Shetland’s Culture

by Kevin King

Having been born and raised about 15 miles SW of London, I could never be considered as anything but a ‘Soothmoother’ in Shetland. (This expression from the local dialect derives from the fact that virtually all Shetland’s immigrants arrive via the ‘South Mouth’ of Lerwick harbour.) However, Shetland folk are very tolerant of incomers, provided that they have a genuine appreciation of the islands’ unique culture. During the 9 years I lived there with my wife and children I can honestly say that I felt more at home than anywhere else I have ever been, and leaving was one of the toughest decisions I have had to make. So, even though I am now an ‘exile’ I offer the following personal perspective on this very special place and people….

Sorry, it must be galling to miss goodies like this. This photo, which looks as if it has been taken sometime in the afternoon, shows blue skies with an equally blue sea snaking in between various islands just off the Shetland mainland - really beautiful!
Photo: View south over Burra and Trondra (Taken 10pm at night!)

In the past, Shetland’s economy was primarily dependent upon the sea and crofting. In addition to fishing, both for subsistence and trade, many of her menfolk worked on the whaling ships (there were several whaling stations dotted around the coast) and as crew on board the many merchant and military vessels which took shelter in the isles. This continues to be an important part of the shetland economy, as the recently-opened Fisheries College in Scalloway illustrates.

Crofters were tenant farmers, who were given the right to work a small area of land in return for payment in money, crops, livestock or fish. In midsummer we have the ‘Simmer Dim,’ when the sun barely sets and it is still possible to read a newspaper out of doors at midnight. During this season people worked long hours raising crops and animals ready for the winter. For after the equinox the days rapidly get shorter and fierce winds sweep the islands making them appear bleak and forbidding. Although the landscape is beautiful in summer time, with many wild flowers, in most areas the soil is of poor agricultural quality; so this, coupled with the long dark winters, meant that crofting was a pretty hard life.

Shetland’s isolation, together with the extremes of wind and not infrequent loss of life at sea, has made her people very self-sufficient and resilient. Her history has also emphasised this tendency, having changed hands between various rulers (Scots, Vikings, English, etc.) over the years.

Although now officially part of Scotland (though still technically ‘on pawn’ from Denmark, who handed it over as part of a deal for a wedding dowry), Shetlanders consider themselves to be ‘Shetlanders’ first and foremost; but maintain a great pride in their Norse links. During the war the ‘Shetland Bus’ operation, carried out using a variety of small boats, was the main allied supply route for the Norwegian resistance.

Another annual event, celebrated in various parts of Shetland in January and February, is ‘Up Helly Aa.’ Loosely based upon an old Viking tradition of burning a galley when a clan chief died, islanders spend many weeks building a replica longship, which is then ceremonially paraded by torchlight around the locality before it is burned, in some places on dry land and in others on the water.

Shetlanders are very fond of ‘guizing’ (fancy dress), both at Up Helly Aa and certain other times of the year. At Up Helly Aa the guizers form squads. The leading squad always dress as Vikings, led by the ‘Guizer Jarl’. Other squads compete to create the most imaginative costumes and develop cabaret-style acts, which are then performed at various halls during the celebrations that continue on through the night.

Shetland has a rich dialect, based upon Shetland’s ‘Old Norn’ language (a mixture of English and Norwegian). The language itself is no longer spoken: but many of its words remain in common use, especially in the local names for Shetland’s flora and fauna. (If you come looking for puffins, a local may point out the ‘Tammie Noories’ to you!). When a Shetlander speaks to a visitor, they are usually very careful to make themselves understood: but when two Shetlanders speak in private, you could be excused for thinking that ‘Old Norn’ is still alive and kicking!

With the coming of the oil industry to Shetland there has been a marked increase in financial prosperity. Sullom Voe oil terminal, where the oil is brought ashore from the undersea fields and the gas separated before it is loaded onto tankers for shipment around the world, is the largest of its kind in Europe. Both in its construction phase and subsequently with support work for the terminal and the offshore rigs, the industry has been a major employer for many years now.

But this has not been an unmixed blessing. There has been the constant threat of pollution. The Braer incident was a near-disaster; with the same weather that caused the accident conspiring to destroy the resulting oil slicks before they could do too much damage in a way that many, including myself, consider to have been a miraculous answer to united prayer.

The sudden influx of newcomers undermined the security of the close-knit local communities (where everyone knew everything about everyone else). Also the totally different, more materially-oriented, culture of this wave of ‘incomers,’ coming as it did at the same time as the increasing impact of the mass media on traditional lifestyles, has left many yearning for more peaceful times!

That may not be long in coming. Already throughput is declining as the most productive reserves begin to dwindle and new methods of offshore loading are used on the smaller fields. The Shetland Islands’ Council has wisely invested a great deal of its oil income on the isles’ infrastructure; which should stand us in good stead for a good many years yet. They have also sought to encourage new industries, of which fish farming has been the most notable success. The electronic revolution is now also being exploited with a number of innovative internet and other projects.

Investments in a multi-million pound leisure centre with flumes, river, etc. may or may not prove to have been a good move – it will maybe depend upon how many tourists are attracted here because of it. (Certainly, swimming in the sea without a wetsuit is only for the hardy!) Shetland’s great natural beauty and unspoilt wildlife – birds, otters and seals, frequent sightings of various cetaceans and good angling – make it an ideal venue for nature lovers and a popular port of call for many cruise ships and sailing ships.

Much of Shetland’s future will depend upon keeping Shetland unspoilt whilst maintaining and improving access from the UK mainland and Norway. It is well worth a visit!

Go to: Kevin & Judy King’s home page, Liegeman People, Liegeman home page.

Article, photo and page creation by Kevin King.

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