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LOCATION AND COMMUNICATION LINKS
Shetland is a cluster of over 100 islands situated on a sea crossroads between Scotland and Scandinavia, on the line of latitude 600 North. Lerwick, Shetland’s capital, is Britain’s most northerly town and lies some 210 miles from Aberdeen and 230 miles from both Bergen in Norway and Torshavn in the Faroe Isles. During uncharted centuries, Shetland was the furthest north of all settlements on the fringe of the Atlantic Ocean and the Romans believed it to be Ultima Thule (Island on the edge of the World).
Despite Shetland’s remote location, air and sea transport operators provide very good services to the Scottish mainland, and during the summer months air and sea links are maintained between Shetland and Bergen in Norway.
Shetland is a place where land and water seem to merge. After the last Ice Age the sea level rose, flooding the valleys with long tongues of water ‘voes’, and turning the hilltops into islands. Nowhere in Shetland can you be more than 3 miles from the sea, and the 900 mile coastline with its spectacular sea cliffs, steep sided ‘geos’, natural arches, stacks and caves, shows much evidence of its power. The highest of these sea cliffs, the Kame of Foula, is 1,220 ft (370m) and is the second highest in Europe.
Much of Shetland consists of vast stretches of open moorland scattered with hundreds of small freshwater lochs, with the more fertile agricultural land being confined to the valleys and along the coast. Frequent strong winds carrying salty sea spray make growing conditions very difficult for trees, which can only be found in small inland plantations and sheltered gardens.
Shetland is often affectionately referred to as ‘The Old Rock’, an apt name, as its surface is low and rocky and geologically it’s composed of some of the oldest rocks in the world — granite, schist, gneiss and serpentine.
The Islands have a typical marine climate with only slight temperature changes throughout the year, ranging from a winter mean of 4°C (39°F) to a mean of 12°C (54°F) in the summer. The ‘North Atlantic Drift’, a continuation of the Gulf Stream, warms the shores keeping the sea temperature higher than average for a latitude 60°N, and the winters milder. Wind is the dominant climatic factor and on average there are 58 days of gales per year, with the highest wind speed being recorded in 1962 at 177 mph (285 kmph). Due to Shetland’s northerly location at mid-summer the sun stays above the horizon for almost 19 hours, and day and night seem to merge in a muted light ‘The Simmer Dim’, making it possible to play golf at midnight.
POPULATION AND MAJOR CENTRES
The census in 1991 recorded a population of 22,522, with almost one-third of the population (7,220) living in Lerwick, Shetland’s capital.
For thousands of years Shetland has been visited by a diversity of travellers — a mixture of fishermen, traders, explorers, smugglers and invaders.
Perhaps the most famous of these travellers, the Norsemen, first came to Shetland in the 8th and 9th centuries after departing from the overcrowded lands of Western Norway to find new pastures. These travellers were the Vikings, who are best known for their savage raids around Britain and Europe which created the archetypal image of the aggressive invader. However, in Shetland they settled as farmers and fishermen adhering to the laws passed by their parliament, the ‘Alting’. As a result the Norse culture soon overwhelmed that of the resident Picts and the rule of the Jaris was destined to continue for nearly five hundred years.
In 1319 Denmark, Sweden and Norway became united under a Danish King, an event which had huge repercussions for Shetland. The Northern Isles became pawns in international politics and in in 1469 the royal estates and prerogatives in Shetland and Orkney were pledged to Scotland as part of the marriage dowry between Margaret, daughter of the King of Denmark and Prince James of Scotland. The conditions were that the islands would revert to rule by the Kings of Norway when the debt was paid, however the pledge was never redeemed and the Northern Isles remained under Scottish control. Before long, the Scots began to interfere with the old Norse laws which they had agreed to maintain, and gradually the Scottish influence became more dominant.
However, in theory, Denmark can still redeem her mortgaged territories, and much of the Norse culture still continues to influence the culture, traditions and dialect of Shetland even today.
Since Norse power waned, Shetland has been ruled successively from Copenhagen in Denmark, Edinburgh in Scotland and presently from London as part of the United Kingdom. In 1975, the new Shetland Islands Council consisting of 25 members, was granted full regional powers apart from the police and fire service. For matters outside its own jurisdiction, the Council must variously refer to Inverness, Edinburgh, London or Brussels. Shetland’s motto ‘meo logum skal land byggja’ (with law shall the land be built) has been taken from an old proverb belonging to the common legal heritage of the Nordic countries of which Shetland was once part.
LANGUAGE AND CULTURE
As Shetland is part of the United Kingdom, English is the official language spoken and which is taught in schools. However the Shetland dialect is very distinctive and has in fact been formed by two other languages, Norse and Scots with traces of Dutch and German. Up to approximately 300 years ago, Norse was the main language of the islands and today over 50,000 Shetland place names still exist of Norse origin.
Shetlanders also acknowledge their Viking heritage in an annual festival, "Up-Helly-Aa" where a replica viking galley is burned on the last Tuesday in January marking the end of ‘Yule’ (Old Christmas).
The Shetland Folk Festival, first staged in 1981, was born from a love and a distinctive culture in traditional music, and has become a major event where local musicians perform alongside highly acclaimed artistes from all over the world.
During the 1960s, Shetland saw a revitalisation of its indigenous industries, i.e. fishing, fish processing, agriculture and knitwear, which allowed more young Shetlanders to find work at home than in previous years. The 1970s saw the arrival of the oil industry which gave a massive boost to the economy, especially during the construction phase, and the building of Sullom Voe Oil Terminal which is the largest oil and liquefied gas terminal in Europe. A more recent and rapidly growing industry is salmon farming with Shetland’s clean waters and sheltered ‘voes’ providing ideal conditions for this purpose. Tourism is also becoming increasingly important with the magnificent scenery, abundant wildlife and intriguing heritage drawing many visitors to the islands