Shetland Ponies and Shetland People

September 28 2016

You may have heard of Shetland Ponies, Shetland Sheepdogs, and perhaps Shetland Fair Isle knitting. They all originate in Shetland, a group of 100 small islands, 16 of which are inhabited, in the far north of Scotland where I was born, and where I've lived most of my life.Shetland is always singular, and never plural, as in "The Shetlands". Shetlanders cringe when people say "The Shetlands". It's Shetland, pure and simple. No one speaks of The Scotlands or The Englands, or even cities like The New Yorks or The Londons. Shetland is always singular.

Shetland lies at 60 degrees north, the same latitude as southern Greenland, southern Alaska, and St Petersburg in Russia. The islands are warmed by the Gulf Stream, a warm water current originating in the Gulf of Mexico, so it isn't nearly as cold in Shetland as you might imagine.

Shetland lies below the Arctic Circle, so we don't actually get a midnight sun, but at the height of summer it never gets properly dark. You could read a newspaper in natural light at midnight. The sun dips below the horizon for a few hours at night in summer, a time we refer to as the Simmer Dim. In the depths of winter, by contrast, we only have a few hours of daylight each day.

Shetland is Scottish now, but 547 years ago it was Norwegian territory. Denmark ruled Norway in 1469, and Margaret, daughter of King Christian I of Denmark, became engaged to James III of Scotland. Christian I pawned Shetland to the Scottish crown as a wedding dowry. Princess Margaret unfortunately drowned when the boat taking her to Scotland capsized in a storm, and therefore the wedding between her and James III of Scotland never took place. However, Shetland remained part of Scotland, even though the Danish crown tried to redeem the islands on no less than eight official occasions.

Shetland's Norse heritage is still very evident today, especially in the place names, which all have strong Norse origins. Scottish bagpipes, haggis and kilts have no tradition in Shetland, though we do like a wee dram of whisky, occasionally. The people there once spoke their own language, Norn, which finally died out around the end of the 17th century. The language was never written down, so it is effectively dead today.

The people of Shetland still speak what is known as the Shetland Dialect, a mixture of Old Norse/Norn, Lowland Scots and English. It is unintelligible to English speakers. I grew up speaking Shetland Dialect, but when I went to school we were not allowed to speak our dialect in the classroom, and had to learn and speak proper English. I speak perfect English now, but I have never forgotten my original "language".

Today I live in the village of Aldeacentenera, Extremadura, Spain where I moved with my family 10 years ago. I work through the Internet, writing web content for clients all over the world. I've been doing that for over 20 years. It pays well and it offers me a lot of freedom.

Life here is surprisingly similar to Shetland, though the language and climate are very different. It is quiet and unrushed, the crime level is reassuringly low and the people are warm, friendly and open. The scenery and landscapes in the Province of Cáceres here are simply stunning, and we are happy to be a part of it.

Do I miss Shetland? Not really too much. I visit back regularly, though; Shetland will always be a part of me.

John Coutts
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