For thousands of years the sea has been the central fact of Shetland life - a source of food, employment, timber, fertiliser and, before the late 19th century, the main means of getting around the archipelago. Until the 1930s the sea was also the only way to travel to and from the outside world.
enlarge When glaciers melted over 10,000 years ago, the sea created more than a hundred Shetland islands, flooding a range of ice-worn hills and valleys rising from what's now the bed of the North Sea. From space, the archipelago looks like a giant jigsaw of interlocking fingers of land and water. Nowhere is more than five km from the sea and even sheltered inland valleys feel the influence of salty gales.
The varied coastline has everything from high cliffs to sandy bays and sheltered inlets - even salt marshes. As a result there's a wide range of habitats for fish, seals, otters, birds, plants and insects. Being on the overlap between the temperate and sub-Arctic climatic zones adds to the natural variety, as does the fact that in winter Shetland is the warmest place on latitude 60ºN - the sea never freezes over.
The geography also makes Shetland ideal for summer sailing: there are dozens of sheltered, natural harbours - many now boasting good piers, slipways and marinas; most of the coast is "steep-to", with deep water close to shore and nearly all dangers clearly visible if there's a swell running; the coast is well-charted and visiting yachts have the reassurance that local search and rescue services are first-class.
There are at least eight types of boat which are termed 'Shetland Boats'. Marc Chivers is currenlty working on a boatbuilding PhD, focussing on the Shetland Models. Download an overview of his reseach - The Shetland Boat; Folklore and Construction.
Find out more about the distinctive maritime heritage of the islands at:
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