The Most Northerly Part of the U.K.
by Paul Kelly
Geography and Topography
The Shetland Isles are the most northerly part of the UK, lying approx. 150 miles NE of the northern mainland of Scotland. Do not confuse them with the Orkney Isles, which are a separate group lying just to the north of the northern mainland of Scotland. Our nearest landmass is Norway to the east, separated by the North Sea, with Bergen our nearest town. To the west is the North Atlantic Ocean, with the Faeroe Islands approx.150 miles to the NNW. We are on the same latitude as Northern Labrador, Canada, and the southern tip of Greenland. The main island is simply called Mainland, where the old capital Scalloway and the new capital Lerwick house at least half of the population. The larger islands of Unst, Yell, Fetlar, Whalsay, West Burra Isles and Bressay are well populated, with the smaller islands of Papa Stour, Out Skerries, Fair Isle, Foula and Vaila having a smaller contingent.
Visitors are easily mislead about the Islesí size; we blame the TV weather, which often shows Shetland as a tiny island in a tiny box in the corner of your TV screen. The locals got their own back by producing a T-shirt depicting the UK as a tiny island in a tiny box alongside a much larger map of Shetland. UK road maps must also be blamed, as they often depict Orkney and Shetland together on one page. The visitor is easily misled, when comparing the size of Shetland on an UK or World map.
In fact, we are approx. 100 miles from north to south, which will take you half a day to travel by car and ferry. We have approx. 85 miles of good roads on Mainland Island itself. Being surrounded by water on all sides, you can never be more the three miles from it, so sea views are plentiful from most locations.
We have no mountains! Plenty of hills though, often dropping down to sea level. The coastline is rugged but beautiful, often interspersed with remote sandy beaches, especially on the West Side. The finest Tombolo in Europe is located at St Ninianís Isle, consisting of a breakwater of shell sand which allows access to this beautiful historic isle populated by sheep.
Thousands of years ago there was tropical forest, which is evidenced by the amount of peat and peaty soil found here. Peat is basically an early stage of coal making, which can be burned, giving off a beautiful aroma you will never forget. So there is plenty of farmland here, especially down the south end. The landscape is more rocky and barren as you head further north, with the northern island of Unst known locally as the rock garden.
Approx. 26000 people live here, with almost half in the capital of Lerwick. Half where born here, the rest are "Sooth Moothers", a local term referring to the visitors who have arrived here by ferry through the South Mouth of Lerwick harbour. They mainly come from the UK, but we also have a few Asians. Shetlanders by descent do not consider themselves to be Scottish, as they have more of an affinity to Nordic an Norwegian ancestry, which is inherent in their local dialect, a form of Anglicised Norwegian.
Weather and Climate
Some people here think the Shetland Isles are like a mini UK, with the warmer weather in the southern parts and the colder weather in the northern parts. We can have a nice sunny day on the south mainland whilst it could be raining in Unst.
In unison with the rest of the UK, we advance our clocks one hour in summer to British Summer Time, and retard them one hour in winter back to GMT.
The local Government, in the form of Shetland Islands Council (SIC), is probably the main employer here. Roads and transport, the environment, housing, finance, education, legal and leisure are but a few of the departments within the Council.
Crofting and fishing play a big part in island life, especially on the smaller islands. Crofts are plots of land for agriculture; the Crofter usually has grazing sheep, cattle and some crops for local and farm use. Most sheep and cattle are exported to the UK mainland for markets there. We have a big fleet of fishing vessels regularly returning with their catches for our fish processing factories. Salmon farming is also a good local employer, with many farms located in the sheltered voes (inlets). Mussel farming is new here.
Another big employer is the Oil industry, with our own oil terminal at Sullom Voe bringing crude and gas ashore by pipeline from the oil rigs to the east, but using shuttle tankers for transferring oil from the rigs out to the west. Waste products are brought ashore here, to be burnt in our waste to energy plant that provides heating to Lerwick homes.
We have a few cottage industries involving work from home. Knitwear is a popular export, using our homegrown fleeces. Tourism is starting up in a big way, especially since we hosted the Cutty Sark Tall Ships visit to Lerwick in August 1999.
Expensive! Flying here is exorbitant, almost prohibitive, due to the monopoly that British Regional Airways, a subsidiary of British Airways, have up here. We are generally one hoursí flying time from Aberdeen or Inverness on the NE Scottish mainland. For the equivalent distances on the UK mainland, I reckon we pay about three times as much! Itís a sore point up here, and one can only hope things will get better. The main airport at Sumburgh is controlled by the Highlands and Islands Airports consortium (HIAL), which must also share part of the responsibility for these high transport charges.
We also have airports at Tingwall north of Lerwick and Scatsta near the oil terminal. The former is mainly used for inter-island flights and the air ambulance service using small fixed wing aircraft, whilst the latter is for oil rig workers crew changing using helicopters.Virtually all habitable islands have a small landing strip.
All the three airports do not operate on a 24 hours basis; Sumburgh is generally open from 0700 to 2100 Monday to Friday, and 0700 to 1700 Saturday and Sunday.
There are daily ferry services from Aberdeen to and from Lerwick, involving an overnight journey of some 14 hours, and 20 hours when going via the Orkney Isles. Fares are reasonable for the journey time involved, but expensive if you are taking a vehicle and need a cabin. However, island residents are entitled to a small discount. These ferries are presently operated by P & O Scottish Ferries using two roll-on/roll-off vessels. The contract is due for renewal in 2002 and is presently out to tender, the main competitor being Caledonian Macbrayne who operate the ferries around the Western Isles of Scotland.
There are regular inter-island ferries, owned and operated by the SIC. The West Burra Isles have bridges linking their islands with Mainland, with hopefully more planned in the future.
The main roads are excellent, thanks to the oil money the council gets. They are identical to British A-class roads, having a single lane each way. I live 22 miles from Lerwick, which I can do without breaking the law in 25 minutes. So you donít need a four-wheel drive, though there are plenty here. There are plenty of single-track roads, similar to British B-class roads, but with passing places Ė which you must adhere to, otherwise youíll upset the locals! If the passing place is on your left, you must pull in to let oncoming traffic past, which may be a local tractor pulling a large load, so he may not be able to reverse as easily as you can. However, on Bressay, you give way to traffic trying to catch the ferry! Traffic jams are possible, even here, though rare compared to the UK mainland. They tend to be in Lerwick when people are going to and leaving work, though I can assure you they are nothing like you get in a city.
There are two car hire firms that operate from the main airport at Sumburgh, and also in Lerwick.
We do have a bus service of sorts, but itís a daytime affair; you must check the timetables, especially if you are rendezvousing with a ferry. After 6pm (1800), they simply donít exist. So a car is a must up here.
A car is a must-have here, certainly not a luxury item, but a means of travel. However, virtually everything we buy is shipped here, including car fuel. So that means we have to pay shipping costs, which all add to our cost of living here. UK government taxes on car fuel have hit island and rural communities very hard. We probably have the dearest car fuel in the UK. Itís about £0.93 per litre for unleaded, a bit dearer for diesel. One garage in Lerwick sells LPG at £0.50 per litre, if you want to have your vehicle converted to that fuel.
Recently an UK national newspaper rated Lerwick as having the second most expensive shops in the UK. London was first. The shopkeepers will blame the cost of transporting goods here, but the residents are not daft. They may buy their food locally, but their most expensive purchases are shipped up on the ferry from the shops in Aberdeen, Edinburgh or elsewhere, or from mail order catalogues. Iíve even known kit houses to be shipped up here. If the residents can find it cheaper elsewhere, they will!
The range of shops here is obviously limited. We have two large supermarkets (though they are probably tiny by US standards), coupled with the usual range of others that cater for local and tourist needs. These are to be found in Lerwick. We have no MacDonalds though (thankfully!). Outside Lerwick and beyond, you will find the occasional well-stocked shop and garage along the main roads. Note that Sunday opening times are limited Ė so donít run out of car fuel!
Property types vary a lot. Newer buildings are either of concrete block construction with insulated plasterboard walls or of timber construction in the Norwegian styles. They are usually single or two storeys high. Older buildings are stone-built, with 2ft or 3ft thick walls, and have usually been modernised to incorporate insulation and modern heating systems. I believe the older styles to be more romantic and in keeping with Shetland traditions, but they are harder to maintain and heat. They make ideal summer holiday homes, with most being quite isolated. You can still find an old crofthouse that requires renovation, at a cheap price, but their supply is slowly diminishing.
You may also be able to rent from the SIC, but these are means-tested according to your social needs. There are two private housing associations with property to rent, as well as private landlords who rent short-term (summer lets) and long-term (company lets), amongst others.
The water is safe to drink and has a nice taste. Some houses have their own spring. Most have it piped in from a local loch (lake) via a water treatment plant. In Lerwick they have a large reservoir, from which the North of Scotland Water Authority (NOSWA) plan to supply all homes on the Shetland Mainland. In Lerwick you can get the distinctive chlorine smell and taste in your tap water, which NOSWA use to purify the water. We have plenty of the stuff up here; to my knowledge we have never had water shortages (which are getting frequently common during summers in the south of England), though a few years back one of the smaller isles on the east side had to get their loch topped up from Lerwick using a road tanker on the ferry.
In Lerwick and Scalloway most houses have their human waste products piped to a local sewage treatment plant. Outside these areas you will find a septic tank linked to one or more houses. These often need emptying about once per year, depending on what you put in them! NOSWA will do this for a small fee.
Every home in the UK has to pay a Council Tax, to cover water use, sewerage and waste water services, emergency services, education, the weekly refuse collections, etc. The charge is dependent on the value of your house, and is split into eight valuation bands. Shetland has one of the lowest Council Tax charges in the UK. A typical home will pay about GB£850 per year (the 2000/1 charge), which includes your NOSWA water charges, payable in ten equal monthly payments. If NOSWA get their way we will be paying a lot more for our water in the future to cover modernisation programmes outside Shetland. For a holiday home here, you only pay 50% of these charges.
Electricity is the standard UK single phase 234VAC using the 3-square pin plug and socket. You can get a three-phase supply if you need it. A lot of homes here are heated using electric storage heaters, which have their own electric meter and special rate of 3.5 pence per kW hour, taking about 9 hours to fully charge each heater daily. The standard electricity rate is 6.37 pence. There is also a standard fixed quarterly charge to pay, with VAT at 5% for this service. It is supplied from the power station in Lerwick, topped up by reserves from the power station at Sullom Voe oil terminal. The outlying islands of Fair Isle and Foula also have their own wind generators. These will become more widespread up here in the near future, as we have the ideal conditions for them.
There is no piped gas in Shetland. You can get bottled gas, for heaters and cookers.
In Lerwick, the waste to energy plant supplies heat to most council rental homes in the form of hot water to special emitters in each home.
There are plenty of interests and diversions covered here, with those groups meeting regularly.
There is a lively social life for those wanting to party. Lerwick is the place to be at the weekend, with plenty of good drinking houses where you can meet up. We only have a few dancing places where the young at heart can go, but there is talk of a large dance venue to be sited somewhere in the town.
We have no cinema, though you can still see the occasional movie at special venues throughout the isles. In Lerwick there are two Indian restaurants, two Chinese restaurants and numerous other eateries. You must sample our local freshly caught fish and chips!
Outside the towns you are bound to find
something going on, especially at the weekend, if you look hard enough.
Any excuse for a party, is all that is required!
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