In the port of Lerwick is a sign with a motto of times past: “Med lögum skal land byggja.” The language is not English, and not one of the Scandinavian languages. The language on the sign is Norn, an extinct tongue that was once spoken in Shetland and Orkney, and off the north coast of main Scotland – when Shetland was known as Hjaltland and was ruled from Scandinavia.
Even though relatively few of the islanders nowadays might be able to interpret the words on the sign, it still has a story to tell: that of exploration and change. In fact, official sources on the Shetland Islands officially claim to have “5,000 years of immigration behind us.”
The islands nowadays count some 22,000 inhabitants, whereof 7,500 in Lerwick. The main town of the islands, Lerwick is classified as the only burgh in the Shetlands. Construction of the town started in the 1600s after Dutch herring fishermen had started to utilize the good natural harbor in the area. By the year 1700, some 700 inhabitants called Lerwick home.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Lerwick was the main North European port for herring fishing. The prosperous times are reflected in the grand, gray granite buildings that were erected at the time. Typical for Lerwick are also the so-called Lodberries – houses that have virtually been placed in the water, equipped with their own quays and doors for the loading and unloading of ships.
Lerwick is situated on the island of Mainland. Just like the rest of the 100 or so islands that together constitute the Shetland Islands, Mainland is in complete lack of trees. The islands are hilly, though, the highest hills and cliffs reaching some 1,475 feet/450 meters up in the air.
The cliffs are a prerequisite for many of the bird species that nest here: puffins, storm petrels and other birds specific to the Atlantic Ocean’s islands and coasts. Seals and otters are plentiful in the sea surrounding the islands, and it is not unusual to spot different species of whales and dolphins.
Speaking of animals: Shetland ponies are, of course, what many associate with these islands.
While fishing continues to be very important to the Shetland Islands, the oil industry has had a notable influence on the local economy in recent decades.
The message of the sign? Oh, this is how it translates: “Land is to be built with law”
Lerwick For Cruise Passengers
Cruise ships of up to 672 feet/205 meters in length can berth alongside in Lerwick. Larger ships anchor with passengers just minutes away from a modern floating landing stage and welcome ashore pavilion located in the heart of Lerwick’s Town Center.
Do Not Miss
If you’re into bird watching, answering the question of how to best spend your time ashore is probably very easy. Shetland is famous for its sensational seabird colonies and the rare bird species that can be found here. If sea mammals are more up your alley, consider going looking for seals, otters or whales.
After a day full of exploration and experiences, you might want to get a taste of the Shetland Islands. Much of the local cuisine centres around fish and shellfish, which is of very high quality. Lamb and beef are also well worth trying. Lamb, in particular, is often featured on the menus. For a list of available restaurants, check out The Shetland Food Directory.
For a full picture of the history of the Shetland Islands, visit The Shetland Museum. Situated in central Lerwick, the museum puts focus on different aspects of the history of the islands.
Out in the field, literally, it is possible to see traces of the people who used to live on the Shetland Islands thousands of years ago. At Jarlshof, you will be given an insight into life here during days of old. There are also other, similar, settlements to be experienced on the Shetland Islands.
In Scalloway, the town that was once Shetland’s capital, visit the NAFC Marine Centre, established in support of Shetland’s maritime industries. Visitors are welcome at the facility, where it is possible to peep into the mother and baby unit of a lobster hatchery.
The Bonhoga Gallery in Lerwick houses both visiting and local exhibitions. A part of Shetland Arts, the gallery also features a nice café.
The Up Helly Aa might well be Shetland’s most well-known festival. At any rate, it claims to be Europe’s largest fire festival. As it takes place on the last Tuesday of January each year, it is probably not within range for cruise ship passengers (cruise ships tend to have left the North Atlantic at that time of year). Still, the festival as such says something about the history of these islands. The Shetland Folk Festival around the beginning of May is more convenient in time, focusing on the traditional music. Then, in July, the Shetland Nature Festival puts focus on the wildlife of the islands. For an introduction to traditional Shetland music, consider visiting Fiddle Frenzy in August.
Travel one hour south of Lerwick to experience Jarlshof, the archaeological site that features remnants from the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, plus rectangular houses from a Viking community.
Other shore excursions will bring you to the island of Mousa, where the Mousa Broch – or Mousa Castle – is situated. The broch was built more than 2,000 years ago. Mousa also offers an astonishing wildlife.
The scenery of the Shetlands is more specifically in focus on other shore excursions, during which you will visit the moors and the coastline of the islands.
Scalloway Castle can be the main subject on other excursions. Built in the 1600s, the castle is situated close to what was once the capital of the Shetland Islands: Scalloway.
Travel southwest from the Shetland Islands, and you will end up in Scotland. Go east instead, and Norway will be the first land that you encounter. In fact, Norway’s capital, Oslo, is closer to Lerwick than is London, the capital of the U.K.
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