(Shetland Islands)


Principal Town: Lerwick
Population (1991):
Area (hectares): 147097
Entry Updated: 21-SEP-2015
Local Authority Contact Information

Address: Shetland Council
Town Hall

Occupying a land area of 567 sq miles (1468 sq. km), these windswept islands stretch for over 95 miles from Muckle Flugga in the north to the Fair Isle in the south, the longest of the islands being the Mainland which is 55 miles long and 20 miles wide at its broadest point. The Shetland National Scenic Area comprises seven distinct areas of coastal landscape; Esha Ness, Fair Isle, Fethaland, Foula, Herma Ness, Muckle Roe and the South West Mainland (from Weisdale Voe in the north to Fitful Head in the south, including all the offshore islands). Geologically, Shetland represents the tops of a range of drowned hills whose Pre-Cambrian and Dalradian rocks seldom decompose into fertile soil but give rise to bleak landscapes of blanket peat interspersed with rocky outcrops. Granite and gneiss are common in the north, while in the south and east grey-brown flagstones give a distinctive appearance to buildings. Many of the islands are fringed by steep cliffs which are home to large colonies of nesting birds and much of the island archipelago's 900-mile (1450-km) coastline is indented, long inlets or voes leading to low shingle shores that often rise up to long whale-backed hills. The climate of Shetland is oceanic - mild in winter and cool in summer, the North Atlantic Drift bringing a milder climate than might be expected to this northerly latitude (60°N). In the summertime, when the days are long, the sky barely darkens between the midnight hour and dawn, a time that gives rise to the 'Simmer Dim'. Strong winds and saltspray combine to limit vegetation growth to a stunted state, trees being a rare sight amongst the isles.

A year round daily ferry service links Shetland with Aberdeen and the Orkney islands and during the summer months a weekly service calls at Lerwick en route from Norway, Denmark, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. There are vehicle ferry links with Unst, Yell, Fetlar, the Out Skerries, Whalsay, Bressay, Fair isle, Papa Stour and Foula. Most air flights to Shetland are routed through Aberdeen, while internal flights link surfaced airstrips at Sumburgh, Scatsta and Tingwall on the Mainland with airfields on Unst, Fair Isle, Fetlar, Foula, the Out Skerries and Whalsay.

Shetland still actively uses parishes as administrative and cultural divisions.

The Shetland Islands, occupying a maritime crossroads where the North Sea meets the Atlantic, have been continuously inhabited for at least 5,500 years since the arrival of the first Neolithic farmers. The first settlers would have encountered a kinder climate and low, scrubby forest, a landscape subsequently altered by grazing, clearance of woodland and climatic change. The archaeological remains of these early Neolithic and Bronze Age farming communities are amongst the most outstanding in Europe, as are the more prominent Iron Age fortifications which include the Mousa Broch. The sites of almost 100 of these brochs have been found in the islands. Christianity first arrived amongst the Pictish people of Shetland during the 6th century AD and several early churches from this period have been found, the most notable being the one on St Ninian's Isle whose ruins yielded a rich hoard of Celtic church silver in 1958. The subsequent arrival of the Vikings during the 8th century left an indelible mark on the culture, language and place-names of Shetland which remains to this day. Under Norse control for nearly five centuries, the islands were eventually pledged to the Scottish crown in 1469 under the marriage treaty of King James III and Princess Margaret of Denmark.

Oppressively ruled by Scottish lairds in medieval times, the people of the Shetland Islands saw their lands carved up into large estates. Despite this, the islanders maintained strong trading links with northern Europe, exchanging local dried fish for cloth and other luxury goods. The later emigration of crofters during the 19th century was temporarily stemmed during the great herring boom which lasted until the First World War.

The older form of the name, Zetland, is now seldom used but was the official name of Zetland County Council until 1975. It still survives in the title of the earldom of Zetland, created in 1838 for Laurence Dundas and superseded in 1892 by the marquisate awarded to his grandson. The Norse Hjaltland ('High Land') for Scotland's most northerly group of islands is variously rendered in Scots and English as Hetland, Yetland, Zetland and Shetland.

Taking advantage of their strategic position, the islands played an important role in two World Wars after which the fishing industry was revitalised and sheep farming extended to provide the basis of a growing knitwear industry. Shetland Lamb was awarded Protected Designation of Origin status by the European Union in 1996. The tourist trade subsequently developed with the arrival of regular air and ferry services to the islands and in the 1970s the Shetland economy was given a dramatic boost with the establishment of air and sea bases, most notably at Sumburgh and Sullom Voe, to service the North Sea oil industry. Fish processing, knitwear and marine engineering, all largely based in the administrative centre Lerwick, are the chief manufacturing industries while fishing, fish processing, fish farming, agriculture and oil related activities are the main primary industries. The oil industry brought a boost in population, while waves of immigration from Poland (later 1990s) and Hungary (mid 2000s) brought workers for the fish processing industry.
References and Further Reading
Fenton, Alexander (1978) The Northern Isles: Orkney and Shetland. John Donald Publishers Ltd., Edinburgh
Finnie, Mike (1990) Shetland: An Illustrated Architectural Guide. Mainstream Publications and the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, Edinburgh
Fojut, Noel and Denys Pringle (1993) The Ancient Monuments of Shetland. HMSO Edinburgh
Goodlad, C. A. (1971) Shetland Fishing Saga. Shetland Times, Lerwick
Haswell-Smith, Hamish (1996) The Scottish Islands. Canongate, Edinburgh
Howarth, David (2011) The Shetland Bus. The Shetland Times Ltd., Lerwick
Jacobsen, J. (1936) The Place-Names of Shetland. Nutt, London and Copenhagen
Johnson, Gary (ed.) (2011) - The Shetland Encyclopedia.
Knox, Susan A. (1984) The Making of the Shetland Landscape. John Donald Publishers Ltd., Edinburgh
Linklater, E. (1965) Orkney and Shetland. An Historical, Geographical, Social and Scenic Survey. Robert Hale, London
O'Dell, A.C. (1939) The Historical Geography of the Shetland Islands. T. & J. Manson, Lerwick
Ritchie, Anna (1997) Exploring Scotland's Heritage: Shetland. Second Edition, The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland and The Stationery Office, Edinburgh
Salter, Mike (2008) Ancient Monuments of Shetland. Folly Publications. Malvern
Tait, Charles (2007) The Shetland Guide Book. Charles Tait Photographic Ltd., Orkney

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