AN old favourite quiz question of mine is this: what does the P and the O in P&O Ferries and Cruises stand for?

The answer is Peninsular and Oriental, the name the company was given by its co-founder, a remarkable Shetlander called Arthur Anderson who was born in this week in 1792.

To be exact, he was born on February 19 of that year in the Bod of Gremista near Lerwick – bod being the local word for a booth. It was built just a dozen years previously as a typical fishing booth to house fish curers who carried out their work on nearby beaches. The Bod still stands, having been restored as a museum which, among other exhibits, houses a display about its most famous occupant.

Anderson‘s father seems to have been in charge of the Bod, and after an elementary education at a local parish school young Arthur was put to work at the age of 12 on the nearby island of Bressay, where he assisted in the fish curing operations on the shingle beach.

Teenaged boys on Shetland at that time usually faced three choices for a future – work on the family croft, join the islands’ fishing fleet as a crewman or emigrate to find work elsewhere.

Many boys were press-ganged into the Royal Navy – an abhorrent practice akin to slavery for which no compensation was ever paid – and this fate almost happened to Anderson at the age of 15.

By then he was working as a clerk in the office of the local estate factor, Thomas Bolt, who had recognised Anderson’s intelligence. Bolt managed to persuade the press gang to release Anderson, but only on the promise that the 15-year-old would join the Royal Navy the following year.

This he duly did, and he first served as a midshipman aboard HMS Ardent – a much later “descendant” ship of that name was sunk off the Falklands in 1982.

As he left Shetland, Thomas Bolt told him “do weel and persevere”, which became Anderson’s motto.

Life as a midshipman did not offer Anderson sufficient chances to progress, so he took up shipboard clerking, which gave him considerable knowledge of the business side of shipping. When he was discharged near the end of the war with France, Anderson made his way to London to become a clerk, but poverty-stricken, he walked from London to Portsmouth to rejoin the Navy when Napoleon broke out from Elba and the war restarted.

After the war finally finished, he became clerk in the shipping and insurance firm of Brodie McGhee Willcox, where he made rapid advancements, so much so that he was made a partner at the age of 30 and the firm became Willcox and Anderson.

In the 1820s and 1830s, the company provided shipping services for the royalist sides in the internal wars in Spain and Portugal. It was at this time that Anderson performed feats of daring, at one point going on a secret mission to smuggle out two diplomats from Portugal. His contacts in both countries proved invaluable in the years ahead.

The key development in Anderson’s career was his realisation that steam was the way ahead for shipping, and in 1835, with Dublin shipowner Captain Richard Bourne, he and Willcox formed the Peninsular Steam Navigation Company – P&O’s company flag still features the red, white, blue and gold of those two Iberian countries.

The company continued to expand and moved further east, winning contracts from the Admiralty to deliver mail as far away as Egypt. The lure of the opium trade was irresistible, even after the First Opium War, and what was then a perfectly legal commodity made the firm expand to the Far East, so that they became the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company by royal charter in 1840.

P&O was on its way to becoming what Anderson hoped it would be – the commercial shipping line with the largest fleet of steamships in the world.

Yet Anderson had never really left the Shetlands – not in his heart at any rate. He would return as often as he could, and in 1836 he paid to establish the islands’ first newspaper, the Shetland Journal, which he edited at first.

To promote the islands’ lace trade, he arranged for a gift of lace to be sent to Queen Victoria. She promptly ordered a dozen similar items and Shetland lace stockings became the “must-have” fashion of the day. He also brought innovation to fisheries and had houses built for fishermen and their families.

Most famously, he paid for the establishment of the Anderson Educational Institute, later the Anderson High School, in 1862. By that time he had already served a term as MP for Orkney and Shetland. He died aged 76 in London on February 27, 1868, and is buried in West Norwood Cemetery.

As an entrepreneur from humble origins, Anderson has had few equals in Scottish history. Anderson High School retains his name to this day, having moved from the original building to new premises 18 months ago. The school’s motto is “do weel and persevere”.