|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.
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.
Visit the Shetlands Tourist Board
Visit Historic Plances to Go