The Orkneys and Shetland Islands

In 1468 Christian I, King of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, pledged the Orkneys to James III, King of Scotland, as part of the dowry his daughter Margaret brought to her marriage with James. As part of the arrangement, Christian stipulated that the islands would retain their laws and that he could redeem them on payment of 50,000 florins, which he intended to do. But he never did.

As a result the metrological heritage of the islands is Norwegian, not Anglo-Saxon or Norman, but cut off from its root. The lack of an enforced legal, national basis for their measures, with standards available to the public, exposed the islanders to a variety of oppressions.

The metrological themes touched upon in this selection are:


Barry, History of the Orkney Islands.

John R. Tudor. The Orkneys and Shetland.

Sir John Skene. De verborum significatione.

Dr. Barry.
History of the Orkney Islands... The Second Edition, with revisions and additions by James Headrick.
London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme, 1808.
Pages 219 – 224.

The weights of this country, as they are very ancient, and of a foreign origin, entirely different from those used in any other part of the kingdom, claim our attention in this chapter. Besides the laws, magistrates, and language, which the inhabitants retained at the cession of these islands to the crown of Scotland, they had also the misfortune to retain their weights, which are in their nature imperfect, and still more so from the strange manner in which they are commonly used.

These, together with the weighing instruments, were imported from Norway, where they are mentioned at a very early period, and are still in general use¹.

The smallest of these weights, or the one of the lowest denomination, is the mark. Twenty-four marks make a setteen or lispund, or pund bysmer, or span²; all of which are equivalent and convertible terms; and though the three latter are now obsolete, they were commonly used in the last age; six setteens or lispunds make a meil, and twenty-four meils a last.

woodcut of a bismer

From James Mackenzie, The General Grievances and Oppression of the Isles of Orkney and Shetland, Edinburgh 1750

The weighing instruments, which are of the same extraction, are the bysmer and pundler; on the former of which are reckoned marks and setteens, or lispunds, and on the latter setteens and meils.

The bysmer is a lever or beam made of wood, about three feet long; and from one end to near the middle, it is a cylinder of about three inches diameter; thence it gently tapers to the other end, which is not above one inch in diameter. From the middle, all along this smallest end, it is marked with small iron pins at unequal distances, which serve to point out the weight, from one mark to twenty-four, or a lispund. The body to be weighed is hung by a hook in the small end of the instrument, which is then suspended horizontally by a cord3 around it, held in the hand of the weigher, who shifts it towards the one end or the other, till the article he is weighing equiponderates with the large end, which serves it as a counterpoise; and when they are in equilibrio, the pin nearest the cord points out in marks the weight of the subject weighed.

The pundler is a beam about seven feet long, and between three and four inches diameter, somewhat of a cylindrical form, or rather approaching to that of a square with the corners taken off; and is so exactly similar to the Stetera Romana, or steelyard, as to supercede the necessity of any farther description.

There are two of these instruments in use; the one for weighing bear or bigg, and the other malt; and hence they are denominated the bear and malt pundlers. The former, though constructed on the same principle, and in the same form with the latter, is one-third less in its weight; every meil and setteen being but two thirds of the same denomination on the malt pundler, which is therefore considered as the standard of the bear pundler; and on this account the latter is seldom used.

The pundler is the instrument employed for weighing malt, meal, bear, oats, and other gross and weighty commodities; while the bysmer is made use of for ascertaining the weight of butter, oil, salt, wool; cheese, and other articles, which are divided into smaller parts to serve the various purposes of retail in the country.

So intricate are these weights, and such is the uncertainty that attends them, that even the natives, who use them daily, are far from being agreed what should be the exact weight of each denomination. Some contend that the mark, which is the radical weight of which all the rest are multiples, should weigh eighteen ounces; while others assert that it should weigh two-and-twenty. But the most just, as well as the most common opinion is, that it ought to be equivalent to twenty-two ounces; and of consequence the setteen, or lispund, should contain thirty pounds, and the meil eleven stones four pounds, Amsterdam weight.

No weights can long remain just, unless there be some fixed and acknowledged standards, to which occasional application may be made, in case of any real or supposed deviation. The original standards of those in question have been long since lost or destroyed; and those that have been introduced in their room are said to be very different; and, instead of being fixed by any certain rule, they are fluctuating, and in a great measure arbitrary.

But, what is more extraordinary, a setteen, or lispund, on the bysmer, is different from a setteen on the pundlar; and all marks on the former, and the setteens on the latter, are entirely different from one another. This occasions some particular weights on each of these instruments to be most advantageous to the seller, as others are to the buyer; and this being known only to those who are much in the practice of weighing, not only strangers, but also the bulk of the people are unable to guard themselves against imposition.

Even those who are most intimately acquainted with the nature of these instruments find inconveniences arising from the use of them; for, on the bysmer, the least deviation from a mark cannot be less than ten ounces; nor can the same deviation from any one setteen on the pundlar be less than eight pounds; and what is worse, a certain dexterity in those who are accustomed to weigh much, will create the same, if not a greater difference, without any possible remedy. 4

Such imperfect instruments, and such a mode of using them, sanctioned in a great measure by custom, must, it is evident, have a pernicious influence on the condition of the people; not only as occasionally hurting their interest, but, what is of more deplorable consequence, sapping the foundation of their moral principles. Those who have occasion to use them most, are in general tenants at will, with little stock, whose poverty and dependence stamp a low cunning on their character, which discovers itself on many occasions; and, from men of that description, resistance can scarcely be expected to the temptation of procuring an immediate advantage from the iniquity of their weights, especially as the detection is difficult; and if it should take place, the difference in the weight may be attributed to superior skill, or greater exactness.

But these weights are not only imperfect in themselves, and open a wide door to fraud in the use of them; they are also said to have departed from what they were originally, and, in the lapse of ages, increased to a much greater magnitude. The people of every rank murmur against them as unjust, and ill calculated to serve the purpose for which they were intended; and yet a few, who either derived or expected to derive an advantage from them, have not been ashamed to profess themselves their advocates, and have even gone so far as to oppose some attempts that have been made to ascertain their amount, or have them converted into the ordinary weights of the kingdom. Had the whole of the inhabitants been unanimous in their endeavours to get rid of them, they would long before this time have been set aside.

Little more than half a century ago, the Earl of Galloway, at the head of a number of gentlemen here, who were in no very friendly terms with the Earl of Morton, then grantee of the Crown rents in Orkney, entered into a resolution, from a conviction of the increase of these weights, to apply for redress to the law of their country. For this purpose, they industriously collected information from every quarter; and first, by withholding the payment of their feu-duties, and afterwards bringing an action before the competent court, they involved his Lordship in a lawsuit. During the course of the action, they pleaded in excuse for their retaining the feu-duties, the unjust and extravagant increase of the weights made use of to ascertain their quantity; and declared their willingness to pay what they were bound to do, provided no more was exacted than would have been, had the weights been of the same standard they were when the islands were ceded to the crown of Scotland. They contended, and with truth, that the laws, language, manners, customs, and particularly the weights, were derived from Norway; and that, if a standard of them were any where to be found, it was most likely to be in that country. To ascertain the truth as to this point, application was made, through the British consul, to the Burgomaster at Bergen, Superintendent in chief of the police, and Conservator of the standards of the weights and measures of that kingdom, who transmitted a certificate, containing the most ample and satisfactory information. In this paper he assures them, that, from the earliest times the mark, which had always been considered as the radical weight, contained exactly eight ounces, or half a pound; the setteen, consisting of twenty-four marks, twelve pounds; and the meil, of consequence, seventy-two pounds. Having gained this intelligence, which they considered justly as of importance, they imagined themselves intitled to infer, that the weights in Orkney were the same as in Norway at the time the islands ceased to be dependent on that country.

They had evidence, or supposed they had, that the increase could be traced to the avaricious and oppressive spirit of Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney; that these weights had received a farther augmentation during the despotic reign of his son Patrick; that the farmers of the Crown rents, subsequent to the time of these earls, had discovered little inclination to relinquish their interest, so far as to restore matters to their ancient state; and that they had increased considerably even since the Morton family had come into possession. To the extravagant height to which they had arrived, they ascribed the state of the islands at that period, which they represented as poor in comparison of what they had been in former times; that for want of the means of industry, trade was in a languishing state, fisheries were almost entirely neglected, and agriculture was nearly in the same condition. Many estates, on which large families had lived with comfort, were now fallen into the hands of the superior; the proprietors were not above one third of the number they were eighty or ninety years before; and even the general population was greatly diminished.

In opposition to these arguments, the Earl and his friends insisted, that these islands, when let in farm, which they had been for a number of years, yielded a greater rent to the crown than at that time arose out of them to the Earl; and that, in particular, the rental of 1600 exceeded what was then the present one by eleven thousand marks, converting both into money at the same price, which certainly could not have been the case on the supposition of augmented weights. To this they added, that, when the islands were ceded to Scotland, they had become the patrimony of the Crown, and had been feued out at the full rental; and, therefore the present proprietors had no just cause to complain, since their feu-duties were the effects of nothing else but those tenures which they had derived from their ancestors. They urged still farther, that standards or models of the weights had been kept, beyond the memory of man, by the magistrates of Kirkwall; that no complaints had been made of their increase since the Union, when the grant was made in the Earl’s favour; that the weights used by the Earl’s servants were the same with those made use of over all the islands, and no heavier than those by which the landlords themselves received their rents in kind from their tenants, and that though it were admitted that they had increased formerly, prescription could now be pleaded in their favour.

These, and such like arguments were advanced, at great length, by the contending parties with much laborious ingenuity; after which the Court, having considered the cause, decreed in favor of the Earl of Morton, to the great disappointment and regret of the proprietors of Orkney.

[The plea of prescription gained the cause, in the courts of law, in favour of the Earl of Morton; but the disgust produced by this and other disputes induced that family to sell their rights over these islanders to the father of the present Lord Dundas.5]

Footnotes in Original

1. Torf. Hist. Norweig. [This is probably Tormod Torfæus, Historia rerum Norvegicarum..., Hafniæ: Ex typographeo Joachimi Schmitgenii, 1711. We thank Vidar Iversen of the National Library of Norway for decoding this citation.- ed.]

2. Torf. Hist. Norweig.

3. [John Bryden, writing in The New Statistical Account of Scotland (1834), page 140, says: “This cord is tied round the ends of a round piece of wood, about four inches long, and held in the hand, and is called ‘the snarl’.”]

4. On examining these instruments, it is obvious to remark, that being suspended on a cord, which is their pivot, or centre of motion, the centre of gravity is considerably above this when the lever is in a horizontal position. The centre of gravity may be considered as the point where the whole weight of the lever is accumulated; and when the lever is inclined from a horizontal position, this weight acts at the end of a lever, to counterpoise the subject weighed; and it will require a great addition of weight, beyond what is just, to bring back the instrument to a horizontal position. This source of error must be multiplied by the difference of the distance between the weight, and the subject weighed, from the pivot or centre of motion. Hence a man who has acquired dexterity in the use of these levers, may cheat to an incalculable amount, without the possibility of detection. After the fair amount of the subject weighed, is suspended to the short end of the lever, he has only to give it a slight inclination to the opposite side; and it will require a very great addition to bring back the lever to a horizontal position.

If any abuse ever called for legislative interference, surely this is one. ---E. [A footnote by Headrick, the book's editor.]

5. [Barry’s description of Orkney’s weights was reprinted practically word for word by

Robert Forsyth.
The Beauties of Scotland., containing a full an clear account of the agriculture, commerce, … Volume V.
London: Vernor, Hood and Sharpe, 1808.

Forsyth added the information about the Mortons' selling their rights.]

John R. Tudor.
The Orkneys and Shetland. Their Past and Present State.
London: Edward Stanford, 1883.
Pages 112 – 113.

The unit of weight, before weights and measures were tampered with by Lord Robert and succeeding donatories, was the eyrar, or troy ounce, 8 of which made 1 mark; 24 marks made a lispund or setteen; 6 lispunds went to the meil, and 2 meils to the last. All these were ascertained either by the bismar or by the pundlar or pundar. The unit of barrel bulk was the can or kanna of Norway, 48 of which made a barrel, and were equal to 15 lispunds of butter, whilst 12 barrels went to the last. In measurement of length the cuttel was the unit, and was equal to the Scottish ell. 6 cuttels were equal in value to the eyrar or to a gullioun, and 10 gulliouns made a pack. In Skene’s De Verborum Significatione, we read that: “10 meales makis ane sufficient Cow, and ane sufficient Oxe; also an Oxe is apprised to 15 meales, and ane wedder is four meales. Item ane Gouse is twa meales; Item ane Capon is half ane Gouse, viz., ane meale.”

Each Vardthing elected from time to time a Lögrettman or lawrightman, whose special duty it was to keep the standard weights and measures, and to attend when the skat and other dues were collected in each parish by the Under-foud, and who had also to sit as a sort of assessor at the parochial courts. Laurence Bruce, on his appointment as Deputy-foud, proceeded to eject the lawrightmen of the different parishes, and to substitute in their places creatures of his own, who increasing the length of the cuttel, exacted one-third more wadmell than had previously been paid:—”ffor 1 quhan thai complanit of him of the wrangus mett, he said it was na velvat, swa thai gat no vther remeid, bot quhan thai held the wadmell in their hand to haue gottin recht mett, they wald gift thame ane straik on the hand with the cuttell to gar thaim lat it gang.” Erling of Bw, lawrightman of Dunrossness, testified that Bruce would neither let him measure the wadmell nor let his cuttell be used in measuring: “Quhaifoir the said Lawrichtman, seing he was refusit, in sing of the disobedience and wrang that was done, in the presence of the haill Commownis, he brak his cuttellis and requyrit the haill Commownis witness heiroff.”

1. [David] Balfour’s Oppressions [of the sixteenth century in the islands of Orkney and Zetland: from original documents], page 23.

Sir John Skene.
De verborum significatione.
Edinburgh, printed by David Lindsay, 1681.
The first edition was printed in Edinburgh in 1597.
Under the headword SERPLATH.

Weichtes and measures in Orknay

The malt, meill, & beare, are delivered in Orknay, be wecht in this maner.
Imprimis 24. marks makis an setting.
Item 6. settings makis an meall.
Item 24 meales makis ane Last.
Item of meille and malt called Coist ane Last makis an Scottish chalder:
Item ane Last and ane halfe of beare conteinis 36 meales: 36 meales makis ane chalder
Item the butter is delivered in barrelles, quhair the quantitie is great, bot quhair the quantitie is small, it is delivered in marks, and lesh poundes. That is to say, xxiiij marks makis ane setting, as said is, and 6 settings makis an lesh pound.
Item, ane stane and twa pound Scottish, makis ane lesh pound.
Item 15 lesh pounds makis ane barrel.
Item 12 barrelles makis ane Last.
Item, the flesh is delivered be apprising, viz 10. meales makis ane sufficient Cow, and an sufficient Oxe. Also ane gild Oxe is apprised to 15. meales, and an wedder is four meales.
Item an Gouse is twa meales.
Item an Capon is half ane Gouse, viz. ane meale.

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