Geopark Shetland – a WOW! around every corner

Gaada Stack, Foula. Zoom Gaada Stack, Foula. Our island group has the most varied and dramatic array of landscapes and seascapes to be found anywhere in the world, so expect the unexpected! The vista changes from wild heather-clad moorland with a myriad of lochs to scenic valleys with bubbling streams, to green farmland, rugged hillsides and pretty fishing villages. The whole is enclosed by a wonderful coast punctuated by inviting sandy beaches, long sheltered voes and towering cliffs plunging steeply to the sea.

The reasons for the ever-changing scenery are the rocks beneath our feet. They tell an incredible tale of almost three billion years of Earth’s history and a geological journey that took Shetland from near the South Pole, across the Equator to its current position at the crossroads of the North Atlantic. The journey gradually brought together an extraordinary variety of rock types and structures, and throughout this vast expanse of time the climate and landscape changed time and again, forging the splendid geodiversity we enjoy today.

Geology for all ages. Zoom Geology for all ages. Shetland’s easily accessible rocks and landscapes tell stories of oceans opening and closing, mountains forming and eroding, tropical seas, volcanoes, deserts, ice ages and ancient rivers – and the stories continue today with sea level rise and coastal erosion continuing to shape our islands and our lives.

This beautiful and fascinating geological heritage is of international significance. It has earned Shetland recognition as one of the first members of the UNESCO International Geoscience and Geoparks Programme that launched in November 2015 - the first new UNESCO programme since World Heritage Sites were created over 40 years ago. UNESCO Global Geoparks are territories around the world that use their geology to benefit their communities through tourism, education and conservation. There are currently 120 UNESCO Global Geoparks from 33 member states.

Colourful cliffs at Burrafirth, Unst. Zoom Colourful cliffs at Burrafirth, Unst. Shetland’s awesome Earth heritage is accessible through a range of Geopark exhibits, trails, and activities. The self-guide ‘Shetland’s Volcano’ trail explores the volcanic landscape of the Eshaness peninsula, described as “the best section through the flank of a volcano in the British Isles”. The volcano was active about 390 million years ago. Now one of the highest-energy coastlines in the world, the sea has exploited cracks in the volcanic bedrock to carve out the dramatic array of stacks, geos and blowholes you see today.

‘The Shetland Ophiolite’ trail takes you on a journey to the bottom of a long vanished ocean. The ophiolite is a stranded section of ocean crust found in Unst and Fetlar that was thrust up onto an ancient continent during a massive collision 420 million years ago. Unst has been described as “an open-air museum of oceanic rocks”. Trails include walks and site visits and are supported by on-site interpretation. Both trail packs are available from the Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick.

Geological walls in Unst, Fetlar and Northmavine provide fascinating cross-sections illustrating the relationships between the rocks of the region. Meanwhile, the engaging stone figures at the Old Haa in Yell celebrate the beauty and diversity of Yell’s rocks through geo-inspired art, and a picnic site with a difference at Braewick in Eshaness gives a fun overview of Shetland’s geological variety. Cutting-edge technology is also playing its part with the development of a site-based ‘smart-phone app’ giving geological information at localities throughout Shetland. ‘Geopark Shetland’ for iPhone and Android is available free from iTunes and Google Play. 

Zoom Zoom Shetland’s geology is literally the ‘bed-rock’ of every aspect of life in the isles and has given rise to a unique biodiversity. It has influenced human settlement patterns and activities from the arrival of the first settlers nearly 6,000 years ago right up to the present day – so much so that Shetland place names commonly reflect prominent features of the rocks, coastline and landscape. Due to the lack of trees and abundance of stone, Shetland has some of the best preserved archaeology in Europe, including evidence of man’s use of rocks as resources from earliest times. Geology has also been instrumental in the development of Shetland’s industries, both onshore and offshore.

To find out more about Shetland’s unique culture and heritage, that owes so much to its geological story, why not start at Shetland Museum and Archives? Displays take you back into the mists of time, revealing vanished landscapes and the amazing events behind them. From geological beginnings, you can follow a timeline that tells Shetland’s story from the end of the last ice age to the present day.

Zoom There is a fantastic range of leaflets and guided tours available to enhance your Shetland experience, as well as a popular Photographic Guide to Shetland’s Geology. A new geological guide to Geopark Shetland is ‘Precambrian to Present: Shetland’s voyage through geological time’.

Visit www.geoparkshetland.org.uk or find us on Facebook/Twitter to learn more.

To find out about other UNESCO Global Geoparks visit
www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/earth-sciences/global-geoparks/

Article compiled by Robina Barton and Allen Fraser.