RETURN to Folk fae da past






Because of Shetlands remote location, its people had little or no immunity to the diseases brought in by sailors and other travellers to the islands. The biggest scourge was between 1700 and 1800 when outbreaks of smallpox were occurring, roughly every 20 years, causing widespread desolation and claiming in the region of a quarter, to a third of the population each time. John Williamson was born in 1740, when Eshaness was suffering from the effects of one such epidemic

John Williamson was a weaver, who, although uneducated, was a very clever man and he could turn his hand to almost anything, including carpentry, clock mending and for a time he worked as a blacksmith. He was for ever having bright ideas and over the years invented some useful and some not so useful things. He particularly enjoyed experimenting with mechanical inventions and eventually the local folk nicknamed him 'Johnnie Notions'





In 1792 the Rev. Andrew Dishington, a minister at the time in Yell described Johnnie Notions methods of vaccination as follows, and I take the liberty of quoting him.

"He was careful to provide the best matter and keeps it a long time before he puts it to use - sometimes 7 or 8 years. And, in order to lessen its virulence, he first dries it in peat smoke, and then puts it under the ground, covered with camphor .... He uses no lancet in performing the operation, but, by a small knife, made by his own hands, he raises a very little of the outer skin of the arm, so that no blood follows: then puts in a very small quantity of the matter, which he immediately covers with the skin, that had been thus raised. The plaister he uses, for healing the wound, is a bit of cabbage leaf."

Within Shetland, Johnnie Notions will be best remembered as the crofter from Hamnavoe, who created a serum, with which he inoculated over 3000 people without loosing of a single patient. Outside the islands his name will mean little to people, and will probably find no more recognition, than that given to, two other likeminded inventors, Benjamen Jesty from Dorset in 1774 and a Mr. 'No-name' from Berkshire in 1754, who inoculated people without the knowledge of each other, although many miles separated these three men, they had the same ideals and purpose as a goal.
The house in Hamnavoe where John Williamson is believed to have been born.
Bod at Hamnavoe, Eshaness, Shetland
Hillswick Eshaness Area Regeneration & Development header
Drongs, Hillswick, Shetland. HEARD Logo
Johnnie Notions
Contact Us
2006 Trowie Designs
John Williamsons grave stone in Eshaness
John Williamsons Grave stone in Eshanes churchyard
Covering the grave is a large slab of stone, believed to have come from the ruins of the Cross Kirk. This stone was thought to be very important, whilst the inscription written in both Runes and Latin, was still legible. Unfortunately the stone is now so weather worn, that hardly any of the symbols can be deciphered.

At this time an English doctor, Edward Jenner was devising his own smallpox vaccine and it is this that was introduced to Shetland, for general immunisation in 1804, ironically a year after Johnnie Notions died. Today it is Dr Jenner's method of inoculation that is internationally recognized, but accreditation is proudly given within the islands to John Williamson, Shetland's pioneer in this field of medicine.

Johnnie Notions died in 1803 and was buried in the Cross Kirk Cemetery at Brecon in Eshaness, where a modern commemorative inscription has recently been placed at the head of his grave.