Often when we think of an island vacation a picture of palm trees, white sprawling beaches, and warm balmy air come to mind. These are certainly a vision of relaxation and romance. There are however other islands that I experienced this summer that were not of this typical view, yet culturally, geographically and historically rich.
The rugged and remote Shetland Islands – a collection of mighty, wind-ravaged clumps of brown and green earth rising from the frigid waters of the North Sea, are Scotland’s northerly most location. The setting is still uniquely Scottish, with deep, naked glens flanked by steep hills, beautiful sky-blue lochs and, of course, sheep with no comprehension of the ‘right of way’ on roads. The largest island in the Shetland collection is known simply as “Mainland” with an area of 373 sq. miles. The archipelago has an oceanic climate, a complex of geology, a rugged coastline and many low, rolling hills.
During their early historic period, the Shetlands were dominated by Scandinavian influences, especially Norway, and the islands did not become part of Britain until the fifteenth century. When Shetland joined the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707 trade with northern Europe decreased, although fishing has continued to be an important part of the economy up to present day. The discovery of North Sea oil in the 1970’s significantly boosted Shetland incomes, employment and public sector revenues.
Shetland has an oceanic climate, with long but mild winters and short, cool summers. The general climate is windy and cloudy, November and December being the wettest months.
Shetland is extremely rich in physical remains of the prehistoric eras and there are over 5,000 archaeological sites located among the islands. One site at West Voe on the south coast of Mainland dates back to 4320-4030 BC, has provided the first evidence of human activity on Shetland.
Pottery shards found at the important site of Jarlshof indicate there was Neolithic activity there during the Bronze Age. The site has provided evidence of habitation up until Viking times. A preserved ruin of a wheelhouse and broch (sophisticated dry stone architecture), at Jarlshof is described as “one of the most remarkable archaeological sites ever excavated in the British Isles.”
Knitwear is important both to the economy and culture of Shetland and the Shetland design is well-known. However the industry faces challenges due to plagiarism of the word “Shetland” by manufacturers operating elsewhere.
Shetland has become a popular destination for cruise ships and in 2010 the “Lonely Planet” guide named Shetland as the sixth best region in the world for tourists seeking unspoiled destinations. The islands are described as “beautiful and rewarding” and the Shetlanders as “A fiercely independent and self-reliant bunch”.
Yes, I did see Shetland ponies, but not as many as you might think. Today, Shetlands are ridden primarily by small children at fairs or carnivals to provide pleasure rides for visitors. They are also seen at petty zoos and sometimes used for therapeutic horseback riding purposes rather than to plow the fields, their original use.
The “Lerwick Up Helly Aa” is one of a variety of fire festivals held in Shetland annually in the middle of winter. The festival is over 100 years old and is held to break up the long nights of winter. It includes a procession of men dressed as Vikings who must stay strictly on course and adhere to the procession rules wile carrying fire torches.
The Faroe Islands lie northwest of Scotland and halfway between Iceland and Norway. This archipelago is composed of 18 islands, roughly the shape of an arrowhead, and 687 miles of coastline.
The weather is quite changeable, from moments of brilliant sunshine to misty fog, to showers. The Gulf Stream encircles the islands and tempers the climate. Snow fall in the winter occurs but is short lived and temperature is very moderate considering the high latitude.
The fishing industry is the most important source of income for the Faroes. Fish products account for over 97% of the export volume. Tourism is the second largest industry, followed by woolen and other manufactured products.
The first settlers of the islands were likely to have been Irish monks during the mid-17th century seeking a tranquil refuge in these remote islands. However, the Norwegian colonization began about 100 years later and developed throughout the Viking Age, making the Faroes a central part of the Viking settlements along the coasts of the North Atlantic and the Irish Seas.
During the Middle Ages, the Faroe Islands were greatly influenced by North Sea countries, especially by the hanseatic merchants in Bergen. Today you can visit Tinganes, the home of the national government, established according to the Home Rule constitution adopted in 1948. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Faroes vigorously engaged in exploring the potential for oil production in the seas around the islands.
The Faroe Islands are built on layers of volcanic basalt and are tilted on the eastern shores sloping into the sea, while the western coasts rise up in soaring cliffs. This layer effect is most pronounced along the more peaceful and protected fjords and sounds. Along the shores of these fjords and sounds lie towns and villages, which sparkle in multicolored splendor against the deep green cultivated pastures.
The long summer days (approximately 23 hours of sunlight) teem with seabirds flocking to the cliffs. The combination of cold arctic currents with the warm Gulf Stream near the Faroe Islands has created a special environment for the many birds that breed there. Omithologists have identified around 300 bird species in the Faroe Islands, 40 are regular breeding birds and another 40 are infrequent guests. Colonies of puffins inhabit the many ledges at the top of cliffs.
The old town of Torshavn is a dwelling place of history and stories. It is the hometown of the story teller William Heinesen. Born in 1900, in a high attic above his father’s shop, this story teller met the dream and elf girl Taira, for which stands a bronze monument in the town’s park. Here his “Lost Musicians” wandered among the houses, dreamers and visionaries who once having heard the wind harp’s music in the church tower could never be the same as other ordinary folk.
The Faroe Islands were evaluated by a panel of 522 well traveled experts in 2007, who determined the islands to be among the most “unspoiled” and top on the list of the “most appealing destinations in the world ahead of the Azores, Lofoten and exotic islands such as Bermuda and Hawaii”.
If you are looking for a new adventure in a climate void of humidity and palm trees but steeped in history I can recommend these two North Sea islands.