Belmont House
A magical venue for holidays and events

John Peterson, My Jo...

September 25th 2018

At the time that Belmont was taking shape in the 1770’s John Peterson lived at Snarravoe. His family had lived there for a long time, and they continued to use patronymics, so that his children were named for him – Peter Johnson, Johanna Johnsdaughter, and so on. But if John liked the old ways round the house there was nothing fuddy-duddy in how he lived his life. Spotted early on as a likely lad by William Mouat, he was given ¼ share in a “fouroaring”, and two years later was skippering a sixareen. John early showed a talent for organisation and an ability to lead. In 1779 he is given a cash bonus “for encouragement” – the first of many, and he organises the fishing lodge hire at Scolla Wick for the men who live too far away from the fishing grounds during the season. He had a reputation – “best fisher” in 1787, and again five years later. He is credited with many voyages – carrying deals (wood) in the company boat, the Shark, to Skaw and Uyeasound, and freights to Lerwick, Burravoe and Lunna, Fetlar, Harlswick, Woodwick, Muness and Urphasay – in fact all over the Unst and east Shetland seaboard. Reliable in a crisis, he is called in on one occasion as a crew substitute for one of the hired men, J. Ollason, who was sick (boats were usually partly manned by men who had no share in them, and hence no share in the profits; they were paid an agreed fee for their labour), spent two nights at sea, and was paid in drink and tea. John presently became a free fisher, paying higher rent, but able to make his own decisions about where to sell his catch.

On land there was no shortage of work for him. Besides his own farm at Snarravoe, at different times he held rights at Oganess for “keeping or hirding”, and later, in 1799, a grazing rental in Snabrough. People living at Snarravoe, which has no scattald, had to pay hogaleave, that is, pay for access to the adjacent scattald for use of some of the hill’s resources. This was essential for the proper working of a township. His competence on land shows in the works he undertook, often together with his Snarravoe neighbour, William Clark. Together they thatched roofs, built 30 fathoms of the new Ness dyke, and organised the labour for another improvement, the “myln dam”. This needed plenty of hands. Thomas Anderson of Wedbester was employed to “take and lay a water myln”, and Henry Copland, who lived along the brae at Gardon, spent a day righting the lintel of the mill, for which he was paid 5/-. From Snabrough the Frazers came to help. Cooperative working, assets including animals and boats held in shares – it minimised risk, but also minimised the ability to change, a mindset which became disastrous after John’s day when the population spiraled past sustainability, and hard-won modest economic prosperity was destroyed.

Note: the detail quoted here is found in the business ledgers of Thomas Mouat, which begin in 1777 and - not his purpose, but good for us - detail a whole community.