Why you might want to live in Shetland

Over the centuries, new Shetlanders have included Viking adventurers; German merchants of the Hanseatic League; troops stationed here in two world wars; and artists, writers, medical staff or engineers from all over the world.

Would you like to join us in Shetland?

Many people from all walks of life have settled very happily in Shetland. For some, the magnet has been the islands’ environment, which is exceptional by any standard. Others – many others – initially came because taking a job here for two or three years was a logical career move. Ten, twenty, forty years later, they’re still here, seduced by the place and its people.

The decision to relocate is one of the biggest of life’s choices and you’ll want to ask many questions. On this page, we’ve tried to answer some of them and offer a broad view of the pros and cons of joining us in Shetland. There’s much more detailed information elsewhere on the website.

If you think Shetland might be for you, we strongly recommend that, before you commit yourself, you should visit at least a couple of times, and one of those visits should be in the winter. You might decide that it’s a great place for a break, but that you couldn’t live here. Or, like those others before you, you might fall in love with our islands and our people.

Either way, we’ll be genuinely delighted to meet you and share this very beautiful place.

It is the most wonderful place on earth and if I could, I would move there in a heartbeat :-)

Why might I want to move to Shetland?

What’s the appeal of Shetland? Firstly, there’s the opportunity to live and work in extraordinary surroundings. We have impressive landscapes, wildlife, light and weather, right on the doorstep. If you’re interested in natural history, this is one of the best places to live in northern Europe. There’s a fascinating human heritage to explore, whether your interests lie in archaeology, history or folklore. If you’re creatively inclined, you’ll find yourself in the good company of artists, writers, poets, photographers, musicians, architects, textile designers and a whole range of craftspeople.

Then there’s the strength and warmth of the community. Shetland has been welcoming people for centuries and may feel much more cosmopolitan than you imagined. We might be a little more reserved than you’re used to, but we’re not known for being narrow-minded. Whilst we don’t claim to be free of social problems – and notwithstanding Ann Cleeves’ excellent series of murder mysteries – this is a place where a damaged wing mirror will be reported on local radio and the police occasionally have to remind people going on holiday that they really ought to lock their houses.

We greatly value whatever contribution you can make to building an island life that’s even more vibrant, creative, caring and prosperous.

What sorts of services can I expect?

Our public services are of a high standard. If you have children, they’ll receive excellent education in some of the best-equipped schools you’ll find anywhere. Our local NHS reaches every corner of the islands. We have excellent roads and convenient internal ferries and bus services.

We’re sometimes asked if we have television, broadband and cinemas. Yes, we do. All the usual broadcast channels are available from either terrestrial or satellite transmissions, but there’s no cable service. Broadband speeds obviously vary, as they do everywhere, but are generally good to excellent in most towns and villages. You can watch current releases and classic films in our waterfront arts centre, Mareel, with far better seats and sightlines than in those chain-cinema ‘shoeboxes’ on retail parks.

Our other sport and leisure facilities are just as remarkable: we have eight, yes eight, modern swimming pools – for just 22,000 people – and every sort of sports and exercise facility

We don’t have vast shopping malls – just one very small one – and you can’t nip into, say, John Lewis on a whim. However, our local shops do offer a surprising variety of goods and, if you can’t find what you want locally, you can very easily buy online from major stores. Food shopping is a pleasure: we have local bakers, butchers, grocers and fishmongers as well as two supermarkets.

I was impressed by the welcome and friendliness of people and their desire that we should enjoy our stay. If I didn't live in Cumbria I would probably move to Shetland!

Isn’t it a bit more expensive to live in Shetland?

It can be, but comparisons aren’t always straightforward, because your new lifestyle in Shetland may be very different from what you’re used to.

Take travel: if you’d want to make frequent visits to friends and relatives on the UK mainland, the fares would certainly mount up; but if you’re currently spending hundreds or even thousands of pounds on an annual season ticket, that saving needs to be factored in. Local residents do benefit from substantial discounts on air and ferry services. If you’re driving, petrol and diesel fuel are a little more expensive than the cheapest city or supermarket prices, typically by around 3p to 7p per litre, but they’re comparable with most other rural areas.

Or consider housing: our northern latitude means that heating costs are likely to be higher, but most other costs, including purchase price, home insurance and council tax, are lower than in many areas, especially if you’re moving from, say, Edinburgh or London and the south-east.

Food prices in Shetland’s remoter rural shops can be higher, but the Co-op or Tesco in Lerwick charge much the same as similar supermarkets elsewhere. If you’ve tended to shop in, say, Aldi or Lidl, which don’t yet have branches in Shetland, you’d probably notice a difference. Some things – fish and meat, especially – may well be cheaper than elsewhere. Those first-class cinemas and sports facilities are very affordable, too.

Could I cope with the weather – and will I be cut off?

We’re in the path of Atlantic storms and they can be truly spectacular; we also have magical summer days (and even the odd winter day) when the sea’s like a mirror. But this is Britain, and the very north of Britain at that, so the weather can occasionally be grim. That said, if you take the view that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing, you’ll be absolutely fine!

The things you’ll notice are stronger winds and, for much of the time, lower temperatures. There’s usually at least a light breeze and wind speeds of 60-70 miles an hour are not uncommon during winter gales. A few times each winter, we may experience gusts of 100mph or more, though the drama is usually short-lived. The sight of huge waves crashing on cliffs, spray rising a hundred feet in the air and the taste of salt on your lips – even when you’re well inland – are part of the Shetland winter experience.

Winter temperatures, on the other hand, may be milder than you’re used to. Frost is much less common than farther south and heavy snow is rare. Annual rainfall is around 1,220mm, not very different from much of western Britain; sunshine averages 1,036 hours. In July and August, the mercury mostly settles between 14°C and 18°C, but on some days, or in sheltered spots, it may climb into the low to mid 20s. Sea fog can drift in after a spell of warm weather but it’s often confined to the windward side of the islands.

The worst winter gales can result in ferry delays or, less commonly, cancellations. Summer fog can interfere with flights, but it’s often possible to transfer from, say, a cancelled flight to the ferry. It’s very rare for the islands to be completely cut off; and if it did happen, it would probably be for just a few hours at the height of a storm.

Do I need to learn Gaelic? No, Gaelic has never been part of Shetland culture. A few people who’ve moved here from other parts of Scotland can speak it, but you’re much more likely to hear Polish or Urdu. Shetland does have its own dialect, though: it’s a blend of Old Scots and Old Norse; words like peerie (small) are used all the time.

What about kilts? The many people who’ve moved from mainland Scotland to Shetland over the centuries seem to have left their kilts behind. Compared with the rest of Scotland, tartan is conspicuous by its near-absence, except on special occasions. Men do often wear kilts at weddings and Shetland folk will don them to support Scotland at Murrayfield or Hampden Park; but they might also be wearing Viking-style horned helmets.

Is the nearest railway station really in Bergen, Norway? It’s a lovely idea, but a modern myth. Our nearest stations are at Thurso and Wick in northern Scotland. However, Bergen isn’t that much farther away if you’re in the north of Shetland and it does have our nearest branch of IKEA – the next closest is in Edinburgh.

Are there really no trees? It does seem like that, especially if you arrive at Sumburgh Airport and drive north. But there are respectable numbers of trees in places such as Lerwick, Scalloway and Voe, plus several plantations in Weisdale and a few elsewhere. Shetland’s once-widespread cover of hazel, downy birch, aspen and willow disappeared because of grazing sheep and not, as is often assumed, the wind. The increased number of trees and shrubs is actually one of the most notable changes in Shetland over the past thirty years.

Can you really play golf at midnight in summer? Yes. With the sun above the horizon for nearly 19 hours in June, our light midsummer nights are one of the islands’ most appealing features. It doesn’t get completely dark between mid-May and early August. Instead, we have a kind of unfinished northern sunset, producing the twilight that we call the ‘simmer dim’.

Aren’t the winters very dark? At our latitude, the days are particularly short in December and January, with the sun very low in the sky and appearing for less than six hours around the winter solstice. But, to compensate, we quite often have the thrill of the aurora borealis, or northern lights. Most people would probably say that the amazing summer nights more than make up for slightly longer winter ones.

Shetland is heaven on earth and one day not to far away I would love to move there to live and work.
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