Shetland Islands

Overview

Introduction

Scotland's 100 Shetland Islands are only about 60 mi/100 km north of the Orkney Islands, but they're startlingly different: Orkney is characterized by rolling farmland, but Shetland is a barren archipelago. The population traditionally worked as shepherds and fishermen, but today many are employed by installations associated with North Sea oil. It's a rugged land, ideal for those seeking remote and stark scenery and bliss for bird-watchers, anglers and fans of seals, otters and other sea mammals.

Oddly, the islands' only town and capital, Lerwick, is among the most cosmopolitan in Scotland: Its narrow stone-paved streets and its pubs play host to sailors and oilmen from around the globe. The harbor usually is filled with the rusting hulks of Russian, Panamanian and Greek fishing vessels. The town also has a museum with Viking artifacts from throughout the islands.

The islands are justly famous for music, which is played year-round in pub sessions and is celebrated every May in the internationally famous Shetland Folk Festival (http://www.shetlandfolkfestival.com). An even bigger attraction is the winter fire festival of Up Helly Aa, held in January, culminating in the burning of a replica of a Viking longboat. http://www.uphellyaa.org.

The Shetlands' largest island is called Mainland, and most of its interesting points are prehistoric: Clickhimin Broch, the Broch of Mousa, Jarlshof and Stanydale Temple. Many of these structures were already several centuries old when the Vikings arrived in the ninth century.

Some of the outlying islands are truly isolated. Foula, the most remote inhabited island in Britain, can be reached by ferry twice a week and by air three times a week (from Tingwall Airport, near Lerwick). Until 1990, the schoolteacher of this remote island also had the dual job title of Missionary. The truly adventurous can take the overnight ferry from Lerwick to the Faeroes on the way to Iceland. Midway between Shetland and Orkney lies Fair Isle, a bird-watcher's haven that's also known for its knitwear.

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