Welcome to Shetland Isles
Shetland is the most northerly part of the British Isles. Quite how northerly these islands are is not always fully comprehended. On a similar latitude to Oslo and St Petersburg and southern parts of Alaska and Greenland, Shetland is closer to Norway than to Aberdeen and as far from London as the Pyrenees.
Rainbow at Shetland Islands
Shetland is sparsely populated: the 23,000 Shetlanders live on just 17 of 100 islands. Remoteness and a relatively small population make the islands a haven for wildlife; seals and minke whales, basking sharks and porpoises are often spotted in the coastal waters; fulmars, puffins, gulls and skuas create a din on the cliffs while inland is the domain of the famous Shetland pony, as well as the ubiquitous sheep. Much of the natural beauty of the islands lies in the wide windswept places broken by lochans, the thrashing waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the towering sea cliffs and a dramatic coastline which measures in excess of 900 miles.
These beautiful islands have been home to man for over 8000 years, from the time when the first hunter gatherers called on their shores. While much of the evidence of the earliest settlement has been wiped out by rising sea levels, Shetland retains some of the finest examples of later Neolithic archaeological sites in Europe. The most significant site may be Jarlshof, at the southern extreme of Mainland on the tip of the peninsula at Sumburgh Head. Here remarkably well preserved remains of a Stone Age settlement testify to human occupation going back 5000 years.
In the first millennium BC fortified towers, or ‘brochs,’ started to spring up on Shetland: evidence of increased conflict in the islands. There are around 100 brochs dotted around the coasts of Shetland. The most notable is probably the broch on the uninhabited island of Mousa, regarded as being the best preserved broch in the world. Clickimin Broch, near Lerwick, is interesting as it is part of a largely intact Bronze Age complex which includes a farmhouse, a sheep enclosure, stone troughs for barely cultivation and early forms of curtain walls.
The Celtic societies that developed in Shetland were protected from Roman incursion by the sheer remoteness of the islands. These societies showed their creativity by producing a number of carved standing stones and circles, such as the Papil Stone and the Bressay Stone. The tribal groups eventually fell under the authority of the Pictish Kings. On St Ninian’s Isle in 1958 a treasure was discovered consisting of a number of Pictish era brooches, engraved silver chalices and bowls which are now exhibits in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Pictish settlements have also been uncovered at sites such as Old Scatness.
The Pictish era in Shetland was to be short-lived. By the late eighth century the Vikings arrived as conquerors and settlers. What happened to the original inhabitants is an ongoing cause of debate. In any case, the islands were to become a pivotal part of the Scandinavian empire for over 600 years. On the island of Unst, where it is believed the invaders first landed, roughly 30 early Viking house sites have so far been identified. Viking sites are forever being uncovered. In 2002, for example, TV’s ‘Time Team’ uncovered a Norse boat grave on Fetlar.
Shetland finally became part of Scotland in 1468. Christian I, king of Denmark and Norway, facing bankruptcy granted Scottish authority over both Orkney and Shetland as the consequence of his failure to pay a dowry owed for his daughter’s marriage to James III. Thus, James III gained not only a wife but a considerable chunk of valuable territory. With this transaction today’s map of Scotland was complete. Nonetheless, today Scandinavian influence lives on in the place names, folklore, customs and culture of the islands.
Despite the changeover the capital of Shetland remained Scalloway. At first the transition from Scandinavian to Scots rule was fairly smooth. However, this was to change with the appointment of the Stewart Earls of Orkney and Shetland, the first of which was Robert Stewart in 1564. While Robert concentrated his efforts on plundering Orkney, his son Patrick was to pay more attention to Shetland, much to the distress of the local people. In 1600 he had Scalloway Castle built to secure his grip on the islands, using the tried and tested methods of his father, brutality and corruption, to secure the funds for this monument to his prestige. However, the Stewart Earls power hungry lack of self restraint was soon their downfall and both Patrick and his son, Robert, were executed. In 1708 the capital of Shetland became Lerwick and the Scalloway Castle fell into decline. Nonetheless it is still an impressive building, although somewhat isolated in the midst of a modern development, and testament to the greed which prejudiced many Shetlanders against the new Scottish regime.
Today Lerwick is the only town in Shetland. It started life as a shanty town used for the debaucherous pursuits of Dutch fishermen, whose economic interest prompted a Dutch invasion in 1673. In the 19th century the town expanded on the back of the boom in the herring industry and the Lerwick we know today took shape.
The final phase of development is ongoing and is the result of a new boom, this time caused by the discovery of North Sea Oil. Although the largest harbour construction is at Sullom Voe, Lerwick’s harbour too has expanded northwards, at the same time as major housing development. Shetland’s prime position in the North Sea Oil industry has allowed its council to become perhaps the wealthiest in Scotland. This is especially important on these remarkable islands as it means that resources can more easily be found to help preserve some of Shetland’s unique historic and archaeological treasures.