From a headland atop 4,500-year-old ruins, I watch the rain sweep past a flock of floating razorbills and fall softly onto the surrounding green. Much of this site—mysteriously abandoned in the 16th century and rediscovered only after a storm exposed it in the 1890s—was lost to the ocean. What remains is a preserved collection of stone dwellings covered in golden lichens and spindly mosses. Jarlshof is one of 5,000 archaeological sites across the Shetland Islands. What other secrets lie sealed under the grass is anyone’s guess.
Few places feel as pristine and intriguing as the Shetland Islands. Although at the northernmost point of the United Kingdom, they’re closer to Lillehammer, Norway, than London. The subarctic archipelago of 100 islands is in the North Sea, 125 miles north of the Scottish mainland. They were part of Norway for about 600 years until the late 15th century, when the islands fell under Scottish and then British rule.
But Shetland may not remain the northernmost point in the U.K. for long. The Scottish independence referendum, to be held September 18, 2014, will determine the nationality of these primordial islands. In a recent twist this past March, Shetland residents petitioned Scottish parliament to create its own referendum to secede from Scotland if Scotland secedes from the U.K.
A secession within a secession? The Scottish parliament denied the request due to time constraints, but the separatist organization could appeal. Most inhabitants are non-separatists yet advocate for increased autonomy. The Our Islands, Our Future group’s Joint Position Statement calls for control of the surrounding seabeds, new energy grid connections to mainland Scotland, investment in sustainable energy, and redrawn fiscal arrangements to better benefit local organizations.
“Shetlanders certainly feel a strong sense of individuality, which leads to a feeling of independence for some,” says Emma Miller from the Shetland Amenity Trust, which promotes Shetland’s cultural and natural heritage. “We have strong links with the mainland and don’t see ourselves as totally remote. But sometimes, when you see what people try to charge for delivery of goods to Shetland, you might think we were an independent country located on the moon.”