I didn’t know where the ferry would take me.
I mean, I knew that after twelve and a half hours I’d be standing in the port of Lerwick in Scotland’s northernmost island chain, The Shetland Islands, but I had little conception of the place. I pictured vasts stretches of flat gray rocks, heavy blankets of fog, staccato calls of seagulls, and a vacuum of people. My imaginings were like a mental version of Lightroom; they started with pictures of The Orkney Islands and then had their vibrancy and saturation dialed way, way down.
It was a drear picture fueled by the comments of various people over the years. “Oh, Shetland is much rockier than Orkney” and “Very cold and windy that far north” and “It’s quite different from Scotland” (er, it is part of Scotland) and “Get your tree fix before you go!” You get the idea.
After four days in Lerwick and around Shetland’s mainland, I feel like the islands and me are still in that awkward getting-to-know-each-other stage. Visually, they are similar to Orkney: tons of coastline, beaches of every consistency and hue, treeless hills and fields given over to sheep, and brawny winds carrying the scents and sounds of sea water, seaweed, and seagulls. Lerwick reminds me of a bigger Stromness. The landscape here is more extreme with cliffs to the north and south so massive they’d make Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher blush.
So, sure, I can grab a map and point to the Shetland Islands. I can even describe its topography in detail. But just looking at something rarely suffices in getting to know it, and in that respect I’m still trying to find Shetland.
Shetland is part of Scotland, part of the United Kingdom, but it’s different from the former and even more estranged from the latter. There’s a good reason for this – Shetland was a Norwegian province for more than 500 years. It wasn’t until 1468 that The Shetland Islands began to take on Scottish influences. The King of Norway used Shetland as security for the payment of the dowry of his daughter, Margaret, in her marriage to King James III of Scotland. Even kings fall on hard times: the dowry was never paid and Shetland was eventually annexed by Scotland.
Layers of British and Scottish culture have settled on these islands in the preceding centuries, but the bedrock is still Norse. All of the place names stem from Old Norn. There are nesses, roes, wicks, voes, and brochs. Many words from Old Norn are still in use up here, and the Shetland accent is so thick that when people speak to me my most common response is “huh?”
I was struck by an old Norwegian sailor’s map I saw at Jarlshof. It showed the tip of Norway at the bottom of the map and Shetland, Orkney, the Faroes, and Scotland up toward the top. This little mental somersault made sense from a navigation point of view but challenged the typical way we see and think about things. Shetland, as one of the “stepping stones” to North America for Vikings, looked a lot closer to Norway. In trying to find a corollary for Shetland, I keep thinking of Puerto Rico. It’s an island nation that has changed hands over the years but has become its own entity while retaining echoes of the past.
Shetland feels like a distant cousin, a lost friend met decades later, a family that has found its own way in the wild. I still have a lot of finding of my own to do, but I’ll continue by keeping that old Viking map in mind.
I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences of Shetland!