Early in the sixteenth century a family of Neven makes its appearance in the Shetland Islands, and appropriately with one, Adam Neven, who had a charter from Thomas Tusuanson, of the four merks land in Underhoull in Unst dated 30 May 1542. Later, he acquired the lands of Scousburgh in the parish of Dunrossness.
Adam Neven married Barbara, daughter of Olave or Oliver Sinclair, Laird of Brew, a son of Hernry Sinclair and Jane his wife; Jane being daughter to William Sinclair of House. Barbara’s father had been among those accursed of the slaughter of John Sinclair, Earl of Caithness, in a fight between the Orkney and Shetland men at Summerdale in 1529. Ten years later Oliver obtained a respite for this act. He had married Margaret, daughter of Alexander Baird, by whom he had three sons and two daughters. The fouth child, Barbara, married Adam Neven, and her sister married Richard Leask who was afterward slain at the door of Sandwick Church by a servant of Henry Sinclair of Sandwick.
Oliver Sinclair held the office of Great Fowd of Zetland and at one time, failing to account to the Crown for the rents of the islands, he was ordered by the Privy Council to do so within twenty days or be put to the horn. The result is not recorded. He was supposed to have instigated the treacherous slaying of William Macleod, and when Hutcheon Macleod invaded the country to avenge his brother, Oliver escaped by leaping over Sumburghhead, landing in a clump of grass he received no further injury than the loss of an eye.
In 1567, Oliver entertained James Hepburn the notorious Earl of Bothwell (Duke of Orleans) when, after the defeat of Queen Mary at Carberry Hill, he fled to Shetland.
Adam Neven died in 1562, leaving four sons and two daughters, John his heir, II of Scousburgh, was by profession a Notary. He married Janet, daughter of Malcolm Sinclair of Quendale, Vicar of Dunrossness. The story is told of Malcolm that, when Don Gomez de Medina, an admiral in the Spanish Armada, was wrecked on the Fair Isle, he, the Admiral, in all the pomp and arrogance of gold lace and high position, bade his interpreter ask Malcolm whether he had ever seen so fine a man. Malcolm unimpressed replied: "Furcie on his face, I have seen many prettier men hanging in the Burrow Moor." The Admiral admired the Shetlander’s independence and they became friends: on his departure he presented Malcolm with a silver cup which is now in the possession of Balfour of Balfour, into whose family it came by marriage of a Balfour and a Sinclair. Sir Walter Scott on his visit to the islands in 1814 was presented with a chair that had belonged to Moalcolm Sinclair, and in his novel "The Pirate" he has related the anecdote of the Admiral and Malcolm.
The Fair Isle on which Don Gomez ship was wrecked belonged to the Sinclairs of Quendale, and, so the story goes, was lost by them at cards to a Stewart of Burgh.
John Neven died in 1619, having had by his wife Janet, four sons and five daughters. His eldest son James, III of Scousburgh, was like his father, a Notary. He married Martha, daughter of James Pitcairn, minister of North Maven, and died without isuue in 1655. He was succeeded by his brother Ninian as fourth of Scousburgh and first of Windhouse.
Ninian, also a Notary, was clerk to Robert Finlayson, Sheriff depute of Zetland. About the year 1620, complaints were made to the Privy Council against the Sheriff and his clerk, and both were dismissed their office. Ninian was committed to the Tolbooth at Edinburgh on complaint made by his uncle, James Mowat of Ure, but was released on 500 merks caution. The Bishop of Orkney and Sir James Buchanan were appointed to investigate and proceeding to Yel Sound (Hell Sound the Bishop styles it) they searched Ninian’s house at Windhouse and took possession of all his papers. They then held a series of courts at Mid Yell and Scalloway to hear charges against Neven and his counter charges against his Uncle Mowat.
It was held that Neven had falsofied charters, antedated documents, inserted the names of dead men as witnesses and had deprived his uncle of his just rights to the advantage of his brother Gilbert Mowat; and further, that by chicanery he had obtained possession of the lands of Windhouse and defrauded the heirs of Swannie Johnson to their right of succession to Windhouse.
The counter charges were, that Mowat had surreptitiously obtained access to his father’s charter chest and destroyed a charter and other writs in favor of his eldest brother John Mowat, and had committed a series of frauds and acts of violence.
An old document preserved in the records of the Secret Council while not very clear in meaning is amusing in its archaic phraseology and it violent accusation of Ninian Neven. It is unsigned and headed, "Oppressionnes, Tirranies, and falcetis and cruelties done and commmittit be Neniane Neving upon the poore Inhabitantis of the Cuntrie of Zetland." It states the Ninian "came dyvers tymes to the tenentis housses and brak up the dooris, windowis, and utheris lock fast pairtis . . . and seeing that he could not prevale nor his intent fulfillet according to his evill humor he maist wrongouslie and falslie makis ane false and conterfeit band to the said Mr Gilbert and subscrybit the same as Nottar for the said Arthur Robertsone . . ." At the direction of Ninan and Mr Gilbert a "Jnone Robesone" was sent to the dwelling fo the "said Arthur and under cloud and silence of night brak up his doors sua that Arthur wes forceit for fere to flie to the hills quhair he remaines the space of xx days never comeing to no hous . . In November and dyvers dayes thairoff 1622 yeiris Ninane Neving came to the saidis landes of Ester Hugland and Hagreselter to the tenentis thairoff and thair violentlie brack up their dooris and maisterfullie tuik fra thame thair meallis and dewties be way of spolliatioun."
Ninian "convened accidentallie" with his uncle and is said to have "strocken the said James with a drawin quhinger." His weakness for breaking windows early asserted itself: "Trew it is that in the year 1613, this Niniane Neving came with ane company of broken men immediatlie thairefter to the saidis landis and houssus of Wyndhouss and thair maist violentlie and maisterfullie brak the doors and windoss thairoff ejectis and outputis all the rest of his haill aires thair wyffs bairnis and servandis, gudes and geir and possest himselff with his whole familie and dwellis thair presentlie …" It seem sthat after Arthur Roberson returned from the hills where Ninian’s emissary had driven him, Ninian himself pursued him and "strok him with ane great battoun on the head and shoulder and uther pairtis of his bodie to effution of his blood in great quantities." The document ends: "Thair being dybers cuntrie men rood and ignorant quha cannot wryte and reid nor know what securities meynis and the said Niniane causis thame do onything he plassis and to his humours … by the quhilk unjust dealing the haill cuntrie of Zetland is oppressit and so useit be the said Ninian Neving Nottar foresaid."
In this manner the masterful Ninian is said to have acquired the lands of Windhouse in Yell. The whole of the matter was that by dual law, a man’s heritage was divided equally amonh his children. Ninian disregarding this, persuaded the eldest son of the eldest son of one Swannie Johnson, who was the eleventh man that had succeeded to the 40 merk lands of Windhouse, to give him a charter and sasine of those lands. Armed with these documents and accompanied by a band of men he proceeded to Windhouse and by force ejected the other sons of Swannie, their wives and children, and himself took possession.
A Mr. T.W.L. Spence took issue, in a paper read before the Society of Antiquarians of Scotland, 13 March 1893, with Mr. Gilbert Goudie, who at a previous meeting had read a paper on the case of Ninian Neven. Mr. Spece’s remarks were, in substance: "Mr. Goudie makes certain statements not warranted by the facts, and as the persons assailed in the MS, Ninian Neven of Scousburgh and Windhouse, Gilbert Mouat of Garth, minister of Northmaven, and his son James Mouat of Olaberrie, are ancestors of well known Shetland families who, though recently extinct in the male line, have left numerous descendants. Mr. Goudie says that "apart from legalized tyranny at the instance of donatories of the Crown lands and revenues of Scotland, the native population suffered much from oppressors of a lower type, legal adventurers and others who swarmed the coutnry." Mr. Goudie is unfortunate in having selected Ninian Neven as the type of legal adventurer. His father, James Neven (John not James) of Scousburgh, and his grandfather, John (Adam not John) of Scousburgh, were both Shetlanders born, and the sons of Shetland Sinclairs. His grandmother (mother) being a daughter of Malcolm Sinclair of Quendale, who entertained Don Juan Gomez de Medina, of the Spanish Armada, after the wreck of his ship El Gran Grifon on the Fair Isle. His great grandfather (grandfather) Adam Neven, may have "come to Shetland" but it is not certain that he also was not a Shetlander by birth. The Mouats are also a leading family in Shetland.
Ninian therefore did not come to Shetland and he cannot be described as an adventurer, either in the modern sense or in the old and blameless sense of a man who fared abroad to try his fortune. He was beyond doubt a Shetlander born and bred.
Mr. Goudie says, "the persons accused, Ninian Neven, Notary, and James Mouat of Olaberrie, had the hardihood to plead innocence, and to present a counter petition." An extract from this petition reads:
Proceedings in Parliament 1641. Supplication for Mr. James Mowat of Ollaberrie and Niniane Nevin of Windhous in Yetland. Unto the Nobilitis and remanent memberis of the honorabill Supreme Court of Parliament humblie sheweth your honors Supplicants Mr. James Mowat of Oldaberrie and Ninian Nevin of Windhous in Yetland . . . Mr. Gilbert Mowat sone to James Mouat of Ure and the said Jon Edmestone hes denounced me the said Ninian Neven to the horne of sett purpose to debar me from defending in the said causes, and sieing we are come heire for cleiring ourselves and to represent the grievances of the country in maner foresaid inequitie and justice our persons ought to be protected dureing our attendance heir . . . theirfore we humblie beseik your Lordships to take the premisses to your consideration and to grant protection to our persons that we may saiflie appeare before the Parliament . . . and you lordships ansuer humlie we attend. 3 August 1641.
This supplicatioune with another in the contrair hereof be James Sinclair being publikie red be the Parliament, they appoint the pairties haifing interest to appeir before the Committee for the billis the morne to be hard in this bussineas and in the mein tyme grantis protectioune to the supplicants whill the morne at night.
"This supplication is written in remarkably good english. Its style is not only in marked contrast to the archaic, involved, and hardly intelligible language of the MS, but judged from an english standard, it is better in style and more modern in spelling than the records of the time as written by parliamnetary officials. This is noted as a curious fact in the case of a document drawn up in a place so "remote" as Shetland."
"The only other parliamnetary mention of this quarrel occurs 29 July 1644, in a record of a ‘Judiciall Act of Submission be James Sinclair of Scalloway, John Adamsone and Niniane Nivine.’ ‘Adamsone’ obiviously error for ‘Edmeston’."
"Ninian Nevin did not, as Mr. Goudie surmises, die soon after these proceedings. He lived and practised his profession for nearly twenty years afterwards and remained undisturbed in his possession. He does not, in the course of a long and busy life, seem to have acquired much property beyond what he inherited from his father. But his son Gilbert, to whom he left Scousburgh and Windhouse, added greatly to the latter property.
Ninian Neven may have been a masterful man, and too ready with his ‘great batoun’ and ‘drawen quhinger’ as the MS asserts. I have no intention of giving him a certificate of character. But he is clearly entitled, in view of the facts, to be held as acquitted of the charges against him. I shall merely add that the Neven family, through descent of marriage, were connected with most of the leading families of Shetland, and that a slight research would at any time have disclosed the main genealogical facts about them.
There is no traditional remembrance in Shetland of him as an oppressor. The only tradition I ever heard about him, was the names of his six dogs, a tradition which seems to show that his personality took hold to some extent of the popular imagination, though not in an evil sense."
Ninian Neven was twice married, first to Ursilla Edmonston, daughter of Andrew Edmonston, minister of Yell. She died 8 December 1646, and in her will mentions children, Gilbert, James, Roger, Andro, Barbara and Bessie. The inventory amounted to £1539, with 300 owing to defunct; the sum of her debts totalled £635.
He then married Marie, daughter to Laurence Gifford of Weathersta, but had no issue by her.
A son John, died in youth so that the second son, Gilbert, inherited and became fifth of Scousburgh and second of Windhouse. Gilbert wadsetted Scouseburgh to Stewart of Bigton, in the possession of whose heirs it remains to this day.
He was, in 1677, granted arms "Gilbert Neven of Shousburgh, Bears ayur a fess betwixt ane increscent and decrescent in chief argent and ane branch of palm slipped in base Or on ane helmet befitting his degree with a mantle gules doubled argent and wreath of his colloures is set for his creest a branch of palme vert. The Motto in ane Escroll Vivis Sperandum.
Gilbert Neven died 14 July 1694, aged 71, having married, Katherine, daughter of Mr. William Umphray, minister of Bressay, by whom he had four sons and four daughters, The eldest son, William, inherited Windhouse, and the second son, Ninian, became VI of Scousburgh.
William Neven III of Windhouse, was a Commissioner of Supply for Zetland in 1696. He died 9 August 1700, having marrie (1) Barbara, daughter of John Kennedy of Kermuik, Provost of Aberdeen, by whom he had a daughter Elizabeth Neven. His second wife was Katherine, daughter of John Mitchell fo Berrie, four sons and one daughter were born of this marriage. The eldest son, Charles, succeeding to the estate of Windhouse. Charles was twice married (1) to Jean, second daughter of Sir John Mitchell of Westshore, Bart. She died shortly after marriage leaving no issue. The second wife, Margaret, was the daugher of John Bruce of Symbister, there were two sons and five daughters born to them. The eldestson, William John, succeedded to Windhouse and married Margaret, eldest daughter of Thomas Gifford of Busta, they had one child, Elizabeth, who died in 1750 at the age of nine. William John Nevin died at Bergen a year later and the estate went to his brother, Robert Alexander Neven the sixth of Windhouse.
Robert Alexander the last of Windhouse married Janet, daughter of Ninian Spence of Valster, they had issue five daughters and no sons. Robert Neven died in 1817. Janet his eldest daughter married Lieutenant David Spence. R.N. and her sister Anna married her cousin Basil Spence. The Spence family were the Trustees of the estate of Windhouse which in 1873 consisted of 3005 acres, annual income £204.
Ninian Neven sixth of Scousburgh, second son of Gilbert fifth of Scousburgh, married (1) Helen, daughter of John Sinclair of Quendale (2) Katherine, daughter of James Graeme of Graemeshall. Five sons and three daughters were born of these marriages. The eldest, Gilbert, succeeding to the estate. Ninian Neven was drowned 12 October 1712.
Gilbert Neven seventh and last of Scousburgh died in 1743. He married Barbara, daughter of William Dick of Fracafield and they had a son James who died in infancy, and a daughter Helen who was served heir to her fahter and married Robert Mitchell, a shipmaster of Zetland. She died in 1808.
John Nevnen of Luning was the thired son fo John Neven II of Scousburgh and followed the family profession of the law. He married Elizabeth Gifford and had issue, three sons; John his heir, Laurence III of Luning, and Andrew of Gremista.
John Neven II of Luning married Janet, daughter of Robert Bruce of Sumburgh, she survived him. They had two daughters, Ursula and Elizabeth, served heirs portioners of their father in 1711. Ursula married her cousin, Andrew Neven of Gremista, above; and Elizabeth married Dr. John Ogilvy of Stone.
Laurence Neven brother of John, became III of Luining and a lawyer by profession. He married Elizabeth Sinclair and had issue a son, John, who apparently the last of the male line, as his cousins Ursula and Elizabeth Neven inherited the estate of Luning in 1711.