Spiritual Shetland

Shetland is a strange place. This northerly family of islands is sometimes culturally closer to Norway that Scotland, and some of its place names and architecture reflects this. Here they play fiddles and accordions rather than bagpipes. Its wild, tree-less landscapes are almost lunar, with endless monotonal hills and cliffs surrounding countless blue seas and lochs.

My visit was remarkable for its lack of rain and gales; I was delighted to have a day’s worth of sunshine at the week’s start. The hire car had a sign within warning against exiting the vehicle in strong winds less the doors be ripped off. Houses are usually single storey for this reason and seem scattered about, even in the villages. Its capital, Lerwick, is about the size of a small English town, but with quieter roads and fewer people. One can drive about the islands for 15 miles without seeing another car. This is a good job, for the roads, though good quality, are very narrow, and passing places are frequently employed.


During my stay, I was introduced to two lovely crofters, Willie and Pearl (pronounced Peril, which perhaps she becomes when crossed). Living in a pretty, single storey house overlooking a loch, their sheep dog ran out excitedly to meet us as we pulled up, and then back inside again to inform its owners of their visitors’ arrival. Willie showed me the peat he had cut and stored as well as the cabbages he’d manage to grow. Pearl described the spiritual state of the islands and with sadness the decline of some churches’ gospel witness. Sometimes you meet fellow believers and know you have much in common even though you are barely acquainted. I felt blessed for having kept their warm company for even so short a time.


Soon after we departed for Raiwick, a beautiful seaside village overlooked by a dazzling white Congregational church. It was here that my family had holidayed the year I was born, the happy memories of which had become the stuff of family legend. Seeing the little ponies in the field by the chapel (which was left open), the bright bay and imposing hills, I wondered how any Zetlander, to use their archaic name, could disbelieve in the Creator-God. Whether the congregational church is faithful to God’s word I could not tell, though I understand it only meets fortnightly. Many of our denomination are become social clubs and gossip shops, rather than places at which can be heard the invigorating, life-giving words of Jehovah. Still, this gleaming chapel reminds tourist and Zetlander alike that the Creator has revealed Himself and can be known: Man is without excuse.


There is a strong gospel witness on the island, though the predominantly liberal Church of Scotland appears to be in terminal decline, shutting a large number of its churches. Lonely Methodist chapels and Brethren Gospel Halls are scattered about. At Sand, a pretty hamlet, are the ruined remains of Roman Catholic, Methodist and Congregational churches, all within a stone’s throw. As I cautiously entered the latter, a number of pigeons shot out through the broken roof as I scrambled among the rotten wood and missing floorboards. Still, just to its rear is a Baptist church, re-opened and repainted (see below). Even among the cold, decomposing cinders of British Christianity, there are sparks of life and rainbows amid the dark cloud.


"God works powerfully, but for the most part gently and gradually." -John Newton

Wall plaque, Raiwick Congregational Church