The Shetland Islands are the most northerly county of the British Isles. Lying to the north of the Orkney Islands, the group comprises the large Mainland or Zetland, Yell, Unst, Fetlar and Whalsay, the isolated outlying islands of Foula and Fair Isle, and many smaller stacks and skerries.
The islands are on the whole low-lying, windswept, waterlogged and desolate. There is a conspicuous absence of trees. Only a few of the islands are inhabited. The capital is at Lerwick on Mainland, and other important settlements are at Sumburgh, Scalloway, Otterswick and Baltasound.
The name Zetland was until the early 20th century applied to the county as a whole; and survives in the truncated form of the postcode (US: zip code) prefix for the islands, which is ZE. It is also the origin of the given name Zeta, popular for Shetland girl children and still sometimes encountered, for example in the film actress Catherine Zeta Jones, from Swansea, Wales, whose maternal grandmother was a Shetlander.
Farming activities on the islands are today mostly restricted to the rough grazing of sheep and Highland cattle, though historically crofters grew oats, barley and mangelwurzels for their own use. The islands have characteristic breeds of pony and sheepdog, both considerably smaller than mainland varieties.
Today, the oil industry dominates the islands economy, and is served by the huge terminal at Sullom Voe.
Fair Isle is famous for its jumpers, colorfully patterned woollen sweaters, traditionally knitted with no arms so that they can be worn while gathering seaweed from rockpools to be used as fertiliser; making these is still the primary occupation of the islands womenfolk today, although now they are exported worldwide and fetch high prices. In 1834 James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan visited the islands and ordered some of the local knitwear, but with a system of buttons fastening the front. This garment is still known as a cardigan.
The isolated nature of the islands draws in a surprising number of avian rarities, especially in spring and autumn, from as far afield as Siberia and Alaska, which in turn draw large numbers of birdwatchers.