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Winter in Shetland - Frequently Asked Questions

by Alex Garrick-Wright -

For those who have never experienced island life, the day to day realities of living in the middle of the north sea during winter can seem mysterious, and sometimes even a little intimidating. We're often asked about the conditions in Shetland during the winter, and how we cope with them - so we thought we'd de-bunk some of the most frequent misconceptions about a Shetland Winter for you:

Question: Shetland’s really close to the Arctic Circle- are the winters really cold?

Answer: No, not really. In fact, Shetland’s winters are far milder than you might expect.

Despite being so far north, Shetland’s winters are relatively temperate due to the Gulf Stream warming the sea around the isles. The temperature in December rarely dips below freezing point, with the average temperature being around 2°C.

When you compare that to the average December temperatures of other places on the same latitude, such as southern Yukon Territory in Canada (-16.5°C) and St Petersburg Russia (-6°C), Shetland’s winters are pretty warm.

Question: Does Shetland get a lot of snow?

Answer: No, but we do get lots of wind.

The (relatively) warm sea air means that snow is only occasional during winter, being most common in January & February. When it does fall it rarely stays for long.

Shetland is, however, famous for the wind. The average wind speed for the year is Force 4 on the Beaufort Wind Scale (around 15mph), while the average wind speed in December is Force 5 (23 mph, a ‘fresh breeze’). Shetland’s weather can be unpredictable; one winter’s day can be calm and sunny and the next a howling gale.

Given the seafaring tradition of the isles, storms and gales are viewed with more significance than elsewhere in the UK, and this has left a mark on Shetland culture. According to Shetland folklore, the particularly stormy periods in autumn and spring were caused by two gods- Da Sea Midder and Teran- battling under the waves for dominance of the seasons.

While the winter storms mean we do sometimes need to tie down the trampoline and wheelie bins, they also make for excellent wave watching opportunities, and it's not unusual to see several intrepid photographers watching the wildest of our coastlines for the opportunity to get that perfect stormy picture.

Question: Is it true that Shetland gets cut off from the mainland for long periods of time?

Answer: That’s something of an exaggeration.

While Shetland is a couple of hundred miles away from Scotland, we’re actually very well connected.

Daily freight boats bring in the same variety of products that you’d expect to find in the rest of Scotland, ensuring that the shelves of local stores (both independent shops and national supermarkets) are well-stocked each day with everything from electronics and clothes, to fresh fruit and veg.

A number of transport companies, such as Shetland Transport and Northlink, bring up all sorts of supplies daily to supply dozens of companies throughout the isles with food and drink, car parts, furniture, and just about anything else you can imagine.

Some companies have established links with major brands down south to ensure that, with minimal effort, Shetlanders can get the same choice as on the mainland. Shetland Transport, for instance, has an arrangement with IKEA Edinburgh to get Shetlanders’ purchases to the isles on a fortnightly basis, while wholesaler JW Gray allows you to order from Argos and receive your products in a couple of days.

Combine that with the regular flights on and off island to all of Scotland's major airports, and its a very rare day indeed that we are actually cut off.

Question: Is it true that when there’s storms, food doesn’t make it to the isles?

Answer: Occasionally, and only briefly. And it doesn’t actually matter.

Winter storms and gales can disrupt ferry and freight sailings, and as the many of Shetland’s supplies arrive by ship, this means that some products can be briefly unavailable during stormy periods. This is a fairly rare occurrence, as it’s incredibly uncommon for the freight boat to be cancelled for more than one or two sailings’ at a time.

The isles’ geographic isolation, however, means that Shetland has traditionally been self-sufficient; even if there’s some difficulty in getting food to the supermarkets, the local produce to be had means that you can still shop comfortably. This blog on local produce outlines some of the excellent options for shopping locally, which will ensure your cupboards are never bare.

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