With 100 fair islands in the Shetland Group, this northern precinct is a proud and fascinating family member of the United Kingdom.
As a television backdrop, it has the stark beauty that cameras devour, a bare tree-stripped subarctic terrain of rugged coastline that reminds you more of Scandinavia than Scotland. And with good reason. Though Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez keeps airlines solvent jetting between Lerwick and Glasgow or Edinburgh in the popular BBC TV series Shetland, he could save money and time by commuting to Oslo, given that the archipelago of 100 islands, 15 of them inhabited, is closer to Norway than to Britain.
Closer in more ways than one. There is an unmistakable social and cultural thread that makes sense when you realise that Shetland did not become part of the Kingdom of Great Britain until 1707. That it now constitutes the northern most part of the British Isles is as much by accident as anything else.
This is where the North Sea meets the Atlantic and it is certainly not the gentle Dorset countryside – there is no Morris Dancing around the Maypole on Shetland. Instead, the villagers have a primeval fire festival called ‘Up Helly Aa’ where squads of costumed ‘guizers’, massed up to a thousand strong, promenade with flaming torches, which they toss into a replica Viking galley that dragged through the streets ablaze while the traditional song ‘The Norseman’s Home’ is sung lustily by all.
Once it would have been barrels of burning tar pulled on sledges by menacing young men, but even in the scaled-down version, now staged in ten Shetland locations on the last Tuesday in January (and featured in dramatic, climactic scenes in the Shetland TV series), it is one of the most compelling attractions Scotland has to offer, awakening ancient urges never far below the surface.
The name of the festival draws on the words uppi and helly, still used to describe holy days on the Faroe Islands and Iceland. The island’s motto, appearing on its coat or arms, is an Icelandic phrase taken from the Danish 1241 Basic Law, which translates into English as “By law shall land be built”.
There is said to be more than 6000 years of history here, with Neolithic settlers leaving their mark well before Vikings set foot upon the islands. As the tourism pitch goes: “From Iron Age brochs to mysterious stone formations, from Pictish wheelhouses to traditional crofthouses, up to towering clifftops sculpted by millennia of wind, sea and sand.” Shetland would still be part of Norway had it not been gifted to Scotland in lieu of the dowry for one of their princesses in 1469.
Shetland has itself well sorted for tourism, with a steady stream of cruise liners maintaining the flow. Those a little more intent on the experiences on offer than the day trippers come (often by overnight ferry from Aberdeen) for the North Sea Cycle Route, quality restaurants and hotels, a massive folk festival with some of Britain’s best roots musicians and some notable visitors, unique knitwear, walking trails that have achieved a Geopark status, beaches ranging from boulder-strewn storm covers to stretches of soft sand and a wildlife array that embraces puffins, seals, otters, storm petrels, hedgehogs, stoats and killer whales. Small horses have been bred on Shetland since the Bronze Age and the ubiquitous Shetland Ponies, which roam unrestrained on some islands, have been a motif of the islands for at least 2000 years.
Shetland enjoys the reputation of being more a collection of small worlds rather than islands, thanks to a collision of natural and human history. The mainland is not Scotland proper but the island known as Mainland – the location of the port of Lerwick and its 7500 inhabitants (with traces of human settlement ranging back 3000 years). It is linked to the other inhabited islands by ferries, though Burra is actually two islands connected to each other by a bridge over a narrow sound, with Tondra connected to both by bridges. Unst, Britain’s northernmost inhabited island, is primarily a nature reserve for North Atlantic sea birds.
Sturdy and loyal, the Shetlands hold a position of some respect and admiration as the northern outpost of the United Kingdom. In 1917 alone more than 4500 ships sailed from Lerwick as part of an Escorted Convoy system; though the Shetlands paid a high price, losing some 500 men, a higher proportion than any other part of Britain. Today there is a welcome prosperity, from fishing, agriculture, renewable energy and oil, visible in the island’s art, sport, social welfare and environmental undertakings.