The Island people are fiercely independent, and their culture is very different from the rest of Scotland. We cherish their unique personalities.
In Shetland, the links to Scandinavia are stronger and more primal. (The name for this group of 100-plus islands comes from the Norse word “Hjaltland.” These were annexed by James III in 1469.) Shetland has a population of only 23,000 souls, and its main town—Lerwick—accounts for 7,000 people. People live on 14 other islands. Birds, seals, and other wildlife account for the rest of the population!
As in many small places, people do more than one thing to keep food on the table. With their broad dialect and direct wit, the people of Shetland have a rich heritage of knitting, festivals, fishing, farming, and a vibrant tradition of fiddle music.
Tourism is important, and the magical experience of the Shetlands is unique. Visitors are also attracted to rare wildlife areas including the Isle of Noss and Hermanesse. The Jarlshof Prehistoric and Norse Settlement is a draw, and variations of “the most northerly in Britain” are a hoot, including the most northerly phone booth! Valhalla is the brewery most north, and the northern castle is Muness.
The Shetland landscape is wild and rugged. There are exposed rocks, and peaty, waterlogged moors. Few trees grow here, but the wildflowers are gigantic and mind-boggling. They grow so large that their scent is quite noticeable… Heaven. There is no place on Shetland that is more than 5 miles from the sea—this is a good clue about who really owns this land! Seals and porpoises are common off the coastline, and thousands of seabirds nest here. Don’t forget pretty Scalloway. She was the medieval heart of Shetland, and to see her ruined castle is to hear a long tale told without words. Sublime.
From the coast of Scotland you can see the Orkney Islands, it’s so close…but its temperament and customs are as much Scandinavian as Scottish. (The mix of the two is probably what has created such amazingly spirited and original people.) The Orkneys were annexed to Scotland in 1468 by Norway, but their story stretches back into the mystery of a people who are no longer.
There are 67 Orkney Islands, 17 of them inhabited today. We think the first people lived on the Orkneys about 5,500 years ago. (UNESCO has crowned it a World Heritage Site.) With its standing stones, the Stones of Stenness, and its ancient burial tombs the village of Skara Brae is pure enchantment. It’s impossible to stand at Skara without feeling your good fortune to be in this exact place of ceremony and peace.
The Islands are low, and green, and fertile. This land is well-farmed, with plenty of cattle and brown trout in the lochs. On a warm, summer day, the scent of wildflowers is bliss. After the first people came, and then left, the Picts, and then the Celts, lived here 3,500 years before the Vikings arrived and gave the Orkneys its name.