Shetland's Culture

From Scotland and Scandinavia

Shetland's earliest inhabitants, around 6,000 years ago, would have settled in the islands after making a hazardous sea journey from Scotland via Orkney and Fair Isle.  They appear to have had a highly developed aesthetic sense, to judge by the extraordinarily beautiful polished stone axes found in archaeological sites

Other artefacts, such as pottery, soapstone bowls, bone combs, fishing gear and jewellery, testify to our prehistoric ancestors' practical skills and artistic abilities.  Many of these items were finely worked and featured intricate decoration.  By the 6th century AD, Shetland shared a Pictish culture with the north of Scotland, evident in carvings and inscriptions; Christianity spread to the islands.

The Viking Period

During the Viking invasions, beginning around 800AD, the Pictish culture was replaced by a Norse one.  Excavations from the Viking period show the invaders were just as appreciative of good design. Magnificently decorated swords, clasps and brooches speak of Viking taste for finery.  

However, the Norse influence in Shetland isn’t limited to artefacts and ancient buildings.  It’s all around us today, in language and in much recent domestic architecture, which echoes Scandinavia in its style and use of colour.

What's in a place name...?

One of the most obvious reminders of that influence is the wealth of place-names describing in great detail where to find different food species (from seals and seabirds to wild berries, fish and shellfish); explaining how the landscape was used for herding, grazing and crops (for example the many 'punds', or enclosures, and 'bools', or sheltered spots); and identifying different kinds of terrain, from 'heogs' (rocky hilltops) to 'houbs' (sheltered, shallow bays).

Thus, through the long centuries when few islanders could read and only the very rich had maps (and those very inaccurate), everyone had to carry several thousand place-names in his or her head, a mental gazetteer that enabled them to take part in a subsistence economy. 

We have two articles on this website about place-names, 'What's in a Shetland Name?', by Allen Fraser and Shetland Place Names – Signposts to the Past, by Eileen Brooke-Freeman.  The work of recording and researching the treasury of place names is led by Shetland Amenity Trust.

The Spoken Word

The first records of Shetland's spoken culture date from the Norse period and there are references to Shetland in the sagas.  Words from Norn, the old Norse language used in Shetland, are preserved not only in place-names but also in the Shetland dialect that’s used daily.  A visitor from the Faroe Islands or Iceland, where their modern languages are close to Norn, immediately recognises many Shetland words used in connection with nature, livestock, farming, fishing, boats, the sea and the weather.  The Faroese national bird – an oystercatcher – is a tjaldur, in Shetland it’s a shalder, and the pronunciation is very similar.

Some of Shetland's dialect folklore must have been lost, together with ancient dances and songs, but enough survived to be collected in the late 19th century (notably by the Faroese philologist Jakob Jakobsen).  They show how rich this oral culture once was.

The use of dialect was actively discouraged in schools, churches and civic life until the late 20th century but islanders now take a pride in their native speech.  The best place to find out more is on the website of Shetland ForWirds, a dialect group.  Many others have done much to support the dialect, including the Shetland Folk Society, the quarterly New Shetlander magazine, BBC Radio Shetland and Shetland Arts.  Dialect writing revived in the 1980s as funds became available to encourage local writers.  There is now a large Shetland booklist in print and local collectors also bid keenly for antiquarian books about the islands.

Preserving Shetland's Heritage

A great deal of work has gone into preserving and indeed reviving Shetland’s cultural heritage.  Through painstaking work by many people, ranging from oral history to the re-publishing of old recipes, new life has been breathed into cultural traditions.  Much of that work has been possible thanks to oil revenues available to the Shetland Islands Council and organisations such as the Shetland Amenity Trust and Shetland Arts.  The hub for those wishing to find out more about any aspect of Shetland’s heritage is the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick; there are also local history groups, some with their own museums, throughout the islands.

Several significant archaeological sites have been excavated, the most complex being at Old Scatness, adjacent to the islands’ main airport at Sumburgh.  These excavations have thrown new light on many aspects of Shetland’s past.  You can read more about this in our feature article, Archaeology Alive: Discover the Ancient Secrets of Shetland by Val Turner and Chris Dyer.

Many old buildings have been given a new lease of life, too, through the work of local enthusiasts and trusts, supported by Shetland Islands Council, Shetland Amenity Trust, Historic Scotland and many others.  Examples include Quendale Mill, in the south mainland, which is open to the public, and, in the far north, Belmont House in Unst, which provides very comfortable self-catering accommodation.  Those in search of somewhere simpler to stay can use the network of Camping Böds, each of which is a building with an interesting history.

More recent Scandinavian links

Although Shetland has been part of Scotland for more than five centuries, the islands’ links with Norway have remained strong.  During the Second World War, a clandestine fleet of Norwegian fishing boats heroically maintained a link – known as the Shetland Bus – that was used to support the Norwegian resistance against the Nazi occupation.  Today, Norwegian fishing and naval vessels often call at Shetland ports and an annual yacht race is held between Bergen and Lerwick.  There is a summer air service between Shetland and Bergen.  Lerwick’s Norwegian twin town is Måløy and the Norwegian flag flies over Lerwick’s Town Hall – and quite a number of private homes – on Norwegian National Day.  

In 2007, Queen Sonja of Norway, along with Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay, and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Rothesay, opened the new Shetland Museum and Archives.  More recently, the bonds with Norway were equally evident in tragic circumstances, when Shetland mourned those who died in Oslo and the island of Utoeya in July 2011.

The Shetland Flag

Shetland’s flag is another reminder of an island heritage that owes as much to Scandinavian as to Scottish culture.  The colours are the same as those of the Scottish saltire, but the cross is in the form found on the flags of the Scandinavian countries.  The flag was designed in 1969 and gained official recognition from Scotland’s authorities in 2005.  It is widely flown in the islands, particularly on 21 June, the longest day of the year, which is Shetland’s Flag Day.

Artistic Inspiration

The landscape and the clear, northern light of Shetland have inspired hundreds of artists, from the 19th century illustrator John T Reid - whose 1869 volume, ‘Art Rambles in Shetland’ is still in print – to some of the Scottish Colourists in the early 20th century.  Artists working in Shetland, or with other strong local connections, have formed a group called Veer North and their website contains examples of their work.  There are several local art galleries, including the Bonhoga Gallery at the converted Weisdale Mill, the Burravoe Haa' gallery in Yell, Lerwick's commercial gallery, Vaila Fine Art and the rotating exhibitions at the Shetland Museum Gallery, also in Lerwick.

Shetland has also inspired many writers.  Sir Walter Scott set ‘The Pirate’ in Shetland and the noted Scottish poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, composed much of his best work when living on the island of Whalsay, in what is now known as The Grieve House, one of the Camping Böds.  Much more recently, the noted crime author, Ann Cleeves, has set her quartet of novels featuring detective Jimmy Perez in Shetland.  Jen Hadfield, winner of the 2008 T.S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, lives in the islands.

Last but not least, Shetland has stimulated generations of musicians.  The fiddle has long been the traditional instrument and hundreds of Shetlanders play it today.  However, the Shetland musical scene is all-embracing, with groups performing in classical, heavy metal, drumming, jazz, country or other styles.  The widely-admired annual Folk Festival is a notably eclectic event.

A Range of Architecture

Shetland’s architectural heritage is varied.  The predominant construction material in older buildings is stone, but there is also some colourful use of corrugated iron.  Buildings were traditionally quite plain, though there are exceptions such as the flamboyant baroque of the Bank of Scotland in Lerwick or the intricately-detailed Lerwick Town Hall.  Its splendid Victorian stained glass has its modern counterpart in windows by Patrick Ross-Smith in the Fair Isle kirk.

Modern domestic architecture takes many forms, though the recent trend is towards Scandinavian timber, often colourfully painted in the manner that was once more common in Shetland.  There are some interesting examples of larger-scale contemporary design, including the TSB Bank building on Lerwick’s Esplanade and Mareel, the cinema and music venue on the Lerwick Waterfront that’s due to open in 2012. You can view the construction of Mareel live on our webcams.

What Next?

On This Site

From Other Sites

  • Learn much more about Shetland Music
  • Download a Shetland Heritage leaflet about Shetland's Viking past (.pdf)
  • Learn about 'Writing the North' a project designed to bring together literary historians, museum professionals, schools and creative writers of Orkney and Shetland. 
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