COVID-19 update: Shetland is now reopen to visitors, as per Scottish government guidelines, but please read our guidance on travelling responsibly.


Although fish and oil generate most income in Shetland, there are sizeable contributions from livestock rearing, tourism, quarrying and the creative industries, including knitwear and crafts.

For a full analysis of Shetland’s economy, together with a vast amount of other information about the islands, you might like to look at 'Shetland in Statistics', produced annually and available as a .pdf download on the Shetland Islands Council website.

Unemployment in the islands has been very low for three decades; in the past ten years, it has varied between 0.7% and 1.6% and has usually been less than half the Scottish average.

Shetland Seafood - The Pick of the Best

The seafood industry is worth £300m a year to the local economy.

The fishing industry - which includes the catching, farming and processing of fish and shellfish – is Shetland’s biggest sector by some way. It has always been at the absolute heart of Shetland’s economy and community. The seafood industry is worth £300m a year to the local economy.

Herring and mackerel make up about 60 per cent of the Shetland catch and about 60,000 tonnes – worth £43m - is landed annually. Bottom-dwelling whitefish like haddock, cod and monkfish are more valuable and these and other species make up the rest of the catch, earning around £24m. In season, herring and mackerel are major species for local processors.

Aquaculture has become a major industry - around 25,000 tonnes of farmed salmon are produced each year and there is also a growing market for shellfish. Mussels have been especially successful in winning customers, not least because they are an entirely natural product, simply growing on ropes suspended in the sea, and Shetland has become a byword for high quality mussels throughout Europe. Experiments with farmed sea trout, halibut and scallops have also been undertaken.

Lobster and crab, caught sustainably by small inshore boats, is among the best in the world.

Winning the Nation's Oil

When oil arrived in the late 1970s, it wasn’t thought that production from Shetland would last beyond the millennium. However, ingenious ways have been found of extending the life of fields, for example gas from fields west of Shetland is injected into fields to the east to force out more oil. Those newer developments west of Shetland have also been connected to the oil terminal at Sullom Voe. Although oil production has passed its peak, and despite the downturn in oil prices, it’s likely that the terminal will be in business for many years to come. Indeed, the French oil and gas company, Total, has invested £500m in a new gas plant at Sullom Voe, tied to the massive Laggan-Tormore pipeline network, which opened in 2015, and BP have plans to extend and redevelop the main oil terminal at Sullom Voe.

Despite the notable influence that it’s had on Shetland’s economy, the physical impact of the oil industry is very limited. The terminal is off the beaten track and few people live nearby. It has an enviable environmental record, thanks to the rigorous controls exercised by the Shetland Islands Council. A thorough, long-term programme of environmental monitoring has been in place since the terminal opened.

Elsewhere, there is some oil-related shipping to be seen in ports around the islands and oil platform decommissioning is undertaken at a site near the north entrance of Lerwick Harbour. Oil-related air traffic mostly uses Scatsta Airport, beside Sullom Voe, but some also passes through Shetland’s principal airport at Sumburgh.

Discreet though it is, oil’s presence is worth over £100m a year, not counting the value of the oil itself.

Agriculture - much more than sheep’n’neeps

Shetland is perfect sheep-rearing country. The hardy local breed lives on the hill all year round, thanks to their exceptionally fine, soft wool - the basis of the famous Shetland and Fair Isle knitwear industry.

Shetland’s particular speciality is our pure-bred native sheep, which is a small animal particularly well-suited to Shetland conditions. It produces notably lean meat with a wonderful depth of flavour. The secret is in the special quality of the grazing: heather, salt-misted grass and, sometimes, seaweed. Shetland breeders are gradually introducing native lamb to specialist butchers throughout the UK and it’s also beginning to appear on restaurant menus. Larger, cross-breed sheep are also bred, and most of these lambs are exported for finishing in the north-east of Scotland. Careful husbandry keeps island sheep free of many diseases common on the mainland.

Shetland’s land is mostly suited to extensive grazing, and while the dominant agricultural activity has always been sheep rearing, we also have herds of dairy and beef cattle. Pig-rearing is usually on a small scale but is becoming more popular. Priorities across all species nowadays are the finishing of high-quality stock and the better management of the environment.

Shetland lamb has a sweet flavour and is very tender. The texture and flavour of Shetland lamb is distinctive due to the local topography, geology and climate.

Most of the milk used in the islands by homes and business is produced on Shetland’s own dairy farms. There’s local butter, yoghurt, ice-cream and delicious cheeses.

Although most fruit and vegetables are imported, local produce is available. The south mainland is well-known for potatoes, especially the traditional Shetland Black, which is steadily winning new admirers. Carrots, cabbages, kale and turnips are grown and salad leaves, herbs and strawberries are raised under glass or in polytunnels. Rhubarb grows so well in Shetland that a recipe book has been devoted to it. Among cereal crops, the most distinctive is bere (Hordeum vulgare), an ancient variety of barley that is reckoned to be the oldest cereal variety cultivated in Britain, if not the world.

Food and drink - a cornucopia of delights

One of the nice things about living in Shetland is the range of locally-produced bread, cakes and biscuits; we’re lucky to have several local bakeries scattered around the islands. Recently, though, there have been some more unusual additions to the Shetland table. Chocolate, fudge and other confectionery including the enticing ‘Puffin Poo’ have appeared. We also have not one but two breweries - 60 North in Lerwick and Valhalla on the island of Unst. Unst is also home to Britain’s northernmost distillery, Shetland Reel, currently producing gin using local botanicals, but soon, it is hoped, whisky too. And the island also has a specialist chocolate manufacturer, Foords, as well as the legendary Skibhoull Stores Oceanic oatcakes, made with deep, pure Atlantic sea water.

There is also an artisan bakery on the west side of the mainland, and ShetlandDeli, a producer of chutneys and pickles. Piemakers and small-scale cakemakers, specialist butchers, smokers and other food processors are to be found too, often at the local farmers’ markets.

Look out for local Shetland produce:

  • Shetland Lamb, pork and delicious fresh seafood
  • Locally-produced bread, cakes and confectionery
  • Milk, butter, yoghurt, ice-cream and delicious cheeses
  • Free-range eggs
  • Shetland black tatties
  • Carrots, cabbages, kale, turnips, salad leaves and herbs
  • Fruit including strawberries and rhubarb, which grow particularly well
  • Delicious local honey can also to be found.

Textiles ​- knitting comes home

The words "Shetland" and "Fair Isle" have long been pirated by unscrupulous textile firms all over the world. The genuine article is made only in the Shetland Islands and bears the "Shetland Lady" trademark. The combination of softness, light weight and warmth is unbeatable.

Interest in pure, natural wool from Shetland is increasing. As well as finding its way into exquisite jumpers, you can also buy fine lace scarves, tweed, shawls and even carpet in natural colours. The annual ‘Wool Week’ is a festival of all things textile-related and offers insights into the skills associated with wool production, spinning, knitting and weaving. It has successfully stimulated even more world-wide interest in Shetland’s textiles, past and present.

As well as modern factories making machine-knit garments there are still many hand-knitters working part-time at home. Traditional patterns, centuries old, are complemented by the work of modern local designers.

Tourism in Shetland

Although more people than ever before are sampling Shetland, the islands are unlikely to become a mass-market destination. We have some extraordinary things to see and do, but we can’t offer the guaranteed sun that, for many people, is often the primary consideration. However, our more dramatic weather and remarkable light have an appeal all of their own.

Most holidaymakers still visit Shetland between April and September, with a peak in July and August, but it’s no longer unusual to meet visitors at any time of year. Indeed, every season has something to offer: winter visitors stand a good chance of seeing the aurora borealis or watching enormously powerful seas shatter on the rocky coast. Watching wildlife is popular at any time of year. Aside from these natural attractions, our various festivals appeal to a range of tastes and, if the weather does take a turn for the worse, we have some excellent indoor diversions including the superb museum in Lerwick and great sports facilities.

Visit Shetland promotes the islands but tourism in Shetland is a collaborative effort between many organisations and businesses, including transport operators, accommodation providers, the owners of eating-places and the bodies that operate facilities and sites. It’s a sector with scope for expansion that offers opportunities for anyone committed to providing excellent service.

A 2007 survey by National Geographic Traveler ranked Shetland as the third most desirable destination in the world. The judges said that our islands have everything ‘with bells on’. They praised:

  • Spectacular sea cliffs
  • Pristine beaches
  • Fascinating geology
  • Over a million breeding seabirds
  • The highest density of otters in Europe
  • Regular sightings of killer whales
  • Superb displays of sub-arctic flora

They also mentioned the blend of Scottish and Scandinavian cultures and noted that the environment had been well cared for, adding: ‘Location, climate, and access keep tourism numbers down. Extremely high integrity in all aspects of heritage and ecology, despite oil developments. Great planning controls and attitude.'

New technology and creative industries

Shetland may be at Britain’s northern extremity, but local businesses are involved in some pioneering work. And Shetland has always been a creative community. Archaeological sites have produced evidence of stone carving, metalwork and jewellery and we know that our forebears were very active weavers. The islands have a particularly strong textile heritage, having lent a name to a particular sort of fine knitwear. Fair Isle, 25 miles (40km) to the south of the Shetland mainland, has its own very special tradition and patterns.

Work is under way in Shetland to strengthen this already vibrant sector, which we see as having lots of potential for future growth. The opening of Mareel brought new opportunities, especially in digital media, since it is equipped with state-of-the art sound and video studios. Thanks to investments by Faroese Telecom and the Shetland Islands Council, Shetland is now linked to Scotland and the Faroe Islands by high-capacity fibre-optic cable, greatly enhancing broadband capacity.

And technology is cutting edge. One local firm has been collaborating with others on wave energy projects and has developed specialised equipment for the United States navy. Another has become involved in wind energy throughout Scotland. A consortium of local companies brings its expertise to bear on some of the greatest challenges facing the oil and fishing industries. A local inventor has patented a device which could see the return of sail power to fishing and other vessels.

Music has for long been at the heart of Shetland life. However, today’s Shetland has a creative economy that includes:

  • Architecture
  • Crafts
  • Film and Digital Media
  • Graphic design, including web design
  • Marketing
  • Music
  • Performing arts and entertainments
  • Software (including educational and games)
  • Television, radio and internet broadcasting
  • Visual Arts
  • Writing and Publishing

All of these are represented in Shetland and many firms and individuals run successful businesses, often making extensive use of broadband internet to do business with customers worldwide.

Public sector

For its size, Shetland has a large public sector. That’s partly because the income from oil has allowed the provision of a high level of public services. However, it’s also because the provision of a full range of public services needs a wide range of skills whether the population is 22,000 or 220,000. The two largest public sector employers are Shetland Islands Council and NHS Shetland

The provision of good services across fifteen inhabited islands offers unusual challenges and opportunities. Public sector staff work throughout the islands, for example as teachers, doctors, community workers, nurses or ferry staff. A social worker, health visitor, town planner or customs officer may find that they need to travel by ferry or light aircraft in the course of their work.

Shetland Islands Council is responsible for almost all of the usual local government services and it provides them either directly or through agreements with other local organisations. The two exceptions are the police and fire and rescue services, the running of which is shared with other Councils in the Highlands and Islands. The Council headquarters are in Lerwick.

NHS Shetland provides health care not only for local residents but also for those who work in the seas around the islands, on fishing vessels or oil platforms. In-patient, day-patient, out-patient, accident and emergency, and local community services are offered. There are two hospitals in Lerwick and ten health centres around Shetland. However, NHS Shetland also offers services through schools, mobile units and in patients' own homes. The Council and NHS Shetland are now working closely together on some projects.

What sets Shetland apart, however, is the existence of several substantial charitable trusts that derive much of their income from oil revenues. They provide services in arts, environment, heritage, sport and recreation of a quality that is the envy of many much larger communities. The Shetland Amenity Trust specialises in environmental and heritage matters and its activities range from archaeology to building restoration, place-name research to glass recycling. It operates the magnificent Shetland Museum and Archives on behalf of the Council. Shetland Arts exists to develop artistic activity of every kind and employs staff specialising in visual arts, drama, literature and music, among other strands. It also operates the Bonhoga Gallery in Weisdale and Mareel, the cinema and music venue on the Lerwick waterfront. The Shetland Recreational Trust runs eight leisure centres or swimming pools throughout the islands, the largest of which is at Clickimin in Lerwick.

Social Enterprise

  • Soap may not have been one of the products you’d automatically link with Shetland, but in fact it’s one of the most successful additions to the list of what we have to offer. The Shetland Soap Company is just one of several businesses that have been established under the umbrella of COPE, a social enterprise company that supports adults with disabilities who want to work in a productive business. Other COPE business include a catering company, a pet supplies business, a horticultural enterprise supplying native trees and shrubs, a weighing and packing service for local businesses and a recycling centre.
  • There’s a long list of other social enterprises in Shetland too. Several local heritage trusts fall into this category. There are also local development groups, community shops and a company specialising in domestic energy efficiency.
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