Shetland, a cluster of more than 100 islands, lies on the 60th parallel, 600 miles north of London and less than 200 miles from Norway.
Location is everything, for although sitting on the same latitude as the southern tip of Greenland, Anchorage in Alaska, St Petersburg and Oslo and appearing remote to southern eyes, (the Romans called Shetland Ultima Thule, the end of the habitable world), the Islands are actually at the centre of their own world, that of the Northern Seas.
Indeed, so special is Shetland that the November/December 2007 edition of National Geographic's "Traveler" magazine lists it as the 3rd equal most desirable island destinations in the world! Click here for the full National Geographic article: National Geographic Traveler
Shetland lies at the junction of temperate Europe and the Arctic Circle and of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, and these conspire to give the Islands a magic all of their own. Geology, scenery, wildlife, archaeology, history, culture… all have been shaped by the sea.
Shaped By The Sea
The sea and its influences are felt everywhere in Shetland – hardly surprising when no point on land is more than 3 miles from it.
Scenery and Geology
The sea has washed and battered Shetland for aeons, creating the spectacular sea cliffs, rock stacks and geos, and the beautiful, pristine beaches that are so impressive today.
During the great Ice Ages the sea was locked up in ice sheets and glaciers which gouged and ground the islands, creating rounded hills and U-shaped valleys and thick layers of debris, exposing Shetland’s fascinating geology in the process. Learn more about Shetland's geology...
The North Atlantic Drift, which starts as the Gulf Stream, brings relatively warm waters sweeping past Shetland from the south, before merging with colder Arctic currents and sweeping on towards Greenland. These currents are rich in plankton, which pass the islands in a constant stream, supporting an amazing quantity of marine wildlife – everything from mackerel to whales.
Of course the sea’s influence is not restricted to marine wildlife. The puffins, otters and other fauna that feed off it, the plants that live in the salt-laden air, even the moorland flora and “inland” fauna that must adapt to the great winds, rain and fog that blow in off it – all are affected to some degree.
Similarly, domestic animals like the remarkable Shetland ponies and Shetland sheep, whose roots in the Islands go back thousands of years, have also adapted by becoming smaller and hardier that those of the “softer” south.
Archaeology and History
Man has also had to adapt to the sea – and bend to its will. Ever since the first Mesolithic hunter gatherers visited over 6,000 years ago, collecting shellfish to eat on the shore, Shetland has, like other parts of Britain, periodically received new settlers and new ideas. However, Shetland is not like the rest of Britain and for most of the last 1200 years the Islands have looked east to Europe rather than south to Britain for their cultural and economic ties.
First it was the Norwegian Vikings, for whom Shetland was an ideal staging post on their voyages across the Northern Seas to and from the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland, or south to Scotland, Ireland and beyond. Shetland was dominated by Norway for over 600 years. This was followed by North German (Hanseatic) and Dutch merchants, whose interest was trade – and especially the fish that proliferate round Shetland’s coast. More recently, Shetland has been home to the military, for whom it was the perfect outpost to guard Britain and NATO’s Northern Approaches, and also to the oilmen exploiting the valuable resource lying beneath the ocean floor.
The evidence for Man’s presence is everywhere and Shetland boasts some quite outstanding archaeology and history, which can be enjoyed in the field or in Shetland’s excellent Shetland Museum & Archives in Lerwick, or as revealed in one of the rural Heritage Centres. Learn more about Shetland's archaeology...
The mixture of northern, southern and eastern influences on the people, together with the Islands’ historic isolation, have given Shetland a unique culture all of its own. Music, dominated by the fiddle, together with dance, singing, poetry and story telling, events and festivals – all have Norse and Scottish affinities, and all have picked up influences from elsewhere. Nevertheless, the result is something distinctly Shetland in character. Shetland is what it is: a land apart.
Today, Shetland’s population of 22,000 lives on 15 of the 100 plus islands in the group, and most (80%) live on the largest, Mainland. Fair Isle, famed for its bird observatory, is the most southerly island, and Foula is the most westerly and Out Skerries the most easterly. Unst, the most northerly and home to Saxa Vord, is one of Shetland’s North Isles, a group which includes Yell and Fetlar.
Traditional industries still dominate the Shetland economy: fishing and fish farming, agriculture, knitwear and tourism, and they contribute in different ways.
Fishing, fish farming and fish processing generates over 50% of the Islands revenue and 74% if the Island Council is excluded. However, fishing and agriculture combined account for only 8.2% of employment.
Although agriculture only contributes 2.8% of total income and a small percentage of full time employment, it is the type of employment that is important. Shetland is a quintessentially crofting area and crofts are found everywhere that people live, adding greatly to the beauty of the landscape and the culture of the people.
Crofts are very small farms, generally too small to provide full time employment but which can nevertheless be a useful additional source of family income. Crofters also croft because it is traditional – it is in their blood – and the low intensity agricultural practices that they follow help encourage and preserve the great diversity of wildlife that we see today.
Oil and Shetland have been synonymous since the 1970s and oil production contributes 12.6% of total income. However, it is Shetland Island Council’s negotiating skill in squeezing revenue out of the major oil companies, money that has been spent on improving infrastructure, encouraging industry and enhancing culture and leisure activities that is really outstanding. The Council is still visited by delegations from Overseas wishing to find out how they did it so that they can apply the lessons to their own circumstances.
For a people so steeped in history and tradition and living so far from the main population centres, Shetlanders are remarkably forward looking, innovative and positive in everything that they do – as demonstrated by their oil negotiations! The Islands are constantly bubbling with new ideas, renewable energy being a case in point, and it is little wonder that in this vibrant island melting pot, the average age of the population is substantially lower than for the Highlands & Islands as a whole. Shetland is an exciting place to live.
Holidaying in Shetland
Shetland clearly has more than it’s fair share of attractions and there is more than enough for all tastes and for all seasons of the year. You can discover, see and experience to your heart’s content and you will leave feeling relaxed, happy and fulfilled having made new friends and learned a little about this unique outpost of Britain for yourself. Of course one Shetland holiday is not enough and once bitten…... You WILL want to return!
Saxa Vord is THE place to experience the best of Shetland and we very much hope to welcome you to our home.
Getting to Shetland is easy, and once here the journey to Saxa Vord is a major attraction itself and it is easy to explore the archipelago as a whole.
A Note On Shetland’s Weather
The summer half of the year is comfortably warm, rainfall is low (comparable with Edinburgh’s), and sunshine hours are long. Add to this the extremely long daylight hours (in mid summer it never gets properly dark, the grey light of “night” being referred to instead as “simmer dim”) and Shetland has a climate made for exploring, walking, cycling and generally enjoying the great outdoors.
Winters, conversely, are darker than in more southerly parts and the weather is also wetter and windier. This is a time for brisk walks to see spectacular coastal scenery before relaxing in front of the fire with a good book and/or a drink, chatting to the locals in the bar, or enjoying a social gathering in a village hall – while looking forward to a great meal based on the finest local produce. Winter is also the time of Shetland’s renowned fire festivals, or Up Helly Aa’s, the largest being in Lerwick but others taking place elsewhere (there are two on Unst).