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The hundred or so islands of Shetland are formed by a range of ancient hills standing on the continental shelf and partly drowned when sea level rose 400 feet (120m) at the end of the last glaciation, about 10-12,000 years ago.

Shetland's 'jigsaw' shape makes the coastline amazingly long - at least 1,697 miles (2,702km). This is a very old landscape. Although repeatedly flooded by the sea, the basic shape of Shetland has probably changed little for many millions of years.

Geological Variety

Geologically, Shetland is complicated, containing everything from volcanic lavas and granite to sandstone and limestone. The 'grain' of the landscape runs mainly SSW-NNE, with lines of almost parallel hills, valleys and sea lochs composed of 'metamorphic' rocks made from sand and mud squashed and heated over aeons of time. More about Shetland geology...

'The Old Rock' Adrift

Many of Shetland's rocks date from the Devonian period, some 370 million years ago, and were laid down in desert conditions between the old Caledonian Mountains to the west and an inland sea to the east.

Fish and fern fossils show this was before flowering plants, insects, birds and most land animals had evolved. What later became Shetland was at that time about 15 degrees south of the Equator, in the latitude of modern Angola. So 'The Old Rock', as Shetlanders call their homeland, has drifted half way round the world.

The Islands

  • By far the largest island is 'Mainland' (351 square miles / 899km2), followed by:
  • Yell (212km2)
  • Unst (120km2)
  • Fetlar (38km2)
  • Bressay (28 km2)
  • Whalsay (23 km2)
  • Burra (16 km2)
  • Eight smaller ones are also inhabited, leaving more than 85 islands, holms and skerries to the sheep, the birds and the seals.

Varied and Spectacular Scenery

The scenery carved from this complex geology includes some of Britain's highest cliffs, hundreds of sea caves, wide-open sandy bays, miles of beaches, dozens of sheltered sea lochs or 'voes', and even salt marshes and sand dunes.

Slopes and Peaks

Most of the islands' 567 square miles (1468km2) are rough grazing on gently sloping hills about 700-900 feet (210-270m) high. The highest point is Ronas Hill (450m).

Beneath The Waves

The seabed around Shetland is mostly 200-400 feet (60-120m) deep, with large areas of sand and shingle and some rocky outcrops. Because the islands have been repeatedly submerged in the past 2-3 million years, several former coastlines lie beneath the waves, complete with sunken stacks, caves and headlands. Fringing the islands is a huge forest of kelp, one of the richest environments in the sea and a paradise for scuba divers.

Rich Flora

Although the landscape has few trees (thanks to 5,000 years of grazing and heather-burning), the hill and coastal pastures are rich in plant species. Some rare arctic-alpine plants, found only on mountain-tops in mainland Scotland, occur here near sea level.

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