Have you ever read a book that completely takes you to another place? I just love books that cover regions outside of the US, especially those that spark an interest in a new region of the world that you may never have known existed.
I’m currently reading “White Nights”, the second book in a quartet by Ann Cleaves, all of which take place on the Shetland Islands, a small archipelago off the northern coast of Scotland.
I must admit that when I first began reading this series, I had to pull up iMaps to locate these islands, and since then, I have been absolutely fascinated by Shetland. A quick visit to the Official Site for Shetland Tourism and I was hooked – it has just skyrocketed to the top 10 list of locations I absolutely must visit within the next five years.
Some quick facts about these Scottish islands:
- You’ll never be more than 5km from the sea while in Shetland.
- The island chain is as far north as St. Petersburg, Russia or Anchorage, Alaska, but its ocean currents are warmer than those of other northern regions, making Shetland’s climate quite mild.
- The landscape is incredibly diverse – from sandy beaches to rocky cliffs, and everything in between.
- There are 22,000 human inhabitants and about 200,000 puffin inhabitants in Shetland.
- At least 85 islands in the archipelago are inhabited solely by sheep, seals and birds.
- Shetland ponies are unique to the area and have been living on the island chain for the last 4,000 years. After years of exporting and mixed breeding, a late 19th century society was established to “ensure the purity of the breed was retained”.
Typical methods of arrival to the Islands by either flight (only 90 minutes from Edinburgh) or a 12 hour ferry ride from Aberdeen. (Personally, I’d take the ferry, if only for the nature gazing.) Once you arrive on the main island, there are so many options of things to do! Although small, this region seems to have limitless activities and sights to see, so start making your to-do list now.
In her books, Cleaves describes picturesque maritime towns, brisk ocean breezes and unique Shetland culture. I’ve definitely had to investigate quite a few phrases and events depicted in Cleaves’s work. The one that particularly intrigued me was the Festival of Up Helly Aa.
This cultural festival honors Shetland’s Viking history, and includes some pretty expansive celebrations that seek to involve all residents and visitors alike. Occurring on the last Tuesday in January, this festival includes a massive processional, generous libations, Nordic songs, and lots of fire.
The focus of this event rests on the Guizer Jarl, who is selected by a committee to lead the celebrations. He embodies the identity of a Norse god when carrying out various rituals during Up Helly Aa and is surrounded and supported by the Jarl Squad, who march with him throughout the processional and then put on a sort of play or production in the evening.
Singing, dancing, eating, gallivanting (hopefully with ponies in cardigan sweaters)… sounds like my kind of festival!
Shetland, I’m adding you to my list. Big thanks to Ann Cleaves for opening up my eyes to this area of the world – I can’t wait to visit!
(For photo credit, please click on each image)