The Shetland Islands lie north of the Scottish mainland. They separate the North Sea from the Atlantic Ocean and are almost due east of Bergen, Norway. We went to Lerwick on a cruise ship. It is another place we would have been unlikely to see on our own; that is one of the great advantages of a cruise.
The Danish owned the Shetlands until 1469 when they were transferred to Scotland as a wedding gift on the marriage of the Danish Queen to the Scottish King. The Shetlands use the UK flag, and a majority voted in the referendum to stay in the UK. However, they also have their own flag with a Danish white cross on a Scottish blue field.
No one in the Shetlands is more than three miles from the sea. While they have some North Sea oil-income, the bulk of their revenue still comes from farming and fishing. When there was a UK subsidy per sheep, they had 400,000 sheep. When the subsidy was changed to reflect acreage rather than sheep, the number of sheep declined. But they still are seen on most farm fields.
The famous Shetland ponies are also in many fields, and we were cautioned they both bite and kick. Today, they are mostly scenic. In the mid-nineteenth century, their small stature made them ideal to pull equipment in British coal mines. Today, British coal comes from Poland.
Lerwick is a small town built in the 1800s. The central area has mostly Georgian and Victorian buildings with narrow winding streets. Between the buildings are even more narrow lanes. One, Nicholson’s Closs, was barely a shoulder-width wide. But Lerwick also has more modern “suburbs.”
We rode out along the rugged shoreline for a while looking at the treeless hills coming down to the sea. It is very hilly, but we saw no mountains or really large hills even though this is the tip of a range that extends down into Scotland proper.
Occasionally, we saw the round stone ruins of a broch, a fortress tower built between 200 B.C. and 200 A.D. These towers had a narrow door and wood platforms on the inside. They were scattered all along the coast of the islands.
As we drove near the little village of Hoswick, we passed a marker for the 60 degree of latitude which puts them on about the same latitude as Oslo, St. Petersburg and Anchorage. They are at the end of the Gulf Stream, however, and that makes them much warmer than Anchorage.
The Sumburgh Hotel is in what was once the home of a local Lord, Bruce. But we were there not for the hotel but to see Jarlshof, the site of human habitation since prehistoric times.
For many years, Jarlshof was just an old Scottish ruin sitting on a mound in a low saddle above the see. Considering that Victorian Lords built fake ruins known as “follies” on their land, I’m sure Bruce was pleased to have the real thing near his home.
However, an 1886 storm washed away part of the mound near the sea and revealed older walls and buildings beneath the old castle. It is an archaeologist’s dream: they found evidence that people had lived there for around seven thousand years. There were Stone Age structures, Bronze Age structures, Iron Age structures and a Stuart castle .
It all is somewhat complicated because ensuing generations tore down old stone structures and re-purposed the stones for their own use. Trained eyes were nonetheless able to distinguish the different eras — I had more trouble. For example, several feet inside a wall of an Iron Age broch (400 B.C. to 100 A.D.) that was subsequently partially washed away are “apartments” of later dwellers. Outside are foundations of other huts.
A Stuart was given the land by his cousin the King, and his simple fortification was expanded by his son Patrick, the Grandson of King James V, in 1608. The ruins seen by Lord Bruce are the remains of the Patrick Stewart fortification.
It is not a particularly pleasant place. It is not sheltered; it is cold and treeless. But it is up from the sea (and once the sea was even lower), so it is a good vantage point for defense against marauders.
Our guide also pointed out the “supermarket” was close by. The inhabitants were able to get most of their food right out of the water. I guess the same could be said of current residents of the Shetlands.