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.”
I came to Shetland to report on the Fiddle Frenzy, an annual festival of fiddle music, and found myself intrigued by the islands and Shetlanders’ self-reliant spirit. Over and over again, I was surprised by how non-Scottish Shetland feels.
“We don’t go for bagpipes, tartans, and haggis here,” says my reticent but good-humored taxi driver, Magnus, while taking me from Sumburgh Airport to my hotel in Lerwick, Shetland’s 7,500-strong capital, a harbor town of Georgian buildings and flagstone streets. “If you want that, you better go to Aberdeen,” he says with a proud smirk.
Lerwick is Shetland’s tourism hub, most often used as a launchpad to access more remote parts of the islands. Visitors can embark on farther-off excursions to explore sea caves and spot seals and seabirds like puffins and gannets. But the town also supports a small creative industry of musicians and knitters, so is home to lovely knitwear shops and cozy live music cafés, bars, and restaurants. For many, it’s an ideal place to escape the hustle of mainland Britain. On my Sunday evening bike ride, the quiet of Lerwick’s streets was broken only by the jangle of a dingy boat’s lanyard and the squawk of a distant kittiwake.
Shetland has always been culturally different from the rest of Scotland. The dialect is more breathy and singsong, akin to Norwegian, with its own words like brönnie, an oatmeal scone, and veesik, an old song or ballad. Ninety-five percent of place names, like Voe, Sandwick, and Tingwall, reflect an Old Norse heritage. Shetland’s fairy-tale-like coat of arms even depicts a unicorn, a Shetland pony, a Viking dragon boat, two golden fish, and a raven. Underneath is the official motto, in Icelandic: Með lögum skal land byggja, “By law shall the land be built up.” It’s a phrase borrowed from the Njáls Saga, written around 1270. In it, Njáls’ son Ari sails for Shetland, where he produces a son, Einar the Shetlander, “one of the briskest and boldest of men.”
“Having grown up a long way from any major population centers, Shetlanders are hardy, independent, self-sufficient, and proud of their Norse roots,” affirms resident Steve Mathieson, from Shetland’s tourism office. Andrew Jennings from the Centre for Nordic Studies reiterates the sentiment using a few Shetlandic phrases. “In the summer we get the simmer dim, when it never gets dark. In the winter we get the Mirrie Dancers, or northern lights. We belong to the north. But when you look out to sea, you can’t see any other land. Shetland is really on its own.”
Fortunately for tourists and residents, Shetland’s coat of arms motto hasn’t quite lived up to its claim. Though the islands are completely modernized, they remain anything but built up. My visit delivered on the promise of a pristine Scottish landscape: heather-covered rolling hills, crumbling stone walls circling deserted croft houses, grazing sheep, and soggy peat bogs galore. And of course, Shetland ponies, which stand in treeless pastures with catatonic looks on their shaggy mane-covered faces.
There are also no McDonald’s, Starbucks, big-box stores, or theme parks here. The landscape is utterly windswept, the beaches are empty, and it all feels gloriously unspoiled. To experience the wild side of the Norse culture, many visitors come for Shetland’s popular Up Helly Aa festival, held every January. It involves Viking armor, helmets, torches, and traditional song and dance, and culminates in the burning of a Viking longboat.
During another outing, Magnus, whom I hired as a taxi driver and guide, took me to Sumburgh Head, a lighthouse and guest cottage designed by writer Robert Louis Stevenson’s architect grandfather in 1821 and recently refurbished for $9 million. The one-lane approach curves seductively over the stone-wall-laced hills, at each crest opening up a new rock-strewn landscape with the gusty Atlantic always blowing and peeking in from the backdrop. Yet there’s nary a pebble on the roads. It’s as if they’re maintained hourly and designed purely for scenic Sunday driving—the kind of roads automobile-commercial location scouts dream of.
Shetland also has some of the best schools, most-funded arts programs, and über-modernist museum architecture, like Lerwick’s Mareel, a performing arts center that hosts August’s popular Fiddle Frenzy, and the Shetland Museum and Archives, home to an excellent collection of ancient artifacts including intricately carved replicas of the cache of Pictish silver discovered in 1958 under the ruins of a church on St. Ninian’s Isle.
Much of the money that affords Shetland such a prosperous lifestyle—and that could support its potential autonomy—comes from Sullom Voe Terminal, the largest oil and gas terminal in Europe, located in an inlet sheltered by the island of Yell and surrounded by rocky hillsides and grazing sheep. The Shetland Islands Council, which meets every seven weeks at Lerwick Town Hall, was instrumental in minimizing the oil pipeline impact when liquid gas was discovered offshore in the 1970s.
Any Shetland independence is currently contingent upon the Scots going independent. But if they do, several scenarios could play out. One is that Shetland remains within the U.K. Another might have Western Isles, Orkney, and Shetland forming a coalition of islands. A third scenario has oil-rich Shetland striking out to form its own country. With a total population of 23,167, it would be the fifth smallest nation on earth, following the Vatican (the smallest), Tuvalu, Nauru, and Palau. For now it joins a growing list of European independence-seekers that includes Catalonia, Venice, and Wallonia and Flanders. Whether Shetland will become a full-fledged microstate like Montenegro, Kosovo, or East Timor is hard to predict.
If that does happen, the ramifications to Shetland’s tourism are unclear, but nobody I spoke with seems to think it would hurt. Tourism is an important part of the local economy, with 65,000 visitors coming in 2012, a small uptick from the previous year. Still, many questions would have to be answered, among them currency and passport control issues, and whether Shetland would apply for EU citizenship.
As the Scottish Referendum nears, polls show Scotland’s pro-independence voters edging closer to the poll-leading unionists. This was recently bolstered by a handful of Scottish celebrities coming out in favor of independence, including Sir Sean Connery, writer Irvine Welsh, and a litany of Scottish musicians including Billy Bragg, Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite, and Stuart Murdoch from Belle & Sebastian, who recently said, “Scotland might actually show England the way.” It just might be that Shetland is leading them both.
Air Travel There are no direct flights to Shetland’s Sumburgh Airport from North America. Flights on Flybe, the only carrier, transit through Glasgow, Edinburgh, Kirkwall, Aberdeen, Inverness, and Bergen, Norway. Arriving to Shetland via NorthLink Ferry is a popular option and allows visitors to bring their own cars. The 12-hour crossings sail in the evening seven nights a week from Aberdeen.
Hotels Sumburgh Head’s new cottage, overlooking a puffin nesting site, sleeps five and is equipped with heated flagstone floors and an Aga stove. The quiet and affordable Kveldsro House is hidden away on a residential street, walkable from central Lerwick in five minutes. Its wallpapered rooms feature ocean views and tea and biscuits. For more rustic digs, check out Shetland Camping Böds, a collection of old stone huts that have been converted to cozy budget accommodations beloved by hikers. Because hotels are scarce and can fill up during festivals, Airbnb is an especially good resource in Shetland, with more than a dozen available properties.