1 Voodootilar

Bressay Development Association Of Rock

In September 2009, the Shetland Islands were awarded the accolade of becoming the thirty-fifth European Geopark. This is fantastic news for the isles. It acknowledges the importance of Shetland’s incredible geology and creates opportunities to promote it to an international market and develop partnerships with other members.

Devonian Alluvial Fan Conglomerate Lerwick

Devonian Alluvial Fan Conglomerate Lerwick

Devonian scree breccia Brindister

Devonian Braided River sequences

Devonian sandstone cliffs Bressay and Noss

When visiting, the best place to start your journey into Shetland’s ancient past is at Shetland Museum, in Lerwick. Here, displays take you back into the mists of time, revealing vanished landscapes and the amazing events behind them. All across Shetland, the rocks and landscapes tell an endless story – of oceans opening and closing, of mountain building and erosion, of ice ages and tropical seas, volcanoes, deserts and ancient rivers, of land use, climate change and sea level rise, and of minerals and miners.

Around 360mya, a walk through where Lerwick is now, would have meant a wade across fast-flowing rivers, in a climate like that in Death Valley, California. How do we know? Well, if you take a stroll around Lerwick, and walk from the Knabb to the Sletts and out to the Sands of Sound, you can see for yourself. Here, flat-lying beds of thick, buff-coloured sandstone begin to acquire rounded pebbles and cobbles of pink and white quartz. These sandstone beds tell us that fast flowing rivers once deposited their loads in the area and that flash floods occasionally scoured the riverbed, leaving trains of far-travelled cobbles and pebbles embedded in the sandy layers. These rivers were fed by run-off from high mountains to the west, which carried sediments east to be deposited in lakes.

Looking at the Shetland landscape today, you might be confused by this talk of mountains. However, if you make your way either north or south from Lerwick, you cannot help but notice the ridges of hills that make up the ‘spine’ of Shetland. These hills are the eroded remnants of the ancient Caledonian Mountain chain that was thrown up some 400mya. This chain would have matched today’s Himalayas in height and grandeur.

The scree, which once mantled those mountain slopes, now forms low hills around Brindister, while the sediments that were laid down in the lakes are found at various places along the east coast from Bressay to Sumburgh. The great thicknesses and variety of these sediments are seen to best effect in the dramatic sea cliffs of Bressay and Noss. Plant leaves and other debris swept out into the lakes can be found as fossils on Bressay, while the fossil remains of fish that swam in the lakes appear among the classic rock formations at Exnaboe. The rivers that fed the lakes in this area were not so fast flowing as those near Lerwick and meandered between fields of sand dunes, which show up in the cliffs of southeast Mainland.

The Caledonian Mountain Chain was forced into being when an ancient ocean, called Iapetus, closed as three continents collided. Aeons after this collision, a mighty river cut through the mountains and a small fraction of that river’s course is seen as the steep-sided valley at Quarff. The grey and brown metamorphic rocks, which form these hills, can be seen in the sheer face of the roadstone quarry above Scalloway. Originally, these rocks were sands and muds laid down in the deeper part of the Iapetus Ocean, which existed some 600mya.

Devonian Raindrop casts Brindister Quarry

Dune bedding SE Mainland

Dune bedding SE Mainland

Dalradian metamorphic rocks

Calcite marble

Viking soapstone quarry Catpund

Deformed Funzie conglomerate

Deformed Funzie conglomerate

Serpentinite desert Keen of Hamar

The Iapetus Ocean lay within the tropics – in fact, when the Iapetus closed, Shetland was placed in a vast desert continent, somewhere near the Equator. Mud, rich in calcium carbonate, was deposited in its shallower parts to become limestone. The heat and pressure of mountain building transformed the limestone into a calcite marble that now forms the fertile floors of the crofting valleys of Tingwall, Whiteness and Weisdale. As well as providing the best of Shetland’s agricultural soil, these calcium rich rocks were also quarried and burned with peat in kilns to make lime for the building trade. The increased demand for grander buildings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries required the use of building lime and ruined examples of kilns can be found at Fladdabister.

Going further back in time, when the ancient ocean of Iapetus began to form, it may have been rather like the modern Red Sea. The continental crust of the earth split and drifted apart, with water filling the space and volcanic magma erupting beneath the water to form the seafloor (or oceanic crust). Some of these rocks were rich in the mineral olivine and reacted with hot seawater to become serpentine and, eventually, soapstone (or steatite). A quarry track gives a wonderful section cut through serpentinite and steatite at Catpund, near Cunningsburgh. At the Burn of Catpund, the easily worked steatite was extensively quarried in Viking times to produce various artefacts, both for local use and export. Chisel marks and hollows, where bowls had been fashioned and extracted, can be seen on many outcrops in the burn. The Vikings called the soapstone ‘klebber’, meaning ‘loomweight stone’, because it was so frequently used to make these vital everyday objects. The word is still used in Shetland today. These rocks, which once lay deep beneath the floor of the ancient Iapetus Ocean, now form the eastern half of the islands of Unst and Fetlar.  Geopark Shetland’s new ophiolite trail on Unst and Fetlar will take you on a walk across what was once oceanic crust from just beneath an ancient ocean floor, progressing downwards until you reach what was once the Earth’s mantle.

The Geopark Shetland displays at Hagdale also demonstrate how minerals formed in these ancient rocks, and where and how some of these were mined and processed. At the recently restored Hagdale Mill, you can see where chromite ore was extracted. It is the only restored crushing circle in the UK. On the neighbouring Keen of Hamar, rare plants can be found growing on the serpentine debris. At Funzie on Fetlar, you can see in three-dimensional detail how boulders on an ancient beach were squashed and stretched by enormous tectonic forces, as they pushed the bed of the ancient sea up and over the continental rocks.

Earth moving tectonic forces are also in evidence in many other parts of Shetland. A trek across Fethaland shows how great rock slices of vastly different ages and types have been torn up and thrust north-westward, by tectonic forces, to lie next to each other. At Ollaberry, you can follow, and step across, an ancient geological fault, similar to the San Andreas Fault. This was active hundreds of millions of years ago, when ancient continents collided and slid past each other.

Early Purple Orchid Keen of Hamar

Banded Lewisian Gneiss, Fethaland, Northmaven

Walls Boundary Fault, Ollaberry

Ronas Voe and Ronas Hill

Rhyolite cliffs, Papa Stour

Volcanic cliffs at Esha Ness 1

Pyrrhotite . iron sulfide deposit Garths Ness

Ronas Hill

The Drongs, granite sea stacks, St Magnus Bay

Grind o da Navir

Grind o da Navir beach ridges

Geopark Shetland geological wall

Ptygmatic folding quartz vein

From Mavis Grind to North Roe, you can see how huge masses of magma squeezed, forced and eventually punched their way up through the crust beneath an ancient continent. Ronas Hill and the cliffs of Muckle Roe were formed from these magmas, now exposed after millions of years of erosion. They get their dramatic red colour from the abundance of the mineral, potassium feldspar, within the rocks.

From North Roe, you can walk back across rocks that are hundreds of millions, then billions of years old, and see how the present landscape was formed by ice. You can stop at the ‘axe factory’, where Neolithic man made his tools, and then travel on to find the remnants of trees that once grew by a lake some 120,000 years ago, before the last Ice Age.

When Shetland lay within the desert continent, lavas from ancient volcanoes spewed out onto sands and rivers at the margin of the long vanished Lake Orcadie. These can be seen at Melby and Huxter, and on Papa Stour. If you look out across St Magnus Bay, you can speculate if it really started life as a meteorite impact crater. Alternatively, take a walk around Papa Stour and marvel at its geos, stacks and caves, then turn inland and ponder on how man has changed the landscape.

Geopark Shetland has produced a volcano trail leaflet that points you towards sites of volcanic interest and geological exhibits at Braewick and Stenness. Near Eshaness Lighthouse, you can stand in a volcanic cone surrounded by rocks that were blasted high into the air, as this cone grew on the side of a massive volcano, about 360mya. Then, you can follow one of the best coastal walks anywhere, during which you will cross progressively older lava flows that reveal, in graphic detail, the best exposure of the anatomy of a volcano in Britain. This walk will take you to the Grind o da Navir, where the rock started life as massive, red-hot pyroclastic flows, which swept down the volcanic slope. There, you will see how the forces of nature still operate here in a big way today, where a spectacular amphitheatre is being hewn out of the rock by gigantic storm waves that carry huge blocks of rock far inland to form beach ridges many metres high. (For more on the volcano trail, see my article in Issue 11: On the trail of Shetland’s volcano.)

You can then take a whistle stop tour of geological sites from west to east, across the central mainland and visit a quarry of unusual granite type, at Bixter. This granite takes different forms, as it is exposed further south, at Hamnavoe and Spiggie. On Hildasay, it was quarried for building stone and may have found its way to Australia, as ballast on wool clippers. Heading east, you cross a boundary zone between rocks that began life on the floors of two different oceans at different times, now welded together by tectonic forces. It seems extraordinary to us how these forces caused fist-sized crystals to grow in a narrow zone of rock that can be traced over a distance of 80km.

A visit to Garths Ness, beneath the shadow of Fitful Head, will show you where hot springs concentrated minerals on the bed of an ancient ocean and where attempts were made to mine copper ore in the nineteenth century. Former inhabitants of Old Scatness and Jarlshof archaeological sites may have exploited the minerals of this area in earlier times. Mineral deposits like these eventually became buried deep in the rocks, between Bressay and Sandwick, only to be dissolved once more and carried upwards to form the veins of copper and iron that were mined at Sand Lodge.

Shetland is a dynamic landscape. It has been sculpted from this diverse geology by rivers, glaciers and the sea, over the last two million years. The major landforms from before the Ice Age have been masked, but not destroyed, by glacial erosion. Its coastline is stunning in its variety and character, with an outer coast of the most spectacular cliff scenery in the world, contrasting with an inner coast of tranquil voes and beaches. The richness of its geology and geomorphology is the foundation for the many layers of natural habitat and human history that make a visit to Shetland so memorable.

For more on the geology of Shetland, see my article in Issue 13: Shetland: an archipelago on the edge.

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For other uses, see Shetland (disambiguation).

Shetland (Scottish Gaelic: Sealtainn, Old Norse: Hjaltland), also called the Shetland Islands, is a subarcticarchipelago that lies northeast of the island of Great Britain and forms part of Scotland in the United Kingdom.

The islands lie some 80 km (50 mi) to the northeast of Orkney and 280 km (170 mi) southeast of the Faroe Islands. They form part of the division between the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the North Sea to the east. The total area is 1,466 km2 (566 sq mi),[1] and the population totalled 23,210 in 2011.[2] Comprising the Shetland constituency of the Scottish Parliament, Shetland Islands Council is one of the 32 council areas of Scotland; the islands' administrative centre and only burgh is Lerwick, which has also been the capital of Shetland since taking over from Scalloway in 1708.

The largest island, known as the "Mainland", has an area of 967 km2 (373 sq mi), making it the third-largest Scottish island[3] and the fifth-largest of the British Isles. There are an additional 15 inhabited islands. The archipelago has an oceanic climate, a complex geology, a rugged coastline and many low, rolling hills.

Humans have lived in Shetland since the Mesolithic period. The earliest written references to the islands date to Roman times. The early historic period was dominated by Scandinavian influences, especially from Norway, and the islands did not become part of Scotland until the 15th century. When Scotland became part of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, trade with northern Europe decreased. Fishing has continued to be an important aspect of the economy up to the present day. The discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970s significantly boosted Shetland's economy, employment and public sector revenues.

The local way of life reflects the Scottish and Norse heritage of the isles, including the Up Helly Aa fire festival, and a strong musical tradition, especially the traditional fiddle style. The islands have produced a variety of writers of prose and poetry, often in the distinct Shetland dialect of Scots. There are numerous areas set aside to protect the local fauna and flora, including a number of important sea bird nesting sites. The Shetland pony and Shetland Sheepdog are two well-known Shetland animal breeds. Other local breeds include the Shetland sheep, cow, goose, and duck. The Shetland pig, or grice, has been extinct since about 1930.

The islands' motto, which appears on the Council's coat of arms, is "Með lögum skal land byggja." This Old Norse phrase is taken from the Danish 1241 Basic Law, Code of Jutland, and is also mentioned in Njáls saga, and means "By law shall land be built".[4]


Main article: Northern Isles

The name of Shetland is derived from the Old Norse words, hjalt (hilt), and land (land).[5][6]

In AD 43 and 77 the Roman authors Pomponius Mela and Pliny the Elder referred to the seven islands they respectively called Haemodae and Acmodae, both of which are assumed to be Shetland. Another possible early written reference to the islands is Tacitus' report in Agricola in AD 98, after describing the discovery and conquest of Orkney, that the Roman fleet had seen "Thule, too".[Note 1] In early Irish literature, Shetland is referred to as Inse Catt—"the Isles of Cats", which may have been the pre-Norse inhabitants' name for the islands. The Cat tribe also occupied parts of the northern Scottish mainland and their name can be found in Caithness, and in the Gaelic name for Sutherland (Cataibh, meaning "among the Cats").[9][Note 2]

The oldest version of the modern name Shetland is Hetlandensis, the Latinised adjectival form of the Old Norse name recorded in a letter from Harald, Count of Shetland in 1190,[11] becoming Hetland in 1431 after various intermediate transformations. It is possible that the Pictish "cat" sound forms part of this Norse name. It then became Hjaltland in the 16th century.[12][13][Note 3]

As Norn was gradually replaced by Scots in the form of the Shetland dialect, Hjaltland became Ȝetland. The initial letter is the Middle Scots letter, "yogh", the pronunciation of which is almost identical to the original Norn sound, "/hj/". When the use of the letter yogh was discontinued, it was often replaced by the similar-looking letter z, hence Zetland, the form used in the name of the pre-1975 county council.[14][15] This is also the source of the ZE postcode used for Shetland.

Most of the individual islands have Norse names, although the derivations of some are obscure and may represent pre-Norse, possibly Pictish or even pre-Celtic names or elements.[16]

Geography and geology[edit]

Main article: List of Shetland islands

Shetland is around 170 kilometres (110 mi) north of mainland Scotland, covers an area of 1,468 square kilometres (567 sq mi) and has a coastline 2,702 kilometres (1,679 mi) long.[1]

Lerwick, the capital and largest settlement, has a population of 6,958 and about half of the archipelago's total population of 23,167 people live within 16 kilometres (10 mi) of the town.[17]

Scalloway on the west coast, which was the capital until 1708, has a population of less than 1,000.[18]

Only 16 of about 100 islands are inhabited. The main island of the group is known as Mainland. The next largest are Yell, Unst, and Fetlar, which lie to the north, and Bressay and Whalsay, which lie to the east. East and West Burra, Muckle Roe, Papa Stour, Trondra and Vaila are smaller islands to the west of Mainland. The other inhabited islands are Foula 28 kilometres (17 mi) west of Walls, Fair Isle 38 kilometres (24 mi) south-west of Sumburgh Head, and the Out Skerries to the east.[Note 4]

The uninhabited islands include Mousa, known for the Broch of Mousa, the finest preserved example in Scotland of an Iron Agebroch; Noss to the east of Bressay, which has been a national nature reserve since 1955; St Ninian's Isle, connected to Mainland by the largest active tombolo in the UK; and Out Stack, the northernmost point of the British Isles.[19][20][21] Shetland's location means that it provides a number of such records: Muness is the most northerly castle in the United Kingdom and Skaw the most northerly settlement.[22]

The geology of Shetland is complex, with numerous faults and fold axes. These islands are the northern outpost of the Caledonian orogeny, and there are outcrops of Lewisian, Dalradian and Moine metamorphic rocks with histories similar to their equivalents on the Scottish mainland. There are also Old Red Sandstone deposits and granite intrusions. The most distinctive features are the ultrabasic[clarification needed]ophiolite, peridotite and gabbro on Unst and Fetlar, which are remnants of the Iapetus Ocean floor.[23]

Much of Shetland's economy depends on the oil-bearing sediments in the surrounding seas.[24] Geological evidence shows that in around 6100 BC a tsunami caused by the Storegga Slides hit Shetland, as well as the rest of the east coast of Scotland, and may have created a wave of up to 25 metres (82 ft) high in the voes where modern populations are highest.[25]

The highest point of Shetland is Ronas Hill at 450 metres (1,480 ft). The Pleistocene glaciations entirely covered the islands. During that period, the Stanes of Stofast, a 2000-tonne glacial erratic, came to rest on a prominent hilltop in Lunnasting.[26]

Shetland is a National Scenic Area which, unusually, includes a number of discrete locations: Fair Isle, Foula, South West Mainland (including the Scalloway Islands), Muckle Roe, Esha Ness, Fethaland and Herma Ness.[27]


Shetland has an oceanic temperate maritime climate (Köppen: Cfb), bordering on, but very slightly above average in summer temperatures, the subpolar variety, with long but cool winters and short mild summers. The climate all year round is moderate due to the influence of the surrounding seas, with average night-time low temperatures a little above 1 °C (34 °F) in January and February and average daytime high temperatures of near 14 °C (57 °F) in July and August.[28] Temperatures over 25 °C (77 °F) are very rare. The highest temperature on record was 28.4 °C (83.1 °F) in July 1991 and the lowest −8.9 °C (16.0 °F) in the Januaries of 1952 and 1959.[29] The frost-free period may be as little as three months.[30] In contrast, inland areas of nearby Scandinavia on similar latitudes experience significantly larger temperature differences between summer and winter, with the average highs of regular July days comparable to Lerwick's all-time record heat that is around 23 °C (73 °F), further demonstrating the moderating effect of the Atlantic Ocean. In contrast, winters are considerably milder than those expected in nearby continental areas, even comparable to winter temperatures of many parts of England and Wales much further south.

The general character of the climate is windy and cloudy with at least 2 mm (0.08 in) of rain falling on more than 250 days a year. Average yearly precipitation is 1,003 mm (39.5 in), with November and December the wettest months. Snowfall is usually confined to the period November to February, and snow seldom lies on the ground for more than a day. Less rain falls from April to August although no month receives less than 50 mm (2 in). Fog is common during summer due to the cooling effect of the sea on mild southerly airflows.[28][29]

Due to the islands' latitude, on clear winter nights the "northern lights" can sometimes be seen in the sky, while in summer there is almost perpetual daylight, a state of affairs known locally as the "simmer dim".[31] Annual bright sunshine averages 1110 hours, and overcast days are common.[32]

Climate data for Shetland Isles,82m asl, 1981-2010, extremes 1922-
Record high °C (°F)11.7
Average high °C (°F)5.9
Daily mean °C (°F)3.9
Average low °C (°F)1.8
Record low °C (°F)−8.9
Average rainfall mm (inches)142.6
Average rainy days (≥ 1.0 mm)21.618.519.914.110.811.012.112.916.720.821.421.8201.6
Mean monthly sunshine hours27.255.294.1131.8181.0146.2124.4127.9101.368.833.818.11,109.9
Source #1: MetOffice,[33]
Source #2: Shetland Govt,[34]


Main article: Prehistoric Shetland

Due to the practice, dating to at least the early Neolithic, of building in stone on virtually treeless islands, Shetland is extremely rich in physical remains of the prehistoric eras and there are over 5,000 archaeological sites all told.[36] A midden site at West Voe on the south coast of Mainland, dated to 4320–4030 BC, has provided the first evidence of Mesolithic human activity on Shetland.[37][38] The same site provides dates for early Neolithic activity and finds at Scord of Brouster in Walls have been dated to 3400 BC.[Note 5] "Shetland knives" are stone tools that date from this period made from felsite from Northmavine.[40]

Pottery shards found at the important site of Jarlshof also indicate that there was Neolithic activity there although the main settlement dates from the Bronze Age.[41] This includes a smithy, a cluster of wheelhouses and a later broch. The site has provided evidence of habitation during various phases right up until Viking times.[35][42]Heel-shaped cairns, are a style of chambered cairn unique to Shetland, with a particularly large example on Vementry.[40]

Numerous brochs were erected during the Iron Age. In addition to Mousa there are significant ruins at Clickimin, Culswick, Old Scatness and West Burrafirth, although their origin and purpose is a matter of some controversy.[43] The later Iron Age inhabitants of the Northern Isles were probably Pictish, although the historical record is sparse. Hunter (2000) states in relation to King Bridei I of the Picts in the sixth century AD: "As for Shetland, Orkney, Skye and the Western Isles, their inhabitants, most of whom appear to have been Pictish in culture and speech at this time, are likely to have regarded Bridei as a fairly distant presence.”[44] In 2011, the collective site, "The Crucible of Iron Age Shetland", including Broch of Mousa, Old Scatness and Jarlshof, joined the UKs "Tentative List" of World Heritage Sites.[45][46]


Main article: History of Shetland

Scandinavian colonisation[edit]

The expanding population of Scandinavia led to a shortage of available resources and arable land there and led to a period of Viking expansion, the Norse gradually shifting their attention from plundering to invasion.[47] Shetland was colonised during the late 8th and 9th centuries,[48] the fate of the existing indigenous population being uncertain. Modern Shetlanders have almost identical proportions of Scandinavian matrilineal and patrilineal genetic ancestry, suggesting that the islands were settled by both men and women in equal measure.[49]

Vikings then used the islands as a base for pirate expeditions to Norway and the coasts of mainland Scotland. In response, Norwegian king Harald Hårfagre ("Harald Fair Hair") annexed the Northern Isles (comprising Orkney and Shetland) in 875.[Note 6]Rognvald Eysteinsson received Orkney and Shetland from Harald as an earldom as reparation for the death of his son in battle in Scotland, and then passed the earldom on to his brother Sigurd the Mighty.[51]

The islands converted to Christianity in the late 10th century. King Olav Tryggvasson summoned the jarlSigurd the Stout during a visit to Orkney and said, "I order you and all your subjects to be baptised. If you refuse, I'll have you killed on the spot and I swear I will ravage every island with fire and steel." Unsurprisingly, Sigurd agreed and the islands became Christian at a stroke.[52] Unusually, from c. 1100 onwards the Norse jarls owed allegiance both to Norway and to the Scottish crown through their holdings as Earls of Caithness.[53]

In 1194, when Harald Maddadsson was Earl of Orkney and Shetland, a rebellion broke out against King Sverre Sigurdsson of Norway. The Øyskjeggs ("Island Beardies") sailed for Norway but were beaten in the Battle of Florvåg near Bergen. After his victory King Sverre placed Shetland under direct Norwegian rule, a state of affairs that continued for nearly two centuries.[54][55]

Increased Scottish interest[edit]

From the mid-13th century onwards Scottish monarchs increasingly sought to take control of the islands surrounding the mainland. The process was begun in earnest by Alexander II and was continued by his successor Alexander III. This strategy eventually led to an invasion of Scotland by Haakon Haakonsson, King of Norway. His fleet assembled in Bressay Sound before sailing for Scotland. After the stalemate of the Battle of Largs, Haakon retreated to Orkney, where he died in December 1263, entertained on his deathbed by recitations of the sagas. His death halted any further Norwegian expansion in Scotland and following this ill-fated expedition, the Hebrides and Mann were yielded to the Kingdom of Scotland as a result of the 1266 Treaty of Perth, although the Scots recognised continuing Norwegian sovereignty over Orkney and Shetland.[56][57][58]

Annexation by Scotland[edit]

In the 14th century, Orkney and Shetland remained a Norwegian possession, but Scottish influence was growing. Jon Haraldsson, who was murdered in Thurso in 1231, was the last of an unbroken line of Norse jarls,[59] and thereafter the earls were Scots noblemen of the houses of Angus and St Clair.[60] On the death of Haakon VI in 1380,[61] Norway formed a political union with Denmark, after which the interest of the royal house in the islands declined.[54] In 1469, Shetland was pledged by Christian I, in his capacity as King of Norway, as security against the payment of the dowry of his daughter Margaret, betrothed to James III of Scotland. As the money was never paid, the connection with the Crown of Scotland became permanent.[Note 7] In 1470, William Sinclair, 1st Earl of Caithness ceded his title to James III, and the following year the Northern Isles were directly annexed to the Crown of Scotland,[64] an action confirmed by the Parliament of Scotland in 1472.[65] Nonetheless, Shetland's connection with Norway has proved to be enduring.[Note 8]

From the early 15th century on the Shetlanders sold their goods through the Hanseatic League of German merchantmen. The Hansa would buy shiploads of salted fish, wool and butter, and import salt, cloth, beer and other goods. The late 16th century and early 17th century were dominated by the influence of the despotic Robert Stewart, Earl of Orkney, who was granted the islands by his half-sister Mary Queen of Scots, and his son Patrick. The latter commenced the building of Scalloway Castle, but after his imprisonment in 1609 the Crown annexed Orkney and Shetland again until 1643 when Charles I granted them to William Douglas, 7th Earl of Morton. These rights were held on and off by the Mortons until 1766, when they were sold by James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton to Laurence Dundas.[66][67]

18th and 19th centuries[edit]

The trade with the North German towns lasted until the 1707 Act of Union, when high salt duties prevented the German merchants from trading with Shetland. Shetland then went into an economic depression, as the local traders were not as skilled in trading salted fish. However, some local merchant-lairds took up where the German merchants had left off, and fitted out their own ships to export fish from Shetland to the Continent. For the independent farmers of Shetland this had negative consequences, as they now had to fish for these merchant-lairds.[68]

Smallpox afflicted the islands in the 17th and 18th centuries, but as vaccines became common after 1760 the population increased to a maximum of 31,670 in 1861. However, British rule came at price for many ordinary people as well as traders. The Shetlanders' nautical skills were sought by the Royal Navy. Some 3,000 served during the Napoleonic wars from 1800 to 1815 and press gangs were rife. During this period 120 men were taken from Fetlar alone, and only 20 of them returned home. By the late 19th century 90% of all Shetland was owned by just 32 people, and between 1861 and 1881 more than 8,000 Shetlanders emigrated.[69][70] With the passing of the Crofters' Act in 1886 the Liberal prime minister William Gladstone emancipated crofters from the rule of the landlords. The Act enabled those who had effectively been landowners' serfs to become owner-occupiers of their own small farms.[71] By this time fishermen from Holland, who had traditionally gathered each year off the coast of Shetland to fish for herring, triggered an industry in the islands that boomed from around 1880 until the 1920s when stocks of the fish began to dwindle.[72] The production peaked in 1905 at more than a million barrels, of which 708,000 were exported.[73]

20th century[edit]

During World War I many Shetlanders served in the Gordon Highlanders, a further 3,000 served in the Merchant Navy, and more than 1,500 in a special local naval reserve. The 10th Cruiser Squadron was stationed at Swarbacks Minn (the stretch of water to the south of Muckle Roe), and during a single year from March 1917 more than 4,500 ships sailed from Lerwick as part of an escorted convoy system. In total, Shetland lost more than 500 men, a higher proportion than any other part of Britain, and there were further waves of emigration in the 1920s and 1930s.[70][75]

During World War II a Norwegian naval unit nicknamed the "Shetland Bus" was established by the Special Operations Executive in the autumn of 1940 with a base first at Lunna and later in Scalloway to conduct operations around the coast of Norway. About 30 fishing vessels used by Norwegian refugees were gathered and the Shetland Bus conducted covert operations, carrying intelligence agents, refugees, instructors for the resistance, and military supplies. It made over 200 trips across the sea, and Leif Larsen, the most highly decorated allied naval officer of the war, made 52 of them.[74][76] Several RAF airfields and sites were also established at Sullom Voe and several lighthouses suffered enemy air attacks.[75]

Oil reserves discovered in the later 20th century in the seas both east and west of Shetland have provided a much-needed alternative source of income for the islands. The East Shetland Basin is one of Europe's largest oil fields and as a result of the oil revenue and the cultural links with Norway, a small Home Rule movement developed briefly to recast the constitutional position of Shetland. It saw as its models the Isle of Man, as well as Shetland's closest neighbour, the Faroe Islands, an autonomous dependency of Denmark.[77]


Today, the main revenue producers in Shetland are agriculture, aquaculture, fishing, renewable energy, the petroleum industry (crude oil and natural gas production), the creative industries and tourism.[79]

Fishing remains central to the islands' economy today, with the total catch being 75,767 tonnes (74,570 long tons; 83,519 short tons) in 2009, valued at over £73.2 million. Mackerel makes up more than half of the catch in Shetland by weight and value, and there are significant landings of haddock, cod, herring, whiting, monkfish and shellfish.[78] Farming is mostly concerned with the raising of Shetland sheep, known for their unusually fine wool.[18][80][81] Crops raised include oats and barley; however, the cold, windswept islands make for a harsh environment for most plants. Crofting, the farming of small plots of land on a legally restricted tenancy basis, is still practised and is viewed as a key Shetland tradition as well as an important source of income.[82]

Oil and gas were first landed in 1978 at Sullom Voe, which has subsequently become one of the largest terminals in Europe.[83] Taxes from the oil have increased public sector spending on social welfare, art, sport, environmental measures and financial development. Three quarters of the islands' workforce is employed in the service sector,[84][85] and the Shetland Islands Council alone accounted for 27.9% of output in 2003.[86][87] Shetland's access to oil revenues has funded the Shetland Charitable Trust, which in turn funds a wide variety of local programmes. The balance of the fund in 2011 was £217 million, i.e., about £9,500 per head.[88][Note 9]

In January 2007, the Shetland Islands Council signed a partnership agreement with Scottish and Southern Energy for the Viking Wind Farm, a 200-turbine wind farm and subsea cable. This renewable energy project would produce about 600 megawatts and contribute about £20 million to the Shetland economy per year.[90] The plan met with significant opposition within the islands, primarily resulting from the anticipated visual impact of the development.[91] The PURE project on Unst is a research centre which uses a combination of wind power and fuel cells to create a wind hydrogen system. The project is run by the Unst Partnership, the local community's development trust.[92][93]

Knitwear is important both to the economy and culture of Shetland, and the Fair Isle design is well known. However, the industry faces challenges due to plagiarism of the word "Shetland" by manufacturers operating elsewhere, and a certification trademark, "The Shetland Lady", has been registered.[94]

Shetland is served by a weekly local newspaper, The Shetland Times and the online Shetland Newshttp://www.shetnews.co.uk/ with radio service being provided by BBC Radio Shetland and the commercial radio station SIBC.[95]

Shetland is a popular destination for cruise ships, and in 2010 the Lonely Planet guide named Shetland as the sixth best region in the world for tourists seeking unspoilt destinations. The islands were described as "beautiful and rewarding" and the Shetlanders as "a fiercely independent and self-reliant bunch".[96] Overall visitor expenditure was worth £16.4 million in 2006, in which year just under 26,000 cruise liner passengers arrived at Lerwick Harbour. In 2009, the most popular visitor attractions were the Shetland Museum, the RSPB reserve at Sumburgh Head, Bonhoga Gallery at Weisdale Mill and Jarlshof.[97]



Transport between islands is primarily by ferry, and Shetland Islands Council operates various inter-island services.[98] Shetland is also served by a domestic connection from Lerwick to Aberdeen on mainland Scotland. This service, which takes about 12 hours, is operated by NorthLink Ferries. Some services also call at Kirkwall, Orkney, which increases the journey time between Aberdeen and Lerwick by 2 hours.[99][100] There are plans for road tunnels to some of the islands, especially Bressay and Whalsay, however it is hard to convince the mainland government to finance them.[101]

Sumburgh Airport, the main airport on Shetland, is located close to Sumburgh Head, 40 km (25 mi) south of Lerwick. Loganair operates flights to other parts of Scotland up to ten times a day, the destinations being Kirkwall, Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh.[102]Lerwick/Tingwall Airport is located 11 km (6.8 mi) west of Lerwick. Operated by Directflight Limited in partnership with Shetland Islands Council, it is devoted to inter-island flights from the Shetland Mainland to most of the inhabited islands.[103][104]

Scatsta Airport near Sullom Voe allows frequent charter flights from Aberdeen to transport oilfield workers and this small terminal has the fifth largest number of international passengers in Scotland.[105]

Public bus services are operated on Mainland, Whalsay, Burra, Unst and Yell.[106]

The archipelago is exposed to wind and tide, and there are numerous sites of wrecked ships.[107]Lighthouses are sited as an aid to navigation at various locations.[108]

Public services[edit]

The Shetland Islands Council is the Local Government authority for all the islands and is based in Lerwick Town Hall.

Shetland is sub-divided into 18 community council areas[109] and into 12 civil parishes that are used for statistical purposes.[110]

The preserved ruins of a wheelhouse and broch at Jarlshof, described as "one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the British Isles".[35]
Shetland (boxed) in relation to surrounding territories including Norway (to the east), the Faroe Islands (to the north west), and Orkney and the rest of the British Isles (to the south west)
James III and Margaret, whose betrothal led to Shetland passing from Norway to Scotland
Full-rigged ship Maella, of Oslo, in Bressay Sound, around 1922
More than half of the Shetland catch by weight and value is mackerel.[78]

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