to as a gig economy with no guarantee of steady work from season to season or week to week and with many of the same job hazards in place which could cast one down into the ranks of the most desperately in need or, at times, leave children as orphans. This was the case in one Lerwick pauper hut were an 18 year old boy was caring for an 11 year old sister and 9 year old brother. An older brother was bound to the sea service and the children were described as living ‘in a wretched condition’ with little furniture and all three crammed into a single bed with a straw mattress. The father had died many years previous, the mother later succumbing to typhus.

The living conditions for the paupers were most dire. Frequently described as ‘wretched hovels’, the dwellings were often in some manner characterised as ‘poor and uncomfortable, furniture very scanty’. It’s no stretch that if already in poor physical or mental health, the pressures of living in such conditions would only make matters worse and virtually impossible to improve the situation. Take the case of a woman who was nearly 70 years old and never married, described as ‘fatuous’ and who ‘lives in a small miserable hovel, which is not altogether water tight, and which is so low it is scarcely possible to stand upright in it.’ Neighbours and the manse kept her fed.

Begging on a Saturday and being at the mercy of the neighbours to provide food and fuel, doing odd jobs where possible, was common practice for those in Lerwick who were able. Outside the town in the far more rural areas there was the practice of quartering where the people of the district were charged with looking after the wellbeing of the poor and where some paupers wandered in a rotation from house to house who were to take care of them for a number of nights that corresponded with the numbers of mercks of land they had. It was a demeaning practice and unwelcome on both sides. Take the case of a crippled 50 year old woman in Northmavine who, together with her 15 year old daughter, eked out a wretched existence on ‘ill cultivated’ land with help from the neighbours to stay fed. When asked if she would not rather go house to house for lodgings, ‘she burst into tears, and said, that she would rather have any kind of house over her head than wander about. That she had seen the quartered poor meanly dealt with, and that many grudges were borne them.’ So resentful were some to provide lodging they would pay a neighbor to take on their share or occasionally flat out refuse. Such was the case of one crofter who did so despite himself having been on the poor roll a few years prior. Before we judge too harshly, it should be remembered that in many of these cases the neighbours were one bad harvest from being paupers themselves.

Whilst both ends of the divide between outsets and pauper huts/crofts can be discerned on the landscape by the remains on the ground, the living conditions under which each segment of the population toiled are similar. The constant dividing of the land to bring more under cultivation for a growing population and to retain men for the fishing helped exacerbate an endemic poverty that was already felt throughout Shetland. The wretched hovels of pauper huts/crofts and the too small outsets created a situation where the condition of the latter – bare subsistence at best for newlyweds with small families – fed the creation of the former populated by widows, the elderly and the absolute destitute. Found dotted throughout the landscape, visiting and understanding these sites can be a humbling experience.


'The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland', Alexander Fenton 

'The Making of the Shetland Landscape', Susan A. Knox

'Shetland Vernacular Buildings 1600-1900', Ian Tait


bottom of page