On the Culture and Heritage Trail…

…learn the 'Shetland' story

At Shetland Museum. Zoom At Shetland Museum. An island-wide ‘network’ of museums and heritage centres, exhibitions and visitor attractions, can help you discover the magical story of Shetland, its history, its people and traditions, and provide an insight into the lives and livelihoods of the islanders from prehistoric times to the present day.

The award-winning Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick is a good place to start your journey into the past, while smaller museums and history groups offering more localised exhibits, documents and artefacts are situated throughout Shetland, in buildings such as ‘haas’, watermills, crofthouses and old schools.

Memorial to the heroes of The Shetland Bus Zoom Memorial to the heroes of The Shetland Bus Most of the rural centres have a ‘main’ exhibition – the wars, the Shetland Bus, boat and maritime history, knitwear, agriculture, even vintage radios – and some have gift shop, refreshment and internet facilities. All have knowledgeable, friendly ‘custodians’ (usually volunteers) who can give advice and try to answer any questions you may have.

Shetland Archives holds a great amount of local documentation and records at its base in the Shetland Museum. The state-of-the-art facility contains written records from the 15th to the 21st century, and the fourth largest collection of archive photography in Scotland; and the Shetland Library also has Shetland books, newspapers and historical documents.

Useful websites:

…trace your roots

Shetland Family History Society premises are open for anyone interested in tracing Shetland ancestors. Drop in to look for family information on computer, film, CD or microfiche, or among the many files and family trees donated from all over the world. The society provides researchers to deal with queries and has a local network of willing volunteers in each parish to help with an ever-increasing volume of work.

Published materials include a quarterly journal, Coontin’ Kin; Members’ Interest Directories; Dr Alan Beattie’s book Shetland Surnames; Pre-1855 Parish Sources for Family Historians; Monumental Inscriptions books; memorials and dedications; and Shetland Census CDs for 1785/1841, 1851/61, 1871/81 and 1891/1901.

Useful websites:

…listen for ‘da Shetlan’ soond’

Your Shetland experience will include a sound that you won’t encounter anywhere else – the Shetland dialect. Although local folk may speak English for the benefit of visitors, you will become familiar with the Shetland accent during your holiday, if not its rich vocabulary.

The dialect reflects Shetland’s history, the dominant ingredients in its linguistic mixture being Norn, Scots, and English. When Shetland was part of the Norse empire, the people spoke Norn, a Nordic language. After Shetland came under Scottish rule in the 15th century, the language was replaced by Scots, and later, English. Today’s dialect, or vernacular speech, is a rich blend of these.

In response to fears that the dialect might not survive, the group Shetland ForWirds was formed to promote its use. Close links have been developed with schools, and a CD for children – Craigsaet Rhymes, sangs an poems for peerie bairns – is available in local shops, and the website, www.shetlanddialect.org.uk, has examples of both spoken and written dialect.

Relevant books, including Shetland dictionaries and children's dialect books, are available from The Shetland Times Bookshop.

…feel the heat of the fire

Lerwick’s Up Helly A’ galley comes to a fiery end Zoom Lerwick’s Up Helly A’ galley comes to a fiery end Shetland’s Viking heritage is celebrated each winter when the world famous fire festival of Up-Helly-A’ takes place. The unique event which sees a replica longship burned and a thousand ‘guizers’ marching in a torchlit procession through the streets, is held annually in Lerwick on the last Tuesday of January. Smaller celebrations are held in country districts between January and March each year.

If you can’t make it to the isles to see the real thing, visit the Up-Helly-A’ exhibition in the Galley Shed in Lerwick, where film, photos, costumes and a replica galley from the unique event will give a taste of what you’ve missed (minus the smell of paraffin, the impressive torch glow in the night sky, and, of course, the 12-hour ‘after-party’)!

Useful website:

…look for place names

Travelling through Shetland, you can’t fail to notice the place names... but how do you pronounce them and what do they mean? Place names reflect the strong Norse heritage, together with subsequent Scottish and English influences, and tell us about the history, geography, and people who lived here. Many names stem from the Old Norse (ON) language and describe the landscape and where the Vikings lived and farmed.

Some common place name elements:

  • -sta (e.g. Ulsta, Tresta) = ON staðr/staðir – a farm
  • -setter, ster (e.g. Setter, Swinister) = ON setr – a summer pasture for cattle
  • -tun, toon (e.g. Bigton) = ON tún – a township
  • -ayre (e.g. Red Ayre) = ON øyrr/eyrr – a sandy or gravelly bank
  • -dale (e.g. Dale, Ordaal) = ON dalr – valley
  • -wart, ward (e.g. Muckle Wart, Saxavord) = ON varða – a watch tower
  • -geo (e.g.Twageos) = ON gja – ravine
  • -ness (e.g. Muness, Scatness) = ON nes – a headland
  • -a, ay, ey (e.g. Burra, Whalsay, Gruney) = ON øy – an isle

More information on names and the Shetland Place Names Project, which records place names on a database linked to digital maps enabling them to be related precisely to their locations, can be found at www.shetlandamenity.org/shetland-place-names-project.

Several parish names contain the element ‘ting’, from ON þing (assembly) – Tingwall, Sandsting, Aithsting, Nesting, Delting and Lunnasting. ‘Thing’ sites are an early system of administration and justice, and are found throughout North Atlantic Europe.

Shetland Amenity Trust is a partner in the Northern Periphery Programme’s transnational Thing Project.

Useful websites: 

…and discover monsters and myths

Shetland is steeped in a rich and diverse folklore. It shows in the island’s place names, in its stories and in the everyday conversation of its inhabitants. Redolent with references to the Scandinavian roots of much of its culture, it also reflects a long seafaring and crofting tradition. Many of the terms used are based on Norn words. Indeed, it is only in old tales and proverbs that many of these words now survive, having been lost to general usage.

Among the most popular elements of the islands’ folklore are the unearthly creatures which inhabit the islands. The most famous of these are ‘trows’ – Shetland’s hidden people, generally shy, nocturnal and, more often than not, tolerated by the human population rather than welcomed. The trows had a very keen ear for music, in particular the fiddle, which perhaps explains why they have lingered in Shetland for so long. They would kidnap musicians and draw them down into the depths of their ‘trowie knowes’ to play at wedding feasts. The length of these feasts could often stretch into years in the outside world for the poor soul concerned, although it seemed to them that only a few days had passed. Several local tunes have had their authorship attributed to the trows.

Other creatures included the ‘njuggle’ – a waterhorse which took the form of a splendid Shetland pony and inhabited the streams under Shetland’s little water mills. Then there were the ‘finns’ – the maritime equivalent of the trow and a creature of considerable magical resource. The seal people – ‘selkies’ – are deeply embedded in Shetland folklore as they are in many other parts of the world. Other monsters from the sea were the ‘brigdi’, the ‘seefer’, and the ‘sifan’.

Shetland has a long tradition of storytelling which has allowed tales to pass from one generation to the other. This tradition still holds true and a number of formal and informal storytelling events are held. Follow the links on www.shetlandheritageassociation.com to find out more.

Many books of Folklore have been written and are available from The Shetland Times Bookshop