Shetland, never ‘The Shetlands’

Bressay, East Burra, Fair Isle, Fetlar, Foula, Island enthusiast, Mainland Shetland, Northern Isles, Papa Stour, Unst, Whalsay, Yell
Viking heritage

By Robin McKelvie

The Shetlands are perhaps the most misunderstood island in Scotland. See what I’ve done there? They are never ‘The Shetlands’; only ever Shetland, or the Shetland Islands. And they are not one or just a handful of islands – there are around 100 of them, with 16 islands inhabited by proud, creative Shetlanders.

Another misconception is that Shetland’s inhabitants are desperate to sail their longships back and reunify with Norway. Yes Shetland feels less Scottish than the country’s mainland and often feels set adrift culturally from Britain too, but the strong, proud sense of Viking heritage doesn’t translate into an aping to be subsumed by any part of Scandinavia. Shetlanders in my experience from over half a dozen visits are just proud to be Shetlanders with their own flag, traditions and culture.

Ruth Brownlee and Robin

Shetland has its own Mainland too, the largest and most populous isle. Here I chatted to adopted Shetlander Ruth Brownlee, a deeply creative artist whose epic work captures the drama of the big local skies and seas. I met her in the landmark Shetland Museum, a must-visit attraction which was curated by her inspirational late husband Tommy.

For Ruth – and for many people making Shetland their new home – it was love at first sight: “Ever since coming here to teach an art workshop in 1998, the light, space and vast skies of Shetland captivated me and awakened all my senses. I’ve been in love with Shetland ever since. Being an archipelago in the middle of the North Sea and on the edge of the Atlantic, the weather is always changing: it constantly inspires and feeds my drive to paint it. I also love the sea and all its moods. It’s hard not to fall in love with Shetland.”

Space port workers in Unst

Talking to Ruth she asks me about my own travels and my brain and heart light up with a tsunami of memories. Memories of flying out to the wee isle of Foula – the most remote inhabited island in the British Isles – to find a vibrant community, of venturing to the UK’s most northerly inhabited isle of Unst to find more life and an unlikely space port! Then there was catching mackerel with my kids off Scalloway as we watched a traditional boat race, swimming at our own empty beach in Feltar and being distracted from puffin viewing by the sight of orcas off Sumburgh Head.

“Living on Shetland is special, so special I chose to bring up my daughter here, as well as live here as an artist,” added Ruth as we talked through her own experiences on Shetland. “There is a real sense of community, a real vibrancy that burns beyond all the ‘remote’ and ‘wild’ cliches that people often conjure up when they think of Shetland. You feel it in our strong artistic community, but also more broadly in the wider community.”

Laurie Goodlad

In my travels across the archipelago to over a dozen of the isles I’ve felt this vibrancy, an energy to get on with life together rather than just complain about blocks in your way. It’s an attitude I find much stronger in Shetland than in my home city of Edinburgh.

Visiting Shetland is a real privilege for anyone looking to dig even a little under the surface as superb local tour guide and writer Laurie Goodlad, explained on one of her acclaimed tours: “There are so many sides and so many layers to Shetland. My tours look to dig below any preconceptions people have about Shetland and show a more authentic side to an archipelago with so much to offer.”

When you are on Shetland you can use Scottish Islands Passport to make the most of your trip. The app works on and offline if you download the relevant Shetland content – just a toggle button on the app away. It sets its stall out straight away pointing out the real Shetland is a ‘a million miles away from the onscreen version of the island’, which appears in the eponymous BBC detective series.

Robin hiking on Foula

The Scottish Islands Passport shares information about the annual spring folk festival and, rather than just saying something vague about Fair Isle jumpers, steers you towards Shetland Wool Week in its ‘Ask An Islander’ section. Here it also talks about the archipelago UNESCO Geopark status.

The latter Geopark status has been embraced by Shetland, in particular by the Shetland Amenity Trust. They snappily proclaim that Shetland has been ‘3 billion years in the making’. UNESCO describe a Global Geopark as,  “An area with internationally important rocks and landscapes, all of which are managed responsibly for tourism, conservation and education. Whilst geology may be their foundation, UNESCO Global Geoparks build upon that by bringing it together with other aspects of heritage, such as archaeology, history, culture and biodiversity, all of which are intricately linked with the ground beneath our feet.”

UNESCO World Heritage sites can sometimes be seen as being all about preservation and shutting people away from the site. Geoparks are the opposite – the aim is to find better ways to develop tourism and local communities side by side, whilst at the same time protecting the remarkable landscapes that bring in tourists in the first place. It is about joining all the dots in-between, something that comes naturally to Shetlanders with their can-do attitude and creativity.

Shetland beach

While the app itself is really useful, I also like the printed travelogues that Scottish Islands Passport are doing. Their first one, ‘Meet the Makers’, introduces you to a wealth of creatives all over our myriad Scottish islands. It is a really handy companion to travelling around that you can use for multiple trips to many different islands. In a Shetland context creatives, or ‘makers’, are opened up to readers on East Burra, Fair Isle, Yell and Fetlar. You can snap up your copy here.

One of the reasons that I keep being drawn back to Shetland is that there is always something new to discover. The same goes with Scottish Islands Passport. The next travelogue will be on the theme of ‘Shaping Our Islands’. Shetland will be centre stage with her isles of Bressay, Papa Stour, Unst and Whalsay. There are always reasons to go to and indeed to go back to magical Shetland – remember never the Shetlands – with Scottish Islands Passport helping lead the way. Watch this space for that new travelogue which I will be writing about soon.

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