Shetland: The Strangest Place I’ve Ever Been

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This past summer, I visited Liechtenstein and declared it one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been.  But after visiting Shetland, I chucked that theory out the window.

Liechtenstein is delightfully quirky — the Zooey Deschanel of principalities.  Shetland, by comparison, is Bjork laying an egg on the red carpet.

I had the time of my life visiting Shetland for the first time this winter with Haggis Adventures, and I quickly fell under the islands’ spell.  Shetland was raw and remote and absolutely beautiful — and also, really f*cking weird.

Separatist Tendencies

It starts with Shetland’s individuality.  Shetlanders consider themselves their own people — you better not call a Shetlander Scottish!  Shetland isn’t making motions for independence from Britain, but you can easily tell that being British is a secondary consideration.

Shetland isn’t too far from Norway, and because of that, you see a Scandinavian influence in much of the architecture.  And the accents!  They are SO hard to decipher!  When we were getting our crash course on Viking culture, I think most of the people in our group were simply nodding — it’s that tough to understand the accent.

Viking Madness

Up Helly Aa is more than just a festival.  Shetland revolves around this event!  Men are chosen to be the jarl, or head Viking, several years in advance, and they prepare by growing out their beards.  The galley is built carefully and beautifully, and it takes a full year to build.

Likewise, the 50 squads spend time choosing a theme, choreographing routines, and finding the perfect costumes.  None of the efforts were half-assed, and I appreciated that.

The funny thing is that Shetlanders prepare for Up Helly Aa with the utmost seriousness — but the festival itself is anything but serious.  The Vikings laugh and cheer and yell “YARRRR!” through all the events.  Oh, and most of them stay up and drink for 24-48 hours straight, pulling two all-nighters in a row.

It was best said as we were about to leave Shetland: our guides, Tony and Dougie, were walking through town when they passed two Shetlanders still awake, still drunk, and still in costume.  “Happy Up Helly Aa, ya couple of pricks,” one of them said with a grin.

(And yes, “Ya couple of pricks!” became our group’s catchphrase for the rest of the trip.)

Falling Letters

One thing I love about Shetland is that it’s completely lacking in pretension.  But sometimes, even that goes a bit too far.

All over town, signs are missing their letters.  Dougie remarked to me that one of the signs in the center of town had been missing letters for years and nobody had done anything about it.

Blackface?  Okay.

Shetland is not an ethnically diverse place — I didn’t see a single person of color the whole time I was there.  That’s to be expected, as it’s so isolated.

But when one of the squads came out in full blackface at the after-party, my jaw dropped — and the Shetlanders in the room seemed unfazed.

The squad performed as a Caribbean band.  They did some great drumming.  But blackface — how did that add any value whatsoever?  Was it really necessary to wear blackface to prove you were Caribbean, on top of wearing ruffled Caribbean shirts?

I guess when you grow up in a place where everyone is white, you develop less of an awareness of racial insensitivity.  Or maybe I’m overreacting, and blackface doesn’t have the same stigma in other places than it does in the US.

What do YOU think?

Gender Segregation

Up Helly Aa is a men’s festival and always has been.  From the Vikings to the galleymakers to the costumed performing squads, there isn’t a single woman involved.  The children’s Up Helly Aa is entirely made up of boys.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Shetland is surprisingly gender segregated.

Whenever we went out, there were never any local women in the bars (excepting the occasional bartender).  There were plenty of Shetland men, and plenty of out-of-towners, but no Shetland women.

But the gender segregation hit home when I chatted with Shetland men and always got one of two reactions:

1) From most men over 25: polite ignorance.  When I talked to these men, they would nod or respond briefly if I asked a question, then they would turn away.

2) From most men under 25: juvenile antics.  Some of the younger guys would actually throw things at the girls in our group, shout goofy things, or just sit and stare googly-eyed.  When they asked me to dance, unlike their Scottish counterparts, they would squeeze me way too tightly, like a thirteen-year-old at his first dance.

While I see young men and women hang out together as friends in most of Europe, I didn’t see any of that friendly interaction between the young men and women in Shetland.

The Overall Takeaway

I want to make it clear that when I say “weird,” I mean it in a very positive way.  I love seeing places that show me something I’ve never seen before.  While some things about Shetland are not perfect, I grew to adore its spirit and unique culture.  Weird is good, and on those terms, Shetland is fantastic.

Many thanks to Haggis Adventures for a truly fantastic time on the Up Helly Aa trip.  All opinions, as always, are my own.

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82 thoughts on “Shetland: The Strangest Place I’ve Ever Been”

  1. So that’s what you call it, “gender segregation”? That sounds like most bars here in Lancaster, PA, haha. As for black face, it seems racist to me, but I guess it’s all about intent and how it’s perceived there. Interesting post, I never hear or read much about Shetland.

  2. Lerwick Up Helly Aa is a massive male bonding exercise. The men are organised in groups called squads who will probably spend all Up Helly Aa week getting ready and partying together. 51 weeks of the year the sexes mix normally. And the other Up Helly Aa’s that take place out in Shetland’s country areas January to March are all mixed.

  3. Interesting stuff, Kate! And, while some of these observations are definitely Shetland-specific, I think a lot of them suggest things about Scotland as a whole, too (the gender segregation is really prevalent in Scottish sports, for example, as is the feeling of not being “British,” even though they technically are through their weird citizenship status).

    This definitely makes me want to go to Shetland someday, though!

  4. Blackface is totally common in Spain, and it bugs me even after five years in residence! I considered being one of the pages in the Three Kings Parade until I realized that donning it was the only requisite. Not for me.

    1. @’CAT’ in Spain – the three King known as The Three Wise Men were black, from Ethiopia, so there was authenticity rather than any inkling of racism.
      Otherwise very informative and reminded me of a trip to New Zealand for a wedding – lots of segregation which I wasn’t having any of as I joined the boys for a drink in their garage man cave.
      That didn’t last long!
      Was gently led by my elbow back to the female cave – aka kitchen – to help prepare the feast.
      Fortunately I wasn’t expected to serve the men. Now that would have been a few too many steps back in history!
      Might not follow through with how I got here originally – looking to move to Shetland! Thinking!!!!

  5. Blackface: it is particularly Americans that I find are unhappy with it, which is great as it tells me the civil rights movement has come a long way. There was a TV show (Hey Hey It’s Saturday) aired in Australia recently where a group performed in blackface, as they had done in the original version of the show back in the 80s. It caused quite a stir because an American, Harry Connick Jnr, was a guest on the show and was unhappy at having to see it, which is entirely his right. He didn’t make a big song and dance about it, just declined to offer any critique of the performance which he would have done otherwise.

    A lot of Australians couldn’t understand his view because blackface is not considered as offensive as it is in America. But it is all a matter of perspective: Australians got offended at some European ice skaters who dressed up as Australian aboriginals to perform their routine not long afterwards.

    So I can understand why you would feel squirmish and unhappy watching a blackface performance Kate, because of what it represents to you. Some other cultures may not feel the same – it may not even occur to them that it could be offensive to some people, which I think it what could have happened here.

    1. It’s not offensive. If you were dressing as a pixie you might pain yourself green….. It’s not intended to be offensive. It’s a cultural thing I guess, all about intent rather than anything else.

  6. I think Blackface isn’t as offensive anywhere in Europe really. Racism against black people obviously exists and is a big problem that needs to be sorted out, but it doesn’t have the same emotional or political history as it does in America. I can think off the top of my head of plenty of times I’ve been to fancy dress parties (in the UK, France and Italy in particular) and people have come as a black celebrity and painted their skin to look more like them, with no racist connotations and no one interpreting it as such. If a celebrity did it, the media would probably make a fuss, but more because it’s a chance to tear into a celebrity and cause a controversy, than it really being a horrifically racist thing to do.

    But it’s all about culture and context. I think in the case of the Shetlanders it’s pretty inoffensive, as it probably lacks any racist connotations at all- it’s just “we want to look caribbean and an obvious difference is their skin colour, so get out the make up”. Which is how a lot of Europeans would see it, in my opinion. But obviously equally you’re entitled to be offended by it, as in America is does have a different set of connotations. This is exactly why I love travelling and travel blogs, it’s so interesting to see other opinions on the same events!

    1. Hey Jo, what you say about the blackface thing in Shetland is absolutely true, I think it’s a little mix of innocence and ignorance, but there is no malice in it at all,x

  7. Both our Eastern European version of Santa Claus and the Dutch Santa Claus (actually, nothing to do with Christmas, rather the original Christian legend, and celebrated December 6th anyway) have blackface helpers – the get soot on them as the descend the chimneys. Americans are always horrified.
    (google pic search: “Sinterklaas” gives the best results to see what I mean.)

  8. I think the race thing is complicated in Scotland as a whole. My boyfriend, who grew up in the outskirts of Glasgow, remembers distinctly the first time he saw a black person in real life and not on television. When I spent 6 weeks there this summer I was very surprised at some of the things I hear Scottish people say about about Middle Eastern immigrants.

    I think as an isolated and homogeneous society… they are certainly fascinated by/wary of outsiders.

    1. Anyone reading these comments would think us Scots are completely ignorant! I grew up in Glasgow and Edinburgh, there are many interracial couples in my family and mixed raced babies. And we’re not even unusual. Scotland is more diverse and accepting of race than America and many other parts of the world. Shetland is different and more isolated so of course their views are a little different. As for never seeing a black person here on the mainland….oh please. We are not ‘fascinated’ by outsiders and just for the record we also have crazy modern things like internet and democracy.

  9. My English family always reminds me that they don’t have the same heritage of prejudice against blacks that the US does – sure, slavery existed, and there’s plenty of racism of other types, but there isn’t the same relatively recent history of institutionalized discrimination. Because of that, a lot of things that seem shocking to me aren’t a huge deal there. I think blackface is a outdated anywhere in the world by now, but I do see why it’s not considered as awful as it would be in most of the US.

  10. Yeah I loved the Bjork/Egg/Red Carpet visual 😀

    As Betti said, I’m living in Holland at the moment and you should come here during Sinterklaas – he has helpers called Zwarte Piet who are all dressed as blackface. It’s not meant to be offensive at all, but definitely interesting to see when you haven’t grown up with it!

  11. I love that first shot–it’s exactly how I imagine Shetland to be. I studied abroad in Edinburgh back in 2003, and even on all my subsequent visits back, I have yet to go to Shetland (or Skye for that matter).

      1. Definitely people of different races in Shetland I know I went to school with them. As to the bars amd men and women been segregated what a lot of bullshit. At school back in the early 80s we all mixed together

  12. That is very interesting! I love the name of the place, “Shetland”. =) Cultures that are so different interest me. Although, I always wanna understand their ways. I wonder why gender plays such a major role in Shetland. I always thought there were women Vikings who were just as tough.

  13. I am from Shetland but am aware of how weird it is! We have a distinctive way of life that has developed through influences from a variety of different cultures but also through isolation from the ‘outside world’. Not all islanders can be regarded as the same as, just like everywhere else, everyone is different: some feel that they are British, Scottish or Scandinavian whilst many feel that they, as a Shetlander, have a unique identity altogether.
    I’m glad that you found some people with Shetland accents because a third of the population are from out with the islands and the dialect is also dying out with a large proportion of youngsters! I don’t understand how you never saw anyone of colour when you were here as Shetland has a long history of welcoming people from many different cultures including a substantial number of asian immigrants recently. Some of them are active members of the community and their children feel like Shetlanders as much as anyone else!
    To explain the blackface thing, Shetland has obviously not had the racial discrimination of America, for example, but we are not ignorant of it. There would have been no offence meant by it at all; for us it is no different to dressing up as a stereotypical French or Scottish person which would never be regarded as racist. The squad was obviously representing a Caribbean drum group and it is a fact that most members of such groups in the Caribbean are black. They would have just been representing that and I can assure you that a racist thought would not have entered their heads! I understand how this can seem strange to a person from a country with a recent history of racial persecution though.
    I also don’t understand your experience of gender segregation. Everyone I know has mixed groups of friends and you are just as likely to find women out in a pub as men. I actually found it strange when I moved to the Scottish mainland to study and groups mainly consisted of just men or women. Women have also always been regarded as equals and have often been seen as the strong head of the household as much as men. I don’t think you can judge this situation by a few groups of men you met in the pubs.
    As for Up Helly Aa, Lerwick is just one of many that take place in Shetland, and the only one where women aren’t allowed to be members of the squads. In most parts of Shetland this is seen as backwards and something which should change but when it comes to this festival the townies are sticklers for tradition! The South Mainland Up Helly Aa will actually have a woman leader next year! But even in the Lerwick one women have always played a very important role in running all the venues for the night.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think your reviews are great and you have written some very well-informed, interesting accounts of your trip to Shetland. But sometimes it is required to correct visitors impressions of Shetland as you really need to live here to get a full understanding of it.

    1. Stuart, thanks very much for your insightful comment. I loved Shetland and loved getting to know Shetlanders, and I agree that you need more time than I had to get an understanding of it.

        1. I’m also a Shetlander and completely agree with what Stuart said! I liked your article and am glad you enjoyed your visit, but I certainly think you made a few bizarre assumptions based on a short visit!
          Alex I’d day Shetlanders are neither wary nor fascinated by outsiders! The islands may look isolated in the North Sea but they’re been a crossroads for seafarers since the the Vikings and we have a long history of seafaring, many Shetlanders are very well travelled.

    2. Well said and totally agree from another Shetlanders.
      Just want to add that Lerwick Up Helly Aa would not work without women….they organise the halls for the dancing and are there for when the squads do their rounds. They are involved in making a lot of the costumes and host many events…there are lots of “women’s nights ” during the year that you won’t have seen. It’s is a tradition, and one that I’m proud of. Everyone has a part to play!
      As for friend groups, I grew up in the islands and keep in touch with just as many of my male friends as female. I don’t consider there to be any real difference. I DID notice though that when I went to the British mainland there is a real suspicion that if you are friends with someone of the opposite sexy there must be “something going on”.
      Shetland is generally one of the most non judgemental (there are a few who are), liberal minded, relaxed and welcoming places I have ever been. And I’m proud to say I come from there 🙂

  14. I am from Shetland and you are correct- the culture and attitude is that we are not a part of the UK as such but a melting pot of all different influences. There is an old world naiivety to the place- up until recent years we were reasonably unaffected by the government and its larger problems, so as a people Shetlanders have always been acutely aware of what happens outwith the island and most want no part of it. Sadly our council has too much money and too little sense (they’re essentially a bunch of crooks trying to nuke us all…) We have casual racism here just the same as every other part of the UK but hardly any racial crime. Downside to Shetland (or upside, depending on your outlook) is the drinking culture. It never used to be so prevalent but now you’ll be hard pushed to find anywhere to chill out and have a drink with your friends (except perhaps the Pierhead in Voe- not just ‘cos I work there, haha.) The scenery is what tends to bring people back, often to live permanently and we boast an impressive array of wildlife. It’s not for everyone, a bit like marmite. As for Shetland being strange, it depends on your perspective really. Some of the sanest and realest people I’ve ever known have been born and bred Shetlanders. I’m sure people find it difficult to get over how uncontrived it all is, no one can accuse us of not being honest in the way we live and associate- from my own perspective, our culture isn’t half as weird as a lot of others!

    1. cb, thank you for such a thoughtful post! I love hearing from Shetlanders. I’m not saying weird in a negative light at all — I enjoyed being in a completely different place. You live somewhere very special!

    2. cb, that’s a great response to the article. Drinking culture is a problem everywhere, although I hazard to guess, less so in the US, perhaps because the beer there is watered-down rice-made fermented starch. It’s hard for Americans to see how inconsequential black-face is in many parts of the world. But then again, it’s hard for non-Americans to see how hung up Americans get over blackface when there is still an undercurrent of racism there. Non-Americans see the horror Americans claim when they see blackface as a superficial ‘feel-good’ reaction used merely as a signal. But I found when living in America that most white people still had very few black friends, and socialised mainly amongst other white people. When they did have a black friend, they’d loudly claim it as some sort of badge. And when blacks have such poor socio-economic outcomes compared to whites, there’s a severe problem going on in society that is yet to be fixed (although at least in comparison to most places, it is well acknowleged).
      As for the Shetland accent, it’s not hard to understand for non-Americans: more a variant of Scottish accents, though with a fair share of it’s own quirky words (eg. pelly!).
      Lastly, it cracks me up that Americans write about other cultures (like those of the Shetlands) as so ‘quirky’, ‘different’, or ‘fascinating’ – as if American culture is the reference point for all cultures. I know there’s no malice in it, but it does go to show how self-absorbed they can be. Instead of breathlessly stating how ‘weird’ they find things like Shetland culture, perhaps they should just state it as it is: completely non-weird and natural to its residents, not particularly weird to Brits, Australians or NZers, and just plain different to Americans.

  15. As someone Russian-born/raised I get the racial insensitivity in a homogeneous society, but the gender segregation really surprised me, because I expect everywhere in Europe to be cool, progressive and cosmopolitan 🙂

  16. I grew up shetland. I love hearing ‘outsiders’ veiws. If some what a bit far fetched. haha!
    I have no idea what pubs you were in but how you didnt bump into a drunken group of women in fancy dress for a henny or birthday bus is beyond me.
    Im shocked you didn’t come across any coloured folk on your visit.
    As for blackface…. Its not racist or insensitive in the slightest. I think some people need to stop looking for a reason to jump on the racist card. if a black man painted his face white would that be racist???

  17. Hi kate, glad you enjoyed your wee trip to our islands. I would like to agree with fellow Shetlanders who’ve posted with regards racisim here. I would say on the whole we as a community are not racisit but as we like a laugh will poke fun at everyone, that may include their skin colour but we have no history of slavery or having a lower class based on skin colour. If you are pleasent, polite and are willing to get off your arse and help your situation and others then you will get on well here, skin colour dosen’t really come into it, but sometimes you need to be thick skinned! I take it you were here during a Lerwick up-helly-aa? This could be why you didn’t encounter many ladies in the pubs, also were you in the pub during the day? I take it from the photo that you were in the Lounge bar during the day on account of the guys in the pic. Most guys would be on the tipsy side and in high spirits so their behaviour would’ve been a little “strange!” Mot weekends in the pubs will see a lot of ladies out although just now our population has swelled by 4000+ incoming mostly male workers on a large oil work project so as a result a lot of ladies don’t go out due to sexual harrasment etc. Shetland is not for everyone and there are a few downsides, also Im heavily involved in the Lerwick up-helly-aa but if you were planing a return trip then come in the mid summer maybe and you will see a completly different Shetland. Also if we meet in a pub then I will attentively engage in converstation!

  18. Hey Kate, I’m a born and raised FEMALE from Shetland.. not sure how you got the impression us Shetland ladies don’t frequent the pubs.. this is far from the truth! We all like a good drink! Ha ha! Also there are many people from many countries who live here and one of my best friends is black and grew up here :). But in general there aren’t many black people I suppose! Enjoyed ur article.. u prick ;).

    p.s I don’t really like up helly aa!!

  19. Oh, you seem so informed and have had so much experience in Shetland that you are not judgemental in the slightest!! NOT !! What a pile of shit! I am a woman of 27 born and bred in Shetland and nearly disagree with everything you have said ! You have clearly stayed and have slagged off only Lerwick! Which is a small area of Shetland! Very small, closed minded comments! Up helly aa is an event that many people take seriously and yes only men are in the squads BUT not all off Shetland “revolve” around it’s transvestite Tuesday antics (which, if you bothered to speak to many shetlanders is a common term for the annual festival!) we do not have the funding that most of the uk have and our struggling small businesses try bloody hard and no one gives a fuck if one letter is missing from their signs! Those shops have been around so long and have so much respect no one but you has cared about a missing letter that was only probably missing the week you visited! Plenty of women frequent pubs! And enjoy the culture that may seem weird to you but maybe to us you are the weird one! Our DIALECTs we are proud of, our individuality we need and we would prefer if you did not slag off our islands, if you feel the need to do so at least give every one else to view us with an open mind, every one is entitled to their own opinion but yours is inconsistent and frankly OFFENDING!

    1. Ah pull your neck in ya complaining arsehole it’s a travel blog, not a factual document!
      She’s not slagging off Shetland, she said she she had the time of her life here! She’s writing about HER experience SHE had in the short time she stayed here, and for the short time she spent here, she sussed us out pretty bloody good id say.

      Im a true shetlander and have lived in Shetland most of my life, Ive spent about 4 and a half years travelling about, Ive been in a good few countries now, seen lots of different cultures and have lived in a few different places and when I came back to Shetland, I came back with a new mind set and open eyes, I 100% noticed that Shetland is different from any where else I’ve been, and everything Katie said IS true, So i don’t know what you’re getting your knickers in a twist about!

      Most shetlanders DO take up Helly ah very serious,
      The pubs here REEK of penis! I can’t count the number of times I’ve gone into a pub with 20 or 30 odd men sitting there with not a women in sight
      And no one can deny that commercial street is in DIRE need of a lick of paint and also a few lettering on signs haha
      and you can totally tell how someone could think shetlanders are racist You quite frequently see people blacked up on a night out, Christ, theres a shop in town that you can still buy gollywogs from for fuck sake! you don’t see that kinda stuff anywhere else, its just a small Island mentality.
      and I thought her description of the starey googly eyed awkward dancy men was spot on, haha thats was a perfect description of me when I was single haha

      I think if a well travelled person like Katie writes in her travel blog that out of the 49 countries she’s been to Shetland was the weirdest place she has been (in a good way) and she did say IN A GOOD WAY! Thats amazing! We should wear that comment like a fucking badge of honer! Its great Shetland made such an impact on her.
      And as a keen traveler myself, If I read on a well travelled travellers blog that has a statement like that, I then straight away want to put that place at the top of my bucket list of places to go, but if I then scrolled down and seen your stupid bitchy comment it would immediately put me off coming here!

      it’s your comment that i find offensive miss poopy pants!!!

      Its very rare you get to hear a young independent travellers honest insight into what they thought of their stay in Shetland, and I for one thought it was excellent!

      So close that whiney hole in your face, its embarrassing!

      “prick!” 🙂

      1. Thanks, ya prick! 🙂

        I’m happy that you actually understood the context of this post, while many of your countrymen did not. Thank you for the comment. 🙂

        Just in case it isn’t clear…I LOVE SHETLAND, Up Helly Aa was one of the best travel experiences of my life, and I can’t wait to return. 🙂

        1. Noel Anthony Te Whaiti

          Hi Kate my name is Noel Anthony Te Whaiti I was born and raised in Aotearoa New Zealand I reside in Perth Australia 🇦🇺.I am of Māori history and bloodlines with Scottish and Shetland relatives. My great great great great grandmother Elizbeth Brown Balfour was born in the Shetland Island along with her family that’s all I know

  20. Hi Kate,

    It was very interesting to read your article. I am a born and bred Shetlander now living in Aberdeen. I have to agree with several Shetlanders above, in that, going to bars and seeing very few women is an anomaly of Up Helly Aa. The women of Shetland very much enjoy a drink and in many cases, can out drink the men!

    Shetland, being such a small, isolated community, has zero history of racism, as far as I am aware, in terms of skin colour. Shetlanders accept ethnic diversity perfectly happily and are very accomodating to all peoples. This has not always been the case though. Shetland used to be like a small island of UKIP and was very untrusting of outsiders (or Sooth Moothers, people who arrived via the south mouth of Lerwick harbour) and coukd be downright nasty or aggressive. Thankfully, Shetland as it has become more and more open and integrated with the rest of the world is one of the friendliest and welcoming places in the world. Casual racism is a non-issue in Shetland, as racism is not an issue. That said, I do not agree with blacking up in any way at any time. Even Shetlanders know that there are lines. There are people of ethnic diversity in Shetland, for example I played football for a team that included 4 brothers who were black.

    Shetland doesn’t revolve around Up Helly Aa. Some Shetlanders do, but not the islands themselves. Shetland has so much to it. To really see Shetland’s culture in full, I would highly recommend going during the Midsummer festival in June. Apart from very nearly 20 hours of daylight, known in Shetland as the ‘Simmer Dim’, you will get a real party atmosphere, with lots to do and plenty of male/female interaction!

    A wee note about the “ya little pricks” line. This is Scottish humour. This humour is derogatory on purpose and is in no way offensive, but it always makes sure that no-one’s head gets too big.

  21. Graham Longstaff


    Just one point. You make insinuations about ‘blackface’ being racist, or implying colour segregation? What do you make of the blacks who dye their hair blonde?…Or even Michael jackson, trying to whiten his skin?
    Interesting to see how you describe that….

  22. What you described is not true. We are a diverse society and many of my friends are not “white” I write that word with regret as I don’t separate people by the colour of there skin.
    Boys and girls go out together as they do all around the country. They are not segregated as you seem to think.
    Yes the accent is tough but so is Geordie land accents.
    Women do take part in the up helly aa in country areas. We don’t make a fuss of not being in the Lerwick one as it’s traditional to meet the men in the halls and dance the night through with all the different squads.
    I’m unhappy that you seemed to think the blackface was an insult. I’m sure those men saw it as make up and not a racial insult. We are not racist.
    As previously stated by a fellow shetlander. Why not visit in the summer when day lasts throughout the night. It is a beautiful place to live and visit.
    My family have lived here for generations and we have always been happy to welcome visitors. Shetlander’s welcome all visitors. It’s the best place I’ve ever lived in.
    I’ve spent time in other areas of Britain but here is best!

  23. Blackface is just a costume, itsonly racist if you go looking for it, is a guy dressing up as a woman sexist?

  24. Good God Laura, calm doon a bit!!!

    Am fae Shetland, am most blyde du liked it here. A peerie bit on da exaggerated side in regards tae racism an sexism. Wir laid-back kinda fok dat want a good yarn, a good fun an a good dram. Wir accents ir just da wye dey ir. No aesy tae understand, but dats annider reason why wir so loveable! Dir is far mare tae wis dan Up Helly Aa. It’s just da tip o a braaly muckle iceberg. Du certainly should come back ageen an see for desel da liks o a typical Shetland weddin, da folk festival in een o da mare remote places up here etc.
    An if du geed tae ony o da 4 Indian restaurants or 5 Chinese restaurants, du wid a seen plenty o different kinda o fok aboot! In aa seriousness though, we hae a lot o different races here an as lang as dey respect wir isle an whit it’s aboot an respect da fok on it, den EVERYbody is welcome ANYtime.

  25. Speaking as a Shetlander, Lerwick Up Helly Aa would be a disaster without the women! And indeed the men who are not involved with the dressing up and processing. What good are 50 squads touring around the halls if there’s nobody to meet htem on the dance floor, and who other than a good organised matronly Shetland wife could organise teas/home bakes/sandwiches/soup to feed them all from 9pm till 8am?!

    Yes it’s probably a bit old fashioned that it’s generally the women who do it, but to be fair in all of my experience it seems to be something women are better than men at doing, maybe that’s only in Shetland… but it works! I can’t say I’ve heard many people complaining about women not being allowed to take part in the procession but I’m sure some do feel that way.

    I am surprised to hear you have got the impression Shetland women don’t drink, if you were at a hall at Up Hell Aa!!!! (ie it’s usually a rammy)

    Bit surprised that you didn’t see more mixed gender groups of friends – I certainly had even numbers in my group of friends before I went off to uni.

    I wouldn’t normally feel the need to respond to this kind of article but seeing so many people going “oh I’ve never even heard of Shetland before” makes me want to help ensure that they get an accurate impression of the place. I would agree it is very weird but unique in it’s own special way!

  26. Hey Kate I forgot to say as well, loved your blog! It’s good to see you had an awesome time up here! I hope lots of people start visiting us, it’s a great place to be! And to clear up the mystery of the lots and lots of men thing, in Shetland there is roughly 2 men to every woman so we have plenty of choice! If you head to Orkney (Another fab Island with a fab accent) just below us then you’ll find 2 woman to every man! Maybe we should build a bridge between us to even things up a bit!x

  27. Hi Kate,
    I came to Shetland over thirty years ago, established a home here and never left again, except temporarily for work. It is a fabulous place to live. Fantastic seascapes and landscapes, skies that stretch out forever, amazing birdlife and sealife, but most of all, really friendly hospitable people.
    My children weren’t born here, but grew up here, went south to university and then all came back to Shetland to live. Why not? It’s their home too.
    I enjoyed your travel blog, but whe you come back, try to stay a little longer and do go and visit some of the outlying islands and the rural areas. Lerwick is not representative of Shetland. Come for Up Helly A if you want and you wil see plenty of women enjoying themselves in the halls dancing with the men and in the country Up Helly Aas, women join in the parade in squads just like the men.
    We will happily welcome you back.

  28. uh.. i’m a mixed black And I kinda wanna go there..
    with my white wife..

    mean like when they use blackface it Actually I offend black people sometimes even though i’m black..

    like theirblackface has to look like me And stuff.. I mean you do the lip thing i’m offended or make fun of the hair..
    but the skin color I can deal with..

  29. Hey Kate. I live in Shetland and think it’s a great place to be. There’s lots of sports and music opportunities and it’s just a great place to live and grow up. You were right in saying that the signs never get repaired because I think that shops sign is still missing a letter! Haha. I hope you come again (ya wee prick!)

  30. Hi Kate
    Just read your blog as a link posted on my Facebook. Now I appreciate your concern at a shetlanders supposed lack of intergation within an ever growing ethnically diverse world , just to let you in on a little secret Shetland is an island with more sheep on it than human beings (standard joke when talking to people from the mainland etc) a blackface is a common type of sheep found on Shetland obviously not being able to understand this ‘play on words’ may see it taken slightly out of context. And as for the women and men segregation did you go to any of the halls around the town after the galley was burnt? I can guarantee they were full of hundreds of women who organise and run the festivities throughout the night. Also bear in mind as a woman would you like to form part of a procession carrying a 20kg torch for a mile or so? In the depths of winter?

  31. I lived in Shetland for 12 years up to 1987 and my sister in law still lives there.

    Gender segregation is not as simple as you might think.

    Its a bit of a matriarchal society, where the older women and wives are very strong. This is possibly due to widows of drowned fishermen; absent whalers, men who had to go south for work, and the wars.
    When I went there I saw women still manually working the fields, cutting hay, carrying huge loads of peats on their back, dealing with sheep etc.

    Women also worked manually in the fish processing factories in arduous conditions.

    A 20 year old lad I worked with who was from Whalsay talked of the menfolk including his father; ” wearin’ oot the erse o’ their breeks ( wearing holes in the seat of their trousers) by sitting in front of the fire all winter while the women did all the work because their own job was fishing and farming during only the summer months.

    Feeding animals in the byre and bringing in peats and firewood and even chopping wood was the women and children’s work.

    Women tended to abstain from drinking because their men had such a problem with it .

    As Margaret Mouat told me; ” First da man taks a drink; Den da drink taks a drink; Den da drink taks da man”

    The responsibility for keeping the home and family together was really the woman’s, so she ” couldna afford tae get ta’en by da drink”.

    Its not a weird place……is a remote place which has had to look after itself and has been governed and ruled by pragmatic and practical unwritten community laws.

    And YOU try surviving in a climate where there are gales on almost 300 days of the year and seven months of darkness and half light to survive between cool and sparsely sunlight brief summers!

    Mordor has nothing on a Shetland winter so no wonder they want to brighten it up and go a bit mad by the end of January with ” Up Helly Aa”.

    By the way, I didn’t have the stamina for the Shetland style of drinking would have killed me!

    I tried for five years, then became teetotal for the next seven…’til I had been back on the mainland for two.

    I still miss it though, and those heady years of he oil construction boom where money and booze flowed like a tsunami over Lerwick and the central mainland of Shetland..

  32. Wow. I live here, and reading this is pretty surprising. I mean, it’s cool that you enjoyed visiting Shetland but I always thought Shetland was boring, but maybe that’s just what living here all your life does to you.

  33. Wow,
    What the hell is a Black Face??? I have a African American friend who jus went to this event and had a very positive experience and a had great time! Sorry but I find it repulsive to say someone has a Blk face. I dont call other races Whites faces nor Asian faces….your blog and opinion. I will make sure I put this info in my FB page so others can take note. Thanks for this info tho

  34. Rebecca Dickie

    Hi, Just wanted to add, that, while lots of Up Helly Aa is still really male dominated, there has been a female Jarl on the South Mainland, and that lots of the other Up Helly Aa’s outwith Lerwick have females in most of their squads! Also although there might be small amounts of racial ignorance, this is a really accepting place, and different nationalities are embraced and welcomed. Hope that lots of visitors continue to be enthralled with the place! Happy travels x

  35. Hi Katie, Stuart here, I’m from Shetland and have taken part in Up Helly Aa for the last 19 years during which I have seen “Black Face” (a term we don’t use) on numerous occasions and even put on the make up myself. It would be difficult to get the point that your the Jackson 5 across without it and is only ever meant to be for imitation. If rolls were reversed and someone added white face paint to play Donald Trump or a member of the Shetland Islands Council I’m sure it would get a big laugh and no racism would be mentioned. Could it be that Shetland has it right, and that as skin colour is not seen as an issue, it is not treated as one.

    The only people that should be offended by any of the Up Helly Aa squads are the locals that they are often designed to embarress, and they just laugh and buy you a pint for your portrayal of them.

    On the whole enjoyed your review though.

  36. As someone who, whilst not a Shetlander by birth, has lived here for 18 years I feel it necessary to provide some explanation to some of the comments made in Kate’s blog. There is a degree of ‘Separate-ness’ in the Shetland mentality, both culturally and politically. Shetland roots lay within its Scandinavian heritage. The Viking influences can be seen all over the island in its community names and its archaeology. However, the Shetland Islands as a community goes back almost 6000 years ( visit the Scatness Iron Age dig for the evidence).

    I have to take a stand regarding the ‘blackface’ comments and the part of the blog leading up to that. the Shetland Islands are most definitely ethnically diverse. This is in part to the influx of people during the late 70’s when the Oil terminal was being built. there are many ethnicities represented in the Islands; Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, the Philippines, Thai, Irish, English, Welsh, Australian, New Zealanders, African and so on. We are a religiously diverse group also; catholic, protestant, Baptist, Mormon, Baahist, Sikh, Muslim, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhist, etc.

    The issue with the ‘blackface’ is a part of the scene is the Islands, not just with the Up Helly Aa, but with partying generally. The people on these islands like to dress up for a party and do so with gusto! The Up Helly Aa mentioned is just one of several that takes place across the islands over several months. The one in Lerwick is the main one in the calendar and is the largest and the oldest. It has always been a male preserve as far as the composition of the squads and the organisation is concerned, with the women taking charge of the organisation of the catering for all the halls that are visited. However, all the other fire festivals have mixed gender squads. The main squad is the Viking or ‘Jarl’ Squad with other squads (upwards of 100 depending on where the festival is, with anything from 10 to thirty odd members per squad) dressed in various fancy dress outfits. Each squad does a ‘turn’ which can be anything from a parody of a local or national event or something from a tv show and so on.

    As for your going out and not seeing any women, I’m not sure where you were but in my experience the women are everywhere. The Shetland female is not known for her shyness believe me!

    I’m glad you enjoyed your visit though and hope you come back again.

  37. Another american that goes all “OMG BLACKFACE!!!!” when seeing white people applying black paint. It’s just paint, woman.
    You’ve been brainwashed pretty thoroughly, haven’t you? Instructed by your easily-offended african-americans to consider blackface as Racism Of The Most Heinous Sort.
    They did it in my country as well. We have a feast that involves blackfaced people. No one considered it racist, not even the caribbean immigrants that came to our country 40 years ago.
    But since the Internet these caribbean immigrants have been in contact with angry african-americans of the BlackLivesMatter-kind and now they consider everything we do racist. Our history, our feasts, our behaviour (white privilege!)
    The past three or four years we’ve become fed up with these whining ungrateful assholes, who would be nothing without the opportunities they got thanks to our country. Soon no one will listen to them anymore.
    Maybe you should follow that lead and stop giving a shit about what black folk don’t like.

    1. Maybe I will stop giving that once the police stops killing innocent black people for no reason.

      America is a very different place from the Netherlands, Koen. You should know that.

  38. On black face: to all ( not limited to present audience) grow up, get over it. To be offended by this or anything else is a sign of weakness and submission. Why give anyone that much power over you? As a Christian white male I am in the only group that it is permissible to discriminate against. In fact, these days it seems encouraged even by members of our own race. I have never understood white guilt especially for anyone born in or after the 1960’s. I feel no need to take responsibility for nor will I apologize for something I had nothing to do with and I CERTAINLY should not be punished for it retroactively. This notwithstanding when things don’t go our way we shrug it off and keep going because that’s how we are trained. This actually gives me freedom. What a heavy burden it must be to live under the illusion that the world is against you. Slavery in the United States ended 150 years ago…and, by the way, this was due more to the work of men like Patrick Bell, Jethro Tull and Hiram Moore than that war criminal Abraham Lincoln. Even the segregation that lingered (because of Lincoln’s invasion of a sovereign nation) ended 50 years ago. The statue of limitations has certainly expired. Time heals all wounds that are not perpetually kept open. Let’s relieve ourselves of the perceived pain by letting it go. I personally refuse to stoop to being a victim.

      1. Kate: In response I think I must first answer your question, “…am I over reacting?” Of course I was not there but I believe the answer to be probably so. Secondly I think I must clarify the difference between bigotry, racial prejudice and racism which are three different things. If you were correct (which I believe you were not) what you would have observed would have most likely been bigotry since (if that were their intent) they would have been attempting to ridicule not insist that their race is superior which would have been racism. With this established I would ask you 2 questions. Did I say racism was over? Certainly you don’t believe it will EVER be do you? Unfortunately as long as there are more than one race there will be bigotry, racial prejudice and racism. Let’s be clear. I dislike this as much if not more than you. We just have different ideas about how to handle it. Just for argument’s sake let’s assume that I am right and these things perpetuate indefinitely. Then what? How does a knee jerk reaction help this? My grandfather used to say “if you let someone make you mad you have let them win.” How do we make slurs, slights and innuendos lose their effect? YOU IGNORE IT. Trust me. I would like equality probably more than anyone if that is really the issue. Frankly I don’t believe it is. Have you ever heard of affirmative action? Slavery was wrong…period! That’s why we don’t do it anymore. Segregation and Jim Crow laws were wrong… period! Again that’s why we don’t allow them anymore. Affirmative action is the same thing in reverse. Wrong is still wrong no matter who it favors. The problem that divides and subsequently conquers us is political hay making using racial division to buy power. Bet they didn’t teach you that in poli-sci but you can take that to the bank. Sadly, MLK Jr’s famous ” I have a dream,” speech wherein he says “…that one day my little children will grow up in a world where they are judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin.” IS NOT what we have today. Want to know how we achieve that goal? Get over it. Racial division is past its sell by date. In today’s world there is no reason for it. Let’s be part of the solution and rise above it…ALL of us! Then the ignorant knuckle dragger troglodytes will be proved to be just that. They will always be among us so let’s take their power away.

        1. W.A.S.P., there are two novels that I think you should read: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. If you read either of them, you would realize that although slavery was abolished and Jim Crow no longer exists, African-Americans have been enslaved nonstop in non-traditional ways and there has never been. If not slavery or Jim Crow, it was medical experimentation, redlining, housing discrimination, mass incarceration, or murder at the hands of the police, to just barely scrape the surface. This never ended, W.A.S.P. Racial equality in America is an illusion.

          1. Thanks you Kate for a very intelligent response in regards to race/blackface. As for the other commenters here, by the way, are you telling me that Shetlanders don’t have access to history books, the internet or any other type of media, to have knowledge of what’s going on in other parts of the world? Sorry, but Shetlanders cannot be that isolated!

  39. Hi Kate,

    I’ve just come across your blog as I’m doing research for my undergrad dissertation. I’m from Shetland and with regard to Up Helly Aa, they’ve banned blackface now and have changed the “rules” this year to include women! Baby steps I suppose.

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