Shetland - Sub Arctic archipelago makes warm sheepskin shock.

Things Take Time When You’re This Far North.

The Shetland Islands, a subarctic archipelago off mainland Scotland, must BY LAW be shown on maps at the correct distance from Scotland. There’s some 100 islands in this remote place, 20 are inhabited. Orkney is the furthest north and has the slowest internet speed of anywhere in the UK, with Shetland itself coming in second.

“The Shetlands have been placed in an inset box on maps of the British Isles since at least the seventeenth century, for example, in atlases by Nicolas Sanson (1600-1667) and by Frederik de Wit (1629-1706). Nevertheless, Islands MSP Tavish Scott, who successfully campaigned for what has been dubbed ‘Boxit’, has claimed that ‘Shetlanders are rightly irked when they see Shetland placed in a box in the Moray Firth [which reiterates] the perception that the islands are an afterthought’.”

Dr Alexander Kent
shetland sheepskin on a car seat

Makes the journey.

It is not that the islanders wanted to move southwards (and into the relative luxury of British mainland weather), it’s that folks on Shetland wanted the map to accurately show the world just how damn rugged they are. Shetland is Subarctic, but only just. Shetland has no native trees.

Billy Connolly was talking about Aberdeen when he wrote this piece of stand up. For the Shetland Islands version just turn the temperature down and increase wind speed.

“That’s the Arctic Ocean just around the corner. ‘Cause the Arctic comes down and then it becomes the Atlantic and splits up into the North Sea. On the horizon there’s oil rigs. “Now hear this. All employees must wear survival suits at all times. You wouldn’t last two minutes, if you fell into the North Sea. Failure to wear the survival suit will result in instant dismissal.”

“Forty miles away there are women taking their children’s clothes off. “In you go, you big Jessie.” – Billy Connolly


Shetland’s history is dominated by Vikings, who arrived from Scandinavia in shorts and t shirts. They came ashore having been rowing, having crossed some of the coldest and most turbulent waters in and around the Arctic Circle. They were tall and strong, had access to clean water, and a reputation for personal hygiene. 

Shetland sheep are living history; indeed, they are the closest we have to the ancient, and now extinct, Scottish Dunface breed. They are so hardcore that buildings are irrelevant to them, and shelter is only sought in weather that the Met Office would illustrate with large arrows and a colour themed weather event. 

People are often surprised to learn that sheepskins are by products of the meat industry, and the using or avoiding of them has little affect upon sheep welfare. In the UK alone, for example, we destroy well over 15 million sheepskins from sheep that have been eaten already.

The sheep here are small and therefore physically have a large surface-area-to-weight ratio. This means that Shetlands would lose heat much quicker than a larger breed, were it not for their thick double layer of fur. It’s the same with humans, skinny folks get cold quicker. Remember to wrap your skinny humans in sheepskins to keep them warm, especially after they have been in the sea.

Shetland is a remarkable landscape. Due to the lack of trees on the islands all buildings were historically made of stone. This gives us the opportunity to decode the landscape, and certainly the built environment, and to produce an accurate picture of what happened here. We know, for example, that Vikings raided the Shetland Islands before they eventually took it and colonised it in 998. 

It went from being a handy sheep larder and fish smoker, to being a place the Vikings would call “home”. What happened to the original islanders is unknown, but we do know that the invading men were larger and had spent the previous three weeks rowing out of the Arctic Circle. One might imagine that not all the women folk were resistant to this new influx of genes. It is pure speculation, of course, but I like to think they had been shagging on sheepskin and liked the sensation so much that they decided to stay.

The Vikings raided and invaded more of the UK than was previously thought, with Devon falling under Viking control after they sailed up the Tamar river and took the abbey at Tavistock. Incidentally, there is still a cluster of Viking/Scandinavian surnames around Exeter, whilst in the rest of England these names took longer to become popular.

“ names with Scandinavian links are well known in northern England – but we would not have previously expected them in the West Country. Yet the islands in the Bristol Channel: Lundy, Steepholm and Flatholme are hybrid names with old Norse and Old English elements. Spaxton in Somerset was Spacheston in the Domesday Book, that is Spakr’s tun another hybrid. Knowstone in central Devon, recorded as Chenutdestana in Domesday Book_, combines Scandinavian Knut_ with English stana to give Knut’s stone, perhaps named after the Danish king. More intriguing still are the 11 landholders in the Devon section of the Domesday Book with the personal name Wichin which means “Viking”. These names are rare in England and do not occur at all elsewhere in the West Country, so the cluster in Devon is significant.”

Shetland sheep have a natural life expectancy of between 10 and 12 years, this can be dramatically reduced with the addition of mint sauce. Whilst still ruminating, the Shetland is deemed a “conservation grazer”, they live lightly on the land, mowing the weeds and grass without fear or favour. Sheep graze very well with other types of animal. Cows will leave weeds that would will dominate, were it not for the sheep. Same with horses. It is not as obvious as it first sounds, but one of the key grassland management tools is simply the promotion of grass. The sheep eat grass remarkably close to the ground, chewing up the thick stalks along with everything else. Having had its head cut off, the grass responds by splitting off with multiple leading shoots – what was once a single blade can become three or more. The grazing becomes denser and more solidly grass, and weeds can struggle. Some weeds need special treatment, but decapitation, I can confirm as a gardener, can often prove discouraging for the poor little souls.

Like a post-pub take away, grass can be eaten twice. Possibly even in the morning.

Sheep take the food down into their first stomach and then wait to start eating the same food a second time. This way they can properly break down the very tough cellulose that us humans would excrete undigested. So, when you see a flock all laying down, they might well be eating, or “ruminating” – hence the expressions we use in everyday language, we chew over a problem or ruminate on a subject. Whether sheep like to talk over their problems is a moot point, although scientist do seem to think that if they did it would be in a regional dialect. 

Shetland sheep are “balletic”, pertaining to ballet, the extreme hypermobility dance into which young girls are sometimes pushed. In Shetlands the term relates to the ability to stand on their hind legs, eat apples from trees, and presumably confirm whether the next field actually does have better grass. At this point it becomes obvious that sheep, like chickens, would suit a pair of arms. Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

The Scottish Dunface sheep is now extinct, but the Shetland could well be the next of kin (or at least as closely related as members of the Royal Family).

The Dunface has grazed the British Isles since the Iron Age (by which time us humans were tanning sheep skins) and although the last mainland UK flock is believed to have died in 1880, the Shetland is thought to look and perform similarly. When Dunface had diminished down to just a few pairs on scattered Scottish Islands and in zoos, there were used to breed up modern equivalents. New blood from other breeds was added to the tiny Dunface gene pool, with the aim of continuing and improving the breed. Today this means good meat and good wool on an animal that is small and hardy, easy to keep. The fleece is thick and soft, just what you need for coping with just how grim it can be up north. If you live down south like us, you’ll appreciate the soft fleece of a little Shetland sheepskin, coming especially useful where a double thick fur gives you the edge.