Excerpts of 1,600 word article, pictures available


by Pam Hobbs

Often in Britain's country hotels, I wake up to serenading doves, but here in the Shetland Islands, sheep and lambs provide my morning call. I guess it is to be expected. After all, there are more sheep than people on these isles. The island chain, simply called Shetland here, is quite unlike anywhere else in Britain.

Although a part of Scotland for the past 500 years, a Scandinavian influence prevails. The language is basic English mixed with a smattering of European tongues, including at least 10,000 words of Norse. There is hardly a tree in sight. And highlight of the year is not a summer tattoo or ceildih, but a Viking festival held in January when daylight is at its minimum.

If you are only vaguely aware of Shetland, you are not alone. It seldom makes the news unless something untoward happens on offshore oil rigs, or a spill is threatening wildlife. Located in the most northerly part of Britain, 100 km beyond Scotland's Orkney Islands, and as close to Bergen, Norway, as it is to Aberdeen, Scotland, Shetland is an archipelago of a hunded islands of which 12 are inhabited. The largest of these, like its counterpart in Orkney, is called Mainland.

Just 80 km long, Mainland is small enough to know intimately after a few days. That is, unless you are walking its shoreline. As frilly as a choirboy's collar, it measures well over 1,000 km.

Vacationers keen on commercial attractions won't find a lot to do here. But if you are looking for a place where noise is no more than seabirds' cries and bleating lambs, where you can see forever because the air is clear and heather-shaded hills are swept of all bu a few feathery trees, then Shetland is for you. Here you can explore historic sites occupied thousands of years ago. You can golf at midnight, walk on beaches deserted even on a summer's weekend, poke around snug harbours and cobbled streets and alleys, and take boat trips to other islands.

Visitor acommodation can match the finest anywhere in hotels that have been converted from grand homes. Also, there are interesting B & Bs, self-catering crofts and hostels. The weather is pretty fair, too, especially in summer when daylight fades for only 2-3 hours in every 24. Temperatures are moderate then, though it never gets truly hot. Humidity is nonexistent and rainfall light.

The permanent population of Shetland numbers only 23,000, but swells by another 120,000 or so each summer. First-time visitors need a day or two to adjust to the slower pace, and realization that Shetlanders have successfully married modern creature comforts and technology to a lifestyle that people enjoyed 30 or 40 years ago. They live in that happy era when houses remained unlocked at night, and strangers were welcomed as new friends.