Supermarket giants, tacky fish and chip shops and bookies were not promoting the Viking-themed island that I wanted to find in The Shetlands.  I wanted strange people who had said 'no' to normal civilisation, exciting scenery - basically something that made the place different to every other part of the UK.  Lerwick is the main town on the island, it's where most people live, and is the closest thing to city living.  


One thing that became extremely evident is the amount of English accents that could be heard throughout the streets, as it seemed people had actually chosen to move here.  Perhaps unsurprisingly and in keeping with an island cliché, everyone seemed to know everyone and exactly what everyone was up to, myself included.


I thought I had discovered what I was after when I came across a small pub in the back streets.  Old men were playing the fiddle, accordion and piano, singing songs and having a typical Shetland time, or so I thought.  The pub had instruments hanging on the walls almost as if to entice customers into making music - after a while I found it was often the same song by the same people each night.


It takes about an hour to drive around the entire main island.  Any disappointed thoughts I had had about life this far north were soon changed literally five minutes after leaving the grey houses of Lerwick.  It would be hard not to be drawn into clichés about the barren lands with no trees, the wind and changing weather but it does create a special feeling.  Houses are spread out with no planning and roads become thinner and harder to navigate.  


Small churches are placed randomly throughout the fields with the North Sea as a backdrop, each one had five or six gravestones at the most and had room for about ten people.  The scenery was creating a haunting image and was leaning more to what I wanted from a trip to these Scottish islands.


The airport sits at the north of the island in Sumborough and is a special little place.  By this point I was passing a house every ten minutes, roads were down to one lane and the idea of toiletries on aisle four in Tesco were a distant memory.  Cars have to wait at a level crossing while British Airways planes land and take off.  Beaches were appearing around most corners, beaches that looked like nobody had set foot on them before and I was the first to see them,. Of course I wasn't - I saw a man fixing his boat just to put an end to this fantasy.  Still, this is what I was looking for, not another high street.


St Ninnians Island has a large sand bank leading up to it and you can walk around it in under half an hour.  The sand bank acts as a beach, creating waves that break on either side.  At the risk of sounding too theatrical and being at one with nature, lying on that beach is the ultimate calming experience. It was here that I felt miles away from home and what was normal to me.  Having waves crash on either side of where you lie is a special experience no matter what the weather is.


The Shetlands, at first glance, scared me because it was nothing like how I wanted it to be, it could have been a small town just outside of Birmingham.  Exploring the island and talking to the people that live at the far reaches of the UK show you that it is different, and that the people that live there are there because they love their home.



The Shetlands: somewhere so different

By Sean Fell

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The remote beauty of The Shetlands is something to behold (picture: MacCraig, Flickr)