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Shetland's Culture

Nornova KnitwearThe Shetlanders of today are forward-looking free-thinkers, embracing modern technology and working hard to ensure that their islands thrive in the 21st century. However, they are also immensely proud of their past and of the characteristics that make them Shetlanders.

Shetland’s comparative isolation in the North Atlantic; its scattering of islands separated by stretches of treacherous sea; its harsh environment; and its numerous small, scattered, traditional farming and fishing communities with their long and turbulent histories: all have combined to give the Islanders a strong sense of place and a belief in their own unique cultural identity and traditions.  

Music, dance, story-telling, traditional crafts, festivals – all are strong and all play an important role in the lives of modern Shetlanders.

National & Cultural Identity

Although Scottish since 1468 and British since 1707, and despite being an important part of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland, Shetland was under Norse control for far longer is has been Scottish/British and it is the North Atlantic rather than the British culture that drives the island.

It is also worth pointing out that although forming an important part of the Highlands & Islands, the Gaelic culture that has dominated the vast majority of that area for well over a thousand years never reached Shetland. The Scots who did move north after Scotland gained control were largely English-speaking Lowlanders.  Therefore, Gaelic was never spoken by Shetlanders and there are no Gaelic place names, any Gaelic house names being recent. Similarly, kilts were never worn and bagpipes were never played by Shetlanders.

The Shetland flag – similar in design to those of Scandinavia rather than other parts of Britain – is flown from many homes and Scotland is spoken of as just another country in Britain. Quite simply, Shetlanders are Shetlanders – a people apart.

Place Names

Almost all place names on Unst and in Shetland as a whole are of Norse origin, though many show Scots or English influences. Only the island names like Unst, Yell, Fetlar and Shetland appear to be pre-Viking and the general absence of pre-Viking place names has suggested to at least one academic that the Vikings slaughtered the local population to keep the islands for themselves.

Similarly, and as already mentioned, the complete absence of Gaelic culture means that there are no traditional Gaelic place names and any Gaelic house names are very recent.
Place names generally describe the landscape, for example, the suffixes –wick, –firth and –voe mean inlet or bay, while –a, –ay or –ey refers to island.

The Shetland Amenity Trust is involved in a fascinating project to study the islands’ place names. Find out more about Shetland Place Names

Spaekin Shaetlan – The Shetland Dialect

Dunna chuck bruck!English is universally spoken in Shetland. However, Shetlanders speaking to Shetlanders will be 'spaekin Shaetlan' (“speaking Shetland), their vocabulary, expressions and pronunciation owning much to Norn, the Norse language.

Scottish (Lowland Scots English) words and phrases started to infiltrate Norn well before Shetland became part of Scotland in 1469, but Norn remained in use for a long times afterwards. It is thought likely that, with the exception of the remoter islands, Shetlanders were bilingual by 1600 and that Scots English was universally used by 1700, Norn dying out altogether as a language in the 18th century. However, it is little wonder that the sound of Shetlanders speaking Shaetlan is, to the outsider, remarkably similar to the sound of Norwegians speaking English.

“Shaetlan” is very important to the Islanders, and also to incomers. Indeed recent research indicates that the children of the English workers that moved to the islands during the oil boom of the 1970’s often sound more traditionally “local” than the children of native Shetlanders – they want to fit into the islands of their birth.

For more information on “spaekin Shaetlan” see the Shetland Forwirds website.  

Up Helly Aa

Immensely proud of the Viking heritage, it is no wonder that Shetlanders have made the famous Viking fire festival of Up Helly Aa their own. Involving around 800 bearded guizers and led by the annually appointed Jarl (earl), the squad marches through the streets before burning a Viking galley. Truly spectacular, the Lerwick Up Helly Aa is the biggest fire festival in Europe and a great occasion for locals and visitors alike, and a way for Shetlanders to reaffirm their roots.

The Lerwick Up Helly Aa takes place annually on the last Tuesday in January. Unst has two Up Helly Aa’s and visitors are made extremely welcome:

• The first is in mid-February in Uyeasound
• The second takes place a fortnight later in Norwick, close to Saxa Vord.

Traditional Crafts


Knitting must be the most famous traditional Shetland craft and it is worth a lot of money to islands - £2.5 million in 2001.  Shetland sheep were probably brought to the islands by the Vikings well over 1,000 years ago and today the island species is considered a primitive breed. Shetland sheep are small and produce superb meat and fine, soft fleeces in a multitude of colours.

Knitting varies from the intricate and famous Fair Isle patterns (in fact knitted throughout Shetland) to the “wedding ring shawls” – shawls made so fine that they can be passed through a wedding ring. Unst in particular was famous for its fine knitted lace knitting, even the Royal Family buying it in the Victorian period.

Shetland woollens can be bought on Unst.

Boat Building

Boats are still hand-made in Shetland though boat building in the islands is not as ancient as one might think. It appears that the absence of trees or suitable driftwood on the islands ensured that the timber had to be imported – and rather than import raw timber it was often simpler to sail the ready-made boats over from Norway or to bring them over in prefabricated sections. Thus it is only after Scotland really started to dominate Shetland culture in about 1800 and timber could be easily imported from that country that Shetland boat building took off in a big way.

Today, traditional clinker boats – sixareens and Shetland “yoals” – are still built occasional on Unst, next door to the Boat Haven.


Steven Soence - renowned fiddler from UnstShetland is justly renowned for its traditional music, and especially for its fiddle playing, which falls into three categories: listening tunes, ritual tunes (wedding etc) and dance music.

Fiddle playing in Shetland can be traced back to around 1700. Before this time a primitive two-stringed cello-like instrument called a gue had accompanied the old dances of Norse origin, but it and they had gradually died out, only a few of the tunes surviving. It is also likely that Shetland was exposed to, and influenced by, the Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, which would account for the “ringing strings” sound in Shetland playing. Tunes like “The Silver Bow”, The Muckle Reel of Finnigarth” and “The Day Dawn” all appear to have their roots in Norwegian Hardanger fiddle music. Some wedding tunes also seem to have their roots in Norway. 

By 1700 Scottish influence had started to assert itself, many of the island’s lairds being Lowland Scots, and with them came a new culture with its own musical traditions based on the fiddle. At that time Shetland’s small population (about half of today’s) was scattered across the islands and travel between was difficult and outside influences few. Fiddles were scarce so fiddlers in the remote island communities composed and adapted their own tunes and different styles evolved on each island.

A remarkable tale is told of Unst where, in 1743, a German sailor called Freidmann von Steigl jumped ship with his fiddle and went on to father a dynasty of very fine Unst fiddlers who had a strong influence on Shetland music. Some of his descendents still live on Unst today.

By 1809 music and dancing brightened up the long winter evenings right across Shetland and it was estimated that around 10% of “the peasantry” could play the fiddle. Reels became very popular from about 1760.

In the 19th century fiddle music was increasingly influenced by Lowland Scottish culture and from whalers who had visited Greenland, though a number of the old Norse dances, especially reels and the wheel dance and their tunes, remained. Towards the end of this century increased cultural links introduced a flood of new-fangled dances: waltzes, polkas and quadrilles, each requiring new tunes. New instruments also started to arrive and fiddles were joined by accordions for the first time.

The First World War marks a watershed in European culture and Shetland fiddle music is no exception. After the War the younger players introduced a rash of new tunes heavily influenced from the world outside, and there was a real danger that the old music, which was still played in the remoter islands, would be lost forever. Fortunately, this was not the case, for in 1945 a great man named Tom Anderson started to preserve the old traditional music by building an archive of recordings. He also did more than anyone to encourage fiddle playing amongst the young.

Today, Shetland boasts 7 full time fiddle teachers in schools and every pupil over 8 has the opportunity to learn. As a result there are over 140 school pupils learning fiddle at any one time and over 100 entries in the Open and Traditional Sections of the Shetland Young Musician on The Year competition.

Traditional music – sometimes with a modern twist – has really taken off in Shetland, and for the first time female players are amongst the foremost exponents.  

In addition to the doyen of Shetland fiddlers, Aly Bain, a whole string of bands and solo artists are producing some astonishingly good music and both the music and musicians are winning international plaudits. 

To find out more about Shetland’s music and about 2007’s musical events and festivals please visit Shetland Arts excellent and comprehensive music website: www.shetland-music.com

In addition, Unst’s own fiddle supremo, Steven Spence, records, composes and sells fiddles and is one of the island’s great characters. A visit to his website is a treat in itself: www.spenciestunes.com


The only surviving example of a traditional tune with old Norn words is “The Unst Boat Song”, the opening line of which goes, “Starka Virna Vestalie” – A strong wind is blowing out of the west”.

A great many of the oldest Shetland songs are lullabies, their rhythm being based on the rhythm of the spinning wheels at which the mothers worked, and spinning work had its own songs.

Many more recent songwriters have added modern lyrics in the Shaetlan dialect to ancient tunes and singing remains very popular throughout the islands today.  


Traditional dancing in ShetlandWhile Shetland’s dancing tradition goes back into the dawn of time, most of the dance styles of today do not go back before the 18th century.

At the beginning of the 18th century people would still have danced the old Norse ring-dances at weddings, generally to chanting rather than music, but by the middle of the century Scottish dances were establishing themselves, most notably reels played on the recently introduced fiddle.

These reels were generally danced in small cottages with limited space and so were restricted to three couples, only one being able to dance at a time, to fiddle music that was strong and rhythmic.

By the 19th century the ring-dance was still performed occasionally at weddings, as were some of the old reels, but new reels were also coming in from Scotland, to be adapted to suit Shetland style and circumstances. However, exceptions do exist, the Foula Reel, for example, being based on a Swedish dance.

In the latter half of the 19th century Shetland’s contact with the outside world – and with its influences – was transformed. Seasonally employed men and women from Scotland arriving for the herring fishing and Shetland men returning on leave from Britain’s expanding merchant navy all brought the latest news of the outside world with them – as well as new dances. Polkas, quadrilles and waltzes were all introduced, together with new instruments to accompany the fiddle, adding rhythm and richness, and dancing became the rage. Cottages were simply too small and village halls started to be built.

And so music and dance have continued to evolve ever since. However, as with everywhere else in Britain and Europe, traditional music and dance became synonymous with old fashioned music, musical instruments and dance. Young people were more interested in the latest modern dance crazes to sweep the world outside. Nevertheless, as described in “Music”, traditional music is still very much alive and is constantly adapting to meet modern tastes – it is certainly not fossilised. Young people learn dances in school and there is plenty of opportunity to practice them in the many dances that take place around the islands.

Story Telling - Folklore

In common with all rural areas with long-established cultures, story telling is an ancient tradition right across the Highlands and Islands and Shetland is no exception. People would gather round the fire on long winter nights to tell tales, frequently frightening each other with supernatural goings on, and the best would be handed down through the generations to the present day.

As with language, music and dance, story telling is another area where Norse influence was and is still strong, the main themes of the stories being based on fishing and crofting.

Predictably, the first mention of trolls in English occurs in Shetland where, in 1616, a woman was charged with witchcraft for summoning a troll from a graveyard. 

Shetland stories today often feature trows, small, shy, nocturnal goblin-like creatures living under mounds. They are generally left alone and one shouldn’t annoy them. They also have a tendency to kidnap musicians to play at their underground weddings! The word “trow” could come from “troll” of from “draugr”, described as “animated mound-dwelling corpses”. 

Shetland also has nuggles or nyuggles – water-horses that live in the steams under watermills where they seek to entice travellers to sit on their backs, upon which they rush into the nearest loch to drown them. Nuggles are similar to the Highland “each uisge” and Lowland “kelpie”.

Lapps or Norway Finns are the sea-living version of the trow. They are shape-shifters and powerful sorcerers who can change rapidly from human form into sea monsters, chasing ships in packs and dragging them down to their doom.     

Shetland has a number of outstanding storytellers and no holiday is complete without a tale or two.

How The Hill Of Saxa Vord Got Its Turf Covering And Hermaness Its Mist.

Hermaness and the hill of Saxa Vord are separated by a sea inlet – Burra Firth. Back in the mists of time two giants, Herma and Saxa, lived on Unst and they had the misfortune to fall in love with the same mermaid who sat on Flugga rock at the mouth of the Firth, combing her hair and singing all day – as mermaids do.

The giants quarrelled over the fair mermaid, the quarrel got out of hand, and they soon started throwing large rocks at each other which ended up in the sea to become Saxa’s Baa. Indeed, a large one thrown by Saxa became Out Stack, the most northerly outcrop in the British Isles.

Violence never did anyone any good and sure enough a passing witch put a stop to the quarrel by turning Herma into the mist that frequently shrouds the Ness, and covering Saxa in turf to form the Vord or hill.

Alternatively, the mermaid, fed up with all the fuss, said that she would marry whichever one would accompany her to the North Pole. Non-swimmers, the two giants both leapt into the sea and were drowned. 


Plantecrub - one of many on UnstCrofts are small farms generally containing Shetland sheep, possibly cattle, and Shetland ponies, and growing the fodder crops to feed them in winter. Farm animals spend much of the year on the common grazing and can be seen almost anywhere one drives. Oats and bere – primitive barley – were also traditionally grown. Vegetables are hard to grow and so planticrubs, small circular dry-stone wall enclosures, were built to shelter Shetland cabbage and kale seedlings from the wind and sheep. A few are still in use. 



Shetland Sheep

Belonging to the Northern short-tailed group, Shetland sheep were introduced into the islands in the 8th century and have evolved in isolation ever since. They are small and hardy and can survive in the harsh climate on little food. They produce lean meat with superb flavour and the finest wool of any British breed.

Shetland Ponies

Shetland pony & foalShetland ponies have lived on Shetland for over 2,000 years and have had little contact with stock from elsewhere so they have adapted beautifully to their environment, being very small and extremely hardy. They have been exported from Shetland for the past 200 years and have proved extremely adaptable animals, their main use in the 19th century being as pit-ponies in coal mines. For more information see the Shetland Pony Stud Book Society website.

Fishermen, LerwickFishing, Fish & Shellfish Farming

The sea continues to play an important part in the Unst economy, though nowadays it is mainly fish and shellfish farming rather than fishing that dominates.

Salmon farming remains very important, mainly at Uyeasound but also In Baltasound, where there is an organic farm.

Mussel farming is a major growth industry in Shetland and on Unst, where the sounds are ideally suited to their production: they need shelter from storms and strong tidal currents to ensure that the water is recycled to keep them clean and bring new food and oxygen. Oysters are also grown in Unst’s clean waters, for sale locally and to markets worldwide via the internet.

To find out more about Shetland’s coastal waters see the Shetland Marine News.