advertisement

97km (60 miles) N and NE of the Orkneys

The northernmost part of the British Isles, the archipelago of the Shetland Islands comprises some 100 islands that make up 130 sq. km (50 sq. miles) of land. Many are merely islets or rocks, but 17 are inhabited. The major island is called Mainland, as in the Orkneys. This island, on which the capital, Lerwick, is located, is about 89km (55 miles) long and 32km (20 miles) wide. It has been turned into what some critics have called "a gargantuan oil terminal." The Shetlands handle about half of Britain's oil.

The islands also have been called "that long string of peat and gneiss that stands precariously where three seas -- the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, and the Arctic Ocean -- meet." Shetland's fjordlike voes (sheer rock cliffs) make the islands beautiful in both seascape and landscape. But it's a stark beauty, wild and rugged, with windswept moors. Because there are few trees, the landscape at first looks barren. After a while, though, it begins to seem fascinating, especially when you come upon a typical Shetlander in his sturdy Wellington boots and thick woolen sweater, cutting peat along a bog as his ancestors did before him. Shetlanders are proud, warm, and often eager to share the treasures of their island chain with you. At no point in Shetland are you more than 5km (3 miles) from the sea -- the coastline stretches for some 4,830km (3,000 miles).

The major airport is at Sumburgh, on the southern tip of the southernmost island of Mainland. The far-northern outpost is Muckle Flugga Lighthouse, an advanced achievement of engineering. Standing poised on near-vertical rock, it's the "last window on the world" through which Great Britain looks out to the north. It's not as cold here as you might think: The Shetland archipelago benefits from the warming influence of the Gulf Stream, but even in summer the weather tends to be chilly. Shetland has less than half the annual rainfall recorded in the western Highlands. In summer, there's almost continuous daylight. The Shetlanders call it "Simmer Dim." In midwinter, there are no more than 5 hours of daylight.

Civilization here dates back some 5,000 years. The Shetlands were inhabited more than 2,000 years before the arrival of the Romans, who called them "Ultima Thule." The Neolithic people arrived first, followed by the people of the Iron and Bronze Ages, who gave way to the Picts and the Celts. But the most enduring influence came from the Vikings, who ruled the Shetlands until some 500 years ago. The Norse established an influence that lasted for centuries and is still evident today in language, culture, and customs.

The Vikings held the islands from A.D. 800 until they were given to Scotland in 1469 as part of the wedding dowry of Princess Margaret of Norway when she married James III. Scotland's takeover of the Shetlands marked a sad period in the life of the islanders, who found themselves under the sway of often cruel and unreasonable feudal barons. One of the most hated of rulers was Earl Patrick Stewart, who was assigned the dubious task of imposing Scottish customs on a people who had known only Viking law. His son matched him in cruelty, and eventually both earls were executed in Edinburgh for their crimes. Shetlanders still think of themselves as separate from Scots.

The impact of the North Sea oilmen on this traditionally strait-laced community is noticeable, in overcrowding and in other ways. However, away from all the oil activity, life in the Shetlands goes on much as it always did, except for the profusion of modern conveniences and imported foodstuffs. Incidentally, you'll notice that food on Shetland tastes better when it's from Shetland -- try the distinctive salted and smoked Reestit mutton to see what we mean.

The islands are famous for their ponies and wool. Shetland ponies roam freely among the hills and common grazing lands in the island chain. Some are shipped south to England, where they're popular as children's mounts. The Shetlands also have 10% of all the seabirds in the British Isles, and several of the smaller islands or islets have nature reserves. Seals are protected and welcomed here -- you can see them drifting among the waves, sliding down in pursuit of a fish dinner, or lounging about on the rocks and beaches. Most of them are Atlantic gray seals, with their big angular heads. The common seal, with a dog-shaped head, is most often found on the islet of Mousa. And if you want to see otters, you have a better chance in Shetland than anywhere else in Britain.

Anglers find some 200 freshwater lochs in Shetland, and deep-sea angling makes for a memorable sport. Many world fishing records have been set in Shetland. "Ton-up" fish are common.

The island craftspeople are noted for their creativity, reflected in their handicrafts, jewelry, and knitwear. In some places, you can watch these items being made in the workshops of the artists. Hand-knitted sweaters are still produced in great numbers, and anyone contemplating a visit might want to return with at least one.

Note: It's imperative to have advance reservations if you're considering a trip to the Shetlands, especially in midsummer.