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Shetland


Map of Shetland

Your first experience of Shetland may be the view of the archipelago of islands from a plane's window. Or it might be the vista of distant cliffs seen from the rail of a ferry steaming towards Lerwick - or maybe even a glimpse of land from the deck of your own yacht, sails straining, as she carves through the blue waters to the east of Noss.

For thousands of years Shetland has been welcoming visitors. Some came by accident, others on planned expeditions - a mix of wanderers, fishermen, traders, explorers, smugglers and invaders. All travellers.

Allegedly the Romans sailed this far north, and if that is the stuff of legends then they certainly knew of a cluster of one hundred islands at the confluence of our North Atlantic and North Sea. They called it "Ultima Thule".

Others came and stayed. Like the Vikings, Norsemen and Danes. Ruled for more than 600 years by Scandinavia and then given as a dowry to Scotland, the islands have a unique blend of culture. This culture is further seasoned by those seafarers from other countries who landed and made Shetland their home.

In addition to the ships, and the visitors who stop here to relax and reprovision, Shetland also provides a welcome landfall for many species of birds as they migrate between Africa and the Arctic Circle. The seashore, voes, moor and marshland serve as a safe haven and animal habitat, the cliffs and rockscapes as footholds for wild plants and breeding grounds for thousands of seabirds.

In the ninth century the whole western world was rocked by the movement of Norsemen away from their own countries, their longships leaving the fjords for new lands across the sea.

Their adventuring and colonisation in time took them to the Holy Land sailing south, Greenland and America heading west.

Much of northern England and Scotland - Caithness, the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland - succumbed to these forays, and the natives gave way to this powerful force that came and stayed. Not just warriors, but farmers and their families, and a new culture.

From 872 AD a powerful Viking earldom had been established in Orkney, and although actual Scandinavian rule in Shetland was to last until the mid 15th century, in reality that influence is still very prevalent. Wherever the Vikings went they took their law and their language and most of Shetland's place names are Norn. Their local parliament was held at Lawting Holm, an islet in Tingwall Loch.

One spectacular and enduring reminder of Shetland's heritage is to be found at Jarlshof which is regarded as one of the most interesting and complex archeaological sites in all Britain. A settlement buried in time, until a storm exposed the masonry of an entire village. Wheelhouses and brochs, hearths and troughs refelecting the way of life of a bygone era.

Equally enduring are the folklore and the sagas associated with many other legendary sites - the Broch of Mousa, the Loch of Girlsta, Haroldswick on Unst and the beach at Gulberwick, where, for instance, two of Earl Rognvald's longships were wrecked en route for the Crusades in 1148. A million other secrets must still be locked away in mounds and under fields, beneath the sandy beaches and on the seabed.

As a reminder, if one were ever needed, of Shetland's Scandinavian past, every year the festival, Up Helly Aa, features a procession of a thousand torch-carrying revellers, a squad of Vikings in horned helmets and full regalia, and a longship, dragged through the streets of Lerwick, before its ceremonial burning. There's more than a hint of myth and history in this extraordinary celebration.

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